All the companies on the Winds of Change Top 50 STEM
Workplaces for Indigenous STEM Professionals list are strong supporters
of diversity. But what are these workplaces doing that sets them apart?
Here, we’ve taken a closer look at three of these employers to highlight
some of the ways they foster an inclusive climate at work and the
initiatives they have put in place to support individual staff members.
To get an even clearer picture of what being part of a diverse workplace
can mean to an individual, we asked a Native American STEM professional
at each of these organizations to describe his or her experiences.
NORTHERN CHEYENNE AND LAKOTA
Software Development Engineer
Michael Running Wolf helped Alexa talk. “I’m a big
language and data nerd interested in voice artificial intelligence (AI)
and its intersection with big data,” says this Amazon software
development engineer. His team managed — and kept private — mega data
flows in the form of billions of questions for the virtual assistant and
Alexa’s billions of replies. More than 100 million Alexa devices were
sold in 2018 alone, according to Amazon. Today his work supports AI
training and business analysis.
“I love how at Amazon there’s a huge diversity of technologies from
robotics to global-scaled cloud services and big data,” says Running
Wolf. Amazon teams are worldwide. When he worked on Alexa he routinely
collaborated with engineers in Poland, Mexico, and California and
quickly learned how to schedule meetings that spanned both hemispheres.
“I like meeting new people and always ask what they like about their
location in case I want to move there,” he says.
Working at Amazon has also helped him experience huge personal
growth. “Here you have the opportunity to build anything you can
envision,” says Running Wolf, who cofounded Indigenous@, a collection of
like-minded Indigenous people from across Amazon’s digital footprint.
Running Wolf, Northern Cheyenne and Lakota, has a dream. “My passion
is revitalizing endangered Indigenous North American languages,” he
says. That’s why, in his spare time, he is working on the basic research
that might one day create an Alexa for Native languages.
One challenge is that voice recognition was designed to work with
European languages. It’s incompatible with Native ones because their
framework is polysynthetic, which means one word can be as long as a
breath. “They are fundamentally different,” says Running Wolf, who
earned his MS and BS in computer science at Montana State University.
“Voice AI assumes a limited dictionary of words, but polysynthetic
languages have an infinite number of words — as many as there are stars
in the sky.”
Today he is working with a graduate student on the early stages of
building automatic speech recognition for the Kwak’wala language spoken
by Kwakwaka’wakw tribes on the northern end of Vancouver Island and the
adjacent Canadian mainland.
“I want to enable a paradigm shift in language recognition. We could
have an Alexalike device do what Alexa does in Lakota or Cheyenne, but
we don’t have enough talent,” says Running Wolf. “We need Lakota and
Navajo software engineers to do this research.” He urges students to get
technical degrees they can use to help their communities. “There are so
few Indigenous computer scientists. There aren’t enough computer
scientists — period,” he says.
Running Wolf grew up next to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation
in the village of Birney. His mother worked for Hewlett Packard and
taught him to use a slide rule. His father was a self-taught IT worker.
“Ironically, I grew up without regular running water or electricity in
the middle of nowhere, but I was raised by technologists,” he says. As a
boy he loved reading physics textbooks and taking apart clocks.
Bringing people together motivates Running Wolf. “I was raised by my
village and surrounded by family,” he says. His love of language also
came early. Thanks to his multilingual family, he learned Cheyenne and
Last year he attended the first ever global conference of Indigenous
AI researchers. He found the experience “amazing.” It was the first time
he had met so many Native, Aboriginal, and First Nations AI experts,
especially those from Asia and Africa. He found it exciting to be with
colleagues who shared his vision of bridging the digital divide for
Native peoples. “There are so few of us to exchange technology
strategies with,” says Running Wolf. “We’re all in it together.”
The largest U.S.-based e-commerce company is a global tech giant. From Amazon’s beginnings in 1994 as an online book seller, it has expanded into new business categories that recruit creative tech professionals, including cloud-based Amazon Web Services for business customers; Prime Air, looking to eventually make deliveries using drones; media and entertainment, including producing feature-length films; and consumer electronics, starring the AI assistant Alexa, increasingly a fixture in customers’ homes.
TAHLTAN FIRST NATION
Growing up in Whitehorse, the capital of Canada’s
Yukon Territory, Jamie Davignon loved accompanying her father to his
work sites. He was a general contractor, who built their family homes,
and she was inspired by his creativity and problem solving. Davignon
loved learning, and heading to university was a natural path. She chose a
joint degree program between the University of Northern British
Columbia and University of British Columbia, a small campus and a large
campus — perfect, she thought, for someone from a small town.
A year before she graduated, her world expanded even more. Davignon
had the opportunity to attend the International Student Energy Summit in
Bali, where more than 600 delegates from 100 countries gathered to
discuss current and future energy issues. The conference was a chance
for her to collaborate with and act on issues with people from all over
the world. It was a cultural experience as well as an educational one.
She remains in contact with a global network of people she met there.
After graduating in 2016 with a bachelor of applied science in
environmental engineering, Davignon joined Stantec. From her “small but
mighty” office in Whitehorse, she feels strongly connected to her global
teammates — designers, engineers, scientists, and project managers. “We
are a team and we work to-gether, whether it’s on a project around the
corner or across the globe,” Davignon says. “At our Whitehorse office,
in particular, we are all very close. It feels like a community, which
gives us a sense of belonging.”
