Engineering Diversity

Pilar Montoya is helping to inspire and mobilize the next generation of American engineers.

Pilar Montoya has built a career out of making plans—but not letting plans make her.

“I used to be the type who would plan everything out,” says the former CEO 
of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), who was born in Colombia and moved to the United States with her mother when she was five years old. “I wanted to be one of those Hispanic moguls who owns a lot of TV stations,” she says. “Then I realized that sometimes life puts before you a path you had not considered—and a greater one than you would have imagined.”

Indeed, after Montoya realized she didn’t want to move as much as a broadcasting career would require, she started her own marketing firm, geared in part toward helping companies connect with the Hispanic audience. Following a few more twists and turns, she took the helm of SHPE in 2009 and helped that organization shift from an all-volunteer model to one with a bigger budget, a paid staff, and more ambitious goals. With more than 340 chapters across the United States, the group reaches out to Hispanic students to get them excited about STEM careers and then mentors them through the process.

In May of this year, Montoya began a new chapter in her career, becoming the president and CEO of the Caminos Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to even broader outreach in the Latino community: helping students develop a range of career, financial, and healthy life skills. “Each of us has the capacity to fulfill our potential, have a rewarding career, loving relationships, and a healthy life,” says Montoya. “Caminos Foundation was created to serve as a conduit for many to remove the obstacles in their way and create the life they deserve.”

Diversity Woman recently spoke with Montoya about crossing industry lines and getting Latino girls excited about science and math.

DW: How were you able to cross over from broadcasting and marketing to working with engineers?
Pilar Montoya: When I owned my consulting firm, I started working with a lot of large engineering firms. They would be doing a federally funded project in a community and they would get it almost to construction, and then someone in the community would protest, and the project would get derailed. The firms got smart and realized that, in order to build it, they needed to get community input and buy-in.

I had a whole division that did nothing but work with engineering firms on what was then called public participation: going into the community, engaging the leaders, finding the solution to a particular transportation or water issue. For example, we worked with the Sacramento Transportation Authority on building the south line of its light rail system and, with community input, helped figure out where the line should be and what the service would be about.
So when SHPE came along, I said, “Yeah, engineering firms—I know how they work.”

DW: How did SHPE change after you arrived?
PM: We created a five-year plan two years into my tenure. The organization had done a phenomenal job of building volunteers over the years, but in order to take the organization to the next level, it needed an infrastructure to sustain growth. So that’s when the board decided to transition to needing a staff to manage things, and then marry that to the volunteer vision, to make the organization even more powerful.

DW: Which branch of engineering is the main focus for SHPE?
PM: We run the gamut, but I think the biggest challenge we have had is to grow the number of Latino students that will go into technology—and not just the Googles, the Yahoo!s, the Amazons. Students think, “I’ll get a computer science or IT or engineering degree, and I’ll end up at Google,” but every single industry—small, large—has a need for that technology. You can end up at Merrill Lynch or at Ralph’s supermarkets. So we need to get our community excited about the fact that the sky’s the limit.

DW: How are you getting that message to students?
PM: At SHPE we have a lot of success with Science Nights, where we increase awareness of engineering careers and college options for students. We also have a parent component, which is critical. Otherwise, what would happen is we would get a kid excited about science and math, and she’d go home and say, “Mom, I want to be an engineer,” and the mom would say, “Honey, I’d love that, but I can’t afford college.” So our goal became educating the families.

Parents often don’t know that there are resources for college, scholarships, and support. We have to start at that baseline of awareness and talk to the parents and the grandparents. The Latino community is a family model—that’s how they make decisions.

Now, when a child comes and says, “I want to be an engineer,” parents can say, “I know how to help,” and guide them through.

DW: Who was your mentor growing up?
PM: I grew up in the United States with a single mom—my father stayed in South America. But for me, the person who was most influential in my life was my older brother. He went to Vietnam, served in the military, and ultimately ended up at UCLA. My mother was very traditional and wanted me to be a secretary—to take typing classes—because that was all she knew. My brother was the one who grabbed me by the hand and showed me there was college, and other options, and that really opened my eyes.

What I say to young women now is look at the nontraditional role models, mentors, and supporters, who could be male, even a male of different ethnicity than you. It’s about finding that person who is doing what you dream of doing and asking him or her to mentor and guide you. That person can open the doors and show you how to overcome challenges.

DW: What do you think needs to happen to get girls more engaged with STEM?
PM: I saw a study about this—inspiring girls in math and engineering, and inspiring them in general. It was interesting: How we inspire a young girl is not necessarily how we would inspire a boy. The study said that to get a girl to say that science and math are something she loves is based on the fact that she might want to help the environment or come up with the medical technology to cure a disease. The motivator may be a human problem that you use math and science to solve. If we can communicate to her that if her grandmother has diabetes, she could be the scientist who finds the cure for diabetes, that opens up her world to see math and science as exciting and something that motivates her.

Of all the things I do, I am the happiest when I have a young girl or boy in front of me and I ask what their dream is, and I can share examples of how they can achieve it. Everything else we do—the financial, the strategic planning, the going after grants—is all for that one moment, with that child, to get them on that path.

DW: What’s your favorite thing in your office?
PM: My girlfriend gave it to me. It’s this little cube with a candle on top, and it says, “Dance like no one is looking, Love like you’ve never been hurt …” —four sayings about embracing the moment, taking risks, and forgetting what others say, and just going for it. That’s how I choose to live my life. DW

Katrina Brown Hunt is a frequent contributor to Diversity Woman.

Join the Diversity Woman Community

Join a network of career-oriented women and use the member directory to see all the members in your community and find world class mentors. Access exclusive leadership development packages to help you achieve your career goals. Work With Coaches. Take Career Development Courses, and much more.