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Corporate News

HBCU-MI Workforce Champ Retires
By Lango Deen
May 28, 2014, 15:36

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To engineering deans at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Institutions (MIs) whose endgame is promoting academic programs, directing faculty, setting policy and procedures for departments, teaching and R&D are all vital parts of their jobs. But to Oliver S. Leslie, Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Institutions program manager for The Boeing Company, these functions prepare people who will build Boeing’s jetliners, satellites, electronic and defense systems and create the technology of the future.

Perhaps Leslie, a Toney, Alabama, native always imagined he would someday work for the world’s largest aerospace company. A sharecropper’s son, highlights of long days in the cotton fields were planes that flew by from the old Army post at Redstone Arsenal. Aircraft intrigued him and made him wonder how they operated. After high school, he went on to major in electronic engineering technology at Alabama A&M University--the start of a 42-year career through GE, and then McDonnell Douglas, which merged with Boeing in 1997.

Leslie’s first job in 1971 was as an electrical engineer in a large industrial avionics laboratory. A little later he moved from design and build into system engineering, where he wrote specifications and was a go-between for the company and customers such as the U.S. Navy and Air Force. But while working on enabling realization of successful systems, Leslie grew to learn more about how his company made money and saw opportunity for HBCU/MI students to work on applied and product-related areas.

That was a pivotal moment in the formation of a partnership that has existed for more than 30 years.

Building relationships became the focus of Leslie’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) outreach and, eventually, a second job as program manager of Boeing's Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Institutions Initiative.

“If corporate America was going to be successful, we had to grow the future workforce,” Leslie said in a recent telephone interview. That thought drove his passion for aerospace research coupled with Boeing investment in the future workforce.

In the course of his university relations outreach, he has served on a commission led by Michigan State University to study the need for an engineering program at Alabama A&M University in the 1980s; on the Board of Directors at AAMU, as member of the St. Louis Federal Executive Board’s Small Business Opportunity Committee, and on the 2012 Department of Defense Commission to study Engineering at and STEM Education at HBCUs/MI.

Leslie has been an alternative board member of AMIE (Advancing Minorities in Engineering) since 1997.

From day one, preparing students to meet future workforce has captivated him and over the years his efforts have mushroomed, providing a vehicle for reaching deans, faculty, students at HBCUs and minority institutions across America.

In 2008, when Leslie won the Black Engineer of the Year Award (BEYA) for Affirmative Action in Supplier Diversity, Joyce Tucker, then vice president of Boeing global diversity and employee rights, told US Black Engineer & Information Technology (USBE&IT) magazine that, “Oliver’s ingenuity, volunteering spirit and ease while interacting with others are of paramount importance to the world of diversity and change.”

Leslie’s citation praised his accomplishments in raising the level of collaboration between Boeing and HBCUs and other minority institutions, as well as bringing about possibilities for them to take part in what Leslie called the "technological paradigm shift."

That shift saw Boeing earn the No. 1 spot on USBE&IT’s “Top Supporters of HBCU Engineering Schools” list three years in a row. The Top Supporters list features employers who receive direct recommendations from deans at HBCU engineering schools. In 2006, records show that Boeing campus hires were almost double that of the previous year and the company increased its sub-contracting dollars spent at historically Black colleges and universities and minority institutions by 35 percent.

Under Boeing’s cooperative partnership with Tennessee State University, TSU students and faculty developed computer-based systems that evaluate cockpits, did joint research on seat comfort in Boeing airplanes, and developed two Howard University nanotechnology research projects.

Leslie’s dream, which started more than 40 years ago, has soared beyond what he could have ever imagined while picking cotton in Alabama. Given corporate freedom to help people, he has used his influence to enhance relationships, build trust, and impact the future workforce.

While Leslie’s successor prepares to carry on his legacy, Joan Robinson-Berry gave a 360-degree view as vice president of supplier management, Boeing Shared Services:

“In an increasingly competitive marketplace, Boeing needs the best talent available; a diverse workforce can provide tangible benefits. In fact, as markets expand globally being able to understand and reach out to the individual needs of people from other cultures and regions will be paramount. A multicultural, talented, and trained employee base gives companies that competitive advantage,” Robinson-Berry said.

Meanwhile, outdoors enthusiast Leslie, 65, looks forward to growing more veggies, tomatoes, cucumbers and hosta planting. In the summers, he plans to spend time on sandy beaches in Florida or Honolulu with his wife of 38 years, their two adult daughters, son-in-law, and their 15-year and 7-year-old granddaughters. He might also find time to watch Star Trek reruns with Captain Jean-Luc Picard on USS Enterprise NCC-1701-B.
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