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AWESOME Speaks with Lillian Dukes about Black History Month

Black History Month is a time to recognize and reflect on an often overlooked, yet critical, part of American history: the Black American experience. We want to use this time to celebrate Black Americans’ successes and honor their sacrifices. Even as February comes to an end, Black history continues, and we continue to honor it. 

Throughout the month, we interviewed AWESOME women leaders of color to share their stories, experiences, and perspectives on intersectionality in the supply chain industry. This week, we spoke with Lillian Dukes, Atlas Air’s Senior Vice President of Technical Operations, about her career journey in supply chain and thoughts about Black History Month in 2023.

Lillian Dukes, Senior Vice President of Technical Operations at Atlas Air, is a highly experienced senior operations leader with more than 30 years’ global experience delivering strategic organizational improvements in start-up, turnaround and mature manufacturing environments. Ms. Dukes has driven development and change initiatives from concept through realized growth and profitability in companies such as Spirit AeroSystems, Beechcraft Corporation, American Airlines, American Eagle Airlines and GE.

We asked Lillian questions about what Black History Month means to her and how she feels about the current state of diversity in our industry:

AWESOME: What led you to your path in supply chain? 

Lillian: Early in my career, I was headed down the engineering track. While pursuing that, I discovered opportunities in a couple of roles in supply chain. I have always been very inquisitive about new opportunities and new challenges – and I learned I really enjoyed it. It fed my need for challenges, learning some new aspects of the business, and I used my training as an engineer to transition into supply chain.

Much of my supply chain knowledge came through self-education and on-the-job training and experience in additional training after I got into supply chain. Still, I also transitioned back out of supply chain. I’ve been in and out of supply chain and find myself now squarely set and running operations, which has the supply chain as part of my responsibilities. But also, I have engineering, planning, and everything that goes along with running operations.

AWESOME: How did you navigate through the supply chain industry to get to where you are now? 

Lillian: The supply chain piece of my journey has been very instrumental in where I am today, as well as the engineering and other detours I’ve taken. Before even envisioning where my career was going, I grew up in a very large family, with a number of brothers. And that helped set a foundation for me to navigate in a male-dominated environment. It doesn’t teach you everything, but it helps you to start to feel comfortable in that environment and learn how to make room for yourself per se as you work through the different aspects of it.

AWESOME: What were some of your challenges? 

Lillian: Early on, it was navigating a field or discipline that I wasn’t formally trained in and having to go out and seek that training to excel in that particular area. Also, I was in organizations and industries where few people looked like me, and I was encouraged to press my way into those environments and make room for myself. Mentors, sponsors, and people in my network were very, very instrumental in that progression. Moving from level to level and position to position with a solid support network is just priceless. When you talk to other people, I think you’ll hear a common theme that it’s not something that you do on your own. And if you don’t have other people encouraging you or pulling for you, it can be very difficult to make your way. It’s incredibly helpful to pick up the phone and have a conversation with someone in your network when you run into challenges.

AWESOME: It seems like that connection, and that support system helped you overcome some of those challenges. 

Lillian: It was hugely helpful. Even today, you get to certain roles, and you think, I’m getting there, I’m making it…and you still have people in your network who are really pulling for you. They’re happy to see what you’ve achieved, and they lend themselves, whether it’s their voice or some other type of assistance, to help you be successful. The one thing that has been consistent, regardless of the level, is you hear people talk a lot about having a seat at the table. I had a mentor who pointed that out to me to make sure I was taking a seat at the table when I came into the room. I have also learned that you have to have a voice in the room. Sometimes you can be sitting there, and you have a seat, but you’re not being heard.

AWESOME: How often did you encounter being the first woman in the room or the only woman of color? Did that often happen at the beginning of your career?  

Lillian: That’s frequent and has been throughout my career. It still is the case in my career. It’s just heartbreaking when you look back. It’s nice to forge new territory, but you hate to have to admit that we’re in 2023, and there are still so many the firsts…the only ones there. Sometimes it can be a bit exhausting because you realize there’s still such a long way to go.

AWESOME: What do you think are the biggest barriers that women of color in leadership still face? 

