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.
Foreign Service Officer
U.S. Department of State
People often ask Foreign Service Officer Tashina Cooper, “Why did you choose to move so far from home and pursue a career that does not benefit Native people?”
“That this career does not benefit Native people is inaccurate,” says Cooper, who is assigned to U.S. Consulate Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. That puts Cooper a long way from the Navajo Nation where she was raised.
Cooper is a diplomat, or representative of the United States government to foreign countries. As a Native American, she is a dual citizen — that is, a citizen of the United States and the Navajo Nation. Cooper states, “In this regard, I informally represent my tribal nation to the world. Representation matters. America’s diplomats should reflect our country’s diversity.”
Diplomats work for the Department of State, an agency that oversees U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. Secretary of State is the President’s primary foreign policy advisor. Diplomats represent the United States at the United Nations, negotiate international treaties, and oversee diplomatic missions, among other responsibilities.
Her work has taken her to Jakarta, Indonesia, and Tegucigalpa, Honduras. “It’s an incredible experience — a career like no other — and the best part is that it’s constantly changing,” says Cooper. She moves every three years to serve at any of the United States’ more than 270 embassies, consulates, and other diplomatic missions.
Today her full-time job is studying Persian, the official language of Iran, so she can serve in the Iran Regional Presence Office. The United States severed diplomatic relations with Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 hostage crisis and does not have an embassy in the country. Cooper explains, “The Iran Regional Presence Office in Dubai is the closest thing we have to an embassy for a country in which we lack diplomatic relations. It is our responsibility as diplomats to overcome that challenge and provide decision-makers in Washington with the most credible assessments of social, political, and economic conditions in Iran.”
“I’m fortunate to study a new language full time. I don’t know of any other profession where you can do that,” says Cooper, who speaks Indonesian and Spanish at a full professional proficiency. “Reaching a high level of fluency in other languages has increased my confidence to learn Diné Bizaad (the Navajo language). I now have a better understanding of how to learn languages. One of my life goals is to speak the language of my people fluently.”
Cooper’s assignments vary. As a consular officer in Indonesia, she conducted visa interviews in Indonesian and helped American citizens who were crime victims or imprisoned while also combating human trafficking. She represented the U.S. Embassy in the Indonesian language during live interviews on national television, where she promoted study in the United States and dispelled misconceptions about U.S. policies.
When speaking with foreign audiences Cooper states, “I try to honestly represent America’s history.” She admits, “We have inequality. Our history is replete with discrimination. Yet what sets our nation apart is our democratic ideals and the notion that civil rights and liberties should be available to all.” She continues, “Foreign audiences appreciate that Americans are willing to acknowledge when we fall short of our principles. Our greatest strength is that we are constantly aspiring to be better.”
“Service is of paramount importance to me,” says Cooper. “As a diplomat, you don’t have to abandon who you are and can continue serving tribal communities.” Cooper worked to preserve Indigenous languages in Honduras. In Indonesia, Cooper advanced U.S. foreign policy objectives to counter violent extremism by promoting tolerance among the country’s diverse and young population. This included bringing Native American dancers to serve as cultural ambassadors during exchanges.
She urges Native Americans to consider a career in the Foreign Service. According to Cooper, “When you’re a young adult, you think of a career as a final destination. But that’s not how things work — careers unfold over seasons.”
Previously, the Stanford University graduate worked at the American Indian College Fund and served as deputy executive director of the Native American Finance Officers Association. “Students have myriad interests, which can be pursued at the various stages of one’s career. The skills developed can be brought home to benefit tribal communities. For me, this has meant that I can both serve my tribal community and pursue my interest in foreign affairs.”
Cooper knows that although she lives far from the four sacred mountains of the Navajo Nation, her grandmother’s prayers protect her. “My grandmother buried my umbilical cord in the earth so I’d always be connected to my people and Nahasdzą´ą´n Shimá (Mother Earth),” she says. “I am honored to serve overseas, but eventually I will return home to begin a new season.”
