On February 26, 2021, Engineers’ Week concluded with the annual Patrick J. Cunningham, Jr. and Susan Ward '80 Endowed Lecture Series in Engineering. This year’s lecturer was alumna Lillian Dukes ’87 MSEE, an experienced operations leader who is senior vice president of Technical Operations at Atlas Air. Dukes addressed more than 200 members of the College of Engineering community on “How Good Engineers Craft Great Careers.”
Dukes began by sharing a bit of her personal story, which included being one of 21 children adopted by foster parents, 17 of whom were boys. “I started my life in a very male-dominated environment, but that has served me well as I’ve often been one of few women in the workplace,” she admitted. When she set out for college, Dukes planned to major in math, but a professor encouraged her to consider electrical engineering. “There’s something about having that title of engineer,” she said. “People just think you’re really smart.” Reflecting on her first job as a repair engineer for American Airlines, Dukes quickly learned that, with an engineering degree, even if you don’t know what you’re doing you can figure it out. “You’ve learned how to solve problems.” That job launched her lifelong career in aviation.
Dukes began the heart of her lecture by explaining how the workplace environment has changed. “This is probably one of the first times in history that we have five generations in the workplace at the same time, making for a very complex environment,” she said. “When you graduate you have to figure out how to navigate and survive that.” Describing each generation and their differences, Dukes offered lessons in how to navigate cultural and organizational minefields and presented this critical piece of advice: “Make communications your superpower.” Cautioning against the overuse of text, email and social media, Dukes encouraged students to tell their own stories and listen to others.
Relating the importance of understanding culture and communicating, Dukes proceeded to share the story of a friend who experienced overt racism on the job and how she herself has been driven from the workplace by peers who made her life miserable. “I don’t promote running; I do promote trying to address the situation, but when you get to a point where you’re waking up in the morning with an awful pit in your stomach, you know it’s time to leave.” Dukes shared these painful recollections not to garner sympathy, but rather to point out that there were always people around who could have said or done something. “As you leave and go into the workplace or here in your university setting, if you see things that are happening, reach out and say something. Stand up; don’t sit by and let it happen just because it’s not happening to you.” She added, “People like me need to hear your voice, we need you to participate and make sure things are right and safe and equitable for everyone in the work environment.”
Continuing her presentation, Dukes spoke to the importance of mentors, sponsors and coaches in navigating an engineering career, particularly mentors who are the foundation to your success in the early years. She explained how they function as safe spaces and sounding boards, helping professionals at all stages think through opportunities and challenges. “I can honestly say I got where I am today because of mentors and sponsors that I’ve had throughout my career, some of whom have been in my life for 20 or 30 years.”
Before closing, Dukes shared what she called “an unexpected detour” that occurred on a business trip to Haiti about a week after the earthquake that killed over 250,000 people. That unforgettable experience led to an ongoing relationship with the Haitian orphanage Fondation Enfant Jesus, which she considers one of the most rewarding parts of her life.
Dukes closed her presentation with four guiding principles:
- Be authentic to who you are and what you believe.
- Integrity is never negotiable if you want to live with yourself long term.
- Live with purpose.
- Treat others the way you want to be treated.
A recording of Dukes’ lecture is available here.