Lillian: I think we have to continue to build and encourage sponsorship – people who are there and willing to advocate for you when you’re not in the room. They can be people in influential positions within an organization who can be part of making sure people of color, women of color, and women in general, have the exact same opportunities as their counterparts, and that they’re not made to feel uncomfortable being in a room where they’re the only ones. If you’re someone that hasn’t worked a lot with females as a counterpart or people of color as a counterpart, then there’s a tendency to migrate to what’s comfortable for you. Put yourself out there, get a little uncomfortable, and start to bring other people into the conversation.

AWESOME: As we’re in the middle of Black History Month, what comes to mind when you think of Black History Month in 2023? 

Lillian: Two things come to mind. Black History Month, for me, is a bittersweet time. It’s nice to remember the many achievements blacks have made over time, the many things they have done, and the sacrifices made for others to come along. It’s a very encouraging and powerful time of remembrance. But, with that comes the realization and awareness that there have been many, many difficult and tragic times as we examine some of the challenges blacks have endured through the years. Some still exist, and it’s hard to stomach sometimes. It’s a bittersweet time remembering the good times, which are wonderful, but there are still many things out there that sadden me. They are painful to watch and admit that these things happened. And some of these things continue.

AWESOME: We want to celebrate and acknowledge progress. But it’s tough to do that in a way that doesn’t glaze over or minimize the fact that there’s still just miles of work ahead of us. In business, it’s really less a responsibility of the individual than it is of organizations to focus on equity, not just equality. 

Lillian: There’s still a big gap between diversity and equity. Some organizations are focused on diversifying their leadership team and workforce, but there’s not as much focus on actually making sure those individuals feel included. You bring individuals into your organization, nothing changes from a cultural standpoint. And then people deemed as outsiders still feel like outsiders, so they’re not going to stay. There has to be a concerted effort around creating a culture where people truly feel like they are included and a part of the organization and not there just to represent progress for the company.

AWESOME: What does cultural diversity in the workplace mean to you? Would you say feeling included is a part of the process? 

Lillian: It’s huge. It’s not just hiring, but taking it a step further and making sure you have an environment where people feel comfortable, they feel a part of it, and they don’t feel like outsiders in an organization where you’re trying to give the impression that they are truly part of the culture that you have there.

AWESOME: How do you think the supply chain industry could better dedicate itself to its black leaders and employees? 

Lillian: It’s the same focus and attention that all companies have. You have to have representation at all levels of the supply chain. When you’re trying to create a diverse candidate pool, ask people in your network if you know any females who are representative in this particular field, if you know anyone of color, or if you know anyone with a specific background. A lot of times, it’s “No, I don’t know anyone. I know some men, but I don’t know any women.” It’s a bit of a struggle, sometimes, finding that diversity of candidates to present opportunities to. If it’s difficult, people might give up and just go the easy route. You really have to be intentional about saying, “I’m not going to make a decision until I truly have a diverse slate of candidates to consider,” and that may take you longer.

AWESOME: What comes to mind is providing better training opportunities throughout the industry and even in colleges to get women and women of color thinking about that field. 

Lillian: There are a lot of conversations in my space, the aviation industry, and we’re suffering from a lack of mechanics. They’re very rare…there are some, but they’re very few. It’s an area where we can be intentional about sharing those opportunities at lower levels, in schools when kids are just ripe for trying to consider their options. We really have to start reaching them a lot earlier and exposing them to it. I think the efforts that are done by some organizations are great, it’s just not enough. It’s just not a big enough footprint to really make an impact. As companies, we need to start looking at what we can do together to expand that voice into the educational system. And making sure women, young girls, and people of color really understand the full scope of the opportunities out there and hear from individuals who walked that road before them and can give them some insight into the opportunities that may be there.

AWESOME: What success or positive actions have you seen that have uplifted the voices or experiences of Black women in this industry? 

Lillian: That’s a tough question for me because in aviation, there are very few black females in leadership even today. I think if I look at it from a gender standpoint, there are different organizations, like Women in Aviation, that are all specific to the aviation spectrum. We recognize that we have got to come together and make a difference. We’re stronger as a combined voice than we are individually. Through those organizations, as women continue to use their collective voice and make inroads into the things women need to have access to and young women need to be exposed to, we’ll continue to make some progress. But we still have a lot of work to do.

AWESOME: In all, it’s all about community and networking and making sure that your values are aligned to help equal success. 

Lillian: Evolvement in organizations like AWESOME, are some of the few places where female leaders can connect with others, whether in our industry or our particular field, and have conversations, compare stories, ask questions, and build our network. That’s hugely important and very encouraging to all of us to have that resource to lean on.

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