As a woman of color from the inner city, I thought that only male members of the dominant society could excel in STEM. But after joining the industry and learning from talented women in leadership positions, I now know that’s a complete myth. We all have something to contribute and anyone can find a career in STEM. Growing up, I didn’t see anyone that looked like me working in STEM, but I’m helping to break that — my kids are used to seeing me study biology and math, so they see the STEM industry as approachable for them. Another myth I’d like to dispel is that you’re locked into the career you chose in your twenties. I’m 50 now and just starting out in a completely new industry — if I can do it, anyone can. I’d like to see more mature women pursue careers in STEM and show their families and friends that you can chase your dreams, no matter how old you are.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Angi Taylor.
Angi Taylor’s route to becoming a Lab Clerk at NewLeaf Symbiotics was nontraditional. Although she had an M.A. in Communications, she’d always been fascinated by science. Growing up in inner-city St. Louis, MO, she was led to believe that people who looked like her should not pursue the sciences. However, life brought her to St. Louis Community College’s Center for Plant and Life Sciences as an administrative assistant. While at the College, she began to dabble in the lab and was encouraged to take classes in Life Sciences. In 2012, she met who would become the founders of NewLeaf Symbiotics, a successful startup focused on using beneficial bacteria to help plants grow better. In June 2015, Angi completed classes in Life Sciences, walked up to NewLeaf’s door and told the founders she wanted to work for them! She worked as an intern for NewLeaf in 2015 and in January 2018, she became a fulltime employee.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In2010, I accepted a job as an Administrative Assistant for St. Louis Community College’s Center for Plant and Life Sciences. I was armed with a Master of Arts in Communication and zero scientific background.
At the time, St. Louis Community College’s Center for Plant and Life Sciences had recently relocated to the Bio Research & Development Growth (BRDG) Park at the Danforth Center for Plant and Life Sciences, a local nonprofit that has become the world’s largest independent research institute focused on plant science. The goal was for students to be able to collaborate with the industry’s emerging ecosystem of scientists and startups, and be trained in lab and equipment skills.
After witnessing students train in the sciences and land gainful, interesting jobs at BRDG Park year after year, I decided to take classes myself. In 2014 I began classes for the Life Sciences Lab Assistant Certificate and completed the certificate in 2015. While taking classes, I had interned with NewLeaf Symbiotics, a rapidly growing startup at BRDG Park that uses naturally occurring organisms to strengthen plants, increase their nutritional uptake and make them stronger, ultimately producing more yield in a sustainable way. After receiving my certificate, I took a permanent position with NewLeaf Symbiotics as a lab clerk.
Growing up in inner city St. Louis in the Walnut Park area, I was always led to believe that someone like me was not a scientist. The collaborative ecosystems and training programs like the ones at St. Louis Community College opened my eyes and proved me wrong. The school provides endless opportunities for work in various specialties within the agriculture industry — especially for those who may not have previously considered entering the sciences or who are looking for a career switch.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
If you would have told me 10 years ago that I’d be working in a lab helping to feed the world, I would have thought you were crazy! For me, the most interesting thing that’s happened has been my career change, especially a little later in life. Most 50-year-olds think they’re stuck in the career they have, but after witnessing students change their careers and their lives through the St. Louis Community College Center for Plant and Life Sciences, I realized that I could take that same step to find a career that I loved. Now, I’m working at an innovative company that is literally changing the world, and my role here keeps expanding. I’m excited to see where this career can take me — I’m only just getting started.
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?
One thing that I look back on and laugh about is from my early days at NewLeaf Symbiotics. One of my responsibilities is to prepare stock solutions for the lab tech. Similar to the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, you have to put the lid on the solutions just right — if you put the lid on too tight, it can explode; if you put it on too loose, it can come off and then contaminate everything. It took a few tries for me to get the lid “just right,” after a few spills and explosions. The thing I learned from this mistake is that each component is important to the end goal, so taking the time to get it “just right” is critical, no matter the size of the task.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’m impressed every day with how NewLeaf Symbiotics is using science to help the world, leveraging biotechnology to increase our food supply in a natural way. We have 8 billion people on the planet, but we don’t have additional farmable land, so we have to do more with the limited amount of land that we have, and NewLeaf is making great strides in addressing this issue. It’s a very cool place to work, with a lot of young vibrant scientists!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
There are many exciting things happening at NewLeaf Symbiotics right now, both for the company and for me. From a company perspective, Startup City recently named us among the “15 Most Promising AgTech Startups” of 2019. This was a huge recognition for our company, and further confirms that we’re on the right path to help transform the agriculture industry, enabling growers to feed more people with fewer resources. Additionally, this summer, we announced a long-term partnership with Joyn Bio, an ag-biotech company that engineers microbes for more sustainable agriculture. Joyn Bio will help NewLeaf Symbiotics engineer their proprietary microbes to bring new disease and pest-control options to farmers, allowing growers to reduce their dependence on chemicals.
