“Don’t count yourself out of opportunities because you’re the only “one” in the room” With Jacqueline Baker

Don’t count yourself out of opportunities because you’re the only “one” in the room, whether it be gender, race or another factor.When you’re designated to be the leader, be the leader. We’re often waiting for someone to give us permission to feel like a leader, but that permission comes from within. As a part of […]

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Don’t count yourself out of opportunities because you’re the only “one” in the room, whether it be gender, race or another factor.

When you’re designated to be the leader, be the leader. We’re often waiting for someone to give us permission to feel like a leader, but that permission comes from within.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jacqueline Baker.

Jacqueline is Vice President of Startup Programming at AARP Innovation Labs, where she is responsible for accelerating the AARP innovation ecosystem by discovering some of the best, brightest and most disruptive startups across the world. She is also responsible for curating programming and experiences for both startups and organizations to influence, shape and co-create products and services that empower people to choose how they live as they age.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Curiosity & Impact. From as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been curious — curious about how things work, how things are built and how things get done. In addition to curiosity, I’ve been equally as interested in impact — the contribution to meaningful things, activities and commitments that make a real difference.

I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan, which is where I had the pleasure of founding my first business, a wedding and event production company, then advancing to founding a second company focused on international etiquette, protocol and leadership. The benefit and opportunity to lead these organizations, in addition to serving in several corporate leadership roles, afforded me the opportunity to serve thousands of consumers worldwide and positioned me to think expansively, collaboratively and with a high degree of flexibility and nimbleness.

These qualities have served me well in my current role within AARP Innovation Labs. Working in the innovation and startup realm requires a level of agility and a unique and often unprescribed set of skills that allows you to meaningfully engage with hundreds of startups across the country and beyond and chart a path for intentional and value-added engagement opportunities.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

While there are countless stories that are interesting and unique, I have to reflect back to January of 2019. Every year, Las Vegas hosts the largest consumer electronics show (CES) in the world, welcoming over 150,000 attendees.

AARP had the opportunity to make an official debut on the CES show floor with a big impact. When most people think of CES, minds often advance to the super widgets, the most advanced technologies and cutting-edge game changing products. Well, considering that AARP Innovation Labs engages the best and brightest startups across the world who create disruptive solutions empowering people to choose how they live as they age, we invited several of those startups to be a part of our custom-built 400 square foot smart home.

This experience and feat of constructing this smart home, housed with six different products all focused on tackling social isolation– a major issue area of AARP — was the springboard for AARP’s 2020 3,000 square foot appearance with over 12 startups and disruptive initiatives.

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?

There are many, but I’d have to say that one mistake I made earlier in my career has fueled my perspective on leading even to this day. My first role at AARP was largely event-based. I was responsible for ensuring that the AARP 50+ technology platform, AARP TEK, was appropriately activated on the show floor at AARP’s Life@50+ conference. We had comprehensive meetings every week with 15+ planning team members in a room where empty seats were usually scarce.

During my first couple of meetings, I noticed the seats at the table around the sides were already filled when I entered the room. I found myself going out of my way to try to squeeze in my chair on one of the sides to “fit in.”

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts in trying to do this, a senior colleague said to me, “You’re the leader here, just go ahead and sit at the head of the table.”

I still chuckle thinking about how I played a one-person game of “Jenga” trying to make that chair fit, when instead, I should have just assumed my role as the leader and sat at the northern most point of the table.

The lesson here: if you are the leader, be the leader.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

One word — impact. While there are many organizations that do amazing work, it is always inspiring to hear what’s being done across the entire AARP enterprise. From a very localized vicinity, to a presence on a national and sometimes global scale, the work that we do changes lives each and every day.

I mean, think about it — AARP’s entire mission is to “empower people to choose how they live as they age,” a goal that everyone strives for– to age and to age well.

When I think about what we’ve been able to accomplish over just the last three years within the innovation space at AARP, it really is inspiring. AARP took innovation from an ethos to now a fully operational innovation practice filled with a cutting-edge portfolio of worldwide companies that rival many other well-known incubators and accelerators. That is truly fulfilling. This and many other innovation initiatives across the organization earned us a spot on Fast Company’s Most Innovative Workplaces this year and a finalist as Most Innovative Team of the Year.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

2020 has been an interesting year for the startup terrain. While many new opportunities have surfaced as a result of the current pandemic, there have also been just as many challenges that have eradicated or caused more pervasive challenges for startup growth. Within AARP Innovation Labs, where I serve as Vice President of Startup Programming, our focus is exclusively on startup engagement, programming and investment. Because my team and I are consistently on the hunt for the brightest, most promising startups in the healthtech and fintech spaces, we’ve been able to fully “lean in” to the needs and priorities of those startups that align with AARP’s mission.

When many companies eliminated investment opportunities and options at the height of the pandemic in March, we were fully ramping up and introduced a new investment offering to help sustainability, scalability and, of course, ongoing impact in the health tech and fin tech spaces.

As a result of engaging some of the best and brightest startups, we annually produce a pitch competition called Grand Pitch Finale, where startups are able to showcase their agetech solutions for the chance to be crowned winner in addition to a cash prize.

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?

My position at AARP Innovation Labs involves engaging with some of the top startups in the fintech and healthtech sectors, which means I am often an audience member, judge and/or company representative at a number of pitch competitions, innovation events and accelerator engagements. While I’ve seen the increase of women participation over the years, there is still a significant imbalance in the male to female ratio, thus I am not satisfied with the status quo.

