Tamara Terry wearing a suit and smiling in an office setting

The Promise of Science at RTI International

By Shelley O’Brien, MBA, Chief Marketing Officer at AWIS

Photo credit: John Michael Simpson Triangle Media Partners

RTI International is a nonprofit research institute dedicated to promoting innovative and objective research and to providing services that improve health, education, social justice, and sustainability. Since 1958, communities, governments, and clients have relied on RTI to find solutions to the world’s most complex problems. From climate change research to health and education equity, pandemic research, and beyond, RTI’s experts are committed to the organization’s mission of improving the human condition.

Leaders at RTI know that equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging are critical components of solving complex issues worldwide. Their staff of nearly 6,000 employees cover 250 different degree areas and reside in over 75 countries.

We caught up with Tamara Terry, RTI International’s Research Survey Scientist; Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Leadership Council Domestic Outreach Chair; and University Collaborations HBCU Relationship Manager, for her insights into STEM, the importance of embracing equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging and a behind-the-scenes look into RTI.

SO: You landed at RTI International directly after college and have stayed for almost two decades. That is unusual these days! Can you describe your role at RTI? What originally attracted you to the organization? What enticed you to stay?

TT: I have the privilege of working in many roles at RTI. I am a Research Survey Scientist, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Domestic Outreach Chair, and University Collaborations Relationship Manager for the RTI International-NC-Central strategic partnership. I would love to say that I intentionally decided to seek employment at RTI, but that would be the furthest from the truth. During my last two years of undergrad, I moved into an apartment and needed money! I stumbled across RTI’s call center and started working as a telephone interviewer. That decision changed my life, as I quickly realized that the company I stumbled upon was changing the world. Every telephone interview I completed was helping to advance the lives of everyday people. This was the BEST feeling ever, because RTI’s work and mission aligned strongly with my core values and civic responsibility that I felt to give back and make a difference in the world. These reasons are why I have stayed at RTI for 20 years. At RTI, it is not just a “trend” to do the right thing. We are truly living our mission of improving the human condition every day.

SO: Since you started your career in the STEM field, what is the biggest challenge you’ve noticed for women in the industry? How does RTI help to support women in STEM?

TT: This a loaded question: I’ll start by saying that being a woman in corporate America has its challenges and being a woman in STEM in corporate America adds to the complexity. The fact that I’m also a Black woman makes for a very interesting conversation. For years it was not uncommon for me to be the only Black woman or the only Black person in the meetings and on the core managerial team, not to mention typically being the youngest person at my level. To be honest, I was completely unaware of all these competing societal and demographic challenges in corporate America, until Americans let me know that I was a young, Black, successful woman.

There have been times I have had to walk a fine line of not voicing my opinion due to the fear of being viewed as overly emotional or as an “angry Black woman,” or when I have been faced with microaggressions from people saying that I’m “acting white” because I am well spoken and enjoy non-urban music. I have learned and grown so much through my life experiences as a Black woman in STEM. I get to use these experiences in my role as the Inclusion and Equity Chair for the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

History and research have shown that girls have been systematically shifted away from their interests in science, technology, engineering, and math at an early age. This lack of exposure over time has limited the number of girls who aspire to work in STEM fields. The 21st century has, however, found many more women entering STEM fields, now representing 50% of STEM jobs, although we still see salary differentials between women and men. In 2020 a woman earned 82 cents for every dollar a man earned, and the gap was even wider for many women of color.

I do believe the tide is turning for women. For example, RTI’s United States employee population is composed of 67% women, and internationally, 42% of our population at RTI consists of women. This is phenomenal and validates RTI’s commitment to being equitable, diverse, and inclusive. I am proud of the work and steps that RTI has taken to be a leader and influential in the gender equity and equality space.

SO: RTI uses the acronym EDIB (equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging). Why do you think that it is important to highlight “belonging”? What has RTI done to embed EDIB into the DNA of the organization? Can you describe how this helps to retain diverse talent?

TT: Belonging is defined as the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance and identity for a member of a certain group. Feeling secure, supported, and accepted in your workplace is critical, not only for your success within an organization but also for your overall mental and physical well-being. Since the death of George Floyd, companies are eager to meet hiring quotas for racial and ethnic minorities, but this [goal] is not enough. The real work is creating a culture of belonging by preparing the work atmosphere, and by educating and training the staff to embrace diversity of thought and acceptance of new cultures and identities when diverse staff are hired.

As a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging leader and engaged staff member at RTI, it feels amazing to work for an organization that aims to foster inclusivity in the workplace by creating a space for employees who share a common interest or affinity to support one another and raise awareness. RTI has 11 employee resource groups (ERGs) domestically and internationally, groups that represent more than 30% of RTI employees.

Our ERGs truly advance employees’ inclusion and understanding by engaging them through their individual experiences and through the identities of their diverse colleagues. This is so important to have, because it creates a strong sense of belonging in the organization, which is ultimately what employees are looking for in the places where they work. The creation of internally diverse organizations helps people feel more engaged and welcomed, which eventually leads to higher levels of retention and career growth. By participating in ERGs, RTI staff acquire professional development opportunities and leadership skills that they might not otherwise receive.

