Today, many companies want to be inclusive, diverse and promote people of all backgrounds equitably but often struggle to take a homogeneous culture and make it represent our nation and our world. From recruiting to developing diverse talent that is already part of the company, Presidents and CEOs are often vexed by how more women and minorities can succeed in today’s business world. A recent Harvard Business Review article entitled, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” outlines these many foiled efforts despite the best of intentions through training programs and other initiatives.
One leader and founder stands out in a field that, above others, lacks diversity—aerospace. Retired Air Force colonel, Ray Anderson is the founder and CEO of SEAKR Engineering, a company he founded with his two sons in 1983 and is still run as a family business employing more than 500 people. Although he is in his late eighties, Ray has the energy, passion and enthusiasm of a millennial, often working six days a week as he did when the company was young. If aging is a process which pulls people toward the ground, then Ray metaphorically defies gravity through his efforts in remarkable space achievements, his soaring vision, his unwavering results and his passion for people. He also defies diversity gravity because he has one of the most interesting, inclusive employee cultures in a field of traditionally white males. Insight to his personal story reveals how his culture became inclusive as defined by his upbringing, personal ingenuity and indefatigable spirit.
“We were raised poor by parents who received a tenth grade education,” Rays says. “My Dad worked in the lumber mill and I worked alongside him after high school.” When I graduated in 1946, I enrolled in a community college near the family home in Ontario, California because it was the only option I could afford.” Ray set his sights far beyond the town where he grew up and the confines of the minimum wage world in which he was raised by his hard-working parents.
“I had some of the best education I’ve ever had at the community college,” Ray shares. “My math instructor could make you understand anything and that was the beginning of my career in rocket science.” He transferred and received his Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from UC, Berkeley and Master of Science from UT, Austin. In 1953, he got his Air Force wings during the Korean War. In his next post when he served in the Air Force for Special Projects, he learned the ins and outs of classified satellite work. He served for 28 years and retired as an Air Force Colonel where people of all backgrounds are valued and respected as equals.
Following that, he worked for Rockwell (now Boeing) in Seal Beach, CA but he was turned off by the large, impersonal corporate culture. His true grit and family values led him to a more rewarding path for his dreams and goals. “If you have lemons, make lemonade,” Anderson says, referring to his less than ideal fit with a company the size of Rockwell and the more traditional, good-old-boy culture of the time.
In 1983, he and his two sons, Scott and Eric, were sitting at the kitchen table when they decided to start SEAKR with the goal of using emerging solid-state technologies as an alternative data storage media for space craft memory systems. The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP)was the genesis of SEAKR. Although it took about ten years for the company to truly launch profitably, they eventually launched big and have delivered over 150 spacecraft memory/processing systems with Ray as the fearless leader.