Challenging the status quo is part and parcel of being an entrepreneur. In fact, it’s a basic requirement for success in the startup world, almost regardless of your industry.
For founders and leaders who are also women of color, challenging the status quo is more than a business imperative—it’s also a fact of life. I’d argue that we’re particularly suited to innovating new ideas, tossing out old ones that no longer work, and forging paths for ourselves through unknown territory.
Jackie Toledo, an engineer and state representative in the Florida House of Representatives, has been doing this for years.
As the owner of her own engineering firm with more than two decades of experience in this male-dominated field, Toledo has become an expert at carving out a space for herself. I recently sat down with her to discuss entrepreneurship, innovation, and more.
Shama Hyder: How rare is it to be a female engineer, especially an engineer who’s a woman of color?
Jackie Toledo: Let me share some numbers with you.
Of all the bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering and computer science, only 20% are awarded to women.
Just 6% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering are awarded to women of color.
The stats don’t get much better once you enter the workforce, either. Only 13% of engineers are women, and women engineers make, on average, 10% less than their male counterparts.
Hyder: What would you tell a young woman who’s considering entering a male-dominated field, like engineering?
Toledo: The first thing I would say is that you have to advocate for yourself.
Take salary negotiations. When I was negotiating the salary for my first job, I had asked for an amount that was higher than some of the other employees at this firm who had been there for five years.
My prospective boss explained that I was shooting too high, but I responded that the number was standard for the industry. And then I pressed a little more, asking why I should be penalized because my future coworkers settled and did not ask for more.
As it turned out, he didn’t give me the entire requested amount for my salary, but he did grant me a bonus that actually put me over the initial amount I had requested. That lesson has stayed with me for my entire career: I have to be willing to negotiate for what I want and believe that I deserve it.
Hyder: What have you learned as an engineer that’s helped you grow as an entrepreneur?
Toledo: As engineers, we cannot sit back and take every constraint as something that is set in stone. Even if we may be able to find workaround solutions, we may be missing out on options to streamline processes, add profitability to a project for our clients, and increase cost savings. Our role as an engineer is to be a problem solver, and that has to mean more than just accepting the status quo.
The same is true for any entrepreneur, not just in engineering. We have to be willing to ask questions to make a process or project better. If we do our due diligence, we will be able to come away with the most profitable project possible.
Hyder: What do you think business owners and entrepreneurs need to get better at?
Toledo: We need to be willing to challenge convention in order to create a better outcome, rather than just accepting the status quo as unchangeable.
Sometimes this means changing policies, protocols, or our entire way of doing things. This happens all the time in politics. Let’s consider the example of a small business that wants to bid on a major project. If that business has to complete a mountain of paperwork to even be considered for a project, the likelihood of a small business being able to mount up multiple bid proposals is low, while large firms with dedicated staffs to manage proposals will dominate these fields.
That’s an anti-competitive situation, and it needs to be changed. The only way to do so is to look at the big picture and change the policies themselves that are maintaining that situation.