STEM Success Story: 'Why I Owe My Career to Johnson & Johnson's Bridge to Employment'

The Johnson & Johnson STEM mentorship program for high schoolers and undergraduates turns 25 this year.


Tiffany Le was a junior in high school in San Jose, California, when her biology teacher encouraged her to apply to Johnson & Johnson's Bridge to Employment (BTE) program in 2009.

Originally published in Personal Stories on

"Applications were due in just a couple days and I remember being on the fence about it at first," recalls Le, now 25. "I thought it might be just for science-focused students, and I didn't really know what I wanted to do at that point. But I think my teacher saw a hunger in me—and I decided to go for it."

Despite her initial ambivalence, Le was accepted into the program and placed in a business intelligence internship that summer with the IT team at LifeScan, part of the Johnson & Johnson Diabetes Solutions Companies.

"I'll never forget my first day," Le says. "I stepped into the cube of one of the engineers and asked him what he did, expecting him to talk about coding. Instead, he told me how he did his part to help people living with diabetes. It was inspiring to see how this employee truly believed in the company's mission, and I quickly learned that everyone else also seemed to be working toward a united cause."

Bridging the STEM Gap Through Bridge to Employment

BTE, the youth development program that paired Le with LifeScan, was created by Johnson & Johnson in 1992 to give promising high schoolers and college students access to three-year mentorships focused on STEM2D (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, manufacturing and design) fields.

At the time, youth unemployment rates were on the rise, says BTE founder Michael Bzdak, Ph.D., now Global Director of Employee Engagement in Global Community Impact at Johnson & Johnson. "So we teamed up with the National Alliance of Business to figure out how we could best help young people—and ultimately settled on BTE's four-part mentorship model," he explains.

Each BTE program is comprised of four partners that work together to mentor underserved high school students: a Johnson & Johnson operating company, a community organization, a high school and an institution of higher education.

With that framework in place, each program can be customized based on a particular community's needs, including everything from college visits to structured internships and even job-shadowing opportunities.

"The beauty of BTE is that we'll have Johnson & Johnson employees sit down with local leaders, high school administrators and teachers, and representatives from institutions of higher education to help design a program that can best serve students' needs," Bzdak explains. "So it's global, but it's also geared to each community."

And we really mean global—now in its 25th year, and managed for Johnson & Johnson by FHI 360's National Institute for Work and Learning, the program has blossomed from just one location in the U.S. to more than 80 BTE locales in 19 countries worldwide.

The statistics certainly speak for its success: 100% of BTE participants have been accepted into at least one institution of higher education—and they tend to do better academically over time than their peers, with 3% higher grades in science and 2% higher grades in math.

Le says the program certainly gave her a jump-start after college.

After completing the BTE program, she returned to LifeScan as an intern for three more summers, which she credits with helping her not only stay laser-focused as a student at the University of California at Berkeley—but also with landing a risk advisory consultant job with Ernst & Young a year before her 2014 graduation.

Not Your Average Internship

One of the reasons Le says she gained so much from her BTE internship is that it facilitated learning beyond a school setting. In addition to helping LifeScan employees with administrative projects—typical intern work—she was also given the opportunity to learn a new computer program, with the goal of training managers on the platform.

"I learned a new tool called Statistical Analysis Software (SAS) inside and out," Le says. "Then I conducted trainings for 'super users'—the company's department leads and other senior managers—so they could show their teams how to use it, too."

It was an incredible opportunity on a few counts, Le says. For starters, SAS was a crucial program to know if she was going to pursue a career in data analytics. What's more, teaching others how to use the software enabled Le to meet employees in marketing, finance and many other departments, enabling her to hone her relationship-building and public-speaking skills.

"When I think about it now, it's crazy that I was charged with a task this big as a junior in high school," Le says. "It goes to show how the BTE program is truly designed to help students get real-life experiences in the workplace. My BTE internship was challenging, which instilled a good work ethic in me early on."

In fact, Le—who now works in the internal audit department for Workday, a cloud-based financial management and human resources software vendor—says she owes her career to BTE.

"I was always a motivated student, but I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation," she explains. "But the chance to work in a corporate environment in high school gave me confidence—not to mention the kind of experience that influenced the trajectory of my life. BTE really helped me uncover an interest in technology and healthcare, inspired me to get a business degree and played a big role in getting me to where I am today."

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The costs are staggering. "In the coming decades, mental illness will account for more than half of the economic burden of all chronic diseases, more than cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases combined…. It's trillions of dollars," said Kramer.

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  1. Be empathetic. "The most important workplace practice [with respect to mental health] is empathy," said NOD President Carol Glazer. Empathy is critical for normalizing conversations about mental health, but also for maximizing productivity. "A feeling of psychological safety is important," said Lori Golden, a panelist and Abilities Strategy Leader for Ernst & Young; and this sense of safety requires the empathy of colleagues to flourish.
  2. Tell stories. "Nothing is more activating of empathy than for people to share their powerful stories," said Dr. Ronald Copeland, NOD Board member and Senior Vice President of National Diversity and Inclusion Strategy and Policy and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for Kaiser Permanente. Copeland's organization partners with the renowned nonprofit, Story Corps, to capture the stories of Kaiser Permanente employees, and also provides a platform on the company intranet for employees to communicate in a safe space. Both Craig Kramer and Lori Golden also shared examples of how their companies provide opportunities to share their stories and "start the conversation, break the silence," as Kramer put it.
  3. Model from the top. Carol Glazer received a standing ovation at the luncheon for her account of her own experiences with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This type of executive-level modeling sends a powerful message that a company is committed to improving mental health for all employees. Lori Golden shared how EY had experienced great success with a program where top-level managers host office-specific events and share stories of mental illness or addiction that they are personally connected to – either about their colleagues or loved ones or, in a surprisingly high number of instances, about themselves. Senior leadership setting the example conveys that this is a forum in which employees can feel comfortable sharing.
  4. Communicate peer-to-peer. "We all know that there's greater trust of our own peers than there is of the organization," said Lori Golden. So to build trust, EY "took it to the grass roots," creating formal opportunities for employees to have conversations about mental health and asking other ERGs to co-sponsor these events. Craig Kramer also noted that Johnson & Johnson had simply folded mental health issues into their global disability ERGs, eventually building the world's second-largest mental health ERG by piggy-backing on existing infrastructure and leveraging existing connections.
  5. Be flexible. Accommodating [the fact that people live busy, complex lives] gets you better buy-in…and keeps production pretty high," suggested Dr. Copeland. A representative from one Council company concurred, explaining how their company has recently instituted a new policy of paid time off for caregivers on top of federally-funded leave. "Being in a culture in which we measure what you produce and not whether you show up in person all day, every day, and where if you can't be there, you negotiate how the deliverables will get done and in what time frame…is immensely helpful to people who themselves have mental illness issues or addiction or are caring for those who do and may need some flexibility," summarized Lori Golden.
  6. Build a trustworthy Employee Action Plan. Many employees do not access or even trust their organization's internal resources. According to Craig Kramer, the percentage of calls placed to most company Employee Action Plans (EAPs) regarding mental health is "in the low single digits," while "if you look at your drug spend, you'll find that around 50% is [related to] mental health." The people answering those calls must be trained in mental health issues, and employees also need to be assured that EAPs are truly confidential.

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