YOUR INTEGRITY IS REFLECTED IN YOUR WORK. Everything in our society revolves around media. Everything is media. And who is driving that bus? Who is creating that content? Who has power to change belief systems? That is the validity of the work that I do. Filmmaking is not often thought of as a STEM career. Filming requires math, optics, geometry, and other science and math skills. Additionally, the technologies in filmmaking are advanced instruments designed by engineers. Yet, I am constantly challenged regarding the value of this profession under STEM. I worked on a project for 100kin10 — we interviewed over 100 teachers about the tools that they utilize to bring about visibility of women in STEM. I was shocked at the lack of effort. We live in a media-driven culture. And until we change the images that are absorbed every day we will not be able to reinvent the narrative for these students. So when I work with our VR project: You Can’t Be What You Can’t See or when I’m making a film, or in the work with AAAS IF/THEN, I am focused on combining technology and narrative storytelling to convey leadership in different ways to uplift and project the vast potential of the young people who receive our message daily.
As part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Crystal Emery the Founder and CEO of URU The Right To Be, Inc.
Crystal Emery is telling stories to help level the playing field in our world. She is the Founder and CEO of URU The Right To Be, Inc., a nonprofit content production company that addresses issues at the intersection of humanities, arts, and sciences. A producer, director, author, and activist, Emery’s body of work covers a broad range of topics from diversity, inclusion and equity to children’s literature, sociopolitical issues and STEM. She has been a keynote speaker for several national organizations, and her achievements have been recognized with numerous prestigious awards. Some special highlights from Emery’s work are the unique biographical essay books, Against All Odds: Black Women in Medicine and Master Builders of the Modern World: Reimagining the Face of STEM. She is also extremely proud of the groundbreaking film Black Women in Medicine, which has been viewed by millions of people worldwide. Emery’s current project, Changing the Face of STEM, combines hands-on workshops, mentorship opportunities, and rich resources for parents and professionals to help close the identification gap for marginalized students in STEM fields. As part of this initiative, she has designed and produced several innovative Virtual Reality Learning Experiences. Emery believes that perseverance, faith, and trusting in a power greater than oneself comprise the road to success. She continues to shape a successful, fulfilling personal and professional life while triumphing over two chronic diseases as a quadriplegic. Emery received her B.A. from the University of Connecticut, her M.A. in Media Studies from The New School of Public Engagement, and an honorary Doctorate of Letters from The University of Connecticut in 2018.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Whether you call it the universal mind or a higher power or God, I did not plan the path that I have taken. But it has been a calling. It’s like everything I’ve ever done has led to this moment. Being a filmmaker and being committed to changing the narrative about how people perceive their own capableness and how others perceive that same person’s capableness.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I have had my company for over 20 years. There are so many interesting stories. But I will share with you the most interesting story as part of my journey within the STEM realm, about how I got to the Academy of Sciences. The Hill 2017 contacted me about doing a project with my Changing the Face of STEM and particularly the film Black Women in Medicine. I said no several times because in the past, I had worked with some congressional leaders and felt very exploited. I continued to meditate on this and kept hearing that I should say yes. Now at the same time I was accepted into a program at USC funded through the state department to do an international tour with the film Black Women in Medicine. I eventually said yes to the congressional person and began the planning of this event. I was scheduled to do a project with Capitol Hill in April of that year. The Congressman that I was working with had a staffer that was distracted, and they had booked Capitol Hill Visitor Center, South Theater. Our team scheduled 300 young people to meet the women doctors featured in my documentary film Black Women in Medicine and to get books signed by them.
At every turn, the rules of the relationship changed. Federal rules would not allow a book signing, and other restrictions meant that the kids would not benefit from our program. I became so frustrated that we were not able to bring the students, I finally said (after a long string of expletives), “My name is on this, and I have to deliver something great.” I remembered being at the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Avenue and thought it was a beautiful building, so I called them up. At first, the woman that handles booking was like you do know who we are right? And we are not open to outside groups. You cannot rent a space here. I proceeded to say my program was Changing the Face of STEM, and she was very adamant that I should call somebody else.
