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Chemours, Provivi executives talk female STEM leadership

Katie Tabeling

Provivi Chief Operating Officer Teri Quinn Gray, left, and Chemours Chief Sustainability Officer Amber Wellman talk about what it means to be a leader during the Inspiring Women in STEM 2023 Conference. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

NEWARK — Two DuPont alumnae and current top STEM executives encouraged an audience of female professionals to lead not only with courage, but with understanding, and embrace the complexities that come with being a female leader.

“It’s not mutually exclusive. You can be courageous and afraid and you can be grateful and ambitious. Female leaders recognize that duality. I often joke with my female mentors that we can hold two thoughts in our head at the same time,” Chemours Chief Sustainability Officer Amber Wellman said during the Inspiring Women in STEM 2023 Conference last Thursday. “Letting comfort trump meaningful change is the epitome of privilege, so I find I have to push myself outside my comfort zone. You have to be confident in what you know and what you don’t know.”

Wellman and Provivi Chief Operating Officer Teri Quinn Gray were among the highest-profile speakers during a fireside chat at the Delaware BioScience Association’s annual conference. The Inspiring Women in STEM 2023 Conference was in its 11th year, and drew 250 attendees to panels, mentoring and networking sessions at the University of Delaware’s Clayton Hall. Attendees ranged from seasoned professionals to soon to be graduates looking to enter the field.

STEM jobs are those in life sciences, physical and Earth sciences, engineering and architecture, computer and math occupations. In 2021, studies from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that women made up 28% of jobs in those fields, signaling a rise from 1970 when the number was around 8%. 

In health-related fields, women do earn a large share of degrees. In 2018, 68% of women earned biological and life science degrees. In comparison, 22% of bachelor’s degrees were in engineering and 19% of degrees in computer science. In advanced degrees within these fields, three in 10 were earned by women.

Gray, who worked at Dupont for 20 years before she entered the C-suite at agriculture biotech company Provivi, spoke about how numbers were always in her blood, as her relatives were math teachers and physicists. When she was a girl, she told her family she wanted to be a chemist. Her grandfather told her to be a teacher or a doctor instead.

More than 250 women came to the Inspiring Women in STEM 2023 Conference held at the University of Delaware. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

My grandmother said to not listen to him, do exactly what you want to do,” Gray said. “She and my mother are my two biggest anchors in my life, but I also was nurtured as an undergraduate. All but one of my professors were men. They could be insensitive, but also arrogant in their intellect. Like their students couldn’t fail. So if you came through their lab, you were alright.”

It was important to also cultivate curiosity. Wellman, who worked for DuPont for years before moving over to Chemours after it spun off from the company, said that growing up she wanted to understand how things worked. She joked that three months after getting a microscope set, she was dissecting her first lizard on the porch. While there were no role models in her family, she did find support as she started her studies.

“A turning point for me was one of my research professors choosing to go to a different university, and I didn’t want to move and start all over. But another professor pulled me aside and told me they would create a program for me,” Wellman said. “I was doing unfunded research because he believed in me. He ended up my graduate advisor and worked with me on completing my doctoral degree.”

On the whole, both Wellman and Gray discussed the duality of being a woman leader in a science field, where women are expected to be warm and open socially, but in business expected to be tough and competent. For women, it can lead to feeling they need to work twice as hard or to be as perfect as possible. Both reflected that career trajectories are rarely linear.

“If you’re trying to be perfect all the time, you’re not growing,” Wellman added. “I’m competitive by nature, so generally, I would say learning from missteps is a huge piece of success.”

Black and Hispanic workers are also historically underrepresented in STEM, with Black employees making 9% of the field, according to a Pew Research Study in 2021. That number gets lower for engineering and architecture jobs at 5%. Those numbers have not changed since 2016.

For Gray, she found the biggest obstacle in her life was low expectations and often being the only Black woman in the room.

“Sometimes, you figure out people are just projecting their own deficiency, not yours. That’s what motivated me to deliver beyond them. But being the only one can be very lonely when you have to solve big problems,” Gray said. “That’s where allies can become so important to solve those hairy issues.”

When it comes to accessending up the corporate ladder, both women advised aspiring executives to be proactive in determining their path. Wellman is the second chief sustainability officer in Chemours history, and she asked leadership for it when it opened up – seeing the possibilities of where it could lead the company and how it aligned with her skill set.

“You need to know your value and ask what you deserve, and that’s applicable for outside work too,” Wellman said. “That could be a seat at the table. I’ve had to learn a totally different communication style with my husband since I had my son. But it’s being self-aware to ask what you need.”

Gray said her leadership philosophy was to invest in people, and expect those people to deliver results. That goes both ways, as believing in yourself and beating back nervous butterflies in your stomach can lead to success.

“I would talk to myself about not checking 100% of the boxes, or not thinking I could do it. And if you talk to yourself that way, you’re telling your body and mind to function that way,” she said.

Years ago, Gray wrote down her ideal job description and visualized herself doing the work. After leaving DuPont because she did not want to work with polymers, she was offered an executive role at Provivi.

“My advice to you is to learn who you are, what you like and don’t like, and don’t be afraid of it,” she added.

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