Inspirational women in STEM and tech: “Be True to Your Team” with Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young
As part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young.
Dr. Jacobs-Young is a U.S. Senior Executive scientist. In high school she excelled in the classroom and athletics. As a collegiate athlete at North Carolina State University (NCSU), she was a three-time ACC track champion and three-time STEM graduate. In 1998, she became the Nation’s first African American Ph.D. in Paper Science and Engineering. Dr. Jacobs-Young was faculty at the University of Washington (1995–2002). In 2002, she joined the USDA and then the White House as a Senior Policy Analyst for agriculture (2008–2010). In 2010 she led the establishment of the USDA Office of the Chief Scientist. Dr. Jacobs-Young then served as Acting Director for USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (2011–2012). She joined the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in 2012 as Associate Administrator and named Administrator in 2014, becoming the first female and person of color to lead the agency. Dr. Jacobs-Young is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Public Administration and a Presidential Rank Award winner.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have always had a curiosity about how things work — including people. And I had an early love for math and science. In elementary school my mom gave me one of those boxed science sets — the microscope and experiments brought me great joy! I was fortunate that my teachers recognized my talent for math and science and placed me in challenging courses. In high school I participated in a special program to introduce minorities to engineering (the South East Consortium for Minorities in Engineering, or SECME). The engineering profession resonated with the part of me that wants to fix things and make them work better. A pivotal moment came when I was on a field trip with SECME to Georgia Tech. We met several engineering graduate students, some of whom were African American and some women, and the doors flung open for me. Suddenly I was able to see myself as an engineer in the future. I could work in science, make things work better, and because of those graduate students I met, I knew it was possible for me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I don’t think I can pick one interesting story because ARS is full of them!
I had the honor to represent one of our prestigious ARS scientists during her induction into the National Inventor Hall of Fame. Dr. Allene Jeanes was honored posthumously for her pioneering work in carbohydrate chemistry. She is credited with inventing both Xanthan Gum, and the mass production of Dextran. Dextran is a plasma substitute that was used to save lives in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. Xanthan gum is still commonly used in food production as a thickener in foods. Dr. Jeanes received her organic chemistry Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in 1938, a time when few women were involved in the field.
Another National Inventor Hall of Fame Member Ruth Benerito was a chemist who worked for the ARS Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans from 1953 to 1986. Dr. Benerito’s pioneering “cross-linking” of cotton is credited with saving the cotton industry, which was competitively challenged with the dawn of synthetic fibers. She rounded out her career with 55 patents and we can largely thank her for flame resistant and wrinkle free cotton materials.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started in ARS, I was excited to help develop our budget. My boss asked a few of us to draft initiative ideas after an initial meeting. I went at this with my usual zeal, thinking I would both make a great impression and have a large impact by having my budget initiatives included in the agency budget proposal. I worked hard, a whole afternoon and into the evening, then much of the next day. I re-wrote, I agonized, I deliberated. Excitingly, I submitted my initiatives to my new boss.
He didn’t use any of them!
So, I asked my other colleagues — were the initiatives included in the agency proposal submitted by the boss to the Department contributed by you? By you? Well then who?! They were all laughing. Apparently, no one else had turned in any material for consideration. You see after years of working with this boss, they knew that he would ask for ideas, but end up writing everything himself. It’s how he worked. The lesson for me was that when you get to a new organization, you’ve got to take time to learn the new culture and norms, lest you waste some of your time on unnecessary work as I did, or, even worse, commit a more egregious error that offends or burns a bridge.
Now I’m the boss and I’ve created an inclusive budget development process built on the richness of many contributions.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our mission of course! We work every day to feed the world. What makes us special is our in-house expertise: we have about 2000 Ph.D. scientists at 90 locations around the country and 4 overseas locations. We have the advantage of being able to line up all these brilliant resources and aim them at problems of high national priority. So, it’s not one scientist working here on this and a few more working there on that; it’s a coordinated, concerted effort to meet the challenges of agriculture today. And our scientists understand the challenges from the source: we pride ourselves on close relationships and partnerships with our stakeholders. I had a meeting with a multi-generation producer a couple of years ago. He relayed to me that if it weren’t for the work of ARS, his family would not still be in farming. The producer had relied on the science and innovation resulting from our work to improve yield productivity, minimize inputs, and reduce his environmental footprint. In other words, his family was able to realize economic savings and have a financially healthy farm to pass to the next generation.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Our greatest challenge is that the world’s population is expected to increase to more than 9 billion by 2050, and they will all need to eat. That gives us only about 30 growing seasons to figure out how to feed 2 billion more people. That’s a lot of people; it’s the equivalent of adding the population of Africa three times over again to this planet.
