Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dr. Syreeta K. Dukes of RTX Is Helping To Change Our World

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Don’t be afraid to ask questions. When I was in my technical role, we were in the room with individuals of all levels. Some of us who had just recently graduated were nervous to speak up — but being able to ask questions helped me establish my presence in these spaces.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Syreeta K. Dukes.

Dr. Syreeta K. Dukes is currently the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI) Campus Manager for Collins Aerospace, an RTX business, where she partners with human resources and universities nationwide to recruit talent of color. Syreeta devotes her time empowering K-12 students to pursue STEM careers and actively develops strategies on how to close the gap in opportunities afforded to underrepresented communities through involvement in key RTX events and partnerships such as Girls Day, NAF, Girls Who Code (GWC) and the Boys and Girls Club of America (BGCA). Syreeta discovered her passion for supporting communities and students of color while pursuing a professional development role as a Howard University Campus Manager, where she worked as a Raytheon Database Administrator for five years.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Coming from a single-parent, first-generation home, I didn’t have a network of people around me who pursued higher education or held careers like doctors, lawyers, or engineers. Since I lacked role models in STEM growing up, I missed out on opportunities to learn about those career paths or have the chance to envision myself fitting in or aspiring to one day achieve these professional goals.

In middle school, my science teacher recognized my talents in STEM and told my mother he believed that I had the potential to become a great doctor one day. This comment stuck with me — and from that moment, I chose to center my life around this ambition to pursue medicine; I attended Howard University as a pre-med student and participated in clinical research at institutions including Stanford and Yale.

However, after four grueling years of studying medicine while also holding down jobs to support myself, I hit a roadblock. I found myself with a lack of financial support to pursue the MCAT and questioning my career path. I took time to reflect and considered if I had truly chosen this path for myself, or if I let myself be overly influenced by my community and family.

After graduating, I began exploring careers in the IT industry, which eventually led me to RTX. I started my career at RTX as an Intelligence and Space Database Administrator. After working in the role for five years, I had an “aha” moment — I had an opportunity to pursue a professional development role at my alma mater as a Campus Manager at Howard University. I loved engaging with the students, offering them support I lacked and mentoring them through the transition from college to the corporate world.

Through this opportunity, I forged a new leadership role at RTX as the HBCU and HSI Campus Manager for Collins Aerospace, an RTX business. I manage relationships with eight universities, develop strategies to attract and retain diverse talent, and help identify gaps and opportunities to improve RTX’s diversity and hiring practices. In this role, I help identify and establish partnerships with a variety of organizations –hosting events such as professional coaching sessions and job fairs at universities and establishing unique sponsorship opportunities to support diverse student groups pursing STEM in college. When students are brought on board through RTX internships, we continue to mentor and help them navigate the corporate world — such as encouraging mental health days and self-care in the workplace. We ensure that they are prepared to step out into the professional world, from K-12 education into college and beyond.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Transitioning to my current role as a Campus Manager at RTX has been a journey of growth and a rewarding experience. When I started, it was the peak of COVID-19 and I was juggling life with a newborn baby while transitioning back to work. I took on the new role, with no guidebook or any set requirements to follow, while catching up on a variety of technical tasks as well. Despite this lack of precedent, I embraced the role and got creative — leveraging skills I hadn’t used before and building a strategy entirely from scratch.

This experience was a pivotal turning point in my professional career — I was reminded of how strong, capable, and talented I am. The team transformed from having limited formal relationships with the universities to having more than six new interns and hires coming into RTX that first year — with continued growth to date.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. 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?

Over time, I’ve discovered how vital having a strong support system can be for professional development and growth. There are many systematic impacts to consider from being raised by a single parent — including the idea that you must handle everything on your own and should be self-sufficient. I used to hold onto that belief, as my mom raised us without external help. However, as my career progressed and I became a parent myself, I realized the importance of being open and vulnerable.

I found strength in embracing my vulnerabilities — such as asking for help, especially when it comes to raising my children. Early in my role as a Campus Manager, I brought my kids with me to events on campus — thinking I could do both at once and manage it all. However, this was a valuable learning experience that made me realize the power of asking for help. Embracing and opening myself up to a support system was crucial to avoiding burnout or spreading myself thin. As a result, I gained a new understanding that unless I have support for myself, I won’t be able to effectively help those around me.

On a lighter note, I recently had one of my past students text me to share their good news of a new job offer. After I replied with my congratulations, I saw she followed up with a text that was meant for someone else! We had a good laugh about it and she appreciated my lighthearted attitude. I can remember my embarrassing moments of texting the wrong person and I want my students to know that I would never judge them, and I am always here to help uplift them.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Since joining RTX, there have been so many opportunities to make a positive impact, ranging from providing food to families in need and supporting veterans, to inspiring young women at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to explore STEM fields.

In my role with Howard University, a whole new world opened up to me and showed me how I could make an impact. I began conducting Tech Talks and Girls Who Code sessions, along with supporting the GWC summer immersion programs, where we strategized on different classes and lessons about subjects like AI and User Design to get young girls excited about joining the STEM field. RTX also has a partnership with NAF to expand access to STEM education in under-resourced public high schools, and I have devoted myself to visiting one school per month in my area to host a STEM event and talk to students about what I do and encourage them to continue to pursue their passions in the field.

RTX works with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America as well, which resonates deeply with me due to my own background growing up in the Boys and Girls Club in Hartford, Connecticut. I had two of the most influential role models in my life while I was growing up. The directors of the Boys and Girls Club embraced me like a daughter. I will never forget how impactful it was to have an older woman teach me about self-worth and confidence — consistently reinforcing my importance. They created a safe space for me to recognize what is unique about myself so I could flourish — that’s why the work that RTX does with BGCA is personal to me.

