Above all else, Karen Harris believes in lifelong learning and developing others. As Vice President and Information Officer of Manufacturing and Quality at Eli Lilly and Company, and as the Women & Hi Tech board member in charge of Volunteering, she has spent her career growing and developing her own technical and leadership skills, as well as mentoring and fostering others to do the same. Whether in school, on the job, or out forging professional relationships with promising young women, Karen’s story is a testament to the kind of perseverance and persistence found at Women & Hi Tech.
Karen’s journey into STEM began at a young age, thanks to an important role model in her life: her father. “I was already very strong in math and science, but I had a father who encouraged me that the sky was the limit. That motivated me to see what I could do in the field once I got to college.” When deciding what to study at Purdue University, Karen found that she could blend her love of math and science with what she called her “passion for understanding how business works” by pursuing Industrial Management through the Krannert School of Business. After graduating, Karen chose to go into consulting for ERP systems in manufacturing. She soon realized that she would need to pick up new talents and skills along the way to grow her career.
“I like to say my ‘IT degree’ came on the job. Implementing these large software packages required me to learn a lot along the way. I taught myself coding to implement changes in software that the clients requested. I started learning about reporting, databases, hardware, etc. I learned how to write SQL scripts to run data conversions and many other skills added to my technical toolkit along the way. That’s where I built up my strong IT skills and got a chance to combine it with my supply chain background.”
After eight years in the world of consulting, Karen found a home at Lilly in IT for manufacturing and quality. There she held multiple leadership roles spanning across levels of manager, director, senior director, and eventually executive. But while she was learning technical skills in the world of IT, she was also able to pursue another one of her passions: diversity and inclusion. Throughout her career, Karen has been a champion for inclusion and diversity. With Lilly, she chairs the IT Diversity and Inclusion Group, as well as their own Women in IT group. According to Karen, businesses just work better when all are encouraged to be a part of the team.
“At the end of the day a diverse, engaged, and inclusive workforce produces better results. Our patients are very diverse around the world, so I want our team to reflect that.”
After becoming involved in Women & Hi Tech, Karen realized she could leverage her business and recruiting connections to help improve the lives of women not only inside her own company, but across all STEM fields. During her tenure with the organization, she has played a key role in overseeing the volunteer efforts for keystone events such as Passport to Hi-Tech and Ignite Your Superpower! Not only does she get to further the efforts of Women & Hi Tech, but also engage on a personal level with many promising young women in their pursuits of STEM careers. At these events, she said she can usually be found bouncing between the Lilly booth and out on the floor where she can connect with talented young up-and-comers.
“To get these young ladies into majors in a STEM field, you really need to be talking to them in their middle school years. That’s extremely important to drive them toward those science, technology, engineering and math fields.” Motivating young women to go after these areas of studies and careers can be difficult – but to no fault of their own. Often times, Karen explains, it’s a product of the environment.
“Sometimes they already have an interest and you just need to cultivate that to show them what they can do with a STEM degree, which is great. But in many other cases some of these young women may lack role models in their lives. They end up gravitating toward fields that aren’t STEM related because they’re told they can’t or shouldn’t do it. It’s all they’ve been taught throughout their lives. It’s important to open their eyes to what they CAN do.”
But while early intervention and guidance is essential, Karen feels that the efforts of Women & Hi Tech go far beyond convincing women to pursue STEM degrees. “After we’ve encouraged them, it’s then about assisting them through their transition from university to careers. At Women & Hi Tech, they get advice from professional women in how to handle very difficult situations they’ll face. For me, it’s the whole continuum. You have to make sure they have the right support structures as they transition at every step of the way.”
The efforts of Karen and the rest of her passionate peers at Women & Hi Tech have opened doors to the possibility of STEM careers for many young women. Karen says she loves watching the “light bulb flick on” when getting a chance to interact and dialogue with them. But, across the nation, Harris is still disheartened by the lack of progress on a national level when it comes to inclusivity in STEM industries.
“At a very high level, the statistics don’t show that there’s been a huge change. If you were to look at who’s getting computer science degrees in the United States for example, the female percentage is still extremely low, under 25%. It’s been that way for quite some time, so we obviously have some work to do.” But, as Karen points out, Indiana – the headquarters and home of Women & Hi Tech – has been a place of resurgence, renaissance, and change.”
“If we bring it into the microcosm of Central Indiana, I’m extremely excited about all of the strong STEM companies and universities that exist here, and all the different STEM companies and organizations that are coming to Indiana that haven’t been here before. In Indianapolis, in particular, we really are starting to see a movement in organizations like Women & Hi Tech, especially in the way of women – especially young women – are feeling more confident and comfortable pursuing their careers.”
When asked how she feels about the future, Karen’s voice becomes animated and excited. The scholarship funds provided by Women & Hi Tech through their corporate sponsorships and partnerships continually improve the opportunities for young women to pursue STEM degrees and enter into lucrative careers. The growth of the organization is evident by the many events that Harris organizes volunteers, which continue to increase and fill in attendance. That, says Karen, is what Women & Hi Tech is all about.
“I think that the organization is about fostering connections across the different organizations and companies, when you start talking about talent and recruiting talent. You can not underestimate the importance of encouraging that.”
“My hope that all of our events are fully booked out and that we continue to spread the word. If we can provide scholarships for people to help them obtain a STEM related degree, build a professional network, develop their careers, and show them what they can do, we can really catapult ourselves into this tech-driven world.”
As her father did for her, Karen has encouraged her sons to pursue their dreams through STEM related degrees. Her oldest son is in the IT Co-op program at University of Cincinnati and her youngest son will be entering the Engineering program at Purdue this fall.