I am super excited about many things we are doing in ARS to meet this challenge, but I’ll give you two examples. One is the RIPE project, which stands for Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, which is a cooperative project funded by, among others, USDA ARS, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. RIPE’s vision is “engineering plants to more efficiently turn the sun’s energy into food to sustainably increase worldwide food productivity.” One ARS scientist working on the RIPE project is molecular biologist Dr. Elizabeth Ainsworth, who was awarded the 2019 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Prize in Food and Agriculture Sciences for her groundbreaking work on addressing future challenges of feeding the world in the face of global climate change.
ARS Research Geneticist Ed Buckler, incidentally also a winner of the NAS Prize in Food and Agriculture Sciences, has conceived of the Breeding Insight Platform, a tool designed to speed up the genetic gains possible today for small crops. You see, many of the tools Dr. Buckler and other geneticists have developed over the years are leveraged with great success by large industries, but the smaller cropping systems haven’t the resources to exploit the genomics and informatics tools. I’m excited about the way Dr. Buckler is giving back to his colleagues across ARS and the potential benefits for small crops and contributions to feeding the world.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
No, I am not. We need more doors open for women in STEM. When I look back on the efforts that made a difference in my career, I can highlight a couple of items. First it was important to have role models, people in leadership who look like me. So, it’s important to have more women in the classroom, in the conference room and in the board room. Second, exposure was incredibly important. It was impactful to be exposed to possibilities, to professionals in my field, to experiential internships and to job opportunities. Sometimes it was critically important to have someone “open” the door — so I benefitted greatly from the individuals who advocated for me to be considered for leadership positions. Especially when I didn’t resemble any of my predecessors.
Recently I was selected as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) IF/Then Ambassador which is a new program that furthers women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by empowering current innovators and inspiring the next generation of pioneers. We are engaged to show girls the different careers they can pursue in STEM and how STEM impacts their lives each day. I can’t wait to use this platform to open some doors!
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Know and take care of YOU. I truly subscribe to the concept of servant leadership. Which means that I give a lot of myself to others — both at home and at work. Attempting to give 100% in both places. Early on, I learned that for me to be effective, I would need to save something for ME. You know when you are on a plane and the flight attendant says to secure your oxygen mask first before assisting others? You have to take care of yourself so you are in good shape to take care of others. So my advice to other female leaders is to work to find balance. That balance may look different at different times. For me, I start my day early, so it’s important for me to turn in early most nights to ensure that I am well rested and able to give my best.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Be comfortable doing it your way. There are several leadership models and styles out there, and what you choose to adopt must resonate with you or it won’t be easy for you to implement. For me, when managing large teams, it’s important for me to listen often, communicate effectively, and most of all, deliver. Often, we can feel obligated to lead how we have observed others do so — both men and women. I decided early on that I want to be me, my authentic self, both at work and at home. The authentic me is a really cool person and after all it’s too hard to try and be someone else! I realize that my leadership style may not be for everyone, and that’s ok. I have one of the best leadership teams around. Together we have done amazing things, while enjoying our experience. So, I encourage female leaders to go ahead and set high expectations, but do balance it with some humor, some compassion and a smile.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve had, and still have, some amazing mentors in my life, for whom I’m grateful and blessed. I’m going to answer this question a bit differently though, because I don’t think I could choose one of them. I’m going to say instead that I don’t think I’d be where I am if it weren’t for the person who didn’t hire me for the first Senior Executive Service (SES, the highest level of career position in the federal government) job I applied for about 10 years ago. That’s right — I’m grateful to the person who passed me over for my first SES job. I was just relaying this earlier this week to a group of colleagues who are going through a tough time: sometimes the biggest gift you get in your career doesn’t exactly seem like a gift at the time. For me, if I would have gotten that job, I would have stayed where I was and never left the agency I was in, never worked for the White House, never stood up the first Office of the Chief Scientist in USDA. I would never have been the first female Administrator of the Agricultural Research Service, I don’t think I’d be a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and I certainly wouldn’t be beginning my year as an If/Then Ambassador for AAAS.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
You know I don’t know yet! I sure hope so. And I’m by no means done. Aside from visiting ARS labs and scientists, my favorite way to spend my outside time at work is to meet with students. When I get a request to talk with students, I will do my best to get there. We estimate I’ve had the chance to talk with over 10,000 students since I’ve been in USDA, sometimes 1 on 1, and sometimes by the hundreds. I hope that when I talk with a young person, they leave the conversation with maybe one new idea and a whole lot of encouragement. Mostly I hope they remember down the road that they met someone who perhaps came from somewhere like they came from and made it far.
