On Saturday, February 21, 2009, Northrop Grumman Corporate Vice President for Communications Darryl Fraseraddressed the Deans of Engineering, Historically Black Colleges and Universities breakfast in Baltimore, Maryland. Below are his delivered remarks.

Callings, Careers, and the Future of America

I was so flattered to receive the invitation to speak to you this morning. And I’m honored to find myself on the same stage with such a collection of educators, mentors, and advocates. You and the colleges and universities you represent have been instrumental for years – and even generations – in the cause of opportunity, progress, and fulfillment for so many young Americans.

Let me also add that I find this year’s theme especially appropriate. A new American renaissance is the first part of the theme. It does feel that way, doesn’t it? If the first half of the theme makes us feel optimistic, then the second half of the theme – leading enlightened change – should make us recognize the work still ahead if that new renaissance is going to be fulfilled. And that is what I would like to talk to you about this morning – the linkage between the new renaissance and enlightened change.

Some of what I have to say will be preaching to the choir. After all, we all have a deep appreciation for the power of education to lift people up, and we all appreciate the importance of engineering educations – STEM educations, if you will – to our future. So, yes, I am here to talk about education and engineering, but I’d like to approach it from a different angle – an angle you might not have heard before. I would like to talk less about the education of engineers, and more about the enlightenment of the individual.

Let’s go back to the center of the first renaissance, the city of Florence. The great figures of that city believed very much that learning could be used to achieve a better life – an enlightened life. The term they used for that notion wasStudia Humanitatis – and yes, that is all the Latin I know.

It’s a two-word term because they made a distinction between education and enlightenment. For them, education was a means to enlightenment, not synonymous with it. It wasn’t education for its own sake that they valued, but rather the state of enlightenment that education facilitated.

I think that idea has application today as we stand on the cusp of a new renaissance. Let me start by relating a bit of my own experience with education and engineering.

I grew up in Los Angeles and I’m a product of the LA public school system. I always liked math and science but I never really dreamt of a career in it. I recall a “Career Day” when I was in elementary school. TRW, a company that Northrop Grumman acquired in 2002, attended and had a display of what they did. As some of you may know, in those days TRW was the foremost company in space systems – satellites, probes and the like. I liked the company’s emphasis on space and exploring the unknown and I guess I just filed it away as something that could be interesting to do.

My parents stressed education a great deal in our home and it was impressed upon me early in my life the importance of good grades and college after high school. But it was still very “uncool” to be smart in my school. So I hung out with the guys, played basketball and tried not to look like I was getting good grades. My high school had 3,000 students in grades 10 through 12, so it was somewhat easy to hide as many of my friends did not have classes together. However, I couldn’t keep my secret hidden forever and one day I was discovered when I accidently dropped one of my notebooks and my report card fell open. My friends saw it and didn’t believe I was actually an “A” student because I worked so hard to hide my accomplishments.

In my junior year of high school, I was approached by MIT. I had never heard of them, knew nothing about them, and had no idea what I would want to study there. So, naturally, I applied.

I was an L.A. kid, so Boston was a huge event for me – so different in every conceivable way – the weather, the accents, the old architecture. And it was a great experience. Of course, the best part of my MIT experience was meeting another black engineering student named Leslye. She is now my wife.

Leslye and I learned a lesson at MIT that’s still valid three decades later – and that is how doors can be opened when someone helps you achieve. As our kids could tell you it seems a day doesn’t go by without one of us telling them that to whom much is given, much is required. I’ll have more to say about that in a moment.

One of the things I realized at MIT was that there seemed to be two categories of students. The first category comprised those who loved the challenge of Math and Science as an end in itself. The second category comprised those who embraced math and science as tools that allowed them to do what they really wanted to do, which was to build things. I was in the first category as I did not hold a vision of where exactly I wanted engineering to take me. As it turned out, this served me well.

My course-work at MIT allowed me to spend my summers working for such companies as Hughes, where I worked on electronics; DuPont, where I worked on the development of new materials; and TRW, where I worked on satellites.

These varied experiences helped me understand business as well as engineering. So, when I eventually went to work for TRW, it wasn’t long before I decided that I wanted to get an MBA. I told my boss of this desire and he warned me that it would stunt my career – after all, I was supposed to be an engineer in a technology company. But another experienced manager told me that TRW was a large company and that if I followed my desire and earned an MBA, a place would be found for me to use it.