I had very little money, very little time, but I knew I was not going to let these politicians stop us from putting on a strong event in Washington, considering that they had invited us. So, I was persistent, and I asked the manager there what her boss’ name was.
Then I decided to reach out to Marcia McNutt, who had just become the first woman president of any of the National Academies. I figured out her email and began writing her personally and often. She actually answered! And the next thing I knew, not only did we book the building, but our project — Changing the Face of STEM — went from just us to “in conjunction with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine”.
I am not ashamed to admit that while I knew what the NAS was, I did not realize that these Academies are among the largest and most prominent think tanks in the world. The universe has a way of opening the doors when you have a very determined desire. I did not allow the politics of Capitol Hill to water down or marginalize what would become a game changer in part of my destiny.
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?
Trust: You are in the same space but not always in alignment. Because the work that I do is from a heart vibration, I trust that those working on the front line are also about changing the narrative and making the world more equitable and humane. When I started URU, I had no real understanding of where I fit in the scheme of things, nor did I appreciate the value of the body of work that I was creating on the bigger picture of the stage.
Consequently, on the first URU project I developed, Woman to Woman: Helping Ourselves, I was exploited by a major university that I thought I was collaborating with. The program focused on breast cancer awareness for women of color. URU’s efforts increased the number of mammograms performed on women of color by 70% that year. By all accounts it was a success.
A few months later, a good friend called me to say that he was reading this article about my program in a medical journal, except me and my company were not named in the piece. The authors used our program title “Woman to Woman” but did not give URU credit. Subsequently, this university received a large grant for the work that we had done while only paying URU $10K to support our original work.
At the time, I did not understand the value of intellectual property. I have shared many of our early workshops with facilitators who would later take my lesson plan and make it part of their marketable portfolio. So, my very optimistic belief systems kept making the same mistakes because I believed that we were all fighting the same war. That was naive. I still share my work with anyone that wants to be on the front line, but I am very clear about who owns the intellectual property, and I require the execution of a memorandum of understanding. Even in the good fight, one must protect their work.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The integrity and the innovation that we bring to all of our work make us unique. To have 10,000 students, parents, and faculty give me a standing ovation for the first time in the Dean’s 32 years of listening to commencement keynotes. My speech was about URU and that you have a right to be, and don’t let anyone hinder you. I talked about my journey from able-bodied to quadriplegic; from human to alien in my lifetime. I let the students know that they must evolve and adapt. Life challenges you directly, and it presents challenges in the form of injustice and inequity that you either address or ignore. By definition, injustice and inequity are stumbling blocks! You have no choice but to use your mind and energy to improve our world. I told them, “Use me as an example of how you can move forward in life.” As a Black woman who has overcome challenges of both race and disability to succeed as a producer, author, and filmmaker who produces socially conscious works and tells stories that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit, I am living testimony that you can challenge the status quo by changing the narrative.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
THE URU Virtual Reality platform is our most exciting new project currently, and our excitement is on several levels. First, VR makes it possible for our kids to become immersed in STEM scenarios that both teach and instill confidence. Second, the VR technology is a STEM experience in and of itself. Combining cutting edge technology with innovative storytelling as a learning experience is effective and satisfying. I am not a gamer, for obvious reasons, but my imagination is my greatest asset and I understand how to capture the attention of young people with VR. Also, this platform allows parents, the community, and policymakers to see women, people with disabilities, and people of color in a very different way: in a way that they experience them as much more capable than their limited day-to-day interactions may present.
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?
