Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: 3M’s Jayshree Seth On The 5 Leadership Lessons She Learned From Her Experience
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Encourage a healthy work-life balance: Work and our personal lives are inextricably intertwined, so it’s important to embrace work and life semblance. This is our new normal, and it could help not only with employee engagement, but facilitate more sustainable innovation, inspirational leadership, global effectiveness, and diversity and inclusion. The benefit: making home-life decisions with a little more discipline and work-life decisions with a little more heart.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jayshree Seth.
Dr. Jayshree Seth is a scientist and a passionate advocate for STEM. She joined 3M in 1993 after attaining an MS and PhD in Chemical Engineering from Clarkson University, New York. She holds 75 patents for a variety of innovations. She is currently at the position of Corporate Scientist, the highest technical designation at 3M, and she works with other engineers and scientists to break down complex problems and develop products that solve some of the customers’ toughest challenges. She is also the company’s first-ever Chief Science Advocate, and in this role, she works to promote science appreciation, and help people recognize its relevance in their daily lives and importance for the future.
In 2019 she became the first woman engineer to be inducted into the Carlton Society, which is the 3M Science and Engineering ‘Hall of Fame.’ In 2020, Dr. Seth was awarded the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) highest Achievement Award. In addition to being an award-winning scientist, recognized thought-leader and prolific speaker, she is the author of two books, The Heart of Science — Engineering Footprints, Fingerprints, & Imprints, and The Heart of Science — Engineering Fine Print published by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and all sales proceeds go to a scholarship for underrepresented minority women in STEM. She also starred in an award-winning documentary, Not The Science Type, and advocates globally for more representation in STEM education and professions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was raised in India surrounded by scientists and engineers — there was a prestigious engineering institution right in town and everyone aspired for their kids to become engineers, their sons and daughters. I never thought of myself as the ‘engineering type.’ I was more interested in the human context and couldn’t see that connection with STEM fields. We didn’t have any STEM women role-models either. However, due to strong encouragement from my parents I ended up getting a bachelor’s in chemical engineering. During the final year of our program, many of the students were applying for graduate school in the U.S. and I decided to apply as well — in spirit of competition with the boys in my class. I got accepted and I came to the U.S. for graduate school.
In many ways when I look back, I realize that I became a trailblazer because I was the only woman in the lab that I joined. I worked on a theoretical project for my MS but realized my heart wasn’t in that research area. I couldn’t see a connection to my very community-oriented goals. So, I thought about switching. Many students advised me not to switch projects because it would make my doctoral work harder and add years to the completion of my PhD, but I went for it anyway. This lit a fire inside of me. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I threw myself into the study of diamond-like carbon films, working long hours and weekends in the lab, running experiments, analyzing data, summarizing the work, and publishing it. I ended up with over a dozen publications with the help, guidance and support of my thesis advisor and lab-mates. This experience showed me that with grit and determination, it is possible to reinvent oneself.
This mindset led me to jump at the opportunity to join 3M after I was offered a job following a summer internship, despite it being in an area I knew absolutely nothing about — disposable diapers! My past experiences had given me the confidence to know that with hard work I could learn anything and would be able to reinvent myself if I had to. So, I went from working on diamonds to diapers and decades later, I have worked on many different product and technology platforms, market areas and project types at 3M. I’ve held a variety of roles and am inspired to come to work every day to apply science to improve lives. In 2018, I was called upon to be the company’s first-ever Chief Science Advocate, and since then, I have expanded my roles within 3M in ways that I would not have imagined.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
When I started out at 3M, I was in the division that develops components for disposable soft-goods, like diapers and sanitary hygiene products. Initially, I found it very awkward to sit in meetings where there were feminine hygiene products spread out on the table and being discussed in groups largely composed of men!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first joined 3M, I did not correct people when they mis-pronounced my last name, and years later I realized that it was perhaps a mistake. More recently I have started telling people my last name, Seth, rhymes with eight. I realized the importance of speaking up — it may seem like a minor matter, but it is important to bring it up if it is something that is important to you. By the same token, I make it a point to ask others for the right pronunciation if there is a doubt in my mind. We don’t know what we don’t know, and it is good to be reminded.