SO: In 2016 you became the Outreach Subcommittee Chair of the EDIB Leadership Council. Is this a volunteer assignment? What does that role entail? How has this role helped you in your career?

TT: Serving on RTI’s EDIB Leadership Council as the Domestic Outreach Chair has been a highlight of my career: I’ve always had a desire to serve people in need by doing something to help change the world, but prior to serving in this role, I didn’t know how best to accomplish this. Often we think that, as one single person, we can’t really make a big impact. However, about six years ago I attended a conference where I heard a keynote about the importance of diversity within the research field, and about the importance of inclusion and of being valued in the workplace. This is what led me to getting involved in RTI’s DEI work.

I started as a domestic outreach chair, a role that helped me to connect with the community and create relationships, with the broader goal of helping to impact underrepresented and marginalized groups and to provide representation and a voice for them. Positively impacting the communities where our employees live is a core part of RTI’s mission, and they allocate time monthly for me to perform my role as the domestic outreach chair. In addition, I have personally gained enhanced leadership skills, responsibilities, added visibility, and influence through my work with our EDIB leadership council.

SO: RTI is headquartered in Research Triangle Park (RTP), North Carolina, and you are Chair of the RTP DEI Collective. How can companies collaborate and amplify each other’s initiatives to achieve greater success than by going it alone?

TT: Created in the fall of 2019, with the goal of uniting and amplifying Research Triangle Park (RTP) companies’ diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, the RTP DEI Collective has grown to include more than 30 companies and partners. By establishing a network of professionals who share the same interests and goals for DEI, we have broken down the silos across companies in the RTP area, which has allowed us to collaborate and synergize our efforts. It is such an honor to meet regularly to collaborate on DEI matters with RTP organization leaders. Our collaboration has resulted in attracting talent and in advancing professional development of RTP staff, in better business outcomes, and in embedding DEI behaviors into the DNA of the Triangle region. By working together, we can illuminate the true nature of RTP as a welcoming and diverse community.

SO: How did it feel to be named and to become RTI’s HBCU Relationship Manager specifically for the North Carolina Central University (NCCU)–RTI strategic partnership? Can you describe how your experience as a student at NCCU, a historically Black university, prepared you for this task? What are you proudest of accomplishing with this assignment or what do you hope to achieve in this role?

TT: Being asked to fulfill this role was a huge honor, because I was provided the opportunity to give back to the institution that helped form the woman I am today. NCCU taught me the foundational skills needed to understand the importance of science. It provided me with a comprehensive education that has not only helped in my professional career but that has also helped me maneuver through life. Leading with “truth and service” as their motto, NCCU expected me to display these behaviors in my interactions with faculty and staff. In addition, community service was incorporated in our annual curriculum and graduation requirements. This is one of the things I love about attending an HBCU: there is an intentional strategy to build leaders who will eventually uplift and provide economic mobility for marginalized and underserved communities. I am forever indebted to NCCU.

Since 2019, NCCU has been a priority strategic partner, and I could not be prouder of our accomplishments. This relationship has led to increased collaboration in sponsored research, workforce development engagement, and growth opportunities for faculty, staff, and students. We have truly created a partnership that has been mutually beneficial for both institutions.

RTI is working on a larger strategy to partner with several HBCUs across the nation. I am elated to lead that effort, along with my colleague Freda Green, senior talent acquisition partner for diversity. This work is vital, as it aligns with RTI’s commitment to racial equity, diversifies our future talent, and uplifts HBCUs by establishing strategic partnerships that will amplify their efforts and impact.

SO: You are also a board member at Communities in Schools of Wake County (CIS Wake Co), on the Board of Visitors at North Carolina Central University’s School of Business, and Vice President of the Board of Directors at WomenNC. Can you describe how these organizations complement your other roles? What leadership style or qualities have you brought to these diverse assignments?

TT: All of these organizations are making significant impacts in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion that complement my roles very well. I have an opportunity to lead in some of these positions, but more importantly, I get to be an ally and advocate by serving the communities that need the most help. My interpersonal skills, professional experience, thought leadership, and passion are some of the qualities that I have brought to these roles. My commitment to doing my part to change the world is unwavering, and these board positions help me to accomplish this.

SO: Congratulations on a long, successful career with RTI. Do you have any career advice for our readers? Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

TT: I am two decades into my career, and I can humbly and honestly say that it hasn’t always been easy. What I have realized with time is that there will always be obstacles in your life; metaphorically, there will always be a mountain that is put in front of you. Oftentimes when a mountain gets in our way, it paralyzes us, and we stop moving, or we retreat. What I have learned to do over the years is to chisel that mountain. Sometimes I chisel around it or even through it, because I recognize that beyond that mountain and my discomfort is greatness. Beyond this moment are the things I never realized I could do, the big things that I truly desire and believe are meant for me, but which do not necessarily come easily. I am always trying to chisel around that mountain and to kick those obstacles out of the way. And after I get past it, I may walk a little bit, I may even run, but guess what? Another mountain may come, so I have got to pull out my tools again. This story never ends or stops: it is the story of resilience, which often equals success. We are always using our chisel to break those “life” challenges down. The goal is constant progress and improvement, not perfection.


This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.