— George Spencer
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
CAREERS.STATE.GOVLEADING AMERICA’S FOREIGN POLICY Specialists at the State Department are responsible for advancing the nation’s foreign policy, maintaining international relations, and protecting the interests and security of American citizens. The department aspires to a workforce that reflects the country it serves, and diversity and inclusion are valued throughout the agency. While many State Department employees serve abroad, domestic positions are also vital to the nation’s interests. Language skills are especially in demand, and the department fills roles across multiple STEM areas, including technical, construction engineering, financial, facilities management, information technology and management, medicine and health, and more.
Software Test Engineer
Fearless. That’s how one manager describes Nikki DuPuy in her role at General Motors (GM). From DuPuy’s point of view, she’s the proud product of a Navajo matriarchy that stressed the importance of higher learning, hard work, and self-sufficiency. “I knew early on that I would make my own way in life,” she says about growing up in Tuba City, Ariz., on the Navajo Reservation. “It’s never been about taking a traditional journey, but about finding the right path for me.”
“My grandmothers were nurses and teachers, and my mother always worked in an office with the tribe or the school,” DuPuy explains. “I saw myself going to work with a sense of purpose.” While she didn’t know exactly what that purpose would be, she kept her eyes wide open. There were the uncles who went into IT and engineers she met in high school through a summer AISES program. Later, there would be jobs sterilizing surgical tools and working at the local pharmacy. “Maybe I would go into health care or engineering, or maybe I would fix computers,” she recalls. “I knew I would figure it out.”
But some success stories can’t be rushed. DuPuy didn’t go to college right after high school. Instead, she worked to help take care of herself, her parents, and two younger siblings while eventually taking classes at Diné College. After earning her associate degree, she transferred to Northern Arizona University (NAU) to study computer information systems. In her senior year at NAU, DuPuy attended a career day panel. “That’s where I realized every company needs people who know how to use or fix computers — so I’m glad I stayed to listen.”
She stayed, she listened, and she interviewed — twice — with GM. Soon thereafter, DuPuy accepted a software developer job at the GM Arizona IT Innovation Center, a position they held open until she graduated. Two years later, she joined GM’s Quality Assurance team as a software test engineer. “I love this role because I can tap into my natural analytical skills to question requirements and ensure the utmost quality of our products,” she says. “I also love the energy and atmosphere. Everyone is eager to learn and grow — it fits with leadership’s emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
In the early days of making her job a career, DuPuy learned that GM sponsors employee resource groups (ERGs ) organized around dimensions of diversity. “I didn’t see many Native Americans at our Arizona building, so I reached out and met Indigenous employees from other parts of the company through our Indigenous Peoples Network (IPN) ERG,” she explains. After joining the leadership council, she launched the first Arizona GM IPN chapter and surged into recruiting mode to assemble a core group of members, including a number of non-Indigenous allies.
Cut to 2022: DuPuy is known for her leadership at GM. When she’s not heading up Quality Assurance efforts with her trademark tenacity, she’s organizing annual back-to-school supply drives for Navajo schools. An AISES Sequoyah Fellow herself, DuPuy created a tour of her GM facility for members attending last year’s National Conference in Phoenix. “It was heartwarming to see Indigenous faces fill up the biggest conference rooms,” she observes. “Although I am one of a few Native Americans here, I know that I can bring my authentic self to work and educate others that we’re still here and we’re still thriving.” She looks forward to continually “giving back to Native communities, like we’re taught” while finding new ways to serve as a leader in both her IT and Indigenous worlds.
As she considers which ambitions to pursue next at GM, DuPuy is clear about the priorities that have served her well.
“It is so important to grow horizontally by exploring other areas around you, so you’re ready to make good decisions when you move up,” she advises. “Also, network — not only to find mentors, but to be that mentor who can really make a difference for someone.” And what else does she want you to remember? “Self-care. You can’t pour from an empty cup. As Navajos say, T’áá hwó’ ají t’éego — it’s up to you (to live a good life).”
— Susan Biemesderfer
CAREERS.GM.COMBUILDING TODAY FOR A MORE SUSTAINABLE TOMORROWCreativity is prized at GM (General Motors), where a diverse team of talented people work to advance transportation toward an all-electric future. This ambitious transformation is ready to engage STEM professionals in fields such as engineering, software development, data management and analytics, manufacturing technology, and roles related to research and development. GM is a global enterprise that aspires to be the most inclusive in the world, an ambition supported by the corporate Inclusion Advisory Board and its employee resource groups, including the Native American Cultural Network.