Another instance I recall, from the year I joined 3M — we were all given gift certificates to buy turkey for Thanksgiving. I brought up the fact that I was a vegetarian, and I am glad that I spoke up. People are very willing to listen and accommodate — I was given a gift certificate for a veggie platter!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are many things that make 3M stand out in my mind. It starts with our inspiring brand platform, 3M Science. Applied to Life™ and our employees’ commitment to embodying this by applying science to change lives.
At 3M, we are very active in the communities we operate in around the world. It’s the work 3M does to make an impact on local communities that makes me proud to work for the company. One of many examples is that last year, 3M announced a global, education focused goal to advance economic equity by creating five million unique STEM and skilled trade learning experiences for underrepresented individuals by the end of 2025. We are also aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) and are committed to creating a diverse science community and a more positive world with science. Science for community is one of the pillars in our sustainability framework at 3M, and we apply science in collaborative ways to improve lives and help solve some of the toughest challenges. Although often unseen, 3M science powers the world around us, and we take a community-first approach in every initiative we put forth, and in every product we manufacture.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I find everything I work on exciting — it’s more fun that way! I am currently working on a product that can eliminate a lot of raw material, process waste for our customers and help them be more sustainable. It is a tough technical challenge and that is what adds to the excitement. On the science advocacy front, I am also very excited about the work I am doing with Professor Diekman at Indiana University Bloomington to study interventions to facilitate higher retention of women and students of color in STEM.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Participation of women in many STEM fields such as engineering, and computer science remains low. We have a lot of room for improvement as far as increasing representation is concerned. The global public also agrees that we need to do more to achieve STEM equity.
We recently released the 3M 2022 State of Science Index — original, third-party research conducted by Ipsos that explores attitudes toward science in the U.S. and across 16 additional countries. The study examines the image of science, its relevance to the world, and its impact on society. I am saddened but not surprised to share that our survey found Americans acknowledge that challenges around STEM equity begin at an early age for women and underrepresented minorities — and they continue to snowball for those who choose to pursue STEM careers against all odds. I firmly believe that greater diversity in the scientific workforce — which often begins with a spark of STEM interest that ignites in early childhood — will lead to a greater positive impact on society. The world requires innovation. Innovation needs science. Science demands diversity. Diversity warrants equity.
It is important to note that the public recognizes the challenges women face. In fact, our survey found that more than four in five Americans believe women are a source of untapped potential in STEM — but, 59% of Americans say women are leaving STEM positions because they do not receive enough support. A big problem is representation. I also found it surprising that more Americans don’t recognize the role bias and prejudice towards women and racial minorities plays, as a barrier to pursuing a strong STEM education — only 25% of Americans believe bias is a barrier.
The problem of female underrepresentation in STEM is a complex, multifaceted issue with stakeholders ranging from parents, teachers, educators, mentors, peers, and employers with a strong role of family, schools, community, society, and culture across the key elements of what I call the STEM E’co-system: Exposure. Encouragement. Empowerment. Education. Economics. Engagement. Equity. Strategies are needed from early childhood, K-12, higher education, and all the way to the workplace to address the primary challenges across this spectrum that can hinder women in STEM.
We need to inspire girls at a young age by tapping into their pro-social goals. We must also ensure that STEM education is affordable and accessible, so we can continue to encourage women and girls to pursue the field. More than three-quarters of Americans say science companies would have a more positive impact on society if there was greater diversity and representation in STEM. To make that happen, we must provide access to resources, serve as mentors, and ensure that women see people who look like them in STEM leadership positions.
Last year, 3M created the documentary series, Not the Science Type, to highlight the journeys of four female scientists — including myself — who challenged stereotypes and bias by confronting gender, racial and age discrimination on their journey to prominence in the field. We need to keep telling these stories. We need to keep highlighting role-models.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
In my view there can be challenges across the entire spectrum, starting from the very deep-rooted cultural stereotypes of a scientist that are consistent with prescribed norms for men. Women often feel like they are being penalized for working in these fields, or they are not welcome in such environments. It can lead to psychological distress and given the intersectionality it can get compounded for women of color.