Not at all. If the status quo for women in STEM was remotely equitable then there would be no need for URU or Lyda Hill Philanthropies to commit the energy and resources to IF/THEN, as we do every day. STEM awareness and identity are still major challenges for attracting and retaining more girls and women in STEM fields. The playing field is so uneven that it would take two generations to make any significant impact. It is one thing to recruit, but the critical issue is how to retain, encourage, and reward the women that brave the STEM world. And by reward, I mean equitable compensation, a fair opportunity for promotions, and the right to fail without being treated as a failure. The fear of mistakes is as limiting as lack of opportunity.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Expect the same level of commitment and work ethic from your team as you do from yourself. They may not reach your intensity but expecting or accepting less undermines the potential and drive of the team. Meet your team where they are because everyone does not have the same level of courageousness. Working within the STEM realm as a woman, you must be courageous and determined and fearless. Help your team understand what the real obstacles are so that there is a clear strategy and one they are in alignment with. Also, do not lose your female essence. This is what many women leaders have had to do to assimilate into this man’s world of science. Let them see that a woman can be a leader and still bring with them the qualities of being a woman. Because we are nurturers and healers as well as brilliant scientists.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
The principles of leadership are scalable, transferrable, and adaptable. Don’t try to be a man. Manage with the same skills and intellect that make women so powerful. Make good choices about the other leaders on your team. Create a space where they can be the individual that they are. Understand management vampires: micromanaging is a vampire because it will drain all of your energies. Also, stick to protocol. When you set up a process, stick to it and ensure that your team does too. Inconsistency is another vampire because once you make exceptions, everyone and everything become exceptions to the rules.
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?
Lloyd Richards. In my early 20s, I went to speak to Lloyd Richards. He was the Dean of Yale Drama School and Eugene O’Neal Theater, two of the greatest positions in theater of that time. I sort of knew him because he lived across the street from me down a little alleyway that I would cut through going to Yale’s Payne Whitney gym. Later we shared the same orthopedic doctor.
So, I went to see him because at the time, there was great support from Lee Brewer and Dennis Scott for me to go into the directing program at Yale Drama School. I showed Lloyd my resume and he asked me if I was paid for the jobs listed on my resume. I confidently said yes. His next question surprised me, “Why would you want to come to Yale Drama School?” My response was that I had never worked under the tutelage of another director. He said I don’t think we have anything to offer you. Your resume has 60% more theater work than most of our professors here. Not to be turned away, I asked him if I could work with him. He said he would think about it, which for me is a YES!
I ultimately traveled with Lloyd Richards and playwriter August Wilson for the plays Fences and Piano Lessons. Lloyd saw something in me that I did not see in myself because I was a worker and had not taken the time to reflect on my achievements. I couldn’t see my own brilliance, but he did.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try every day. I like to think that my success is due to the goodness URU brings to the world. The faces of the children when they realize their potential, or when the belief systems are altered in policymakers once they are sitting at the table for the first time with the very people they are making policy for, and it is no longer just policy about some abstract issue. Convening multicultural, generational think tank sessions that create tangible solutions that people can implement immediately in their personal, professional, institutional, political settings.
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.)
- ALLIES AND MENTORS COME FROM UNEXPECTED PEOPLE AND PLACES. There is someone always reminding you that you are Black and disabled and less-than. But from time to time you are surprised by who knows what you are doing and appreciates your work.
- BEING AUTHENTIC MAY MAKE SOME PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE BUT THAT IS THEIR ISSUE, NOT YOURS. There is a man who is constantly trying to remind you that he is smarter. I interviewed 100 STEM professionals for a book I am writing entitled “Master Builders of the Modern World.” He was a theoretical mathematician. Throughout the interview, he kept correcting my grammar, and I would ask him a question about his thoughts on something simple, and he would start using words that any theoretical mathematician probably would know. So, I stopped him in the middle of the interview, and explained that my goal was to demystify math, so that younger people could see that math is at the core of what they do. Throughout the conversation, he constantly had so many negatives, and all of his references were to men. I realized I didn’t need to impress him but I did need to remain true to myself.
