Merri Beth Lavagnino caught her STEM bug where many passions for knowledge are inspired—in a library. In her case this was the library of Temple University, where in the early 1980’s Lavagnino was tasked with helping digitize the library’s punch card system. “Since I was in a library, I was surrounded by women doing tech. For the first half of my career, most of the people I knew doing information technology were women. It never occurred to me there were reasons women like me in other places might need to be encouraged.”
As a child, Lavagnino got the same impression that women had a rightful place in STEM from her mother, who enrolled at Indiana University in 1949 and graduated with a degree in chemistry. She got a job at Eli Lilly, where she met Lavagnino’s father. “When she got pregnant later in the 1950s, they forced her to quit,” Merri Beth shared. “She told us that story a lot. Even after us kids were in school and she went and got her master’s and got re-hired by Lilly, she never forgot. Interestingly, she never talked about men not recognizing her contributions,” Lavagnino added, “but that’s what you hear women struggle with today in lots of STEM roles. We are not fighting for rights like that ability to work at all or to get paid maternity leave. I hear more talk of unspoken and under the radar barriers today.”
As she chose to focus her expertise in information security and privacy at the university level, Lavagnino left the library to take a role at Indiana University. Up the ladder, she found herself surrounded by male peers. That is when she started to relate more to the stories of other women in tech and their struggles even on an administrative level. “In 2005 when the Office of Women’s Affairs reached out to me and asked for ideas about how to help women in these roles, I jumped at the opportunity to sign up.” Through her network she found Women & Hi Tech in 2009. She got engaged as a volunteer and supported the organization’s efforts. In 2018, she joined the corporate engagement committee. “We conducted a survey of our corporate sponsors to learn what they want and need from their sponsorship, and how we can work together to take Women & Hi Tech to the next level,” Lavagnino said. “One thing we learned is that many sponsors are willing to host Women & Hi Tech events at their workplaces. We’re excited to roll out a pilot event in 2020 and provide members more exposure to the diverse, world-class STEM companies in the Indianapolis area.”
While the committee work was wrapping up, Lavagnino saw an open board position for collegiate outreach director. She didn’t even know the position existed before, but applied, and was elected to take the reins of Women & Hi Tech’s work with Indiana colleges and universities. “Darcy Lee was president when I was nominated, and she charged me to take our reach beyond Indianapolis to all corners of Indiana. I have now connected with every college in the state. I have also set up panels featuring Women & Hi Tech members from industries like engineering, IT, and science for many colleges and universities within the state. Our member-panelists share experiences as professionals, and when possible speak alongside alumni from the host university.” It’s a great opportunity for Indiana collegiate women in STEM to be exposed to Women & Hi Tech members who are leading female STEM practitioners in this state, and to learn from them tools and tips to successfully navigate corporate and academic STEM cultures and environments after graduation
Lavagnino was also excited to see the results of her collegiate outreach manifest in the Women & Hi Tech 20th Anniversary scholarship applications. “I shared our 20th Anniversary scholarship opportunity with every college in the state, and we awarded over $25,000 of scholarships to students from Notre Dame to IU Southeast--the very top to the very bottom of our state. That doesn’t just mean our reach has extended, but also sends back the signal that there are incredible women rising in STEM careers and education across Indiana.” Women & Hi Tech is excited to invest in developing a robust pipeline of female STEM talent throughout Indiana.
Merri Beth thinks Women & Hi Tech has an important role to play in continuing that momentum. “The events we host like Ignite Your Superpower and Passport to Hi-Tech don’t just expose girls to STEM opportunities, they connect those opportunities to college campuses in our community. That young person carries the memory of their experience every time they pass that landmark.” She went on to acknowledge this is also a deep responsibility. “Current members should feel fortunate to have connected with this organization that is built on 20 years of extracurricular volunteer work by professional women and men dedicated to our mission. Even after a long time as a volunteer, it did not occur to me that Women & Hi Tech does not have a single staff person until I joined the board.” One of Lavagnino’s hopes for the organization 20 years from now is to have transitioned to a more formal infrastructure with staff members, an office, and an executive director. “That would enable Women & Hi Tech to respond to some needs faster, set more goals, and expand our programming to reach more women, girls, and members of the STEM community.”
For now, as the organization continues to be operated by an all-volunteer working Board of Directors, Lavagnino is confident the organization will continue to exceed its mission in the years ahead. “Our events allow people to share experiences and explore perspectives,” she said. “That value is why our group has lasted 20 years and continues to grow today.”