The truth is, there are many different needs a woman may have or face when it comes to career development, growth and exploration. From childcare to caregiving of aging parents to traditional matriarchal expectations, these and other parameters should be taken into account when the support of women in STEM fields is considered.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

While more women are entering into STEM fields than in previous years, there are several challenges that result in them either not staying in their fields or not reaching their full potential. These challenges consist of these facts:

Only 9.7% of investor funding goes to healthtech startups led by women.

Women are underrepresented in STEM fields in higher education, especially women of color. Of all female doctorate graduates in the fields of science and engineering, 86% are white or Asian. Less than 3% are Black and less than 4% are Latina.

Minority women are also underrepresented in STEM in the workforce. Only 1 of 20 employed scientists and engineers are Black women or Latinas.

There is a wage gap issue. Women in STEM jobs are paid an average of 89 cents per each dollar that men in STEM make. This gap is even larger in specific fields like chemistry, where women chemists earn 30% less than male chemists.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

There are 2 myths in the STEM/tech field that are worth highlighting and exploring:

Women aren’t interested in STEM fields. To the contrary, more women are graduating in the field: Over the past decade, STEM focused degrees earned by women have increased by over 50,000.

The STEM work gap is shrinking. While women constitute almost 50% of the labor market, there are only 28% of women in STEM fields as opposed to 72% of men.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Don’t count yourself out of opportunities because you’re the only “one” in the room, whether it be gender, race or another factor.

When you’re designated to be the leader, be the leader. We’re often waiting for someone to give us permission to feel like a leader, but that permission comes from within.

Be careful with burning yourself out, when you have a team to rely on. You don’t have to do it all.

Perfection is not the goal. In your pursuit of your goals, major milestones and impact, you will make mistakes. It’s important that you acknowledge them, learn from them, forgive yourself and move on.

Take a moment to celebrate you and your teams’ accomplishments. Don’t just accomplish things and move on without celebrating your wins.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

I find that most women who are leaders of others have had to operate as an effective “doer” at some point in their career. As you grow and develop in your journey and become the leader of others, it’s important to reassess your role.

Are you still trying to be the doer of all things, or are you making space to develop your team so that they can be more effective executers and shine bright in what they do best?

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

There are evergreen principles and practices that apply to all teams, whether large, mid-size or small. When you think about your family or your friend circle, you can pretty quickly say that there are no two people within those groups that are the same. A team that you lead should be looked at the same way. Every person is different and as much as you can recognize and celebrate that, it makes for a more productive, inclusive and results-delivering team. While there aren’t always opportunities to create 1:1 relationships with every member of your team, there are ways to nurture, inspire and develop your team through action, examples and being a leader who “goes first.”

Incorporating skip level, small group and even 1:1 opportunities to engage with your team at all levels will provide value, connection and deeper transparency.

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?

What a heavy and impactful question. While I can trace and pay homage to so many women who have inspired me and motivate me in ways that they don’t even know, I can very clearly point to one woman who has continuously made time to brainstorm, throw the proverbial paint on the wall and patiently share my frustrations with: Rajoielle Register

I remember very recently I was toiling over when a technology platform completely failed me during an awards ceremony. I could hear the announcer inviting me on to the virtual stage, but for some reason, I just couldn’t seem to join the platform. It was quite anguishing, and as much as we’ve likely all experienced technology challenges this year, this one just kept replaying in my mind.

So, as I’m sharing this story with Rajoielle a few days later, she patiently sat and listened (as she always does), then followed my slight rant with these words, “Consider it character building”.

And just like that, my entire mindset was shifted and adjusted. As heavy as life and situations can become, I think it is deeply important to have people in your circle who will challenge you, uplift you and help you reframe your thinking when you’re too hard on yourself. Rajoielle did that for me on that day and I’m quite grateful.

The even more special part of this relationship is that she is STEM educated, a practitioner and an advocate for other women entering into and growing in STEM fields. Rajoielle Register continues to pave unique ways for women to thrive. She has been a perfect example of how knowledge in the STEM field opens many other doors, representative of her leadership and executive climb at Ford Motor Company, where she began as an engineer in 2007 and is now Head of Global Brand Experiences.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Our knowledge, resources, connections and professional capital does no one any good if it disappears from the world when we do. It is my goal and mission to ensure that people — but especially women — get access to the resources and knowledge that I have acquired so that when they begin to approach their forks in their professional roads or face challenges, they have a set of tools, skill and information to better inform their decisions.

You are a person of enormous 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 often think about this notion of access and possibility, and even lack of access to much needed information, as I was growing in my educational journey and career. I’m certain that at some point even in your own life, you’ve pondered the thought, “If only I had that information when….” or “If I only knew what I knew now, back then…” While I do believe that each of us deserves and should experience our own journey, I plan to continue influencing more widespread access to information, especially in spaces that are needed the most with immense disparities, like the STEM field.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Make a decision and if you don’t like the decision, make another decision.” This quote was shared with me by an executive coach when I was trying to decide if I would actually join AARP seven years ago. This quote saved me from the dreadful ongoing abyss of procrastination and inaction.

The reality is, as much as we wait and try to make perfect before we take action, we could have, in fact, made several decisions and impact, and moved onward.

Now, I mentally revisit that quote when I feel that overcast of procrastination or indecisiveness looming.

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 🙂

Guy Raz, host of the NPR podcast, How I Built This.

Although there are many challenges that will present themselves as people — especially women — navigate new journeys and potential careers in the STEM field, there is a moment where we all have an opportunity to simply go after it (whatever it is) and start.

Guy’s unique conversations with a multitude of successful innovators and starters (of which you likely know by name) are always entertaining and inspiring. I’m certain his show helps empower people in STEM fields and beyond to change the world.

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