- RESISTANCE TO YOUR IDEAS MAY REFLECT THE RESISTENCE OF THE STATUS QUO, NOT A DEFICIENCY IN YOUR CONCEPT. Women in STEM can be the hardest on a colleague — they are elitist and guarded. As I was implementing my workshop “Building Bridges: The Power of the Sisterhood” I invited 100 women to meet at the NAS this past June 10th. It was recommended to me by Shirley Malcom from AAAS to reach out to this very distinguished STEM professional and thought leader. The woman said she thought my idea was interesting, but it had too many problems. One, it should not be across disciplines, two, it should not be generational, and three, you should not break it up into two groups of White women only and women of color only. They should, at all times, meet together. This woman was so strong and adamant about her perspective, even when I gently suggested that the reason I was doing it this way was because women are so siloed throughout STEM that they only meet within their discipline, but that numbers create power and that it was important to have the trailblazers in the room with the incoming professionals, and also that each group has certain issues that we have to work out amongst themselves to make it a more healing ground where they come together. This woman went on to give me a list of her credentials, and how she was much more experienced at this work, and asked me who I was, and what my credentials were. Later, she would write me a note saying that she could not possibly be involved with my project as it was doomed to fail, and I had no real understanding of the dilemmas of women in STEM, as I actually wasn’t in STEM. Well, I did understand, and filmmakers are actually in STEM, in so many ways.
- YOUR INTEGRITY IS REFLECTED IN YOUR WORK. Everything in our society revolves around media. Everything is media. And who is driving that bus? Who is creating that content? Who has power to change belief systems? That is the validity of the work that I do. Filmmaking is not often thought of as a STEM career. Filming requires math, optics, geometry, and other science and math skills. Additionally, the technologies in filmmaking are advanced instruments designed by engineers. Yet, I am constantly challenged regarding the value of this profession under STEM. I worked on a project for 100kin10 — we interviewed over 100 teachers about the tools that they utilize to bring about visibility of women in STEM. I was shocked at the lack of effort. We live in a media-driven culture. And until we change the images that are absorbed every day we will not be able to reinvent the narrative for these students. So when I work with our VR project: You Can’t Be What You Can’t See or when I’m making a film, or in the work with AAAS IF/THEN, I am focused on combining technology and narrative storytelling to convey leadership in different ways to uplift and project the vast potential of the young people who receive our message daily.
- WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT ALWAYS WHAT YOU GET. TAKE THE TIME TO UNDERSTAND AND LEARN. Being in a wheelchair and being in a leadership role is one of my greatest challenges. Temple story — perceptions — how I behave in a conflict environment affects all of those witnessing it. I was doing a project with Temple Medical School. I often tell this story, so this is the short version. I enter the building to meet one of the team members. The security guard upon my entering told me I had the wrong building. That the clinic was 3 blocks down the street. This was before I even said my name. I said to her I was here to see Beth and the woman looked at me and said no one by that name works here. The clinic was 3 blocks down the street. I take a deep breath and I look at this 5×5 poster which is the poster of my film Deadliest Disease in America. And I say to the woman, we are going to try this again. I’m here to see Beth and I have an appointment. The man behind her said ma’am she’s trying to help you. She told you the clinic is down the street. Before I lost my cool, I took a deep breath and said, “You see that poster?” And as I was speaking, Beth comes down the hallway and said, “I thought I would come meet you to make sure you didn’t have any problems.” The woman immediately says, “Oh, Beth! I didn’t realize she was looking for you!” They could not see beyond wheelchair, black, and woman.
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. 🙂
One of those movements would be the AAAS IF/THEN, because it is inclusive of all women. Women are the backbones of their families, and so as they excel, as their opportunities excel, so does everyone around them. When we talk about equity and equality, we have to know the difference, and there has to be more focus and more equity poured into marginalized groups, including women and particularly young women.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two: “I can’t doesn’t live here” by Crystal R. Emery, and “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” by Martin Luther King, Jr. The first quote is pretty obvious — I don’t have a ‘can’t’ gene. The second quote resonates in my soul and spirit. If we ignore even the slightest injustice it becomes easier to ignore the greater injustices.
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 🙂
Again, there are two: Melinda Gates and Oprah Winfrey. Oprah Winfrey understands the intersection of being Black and being a woman, she supports the underdog, and she is committed to changing the narrative about people of color. Melinda Gates’ belief in empowering women, her understanding of and investment in a new educational paradigm, and her understanding and leveraging of who she is to make a difference are all incredibly powerful and inspiring aspects of her life’s work. She’s also not afraid to speak her truth.