Corlis Murray: ‘As a Black Female Engineer, I’m a Rarity’

​Abbott's Corlis Murray, Senior Vice President, Quality Assurance, Regulatory and Engineering Services, talks about her inspirations for getting into engineering and her work in encouraging young women and minorities to get involved in STEM.

Corlis Murray is Senior Vice President, Quality Assurance, Regulatory and Engineering Services at Abbott.

She was appointed to her current position in February 2012. Previously, she served as Vice President, Global Engineering Services. Murray joined Abbott in 1989 and has held a number of management positions in quality, operations and engineering in Abbott’s diagnostics and nutrition businesses. In Abbott Nutrition, she served as divisional vice president, Quality Assurance; divisional vice president, Manufacturing; and divisional vice president, Operations Services.

She is a board member of The Clara Abbott Foundation. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

DiversityInc: During the ’70s and ’80s, the percentage of engineering bachelor’s degrees conferred to women never reached 15 percent. What inspired you to major in engineering?

Murray: This doesn’t surprise me at all. Even today, as a Black female engineer, I’m a rarity — more than 10 times as rare as a woman in Congress. My mother and grandfather instilled in me a love for learning, especially of math. I had a knack for math and science and was nominated by one of my teachers in high school for an internship with IBM. Quitting my $1.76-an-hour job at Jack in the Box to pursue that internship is one of the defining moments of my life. Because that high school engineering internship — and the African American man who mentored me, showing me how to troubleshoot issues with mainframe systems (essentially the brains of room-sized computers) — demonstrated to me that I, too, could be an engineer if I wanted to.

The percentage of women receiving engineering degrees today is better, but not significantly better. In 2014, only 19.8 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering went to women, according to the National Science Foundation. That’s why I’ve brought my experience full circle, founding the high school STEM internship at Abbott six years ago.

Corlis with her 7-year-old granddaughter, Arianna

DiversityInc: It’s very important for young Blacks, Latinos and women to see people like them in the STEM field. Can you talk about the high school STEM program you initiated at Abbott? What are the long-term impacts of the program? What does that say about Abbott’s commitment to diversity and inclusion?

Murray: A high school engineering internship changed the trajectory of my life. I very much believe in an “each one, reach one” philosophy — which means I have no choice other than to give back to young people, especially young women minorities, like myself. There are young people in school today who might have no idea what engineering is, no idea what fun math or science can be — young people who, through a single positive experience, could be impacted for a lifetime.

Our high school STEM internship program demystifies engineering and science for these young people and makes it a real, viable career option. These minds will invent the next breakthroughs in life-changing technologies.

The program is made up for almost 60 percent women and about half of them are minorities. Nearly all of them (97 percent) go on to pursue a STEM degree or career. Many of our students started at inner city schools and now, after our internship program, are attending the top engineering and science schools in the country: U of I, MIT, Purdue, USC, Rice. Many are the first in their family to go to college.

Corlis with former high school interns who were college interns in summer 2017

My sincere hope is that more companies do what Abbott is doing, investing in young people by providing robust high school STEM internship programs — as well as other STEM programs. Abbott has invested over $50 million over the last decade with the goal of helping to inspire and support tomorrow’s inventors who will create the world’s next life-changing technologies. It’s such a benefit, both to these young people, and to our company, as we develop a top-notch pipeline of people who know the value Abbott brings to people’s lives — and are excited to join a culture of innovation where they know their ideas could someday be on the shelf, in a doctor’s hand — or in a patient’s heart.

This extra support for young women and minorities in STEM can help start a positive cycle. It’s amazing that still today less than 4 percent of engineering degrees go to African Americans, according to the National Science Foundation, and only 1 in every 7 engineers is a woman according to the Department of Commerce. These young people need to see others who look like them to signal that they, too, can be successful.

DiversityInc: You’ve held a number of management positions at Abbott. What advice would you give to others on how to navigate a successful career at the company they are currently at?

Murray: The reason I reach out to students as young as 15 for our high school internship program is because the more we can open their eyes to potential STEM dreams young, the more they can explore and pursue during formative years.

Regardless of our age, race or gender, we make our own odds. Be aware of your strengths and weaknesses; study hard; make connections with people who can teach you and advocate for you; and ultimately, sell yourself by demonstrating your aptitude in a creative way and knowing the business or organization you’re working in or pursuing inside and out.

DiversityInc: What are some attributes you look for in high potential women?

Murray: The attributes I look for in high potential people — women and men — are the same. The organization that I have responsibility for is diverse, functionally and organizationally. I look for someone who is:

  • A quick-study
  • Knowledgeable about finance and business
  • Highly committed, focused and with leadership qualities
  • Well-spoken and a good writer/communicator
  • Passionate, with a proven track record of developing others
  • Detailed-oriented with an ability to see the big picture
  • A change agent
  • A global thinker
  • Actively engaged in a team environment
  • Knowledgeable technically in her area of expertise

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