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Drivers of Innovation: Building on the Success of Those Before

La Tonya Locklear of UL Solutions finds strength in the opportunities and community her Native American ancestors provided for her. She sees her successes as a chance to advocate for those around her.

Closeup of La Tonya Locklear in colorful Lumbee shirt.

November 18, 2022

As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month at UL Solutions, we talked to La Tonya Locklear about her heritage, role at UL Solutions and being an ally to Indigenous people. Locklear, a program manager at UL Solutions, is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. She has been active in several business resource groups (BRG) within the company, most recently helping to establish the Tribal Voices BRG. She is currently one of the group’s global co-leads.

Please tell us about your background.

I was born and raised in Lumberton, North Carolina, in rural Robeson County. I am the oldest of four children. I am a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi.

I was the first in my family, including my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, to graduate high school and attend college. I graduated from North Carolina State University (NCSU) with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering.

At graduation, I was the first Native American woman to graduate from NCSU with a bachelor of science in electrical engineering. I’m a member of the first Native American Sorority, Alpha Pi Omega. I am also a member of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).

How did you get into engineering?

I went into engineering because it was something outside of a “typical” role for women, and I was determined to show people that a Native woman could not only succeed but do so in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field. I’d been told I wasn’t smart enough and was too poor to succeed, despite graduating seventh in a class of over 300 students.

Electrical engineering felt like a natural choice, as I’d always enjoyed both math and science.

What brought you to UL Solutions?

January of 2022 marked 25 years for me at UL Solutions. Someone from UL, which it was called at the time, was a guest in my senior design class. I loved the mission and the type of work presented to us. So, when UL came to campus to interview, I signed up.

I came in as an engineer. I shifted gears to project management in 2013. I am now a certified project management professional (PMP) and a member of the Project Management Institute (PMI) and its North Carolina chapter (NCPMI).

What are your favorite things about working for UL Solutions?

The people here and the company’s mission of working for a safer world are absolutely my favorite parts of working here. The people I have met and worked with along the way have helped me to grow and strengthen my skillset. I also like knowing that the work we do every day positively impacts the daily lives of others.

I have been fortunate to work with managers at UL Solutions who took the time to listen, coach and direct me in my career. They helped provide me with opportunities and the confidence to use my voice and build credibility.

Being part of UL Solutions’ BRGs also made a difference because it provides an opportunity to advocate for others, to help others have a voice, build their skillset and advance in their careers. It gave me a seat at the table with leaders and visibility beyond the colleagues I normally work with every day. I’ve grown and strengthened my skills in communication, facilitation, project management, collaboration, decision-making, accountability and managing stakeholders. Participating in the BRGs allowed me to showcase my skills as a program manager and opened the door to my current role within Project Alpha.

How has being a part of the new Tribal Voices BRG impacted you and/or the community?

Being a part of the launch of the Tribal Voices BRG has allowed me to share with others who I am. I have an opportunity to share my heritage and culture and advocate for other Indigenous people. It’s an opportunity to remind people that Indigenous people are not extinct. We can show people that we still exist and are alive and well.

The group is new, but we are looking at more outreach into the greater community. We are looking into potential partnerships, such as working with AISES. Partnerships would be a way to continue promoting the UL Solutions mission and STEM careers, particularly among Native women.

Why do you think Native American Heritage Month is important?

My family grew up when being Indian was not a privilege. Indigenous people were considered “colored,” as was commonly used in that era to refer to anyone who was Black, Indigenous or a person of color. My parents, grandparents and beyond faced many racial hardships due to the color of their skin. Therefore, they never participated in traditional cultural activities and did not pass any Native traditions on to me. Growing up, I knew I was Indian, but that is all I knew. It wasn’t until I went to college at NCSU that I became more aware of what being Lumbee Indian really meant.

Now, Native American Heritage Month is a time when we honor our heritage, culture and ancestors through the advancement and education of Natives. We want to expand the appreciation, acknowledgment and commitment of support beyond the month of November and don’t wish to see another 74-year wait. [Locklear refers to the 74 years between the first Native American Heritage Month celebration and when President George H.W. Bush issued a joint resolution in 1990 designating National American Indian Heritage Month. Similar proclamations with variations on the name have been issued regularly since 1994.]

What are you most proud of about your heritage? What traditions do you enjoy?

I’m most proud of my ancestors, who paved the way, so I have the opportunities I do today. We are a people who have demonstrated determination in moving forward regardless of many racial and political challenges and barriers. We fight for what we believe. Staying connected with family and community is critical, even for those who move away from the area. Today, the church is central to the Lumbee community. When you meet someone, they will likely ask, “Who’s your people, and where do they church?” This may not be the case for every tribe, but it is for the Lumbee people.

I’m very fond of Lumbee Homecoming, a weeklong celebration around the Fourth of July each year. Anyone who has moved away from the four counties that make up the Lumbee Tribe typically comes home this week. We celebrate with a parade, powwow and food vendors serving various types of Native food, including grape ice cream and collard sandwiches. Lumbee artisans sell Native products, which are often handmade. There are pageants for Miss Lumbee (Miss, Teen Miss, Junior Miss and Little Miss), Senior Ms. Lumbee and Mr. Lumbee. There’s also an outdoor drama called “Strike at the Wind.” It chronicles the life of Lumbee “Robin Hood,” Henry Berry Lowrie, and his gang. They fought for justice against those who oppressed the Indian people and tried to take their land.

How can we encourage more Native American students to engage in STEM education and careers?

Native Americans need more allies, which is what drives me to give back and stay service-oriented. I am involved in Native education groups, ensuring kids have somewhere to go where they are included and understood. I also encourage Native students to go into STEM programs. I want them to see their opportunities and never think that there is something they cannot achieve, regardless of what someone has told them.