Shape the Future of ACS! We want your feedback about the ACS brand and how we can serve you better into the future. Take the Survey!

Advancing Diversity, Inclusion and Respect in the Chemical Enterprise

Dorothy Phillips offers her suggestions based on being one of the only African Americans at Vanderbilt University
Diversity and inclusion
Image credit: iStock by Getty Images

Few of our readers likely know that you were the first African American woman to receive an undergraduate degree in Arts and Sciences from Vanderbilt University (in 1967). What do you recall as some of the bigger adjustments you had to make to life at Vanderbilt?

Prior to going to Vanderbilt University, my education had been in the segregated school system of Nashville, TN. All my teachers and classmates were Afro Americans. I began my college years at Tennessee State University (TSU) where in the early 1960’s the students and teachers were predominately people of color. I joined a sorority and had a boyfriend on campus. I was enjoying the comradeship with classmates.

When I decided to go to the recently integrated Vanderbilt University, the focus was on getting the education that would put me in a better position to be admitted to its medical school. Plus, a fellow chemistry major at TSU asked me to come with him to Vanderbilt.

Once on Vanderbilt’s campus, reality set in. No one spoke or gave warm greetings as I passed them. The first and major adjustment was to an environment that did not embrace this brown girl. It was rather lonely.

The second adjustment centered on the teachers of the social sciences who had quite different views on cultural or social issues than me. Being a pre-medicine and chemistry major had its advantages over these classes because the answer was either right or wrong. I am stronger, my faith is stronger, for I persevered with God’s help. Recently, I have been honored by Vanderbilt University as a Trailblazer and my picture is hanging in Kirkland Hall.

How have your parents influenced your leadership style?

My father was a Sunday school leader, as well as the school’s superintendent, before becoming a minister. When he served in that role and later as a minister he always led from a base of knowledge. He received an Associate degree in pastoring after being called to the ministry. He encouraged and considered a high priority that we got the best education available. Hence, he supported my transferring to Vanderbilt University.

My mother led from her strength to gain consensus and established relationships through her faith walk. She chaired church and community organizations. My leadership style is based on knowledge, a compassion for people, and my faith.

What’s the one trait that has been most instrumental in your career success?

I am an extremely competitive person. In school, I always wanted to have the highest grades; thus, I would set out to do better than the other high achievers in my classes, even if it was my best friend. Thus, in my career I always strived to give my best effort and to reach out to others or seek the information that could close any gaps that hindered me from doing so.

I joined Waters with a background in large molecules, such as protein analysis. However, Waters' experience was in small molecules or drug analysis. To be competitive for promotions and customer interactions, I needed to be skilled in chromatography or separation science of small molecules. Uwe Neue was a guru in chromatography of small molecules, known worldwide for his work. He was my manager and my mentor starting early in my career at Waters. I learned small molecule analysis from him, and he in turn learned large molecule analysis from me. Thus, I was positioned to take projects related to the key pharmaceutical business and advance my career at Waters.

Why are the first months in a new job so impactful to one’s overall career success with a company?

First impressions are lasting impressions. Your interest in learning about the company, assignment, boss, and next steps is often shown by asking the questions and taking leadership in your small world. Those early relationships grow as you move forward, and you become known as one to be trusted to get the job done.

I made friends within my department, got to know my customers in chemistry and instrumentation research and in manufacturing. You could often find me walking the halls and asking questions, living outside my cubicle, even accepting the request to step in for a colleague who could not present at a conference three months into my job at Waters. I formed lasting relationships with several people that I met at that conference, even Waters’ field staff. Delivering my part and being trusted and expected to do so in the first six to eight months, plus having established mentors, was critical to my continuously moving up the ladder.

You have written about the importance of joining external organizations to advance one’s overall career development. Why do you think that’s important? How has your association with external organizations helped you?

Membership in external organizations enhances at least two important soft skills, leadership, and the ability to maximize networking opportunities. I set a goal early in my time at Waters to be the director of R&D (a move later to Marketing changed that goal). I knew that I would need to demonstrate strong leadership ability to achieve this goal.