I earned an MBA from UCLA and places were indeed found for me. I held positions in strategic planning, communications, business development, and others. I’ve thrived by pursuing my callings instead of a perceived career track and this has allowed me to use my education to truly grow and expand as a human being as well as an engineer. I’ve gotten to work on satellite propulsion systems, chemical lasers for missile defense, and strategic planning for the company’s space business. I’ve led the business development activities for a business unit with 20,000 employees and have interacted with members of Congress to explain our programs. Today I lead world-wide communications for all of Northrop Grumman, a leading global security company with 120,000 employees and $34 billion in annual revenue.

So what are some of the things my experiences have taught me over the years? Three come to mind.

The first concerns giving something back. Nobody reaches their goals by themselves or walks through doors that weren’t opened by someone else who preceded them. Neither Leslye nor I, two black high school students in the 70s, had any understanding or knowledge about engineering opportunities or MIT. We were done a wonderful service by those willing to reach out to us and help us understand what options were available to us if we pursued our interests in math and science. And just as TRW came to talk to my elementary school, Leslye and I also feel a need to help youth of great potential understand some of the opportunities they might be blind to. We do this by serving as chairpersons responsible for the network of alumni who interview all MIT candidates in the DC metropolitan area. We also sponsor annual workshops through our church to help minority parents and high school students understand and navigate the college application and financial aid processes. We believe that one of the best ways to help young people find their callings is to arm them with information so they know all options that are available to them.

A former pastor once told Leslye and me a story that helps frame how we look at the need to give back. He said each of us should imagine ourselves on a ladder, holding a pail of bricks and a coil of rope. Each day we have a choice – do we let down our rope to help someone get to the next level or do we use our bricks to keep them beneath us.

My second theme concerns math and science. I’m now in communications. Like me, Leslye also started out as an engineer, went to law school, and now leads development of new laws to protect our food supply. I have a brother who used his math and science background to answer a calling in medicine. And, a large number of our friends who studied engineering are still working as engineers or engineering managers. If a young person has a math and science aptitude, it must be cultivated. But not everyone is wired that way and – I stress again – we should be more focused on helping young people find their callings than find careers. As we all know, many of our students are not encouraged to pursue their interest and aptitude in math and science. Thus, we lose many potential technological experts at the start.

Having said that, math and science are the keys to any number of futures in a way that other disciplines simply are not and this is something else we need to underscore to our youth. Let’s return to the first renaissance. The great artists of that age – DaVinci, Brunelleschi and others – learned engineering as a component of their artistic training. This is evident in DaVinci’s drawings of machinery. It is evident in the dome on the Cathedral of Florence built by Brunelleschi – who was trained as a goldsmith and a sculptor.

But those great artistic engineers were influenced as much by the engineers of ancient Egypt as they were by Greek and Roman culture. Florence was the birthplace of Egyptology and it was there people of power advertised their authority by erecting small scale pyramids. It was there that the first efforts were made to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. For all of their amazing feats of art and engineering, DaVinci, Brunelleschi, and the other giants of the renaissance, marveled at the pyramids and asked themselves, how did they do it? They went to their graves without the answer.

And this brings me to my third theme. I don’t know how we are going to do it, but I firmly believe that a central element of the enlightened change that will drive this new renaissance must be done by making scholastic achievement cool again. I know it can be done because not that long ago, intellectual pursuits were cool. There was a time when every kid knew who Edison was, or George Washington Carver, or Einstein. The devaluing of scholastic achievement among our nation’s youth must change and we have never had a better chance to change it. Our nation now has an African-American president of incredible popularity. But more than that, he is a man whose manner, background and values completely undermine the fixation that too many young Americans have on the base and the vulgar elements in our society. He completely undercuts the culture that sees scholastic achievement as some kind of sell-out.

A new renaissance? I think so. As the Egyptians influenced the first Renaissance, so might black America be poised to usher our nation toward a new renaissance. Never before has black America had more influence on the direction in which our nation will go in the next decade or two. This is our chance – and we’ll only get one like this – to lead the nation back to a time when Americans valued the human intellect – when the human intellect was appreciated in a way that all Americans seem to have forgotten or if not forgotten, marginalized.

Here I am preaching to the choir again. You are the leading the charge in education and thus enlightened change, which will create this new renaissance.

Each of you has made using that rope I mentioned earlier your life’s work. I commend you for it. You have never been more needed and your work has never been more important. So, yes I do see a new American renaissance in our lifetime. Just picture it, young African American men and women across this country striving to succeed, proud of their intellect, pursuing their passions, including those in math and science, and being viewed as being cool by their peers. The result will be a better America – yes a new American renaissance.