Senior DOD Official Recounts Her Path to Success
By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 5, 2013 Dr. Laura Stubbs, who served as the U.S. Navy’s first African-American nuclear power school instructor, credits her successful career across the military, private-sector and federal government to exposure, preparation, mentoring and in particular an encounter with an infamous Navy admiral.
After departing active duty, Stubbs entered the Navy reserve where she retired at the rank of captain. She also served in leadership positions with Proctor & Gamble.
Stubbs is now the Defense Department’s director of science and technology initiatives after serving as the Pentagon’s director for enterprise services.
Yesterday, she spoke to the Transportation Department’s Maritime Administration employees as part of activities commemorating both Women’s History Month and February’s African-American History Month.
Stubbs gave a brief history of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, and recounted her Navy engineering career during a time when few women and African-Americans were included in those ranks.
“President Abraham Lincoln is credited with successfully leading the United States through its greatest constitutional military and moral challenges demonstrated by the American Civil War, the war to preserve the union,” Stubbs began.
Lincoln worked closely with the former slave, abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass, she said, who was the first African-American marshal of the District of Columbia confirmed by the U.S. Senate. His job, she emphasized, was but one step below a presidential cabinet-level position.
“Douglass reminded Lincoln that [African-Americans] had already proven themselves as ready to defend the Union and had much to contribute to the Civil War,” Stubbs said.
“It was a defining moment in collective history,” Stubbs said of the president taking Douglass’ advice. “However, it was an event in a series that was related to the freedom of more than 4 million slaves who occupied the states at that time.”
African-Americans have served with distinction in the U.S. Merchant Marine and across the U.S. military, she told the audience.
Stubbs had two defining moments in her own career, she said, leading her to see lessons learned “come to fruition over and over” in her life and career as an engineer.
The first of those moments came when she was 16 when her math teacher suggested she attend a summer class for women in engineering at the University of Notre Dame.
“I was exposed to different disciplines in engineering -- mechanical, chemical, industrial and electrical,” Stubbs recalled. “I returned to my senior year in high school and announced that I was going to be an engineer. That exposure to the summer program gave me enough confidence to know I can do it.”
She went to the University of Pennsylvania on scholarship and was one of only two women in her chemical engineering class, and the first African-American.
The first day of her mechanical engineering class, the teacher told her she was in the wrong room. “I sat in the front row, because there wasn't any sense hiding or trying to blend in,” Stubbs said.
She completed her bachelor’s degree in four years, and while teaching calculus as a teacher’s assistant, Stubbs earned her master’s degree in one year instead of the usual two.
Stubbs also took “all two” of the nuclear engineering classes taught at the University of Pennsylvania, she said.
Stubbs met her second “defining moment” in her career when she met former Navy Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, known as the father of the nuclear Navy.
She’d heard his name repeatedly, but had no idea who Rickover was.
Stubbs wrote a letter to her Navy recruiter and said she wanted to join the nuclear propulsion program.
“The recruiter called and laughed, and said, ‘Go for the interview. It will be an experience.’ I didn’t know why he was laughing,” she said.
Stubbs said the recruiter then told her that she couldn’t enter the nuclear propulsion program, noting there were no women in it. She said the recruiter added that the Navy was beginning to bring in women to teach at the nuclear power school.
“I said, ‘Fine. Put me in for that. Just get me an interview with that Rickover guy,’” Stubbs told the recruiter.
Stubbs was accepted for interviews, and completed three technical interviews, which she called “an intelligence test.”
At the end of those interviews, Stubbs met Rickover, who, she said, got right down to business.
“He's a very tough interviewer and puts you through your paces. I just had no context for what I was getting into,” she recalled.
“He puts you under pressure and starts yelling, screaming and hollering at you for no reason,” Stubbs said, adding that she sat in a chair with sawed-off legs that made it impossible to sit up straight.
While she sat in the forward-slanting chair, Stubbs said Rickover shouted questions at her, asking how long had she been interested in nuclear power engineering and when did she become interested in it.
“Then he looked down at something and said, “‘Did you get these grades because you're black?’” she said.
Instead, Stubbs said she looked out the window and refused to answer.
“He got mad, screamed and banged on the table, saying, ‘Answer me, damn it, answer me,’” Stubbs recalled.
“Finally, I looked back at him and said, ‘That's not a criteria on which my grades were based,’” she said.
All during that interview, Stubbs thought Rickover’s technique had to be a test, “because nobody conducts an interview like that,” she said.
“He asked me other questions, and we went back and forth with each other, but I looked him in the eye and answered his questions truthfully and patiently. Eventually, he dismissed me from the room,” she said.
Stubbs got the job, even though she wasn’t so sure she wanted it after her encounter with Rickover. But she took the position as an instructor at the school.
“I loved it,” she said. “There were four women in my class, so we doubled the number of female instructors.”
It was that experience that Stubbs said left her with career lessons learned in exposure, preparation, mentoring, and sponsorship.
“Had I not been exposed to the women in engineering program at Notre Dame, I wouldn’t have known what was out there,” she said. “I'm a beneficiary of the program -- I gained the self-confidence to go into engineering … and to hang with the big boys.
“Preparation goes hand-in-hand with exposure,” Stubbs continued. “It's often said that luck is where opportunity meets preparation … so just open your mind and learn from it.”
Because she had good mentors in school and during her career, Stubbs said she learned the importance of mentoring students.
“Mentoring is continuing the legacy of those who have mentored me,” Stubbs said. “I'm always willing to listen and help. And I learn things from young folks, so mentoring is very key.
“Sponsorship is opening doors in an active way to give access,” she added. “Sponsorship can be covert or overt, so you never know. Just be willing to go through the door.”