I am looking forward to my stint as an AAAS If/Then Ambassador for STEM. I know this will give me an opportunity to talk with more students and hopefully interest more young women in STEM as a field. We need all the great talent we can get to feed the world.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression with your team and others. One of my favorite activities in my role as Administrator is visiting our scientists at our locations and laboratories. It is exciting and can make for extremely long days. Our scientists and staff are enthusiastic about showcasing their work. It’s important for me to get a lot of rest the night before because each time we enter a lab, no matter if it is at the beginning of the day or the last lab on the agenda, the scientists deserve my full engagement and attention.
- Resilience/coping skills — Stuff happens — both good and bad. I think it’s very important to know who you will be during tough times. It was early in my tenure as head of the agency when a well-respected media outlet reported on allegations of animal welfare issues at one of our also well-respected laboratories. I remember it being a very difficult time with the need to balance the needs of many layers of the Department and public perception. It was during that time that I had to decide how I was going to show up for our team. It was up to me to role model keeping calm when challenged.
- Executive Coaching — throughout my senior executive service career I have worked closely with an executive coach. My quest to be a great leader is a lifelong journey. As with most topics, the more you learn, the more you realize there is much more to understand. My coach is a trusted partner in my journey. She helps me to strategize my development plan, practice new skills, explore current literature, offer a different perspective, and pushes me to challenge myself.
- Be True to Yourself — if you speak and act authentically, life and work are much less stressful. When we act like something we are not, things become exponentially more difficult.
- Be True to Your Team — the strong team I’ve built at each of my jobs is invaluable to me. I build an atmosphere of trust by acting authentically and expecting the same of my team. We hold each other to high standards. The reward we all gain is that we stand together during tough times and soar high together too.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would eradicate hunger. As I mentioned earlier, worrying about feeding 9 billion people by 2050 keeps me coming to work and working hard every single day. And this is not only a global problem. Did you know, according to the USDA Economic Research Service, 41 million Americans struggle with hunger at any given time. Imagine if everyone in the entire state of California were hungry…that’s the enormity of the problem. That number includes 13 million children. That’s one in six children in the United States living in a household where enough food is not available to eat each day. That is not okay.
We in the agricultural research space are doing the types of things you might think of to meet this grand challenge: breeding new and improved crops; creating new cropping systems that maximize production sustainably and protecting the assets we have. There are some unconventional ways we are employing to eradicate hunger you may not think of right away though. One is working to minimize food waste: the USDA Economic Research Service has determined that 31 percent of the 430 billion pounds of annual U.S. food supplies at retail and consumer levels goes uneaten or is otherwise wasted. ARS is doing some great research on food loss, food waste, and strategies for developing coproducts that transform food waste products into marketable consumer goods. Here are a few neat examples: forming 100-percent fruit bars from undersized or blemished produce; using a new energy-efficient drying process to manufacture nutritious, crispy chips — without oil — from wasted fruits and vegetables; commercialized nutritious gluten-free fruit and vegetable wraps; and drinking straws made of 100-percent fruit to reduce plastic waste and food waste.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” Dr. Maya Angelou
This quote by Dr. Angelou artfully sums up my entire approach to life.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
No question for me on this one: Oprah Winfrey. I admire Ms. Winfrey’s “nothing is impossible” approach to life. She selfishly blazed trails where they didn’t exist for herself and other women and girls. Because of her significant humanitarian work, I would love to get her creative ideas for how to advance our efforts to eradicate hunger and how to feed 9 billion people by 2050. Ms. Winfrey is also a Chicagoan, and I have an idea for a pilot project with the innovative Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences I would love to run by her for advice and support!