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Drivers of Innovation: History Focuses Us on Future Progress

Ray Wilkinson reflects on her journey at UL Solutions, getting kids to explore STEM early, the resiliency of her ancestors, and the strength and drive her parents helped instill in their family.

Closeup of Ray Wilkinson in black jacket with red shirt against black background.

February 23, 2023

As we celebrate Black History Month at UL Solutions, Ray Wilkinson discusses her path from chemical engineer to senior learning and development manager with Talent and UL University (ULU). Learn more about her love of building relationships, the importance of reflection during Black History Month, and how we can help get students interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and careers.

Please tell us about your background.

My family and my husband’s are based in the Durham, North Carolina, area. My parents are very hands-on people. My dad is a plumber and pipe-fitter by trade. He used to bring me along and show me how to do things.

I’ve always loved problem-solving and working with people. As a kid, you could say I was very into “geeky” stuff — figuring out how things worked. Chemistry was also very interesting to me. I like seeing how things go together.

How did you get into your career path?

I attended North Carolina State University (NCSU), earning my degree in chemical engineering. After graduation, I started at UL Solutions as a chemical engineer in the plastics group. I worked with plastic and chemical manufacturers that made insulating materials for end-use products.

I worked my way up as a group leader. Eventually, I became a laboratory manager of the plastics and personal protective equipment (PPE) laboratories. This background allowed me to gain leadership experience. I was learning more about testing, workflow challenges, solving problems and making people connections. I was able to advocate for employees, encouraging them to problem-solve while supporting them.

I was away from UL Solutions briefly when the plastics work went to laboratories overseas. After about eight months, though, I got a call to come back. I returned as a customer service engineer, doing quotes and test summaries with customers.

I was also interested in learning Six Sigma and its tools for improving processes. I achieved my Six Sigma Master Black Belt while working with the global laboratories, and I am also a certified Project Management Professional (PMP)®. These certifications eventually led to a shift in my work, and I currently am part of the Talent and ULU team. I am the global lead for the Executive and Strategic Learning Journeys. I also enjoy facilitating sessions for leadership and project teams. Essentially, I help people problem-solve and reach their goals.

What brought you to UL Solutions?

In my final year at NCSU, counselors on campus with the Black Student Career Service matched me with UL Solutions as a potential employer. I got an interview, and I’ve been working at Research Triangle Park (RTP) in North Carolina with UL Solutions since I graduated. I didn’t have a lot of internship experience, but I was enthusiastic about the opportunity.

I’m actually still in touch with some other alums and the Black Student group at NC State.

What are your favorite things about working at UL Solutions?

It’s good that I’ve been here for 30 years because it’s helped me gain a lot of insight into what we need. It has helped me nurture my strategic vision for the larger company, not just for the team I’m on at a given time. My experience helps me know what skills are needed and how to put them together. I can leverage the background and insight I’ve gained and know which options or paths to offer. I’ve been able to build a strategic mindset from my years and various roles here.

I also love being able to build relationships. I can help people identify what they want or need to do, and I connect them with the resources — show them the possibilities. I help them think through what they want to do next. I enjoy helping people make connections and problem-solve. I like being a strategic connector by helping people broaden and expand their networks.

I enjoy being a mentor to people. I like to tell mentees about my journey, and as they start theirs, I know it’s also a good way for me to reflect on my experiences.

How has being a part of the Black Business Resource Group impacted you and/or the community?

Being a part of the Black Business Resource Group (BBRG) has helped me advocate, bringing concerns and issues to those who can help make changes. It’s helped to provide a collective voice for the Black community and to have that voice at the table with UL Solutions leaders. The BBRG provides a safe place for people to share their struggles.

At the same time, the group has been a way to showcase our successes. Through guest speakers, events at local sites and broadcasts, we’ve been able to show the history and accomplishments of Black engineers and the Black community.

We’ve been able to have students come in for tours and have had employees go into schools for programs like Safety Smart. We’ve also helped with science fairs and other events. These have been great ways to support schools that may not have many resources available.

The BRGs are also great about partnering for community and charity events. We’ve joined with other BRGs, like the UL parents group and the Young Professionals Group (YPG), to host events, sponsor school supply drives and help Boys & Girls Clubs.

Why do you think Black History Month is important?

Black History Month reminds us of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. It’s a reflective time and honors those who have come before us. It helps us realize that even though we were on the shoulders of those who came before us, we now have another generation following us as we continue to make our way.

I’m now looking into my genealogy, and it’s amazing to see the resiliency of people. Within the BBRG, we’ve invited people to celebrate their relatives who have been pioneers.

Celebrations like Black History Month remind us of the struggles and challenges of the past, but they help us remain focused. It also prevents assumptions and stereotypes of who Black people are. We push and highlight so that people can know that there is excellence everywhere, from arts and music to science and technology. This month is a time for acknowledgment and celebration.

Black people are not just Black. We are a collection of people with a variety of histories, backgrounds, nationalities and cultures. Everybody is different and unique. That’s what makes the culture so rich.

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

My parents worked hard to make sure my sibling and I had opportunities. My parents worked in a tobacco factory, and my grandfather, who we called Papa Shine, was a moonshiner. My parents wanted me to do more. My mom started early to challenge me, giving me workbooks to do in the summer. They paid for college, and I graduated with no debt. I’m proudly in the family’s first generation of college graduates.

We have such a rich history, and food and faith are a big part of our heritage. Food, family and music are central to my life. I love all sorts of music. I’ll play gospel or rap or just about anything to get myself going. I’m also known as the “Karaoke Queen.” I love Southern cooking, including collard greens and sweet tea. My husband and I are foodies and enjoy finding new good restaurants.

In my family, sports are a big part of our lives. We love going to football games and cheering throughout the college basketball March Madness season.

How can we encourage more Black students to engage in STEM and/or further education?

When you look at some of the disparities in education, we, as corporations, can continue to give back. Through the company and employee groups, we can help provide resources to schools and partner organizations that can identify and help nurture natural skills.

One thing that can get overlooked is how much reading is fundamental in STEM. What we do in science and technology involves communications. If a kid is struggling with reading, there is a problem.

It helps to provide social skills and character building, too. Kids need to be well-rounded citizens and empathetic people. We must teach them to raise their hands and ask questions because someone else in that class also has questions. The question that goes unanswered could help provide a breakthrough. We should encourage kids to have a curious mindset.

It’s also key to start early. Students should practice as often as they can, not just in school. We need to utilize summer camps and after-school programs, and we should let them explore.

I would also encourage more students and kids who are shy or underrepresented to get tutoring, even if their grades are good. Taking advantage of extra time with teachers or tutoring can help get you from a B to an A. Students need to learn to use the resources available to them.