As a personal project, I just joined the NewLeaf Symbiotics Safety Team, which expands my role and provides me with the opportunity to learn more about keeping my colleagues safe in the lab, implementing trainings and addressing safety hazards.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. 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?
At NewLeaf Symbiotics, we have a lot of women in positions of leadership, and I’ve also seen women, like my former boss, Betsy Boedeker, director at the St. Louis Community College Center for Plant and Life Sciences, rise up to become leaders. Throughout my experience in the STEM/tech industry, I’ve had the pleasure of having many female role models to look up to.
What I’d love is to see more people of color in this industry. Growing up in the inner city, I didn’t even know that an opportunity to work in STEM existed for someone like me, because I didn’t know anyone in that industry. I hope that in sharing my story, more women, and especially more women of color, will know that there is space for them to thrive in the STEM world.
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?
I’ve seen women who feel like they have to present themselves in masculine ways in order to be effective or be seen as valuable by their counterparts. However, our differences and unique perspectives add so much value to our teams — if we all thought the same things or acted the same way, we’d never change the world. I want women to feel confident in themselves. We do not need to imitate males. We need to be ourselves. As a lab clerk and a woman, I manage my day-to-day tasks with confidence, knowing that what I’m contributing is valuable.
I also think some of the challenges women face are ones that we set for ourselves. For example, before I joined NewLeaf Symbiotics, I put boundaries on myself by thinking I was too old or not qualified enough to jump into a new industry. But what I would like to share with women is that they should be open to reinventing themselves. My background had nothing to do with science, but now I am working in an amazing plant life science lab in the main research and innovation hub in St. Louis! Be an empty vessel, willing to take on new things, regardless of your age or background.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
As a woman of color from the inner city, I thought that only male members of the dominant society could excel in STEM. But after joining the industry and learning from talented women in leadership positions, I now know that’s a complete myth. We all have something to contribute and anyone can find a career in STEM. Growing up, I didn’t see anyone that looked like me working in STEM, but I’m helping to break that — my kids are used to seeing me study biology and math, so they see the STEM industry as approachable for them.
Another myth I’d like to dispel is that you’re locked into the career you chose in your twenties. I’m 50 now and just starting out in a completely new industry — if I can do it, anyone can. I’d like to see more mature women pursue careers in STEM and show their families and friends that you can chase your dreams, no matter how old you are.
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.)
There are a lot of lessons I’ve learned, especially as a late entrant into the STEM field, but they all seem to ladder up to a few major themes:
1. Be yourself: Women in STEM must enter the arena knowing our worth. We do not need to imitate males to be successful, we need to be ourselves and know that in doing that we bring significant value to the table.
2. Don’t be afraid to be the only one: As a woman in STEM, and especially as a woman of color in STEM, there are many times that you might be the only person like you in the room. Don’t let that hinder you — if you don’t blaze that trail first, how can others follow in your footsteps?
3. You’re never stuck: Just because you chose one path as a twenty-something doesn’t mean you’re stuck doing that job forever. Have the confidence to take classes and seek out new opportunities — you never know if it will lead you to your dream job. I’m so glad I pushed myself at 50 to change careers; I have a job I’m proud of and am helping to make a difference in the world.
4. Titles are just words: Don’t be so concerned with titles. It’s okay to start from the ground up, and you have to be cool with that. Be the best you are at what you do — I’m a lab clerk, but my job is very important and I do it with excellence.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be confident and lead based on your personality. Your experiences and point of view bring so much to the table — you don’t need to imitate someone else’s leadership style to be a good leader. We must come to the table being fully who we are.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Be honest and humble, and don’t be afraid to be who you are.
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’m grateful to so many people for pushing me and supporting me through my transition into the STEM industry. My former supervisor, Dr. Norris from St. Louis Community College, gave me the opportunity to grow and learn while on his team. Additionally, I’m grateful to NewLeaf for giving me the opportunity to participate in “real” science and hopefully improve farming to feed the world.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Through my work with NewLeaf, I’m literally helping farmers feed our growing world, which I feel is a hugely important task.
And, on a more personal level, I hope that by sharing my story, I’m inspiring more women — especially women of color — to see themselves in STEM. Without knowing anyone in my community who worked in STEM growing up, it seemed out of reach for me. I am working to make it known that anyone can find a future in the STEM industry, regardless of age, race or gender.
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 want to inspire more women and people of color to look for opportunities in the STEM field, because there’s room for everyone at this table and a diversity of experiences and points of view is critical in science. I firmly believe that with a larger variety of experiences and ways of thinking, we’ll only change the world sooner.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson is to leave the world a little bit better than I found it, whether that’s ensuring I leave the lab clean and safe, supporting our team of scientists as they help feed our growing population or sharing my story to inspire more women and people of color to join the industry.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂
I would love to meet Michelle Obama! She’s never been afraid to be the first woman or person of color to do something big, and she’s inspired me to keep paving the way for more people like me to follow their dreams. I also appreciate that in the face of hardship, she approaches everything with grace and class. She is a real boss!