My roles as chair of committees, and eventually as chair of the local section, followed by chair of a division in the American Chemical Society (ACS) raised the level of my leadership ability. In addition, through my participation in NOBCChE, ACS and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, as well as Fisk United Methodist Church, I expanded my network greatly. I had links to aid in filling openings with qualified staff and to organize forums with Waters customers. I was able to link Waters and ACS through Project Seed and its national awards sponsorships. Membership in external organizations enhances your soft skills and expands your network or support base. I did achieve my goal as a Director in the consumable business.

Why is identifying an effective mentor so valuable, particularly for early career industry chemists?  

Each company has its own culture, and in many cases, politics. Learning or understanding the culture and politics is not easy without having a person who has your interest at heart, someone who wants to help you integrate into the company. A co-worker, Jeanne Li, was the first person to help me understand what was expected of a scientist at Waters. She encouraged me to do all my work with the goal of having a publication in peer reviewed or trade journals, or making an oral or poster presentation at a conference. She would ask to be my roommate at conferences like Pittcon to give me an opportunity to practice my talks. Yes, Jeanne mentored me in an area that was important not only to my career at Waters, but also in establishing me as a scientist in the separation sciences community worldwide.

What advice do you have for mid-career industry chemists who want to maximize their value to their employers?

A high achieving industrial chemist would have set a pattern from his/her earliest days at the company of delivering a project or task early or on time and being a team player, e.g. a high achiever and reliable person. I was given the opportunity at mid-career to move from the technical side of the business to Marketing.

I had worked with the Marketing team by providing data or collateral for product brochures and sales tools. I was known in the United States and Europe by the sales forces in the Chemistry Division from traveling with them to give seminars, technical support, and to visit customers.

Now my role would be a brand manager for a product that I had helped develop. I would be contributing directly to the bottom line by the sales of the products in my brand. I also began to interact and report to upper management, Directors and Vice Presidents. Fortunately, I exceeded my sales targets and received the support of brand business managers in key geographies.

In summary, the advice is to decide at the mid-career point which path you will follow -- scientific or nontechnical management. Will you stay in your current path, or move to the alternate ladder, to maximize your ability to be tied directly to the company’s bottom line or revenue generation?  Also, increase your interactions with upper management, from Directors to those in the C suite. Do not leave behind your mentors or others who have supported you during your career; get their input and/or be on board with your plan or goal. From my brand management role, I was promoted to Director, reporting to an Executive Vice-President.

In their June 8 issue, Barron’s cited a McKinsey study that revealed “U.S. and United Kingdom executive teams were 13% ethnic minorities in 2019, up from 7% in 2014, even though nearly 40% of the U.S. is nonwhite.” What will it take, in your view, to achieve more rapid progress in this area?

I do not have a quick answer but the current emphasis on racial justice could be a step forward. While preparing for the ACS Joint Board, Executive Staff and Diversity, Inclusion & Respect Advisory Board Workshop earlier this year I read related articles.

One report clearly stated that the relationship between diversity and business performance persists. The statistically significant correlation between a more diverse leadership team and financial outperformance demonstrated five years ago continues to hold true in more recent studies. Potential to improve the bottom line impacts the rate of change to a more diverse staff in the C suite. Changes in diversity in the executive team must be driven from the top leadership level -- Boards and CEOs. Facing the reality of race relations, not denial, is another factor. Addressing biases is another approach. Planned workshops, open discussions and setting metrics to measure and achieve progress would be positive actions.

What can industry do to make the workplace more welcoming and rewarding for women?

The issue here is diversity and inclusion in general. As an industry that makes a greater effort to expand its workforce to include more non-whites, non-male and underrepresented employees should benefit. Industry must have focused programs to address this issue; the impact must start at the C level.

ACS Industry Matters recently interviewed Dow’s Karen Carter who is striving to make a difference in its culture. Welcoming is not as much a challenge as rewarding. I felt welcomed at Waters Corporation, but again rewarding depends not just on what you do but how others perceive what you are doing. Fortunately, I had mentors who promoted or spoke up for my being recognized.