Finally, through RTX’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), I’ve been able to embrace my passion for giving back through community service opportunities. ERGs like Women Inspiring Success and Empowerment (WISE), the Black Excellence Network (BXN), Hispanic Organization for Leadership and Advancement (HOLA), among others, are all ERGs that are devoted to providing social impact and dedicating time from employees to give back. Through HOLA, I’ve been able to provide mentorship and engagement to the students in San Diego at the University of California, and San Diego State, which are HSIs and two of my target schools. Together, we’ve developed an engagement strategy which includes planning social networking events and offering resume and confidence building workshops, so students can understand how to best embrace and talk about their strengths and accomplishments in professional environments. We also have engineers come to a “study night” to help the students with their studies. Under my management, we’ve been able to engage key RTX ERG members who have made a significant impact for students across all eight universities. It’s not only about students pursuing a college degree or being involved in RTX — it’s about making sure they’re prepared and equipped with skills to navigate the professional world. I aim to support and guide these students every step of the way from K-12, right up to their college graduation, seamlessly.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One student that immediately comes to mind is an international student named Desvaun who I worked with during my first year in my role as Campus Manager. From the beginning, I sensed his eagerness and excitement. His hunger for success was palpable and reminded me of my own drive when I was younger — someone who was also immersed in every aspect of student life and trying to make the most of his experience in school. This unwavering drive is something that can’t be taught, as an intrinsic hunger for excellence — I saw this same quality in Desvaun. It’s already challenging to graduate with a complex degree like engineering, yet Desvaun graduated in less than 4 years. He was part of my support system on campus, assisting me with various initiatives and helping me identify the right organizations on campus at a critical time as I stepped into my new role. His exceptional written and communication skills, coupled with his proactive attitude, set him apart. He had an innate ability to identify opportunities for growth as a go-getter, and he embraced challenges wholeheartedly.

Desvaun recently spent the summer conducting research in Japan at the National Institute for Materials Science and is now beginning his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. His success serves as a reminder of the potential we all possess, and I’ll always remember him as part of my first year as Campus Manager.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Ensuring companies are actually recruiting and hiring from underrepresented communities. There is great talent that has been traditionally overlooked. This barrier makes it incredibly challenging for students and employees of all backgrounds to be hired into higher-paying fields at competitive companies.
  2. Establishing a supportive community to retain the diverse talent that enters corporate environments. There’s a high rate of turnover for professionals from underrepresented communities when there’s a lack of support from within the organization. Beyond hiring, it’s important to create emotional and physical support through mentorships, ERGs and safe spaces — as RTX has done — to support employees from all walks of life.
  3. Increasing exposure. This means not waiting until college to speak to these students about STEM career paths and allowing them to see people who look like them in these careers. Showing students in elementary and middle school what STEM programing looks like can help them build a future career pipeline, demonstrating what the path forward could look like for them in the field. For example, RTX is supporting a STEM facility at the Boys and Girls Club of America in Alexandria, VA, that I visited recently and saw firsthand the power of STEM learning from a young age.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is about being able to serve and allowing people to embrace their own voice and unique strengths. In today’s workplace, we’re moving from the “because I said so” mentality that many of us were raised with and, instead, granting people the space to express themselves and succeed in their unique abilities. To me, this means being able to see the individual gifts in everyone and have a well-rounded approach to leadership consistent with personal and professional development. It also means providing space for people to grow, lead and teach others to empower the next generation. In this management approach, you don’t treat anyone like they are beneath you — you build them up and teach them to lead by example.

There are three examples of outstanding leadership who come to mind: Jocelyn Williams (RTX Business DEI Leader), Odetta Scott from Collins (Indirect Sourcing Procurement, Associate Director) and Marquita Brazier (Diversity Recruiting Manager and DE&I Liaison). All three women have been great mentors — helping me be accountable and teaching me how to navigate the corporate world. After experiencing a variety of trainings and workshops hosted by these leaders, I felt empowered to apply my new skills and wisdom — with the sky as the limit. These women have been exemplary leadership role models of that I admire.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. When I was in my technical role, we were in the room with individuals of all levels. Some of us who had just recently graduated were nervous to speak up — but being able to ask questions helped me establish my presence in these spaces.
  2. Negotiate your salary. Entering the workforce, I didn’t know salary negotiation was something you could do. Now, I have a better understanding of my skills and professional brand and know that I can speak up and ensure my skills are valued appropriately.
  3. Find mentorships and sponsors. Once I found mentors and sponsors, I was able to step into a new role quickly because I had support around me.
  4. Document everything you do. Document professional development or volunteer work you’ve done, projects you lead and certifications you obtain. This holistic view will help showcase your effort and add to your professional story and brand.
  5. Ask for annual performance reviews/raises. When I first started my career, I did not know what performance reviews were. Every year, you should work with your teams and managers to assess your performance and receive recognition and pay raises based on that performance.

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 believe that coming together to support one another can be transformative in how we view each other in the world. The world is filled with stigmas, racism, and hate — leading with love and learning how to support each other as a collective has the power to drive the change I hope to see in the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another steppingstone to greatness.” — Oprah Winfrey

This quote has resonated with me because it applies to all aspects of my life — as a mother, as a professional and within my family.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would have liked to sit down with Tina Turner. I’m a lover of music, and she is an individual who has overcome many obstacles in her life — and yet, Tina managed to still be such a vibrant and accomplished artist. I would have loved to pick her brain and figure out what aspects of her life contributed to her journey to greatness.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Through my LinkedIn — Dr. Syreeta K. Dukes.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dr. Syreeta K. Dukes of RTX Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.