Fundamental to the greater community is Stantec’s forward-thinking
leadership in the green arena. Davignon cites the rankings in Corporate
Knight’s 2021 Global 100, an index of the world’s most sustainable
corporations. Stantec ranks as the fifth most sustainable company in the
world and the first in North America. “Stantec is doing its part to
show leadership in reducing its carbon footprint,” she says. “It makes
the employees proud to be part of such an amazing team.”
Davignon was recently promoted to the role of civil engineer. She
co-chairs the Joint Health and Safety Committee and the Prairies and
Territories Indigenous Engagement Committee. With her team, she spends a
lot of time in the community, developing relationships through visits
to housing fairs, housing design workshops, work sites, and general
assemblies. Partnered with the Selkirk First Nation in Pelly Crossing,
Yukon, she has been part of the planning phases and detailed design of a
new subdivision, working on a piped water expansion through an existing
subdivision and upgrades and repairs to local water treatment.
Last October, Davignon spoke at the AISES National Conference. She
shared some of the work that Stantec has been doing with the Government
of Canada and the Self-Governing Indigenous Governments (SGIGs).
Information collected will be used to help develop policies for SGIGs to
achieve a consistent quality of life for their communities that is
comparable to other small Canadian communities. Stantec has been working
with SGIGs to complete condition assessments of assets owned by the
communities. “We live and work in the communities we serve,” Davignon
says. “This allows us to build connections, demonstrate our expertise,
bring together diverse perspectives, and envision the future.”
—Ann S. Boor
Headquartered in Edmonton, Alberta, Stantec provides a
variety of services to a global clientele with a focus on the
communities it serves. From 400 locations across six continents, 22,000
Stantec employees work with clients in areas ranging from engineering
and project design and management to infrastructure and facilities
development. Their expertise includes environmental sciences, energy,
water, architecture, landscape architecture, surveying, and planning and
Senior Digital Program Manager
MiTok Oyasin. In Ojibwe it means “we all share this world.”
It’s a concept Suzanne Senske learned from her grandmother. “I was
taught to look at the world with soft eyes — meaning we should treat
each other with compassion, without judgment. I live by that,” she says.
Senske brings that outlook to work every day at Microsoft in Fargo,
N.D., where she’s a senior digital program manager and founder of the
Fargo Indigenous Employee Resource Group. “I’m enamored with the level
of ingenuity required to work here and the open mindset,” she says.
“People want diversity, and they ask for my perspective — it’s a place
where you’re free to innovate.”
Her journey to this “best job” she’s ever had was a winding one.
“Growing up on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska, I was blessed to
have lots of family around me, but three meals a day wasn’t a normal
thing,” she recalls. “And the idea of going to college was almost
unthinkable.” When she was a teenager, her family moved to Rapid City,
S.D. A conversation there with an aunt stuck with her: “She said,
‘You’ll probably be pregnant soon and on welfare like me.’ I didn’t want
that, and decided that if I was going to do something with my life, it
had to start with me.”
When Senske mentioned the exchange to her algebra teacher, he offered
a breath of hope. “He said, ‘Suzanne, you’re good at math. If you study
hard, that doesn’t have to be you.’” She embraced those words,
especially after her family moved to Fargo and she was one of two Native
Americans in her high school. She focused on being a top student and
lettered in volleyball, cheerleading, and chorus. Because she loves
helping people, she set her sights on nursing school and applied for
scholarships. “When they announced my American Legion scholarship during
homeroom, I heard a girl say, ‘Indians get free housing and schooling;
she doesn’t need to take our money.’ It took me back for a moment, but I
kept pressing ahead.”
Fargo was soon in the rearview mirror as Senske earned her nursing
certificate and took a job with the White Earth Indian Health Service in
Minnesota. Married with two young daughters, she worked during the day
and attended Moorhead State University at night. She got her degree, but
the schedule took its toll on the marriage and Senske made a fresh
start as a single mom working for IHS in Washington, D.C. In 2004, she
became a program acquisition manager at the Washington Navy Yard, where
she oversaw asset planning and expenditures for undersea defensive
warfare operations — and went back to school for a master’s in systems
Senske left D.C. for North Dakota in 2014. Her daughters were grown,
and she had lost a friend in the 2013 Navy Yard shooting. She was ready
for the next chapter. As she headed up IT for a new Fargo hospital and
level 1 trauma center, she also met her husband, Scott.
By 2018, she was looking for a new challenge. So when a recruiter
contacted her about Microsoft, she said yes. “One of the best things
about being here is that my mind is an open frontier — there are no
limits,” she explains. “The culture is about growing you.” Senske’s
employee resource group is a big part of her work life as she and her
colleagues conduct STEM outreach with Native students, volunteer for the
Microsoft TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) program,
and hold events like a 2019 Native Dance exhibition. “At the end,
everyone participated in a snake dance,” she says proudly. “It was
something to behold.”
The company is now sponsoring Senske’s studies for a certificate from
MIT in artificial intelligence. “AI definitely speaks to me,” she says,
“especially Microsoft’s work in AI for Good, where they create
biometric tools for new health care solutions. I’m back home, my mind is
soaring, and I’m using it to help people — it does feel like a full
circle. As I say, MiTok Oyasin.”
With Indigenous at Microsoft, its ninth employee resource group, the global technology corporation is commited to inclusion for its nearly 170,000 employees worldwide. Artificial intelligence and cloud computing are a major focus for the company, along with capabilities and products like apps, PCs and devices, software, entertainment, and the power behind Windows. For students, Microsoft offers internships in multiple locations, while transitioning veterans can attend the Microsoft Software and Systems Academy.