As for the challenges, there has been a lot of research on how that can manifest itself — there can be more discrimination, harassment, disparity in pay, social isolation, and exclusion from scholarly discussions if you are seen as an outsider. There is microaggression and then there is tokenism. So, the bottom line is that numerical underrepresentation and negative stereotypes contribute to challenges for women in STEM and they can stack the system against women and impact them disproportionately throughout their careers. That’s another reason why I am excited about Not the Science Type we are shattering gender stereotypes and promoting gender equity.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
There are many prevalent myths as they relate to women and STEM fields — a common one being that women do not have the aptitude or the interest to pursue these subjects. The truth of the matter is that many of these fields are laid out in a very male-centric fashion or remain male dominated. This results in a very gendered view of the field leading to myths about who enters, persists, or excels in them.
From outside the STEM field, it may not be apparent how the contextual importance of science and its connection to societal goals can play an enormous role in attracting the next generation of talent. Yet, we also need to level the playing field for people of all genders, races, and backgrounds. While we are breaking down barriers and becoming more inclusive, we still need diverse scientists today to be more visible so that the younger generation can say, “if I can see it, I can be it.”
I truly believe that greater diversity will lead to greater impact in the sciences — which is why I’m such a passionate advocate for breaking down barriers and stereotypes to help women and girls enter the field.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You don’t need to climb the corporate ladder to the top to finally become a leader. Thought leadership allows you to flex your leadership muscles, from your own rung, without having formal authority. Take initiative, learn as much as you can about a specific topic or issue, and build your solution from the ground-up. This will provide you with higher visibility, exposure, opportunity, and the power to strategically steer things or lead new things.
- Don’t just settle for SMART goals: SMART goals — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound — can often fall short in sparking imagination or inspiring people to achieve greater things for themselves and their organizations. Today, goals need to accomplish not only what is deemed strategically important in the short term, but also potentially significant in the mid- to long-term, while allowing the ability to flex and pivot as circumstances change. Through all of this, remain reverent of the opportunity in place, remain active in giving back and furthering the goals of our larger organizations — and that is SUPER smart!
- Make your TALKS matter: Communication is key, so it’s important to treat every talk or presentation you give as very important. Commit to improving your communication and public speaking skills. One way to do that is through TALKS: there is the Topic, the Audience, the Layout, the Key points, and the Story. The story provides a connection to the audience and can make what you say memorable, informative, and inspirational. Once you lock in these aspects, it’s all about practice. Stay true to your style. Genuine authentic speakers are more successful in selling an idea or an ideology with their TALKS.
- Foster creativity and innovation but avoid common ERRORS: It can be difficult to foster creativity and innovation in a corporate setting, but it can be done! Unless a person is intrinsically highly motivated, most people deliver better when there is a general Expectation. This expectation can change the way we think and operate. In addition, with Resources and encouragement to take Risk, we feel the freedom to be more creative, in our own way. Opportunity to collaborate, lead and implement our ideas helps inspire us to deliver results. The associated Reward and recognition for successful value creation further inspires us to innovate. Above all, the continued Socialization of the concept of being innovative and its place in a company’s culture, and link to rewards and recognition, helps sustain it.
- Encourage a healthy work-life balance: Work and our personal lives are inextricably intertwined, so it’s important to embrace work and life semblance. This is our new normal, and it could help not only with employee engagement, but facilitate more sustainable innovation, inspirational leadership, global effectiveness, and diversity and inclusion. The benefit: making home-life decisions with a little more discipline and work-life decisions with a little more heart.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Thinking back to how my own managers have guided me along my career journey, I see three main elements: the ‘Can do’ mode, the ‘Can I do?’ mode, and the ‘Candid’ feedback.
‘Can do’ mode: When I felt motivated and passionate about something, taking initiative, and pursuing an idea — my managers didn’t try to talk me out of it. Taking initiative should be encouraged because it not only builds self-confidence, but it builds engagement and can lead to tremendous growth for the company.
