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Software engineers from the General Motors Innovation Center in Chandler led a STEM student workshop at the 30th Annual Hispanic Women’s Corporation’s Professional Development and Leadership Institute. Alexandra Figueroa, a senior software engineer at the Innovation Center in Chandler and one of the workshop participants will talk about what General Motors is doing to encourage women and Latinos to consider a career in STEM fields.

JOSE CARDENAS: A software engineer from the General Motors innovation center in Chandler led a science, technology, engineering and math, STEM, student workshop at the 30th annual Hispanic Women Corporation's Professional Development and Leadership Institute. Joining us to talk about this is Alexandra Figueroa, a senior software engineer at the General Motors innovation center in Chandler. Alexandra, forgive me for speaking slow on your name, i'm tempted to say Alejandra but you're from Puerto Rico, so it's Alexandra.


JOSE CARDENAS: Speaking of that, give us more about your background. You're Puerto Rican --

ALEXANDRA FIGUEROA: Yes, I'm born and raised in Puerto Rico, and I went to the university of Puerto Rico, and that seems to be a very good engineering school where a lot of companies throughout the U.S. like going and recruiting, and that's how I ended up moving to the United States. I ended up getting an offer when I finished and ended up in the United States.

JOSE CARDENAS: While you are a very young woman still, when you started, there weren't that many young women getting into engineering.

ALEXANDRA FIGUEROA: No, and there still is not that many. And that is part of what we try to do and then, you know, go and talk to girls and then show them I'm just like you, I come from the same background as you to inspire them to study in fields like this one.

JOSE CARDENAS: I want to explore a little more the women in engineering. Let's talk about the conference you just led and the kinds of things you tell the young women who attended.

ALEXANDRA FIGUEROA: Sure. At the conference I attended, there was a student portion of it and there were over 300 girls, mainly high school students, and we talked about -- I talked a little about my background and I how I ended up being part of the field. And surprisingly, they were very interested, and many of them haven't heard about it because they tend to relate with what is common around them. We talked about what General Motors is doing as a company. We talked about how it is, you know, if I can do it, they can do it, too. They seem to be a little scared about sometimes math. But it is a little more than just math, right. And I just inspired them to do something different and something where -- a field that is -- there is a lot of work out there. And like by 2020, there will be a million jobs unfulfilled in the United States alone. People are not studying this type of field. We're trying to encourage that.

JOSE CARDENAS: Part of the message is, if you want a job, this is a field to go into. And if you want a good-paying job, where women are treated relatively equal to men, this is where you want to go.

ALEXANDRA FIGUEROA: Absolutely. Because women, unfortunately, still get paid less than men. But in stem-related fields the gap is a lot less. Women in stem-related fields, they actually make 30% more than non-stem related fields, which is awesome.

JOSE CARDENAS: GM is a leader in this area, everybody needs to improve, but you have a CEO that is in this area. A fairly large percentage of women who are engineers.

ALEXANDRA FIGUEROA: That is true. The CEO is actually an engineer. That is how she started. And she started in General Motors as an intern. And she moved her way up, which is amazing to see, you know, in this time in day, somebody that is able to move throughout the company and be there for so long and make it to the top. Especially a woman.

JOSE CARDENAS: Tell us, a little bit generally, at least, about the kinds of efforts that GM is engaged in to encourage women to go into stem fields.

ALEXANDRA FIGUEROA: Absolutely. We have the GM foundation, which has been, I think, since 1976 or like almost 40 years, helping with the - the main goal is to help communities. So one of the things that the Hispanic Leadership Institute, on the last decade, focusing more is in helping with stem-related fields. Speaking about Arizona, the GM foundation recently is going to be -- is going to be helping with Tempe high school. There is going to be two different programs that we're bringing in that are sponsored by the GM foundation. One is through the - which is coming and talking to the students about leadership about stem-related fields and we bring people that are in the field to encourage them. Another one of the programs is coding a second language. And it's something that kids will be able to do as an extracurricular thing and General Motors is actually through the GM foundation is sponsoring all of that.

JOSE CARDENAS: And in that second program, what would they learn?

ALEXANDRA FIGUEROA: They will learn how to do programming. How to do software programs and they try to do it in a way that appeals to kids. So that way they can see themselves in a field like that in the future.

JOSE CARDENAS: The first one you said U.S. HLI?


JOSE CARDENAS: Is that Hispanic Leadership Institute?


JOSE CARDENAS: What are they taught there, how to rise up in management ranks?

ALEXANDRA FIGUEROA: Yes, and talk about leadership and empowerment and they bring people that have been there, have done that, to empower and then to engage the students, to, you know, and -- sometimes we might see people that are doing amazing, but we cannot relate to them. But if we bring somebody similar to us, we can feel like, hey, if they can do it, maybe I can do it as well.

JOSE CARDENAS: Let's talk about the innovation center. Just give us an overview of it. The kinds of things that the GM is doing.

ALEXANDRA FIGUEROA: General Motors in the Chandler Innovation Center, we do a lot of programming. There are four innovation centers in the United States. One of them and the last one ended up opening up is in Chandler, Arizona. And something that General Motors is doing is bringing back in house a lot of software engineering work. It used to be outsourced, whether it was throughout the world or to other companies and they are trying to bring it in house for General Motors people. It is exciting.

JOSE CARDENAS: It was the one thing you talked to the young ladies about when you were at the conference.

ALEXANDRA FIGUEROA: Yes, we do a lot of recruiting with college students. So, yeah.

JOSE CARDENAS: What do you think is the biggest barrier to getting women to consider the stem fields, and particularly Latinas?

ALEXANDRA FIGUEROA: I think for Latinas, sometimes we tend to relate to what we have seen, which is not bad, but sometimes we don't know any other options. So, women might be a little bit afraid, also, of maybe math, or they might be afraid of maybe thinking it is too hard that they cannot do it and that is totally not true at all. I think I was naive enough when I heard that computers was going to be the future, venturing into a field like this, and thought in my head that I didn't think that I couldn't do it. And maybe, you know, women need to know that, be naive and know that, yes, you can do it.

JOSE CARDENAS: Again, employment, you mentioned when we were off camera, you have never lacked for a job.

ALEXANDRA FIGUEROA: No, never been without a job. Yeah, so there is a lot of work out there. And it seems like the interest for those fields is going down, and we're trying to, you know, find out like exactly, you know, like why? And it might be because they might not be able to relate, especially the Hispanic community. You know, we tend to be closer to what we know, where we're comfortable. And what I'm encountering, when I talk to young girls and they're able to see themselves, an example like me. Hey, I'm not perfect.

JOSE CARDENAS: Someone to look at as a role model.

ALEXANDRA FIGUEROA: My English is not perfect.

JOSE CARDENAS: Well it is good enough and actually superb. Alexandra Figueroa, thank you for joining us on Horizonte.

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JOSE CARDENAS: And that's our show for tonight. From all of us here at "Horizonte" and your Arizona PBS station, thank you for watching. I'm Jose Cardenas. Have a good evening.

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Alexandra Figueroa:A senior software engineer at General Motors

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