Women who reach the C level play a major role in other women being recognized through promotions and honors. I was promoted to director by a woman senior Vice President; I was on her staff. As a result, I had a global role, traveling worldwide to visit customers, exploring unmet needs in separation science that Waters could/should address, and supporting geographical businesses. Through this role I travelled to Japan, China, India, Europe, and Thailand. If each woman who makes it up the ladder in industry brings another woman along, then the workplace will become more welcoming and rewarding.

Many groups are committed to increasing the numbers - and success - of women and underrepresented minorities in the physical sciences. What’s the optimal age in which to initially intervene to make progress in this area? And what does that intervention look like?

When our 24 year old grandson Braelen turned six years old, James and I were his show and tell. We went to his elementary school in Smyrna, GA and did science demos with his classmates. Will anyone become a scientist from that experience? I would hesitate to guess. But early intervention, meaning elementary or middle school, is recommended.

The TTT Mentor Program in Cambridge, MA is for underrepresented minority students in grades 2-7 who attend sessions in the summer and on Saturday mornings during the fall. The program culminates in a science fair in January at MIT; each student works with a mentor, an MIT graduate student, to complete his/her project. I have served as a judge for the science fair and a role model. James was often the photographer and a role model for this event.

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the Boston chapter of NOBCCHE worked with middle school students carrying out workshops and hands on activities. Middle school grades 5-8 are often the intervention point.

In summary, programs targeted to middle school children often have a lasting effect. In addition, for some high achieving elementary school students with interest in science, the programs can be equally impactful. Hands on science activities have the most enduring effect, such as my separation science Kool-Aid demo.

You are a fan of tennis, as was your husband, James. What sparked your interest in the sport? And do you have a favorite memory watching or playing tennis?

My interest in tennis stems from James’ love of playing the game. He joined the Tennis Center in Midland, MI when we worked for Dow Chemical Company. Since Dow financially supported the Center, family membership was practical. We took lessons and played couples’ matches or mixed doubles. Midland also hosted regional tennis meets, and the family attended these events. Thus, I became interested in the sport.

I had an opportunity to play at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI. I played with a coworker during a Waters offsite meeting on the island. Previously, my favorite memory was attending Wimbledon in England in 1997, but now it is attending the US Open in 2015; I knew more top players by this time and had a chance to watch two of my favorite players: Venus Williams and Novak Djokovic. The trip also included taking in the sites and theater in NY City, making lasting memories.

Dorothy Phillips, ACS Board of Directors, Director-at-Large, 2014-2022
Dorothy Phillips, ACS Board of Directors, Director-at-Large, 2014-2022

Dr. Dorothy J. Phillips is serving her third term on the American Chemical Society (ACS) Board of Directors, Director-at-Large, 2014-2022. She holds a BA degree from Vanderbilt University in chemistry and a PhD from the University of Cincinnati in biochemistry. Dr. Phillips began her industrial career in 1974 at Dow Chemical Company where she spent nine years and received three patents. She joined Waters Corporation in R&D in 1984 and retired in 2013 as Director of Strategic Marketing. She has published and/or presented over 70 papers that focus on high performance liquid chromatography technology and applications.

Dr. Phillips was honored by Vanderbilt University as a member of its 2019 Trailblazers Class; she was the first African American woman to receive an undergraduate degree from the college of Arts and Sciences in 1967. Her commissioned portrait hangs in Kirkland Hall. 

She is a co-editor and a co-author of a chapter in Responsible Conduct in Chemistry Research and Practice: Global Perspectives that was published in 2018 as part of the ACS symposium book series. Dr. Phillips is featured in African American Women Chemists in the Modern Era by Jeannette E. Brown (2018).

Other organization involvement includes National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) and the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition and its Steering Committee.

Her late husband, James Phillips, was a chemist and an ACS volunteer. They have three adult children and grandchildren.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

Copyright 2020 American Chemical Society (All Rights Reserved)