‘Can I do?’ mode: When I have been more hesitant or reserved about an assignment or opportunity that had come my way, my managers listened to me, acknowledged my feelings, and helped me work through it. It’s important for managers to recognize the so-called ‘Confidence Gap’ between men and women and ensure that women on your team feel just as supported as their male counterparts.
‘Candid’ feedback: Being honest and coaching your teams on how best to manage their weaknesses will help them to continue to build upon their strengths. Sharing feedback in a positive way, even when constructive, can be empowering and make your team members more effective in their endeavors. Personally, receiving candid feedback from my managers allowed me to take their feedback to heart and try to adjust my style and approach in an authentic fashion.
I think this framework can go a long way in building trust with employees. It allows employees to lead, innovate, thrive, and ultimately contribute effectively towards achieving growth objectives.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I believe a lot has changed in the last two-plus years, but the fundamentals remain the same as it relates to people, work, and the skills necessary to lead! It is imperative that leaders create a sense of psychological safety and maintain close connections with all team members, especially given hybrid work models. To LEAD In requires Listening and learning, Engagement and empowerment, Acceptance of change and risk acceptance, Diversity AND Inclusion with intentionality and finally, trust in and training of Instinct and intuition.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It’s hard to pick only one person who has helped shape my career success — I have been blessed with a great number of supportive managers and sponsors, allies, and advocates while at 3M. One former boss of mine, however, have me the following advice that has stuck with me for years: “Jayshree, make the best decision for you, for now.”
At the time those words were spoken to me, I was agonizing over what seemed to be a very important career decision. But the decision I made then didn’t close any doors and may have opened many more. It was important for me to be confident in my decision, given the circumstances, but to also know that my entire career wouldn’t be based on this decision alone. It was liberating to know that if circumstances changed, I could still decide to pursue an alternate path.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I feel honored to have the role of chief science advocate and the platform it gives me to promote science and the need for diversity in STEM fields. I am particularly passionate about more girls in STEM. I’ve authored two books, The Heart of Science — Engineering Footprints, Fingerprints, & Imprints, and The Heart of Science — Engineering Fine Print, published by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). All sales proceeds from both books go to a scholarship for underrepresented minority women in STEM.
I was also honored to be featured in 3M’s documentary series, Not the Science Type, alongside such inspiring women who are challenging stereotypes in their respective fields. This film gives us the opportunity to inform, influence and inspire the next generation by showing that we can all be the science type regardless of gender, race, age or ethnicity.
During the pandemic I was also prompted to step out of my comfort zone and I recorded a song, which in my view, encapsulates 2020. It is available on playitforward.com and all donations go to United Way.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I already mentioned that I didn’t think of myself as the science and engineering type. I was more interested in the human context, and I didn’t quite see the connection of my pro-social goals with STEM fields. I was fortunate to have parental guidance and for someone who didn’t start out thinking they were the science type; I have done remarkably well. I often think about how many students and scientists, and how many ideas and innovations we are missing out on because of the way we teach, track, typify, train, and even talk about STEM. I often say we need some good STEAM cleaning: we need to Shatter stereotypes, Tell the wholesome story about science, provide Exposure and an environment of support, have men be Allies and advocates and put in place Metrics and measures to encourage more girls to pursue and women to engage in STEM careers. This STEAM cleaning movement can help to solve the problem of underrepresentation — and it’s the STEAM engine that could!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Be good. Work hard. Live well.
My mother always emphasized the importance of being good, while my father talked about the value of hard work hard. These two messages have really stuck with me — in fact, now as a parent myself, I realize that this was a bit of parenting genius — does one really know when they are being good enough or working hard enough? I have added the live well component to it, realizing the importance of balance and a well-rounded existence. Of course, my family wants me to add stay calm!
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I would love to meet Indra Nooyi, former-CEO of PepsiCo. Her efforts when she was the CEO to lead the company in a new direction at the time, with the ‘Performance with Purpose’ roadmap, were very inspiring. I would like to gain more leadership insight into the vignettes she relates in her recent book and how she draws upon her experience of growing up in India.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.