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‘Chief problem solver’ aims to make medical tech industry more diverse

Avery Bleichfeld
‘Chief problem solver’ aims to make medical tech industry more diverse
Alexis Smith-Attuquayefio, president of the Boston chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and director of operations at SatioDX. BANNER PHOTO

Alexis Smith-Attuquayefio has a handful of impressive professional titles, including director of operations at the leading-edge medical technology company SatioDX in Boston’s Seaport District.

She’s also president of the National Society of Black Engineers’ local professionals chapter. But the self-appointed role that never appears on a business card is “chief problem solver.”

It’s a mindset that she dedicates to her work at SatioDX — which is developing technology to make it easier to take blood samples at home — as well as to efforts to make the engineering field more diverse.

In all of that, she’s focused on trying to make good ideas into reality.

“I always find that on paper, everything works, but the challenge is to take it off paper and make it real,” she said.

The problems that Smith-Attuquayefio, 40, has decided to solve are diverse and plentiful; her plate is packed with challenges she’s hoping to address, and increasing diversity in engineering is at the top of the heap.

According to data from the National Science Foundation’s Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, in 2021, women made up about 28% of engineering graduate students. Black women in particular made up just under 3%.

When it comes to addressing that gulf, Chiderah Okoye, a former president of the NSBE Boston chapter, said she is impressed with Smith-Attuquayefio’s ability to balance specific details to pull results together.

The two have worked together on a program through NSBE to support training young people in clean technology jobs. The chapter plans to launch the program this summer.

“She has a very good eye for how to move a lot of little dials to solve the overall problem,” Okoye said.

For the work of NSBE Boston overall, that talent has helped refocus the organization to better serve the professionals it aims to connect.

The National Society of Black Engineers started as a collegiate organization, offering a place on college campuses to help Black students declare and stick with a degree in engineering. Smith-Attuquayefio got started with the society through the chapter at University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she studied chemical engineering, near her hometown of Springfield.

That school-based background makes NSBE’s professional-level offshoots, like the one Smith-Attuquayefio runs, less formulaic, said Okoye.

During her time as president, Okoye said, the organization sometimes struggled to balance who its consumers were — its members or the companies the society was connecting them with. Under Smith-Attuquayefio’s leadership, Okoye said, NSBE Boston has prioritized its members and made clear that if companies are interested in increasing diversity, they need to put real skin in the game in a way that means more than just dollars.

“It’s not about having a logo up somewhere, it’s about what are the tangible, you-can-touch-and-feel-it ways that organizations are really building that pipeline,” Okoye said.

That has meant exposing young students to STEM careers, eliminating program barriers in education and making sure that companies that partner with the chapter actually hire students from the collegiate network for internships and co-ops — an important step to make sure those students are competitive and have a support system in a field where they won’t always find people who look like them.

“What we find is that Black students in STEM don’t always have the same access to co-op opportunities,” Smith-Attuquayefio said. “It’s just like working, right? How do we ensure that those who are the least represented have equal access to opportunity?”

Okoye said Smith-Attuquayefio is “technically too busy” for all the work in the community that she manages to do. But making time for that work is central to who she is, said Shauna Rigaud, a longtime friend of Smith-Attuquayefio and sorority sister in Sigma Gamma Rho.

“Alexis makes time for those things,” Rigaud said. “She makes she makes time for people, she makes time for changing her community, for supporting people.”

Smith-Attuquayefio’s colleagues recognize her as a person who pulls together the many pieces of her diverse background — as a mother, an involved community member, a Black woman in a largely white field — to craft a unique perspective built on background beyond just the engineering.

“Her experiences are beyond her technical engineering experiences, and those things make her actually a better engineer,” said Mike Moniz, vice president of engineering at SatioDX.

Even her path to her current role wound through a handful of different areas. She said she knew early on that she wanted to become a manufacturing expert, but she first tried her hand at designing chemical plants and then working with manufacturing beauty products for L’Oréal.

“I really just want to be able to make the things that people need at the scale they need them,” she said.

The switch to medical technology came when a former employer, Abiomed, hired her, eager to draw from the faster processes that are necessary in cosmetics manufacturing.

She said she has come to love her current field for the way it makes the work meaningful.

Beyond her work with manufacturing and supply chain and her duties with NSBE, she also dedicates time to caring for her two daughters, who she said drive a lot of the work she does.

In 2022, Smith-Attuquayefio made a bid for a seat on the school committee in Danvers, where her kids attend school, citing limited diversity and concerns about how the STEM curriculum matched up against other districts.

It was an effort that she admits she didn’t really have time for. When the school committee run didn’t pan out, she pivoted and served on strategic committees for the elementary and middle schools, attending meetings and providing other feedback to the district to help address the same concerns that drove her to make the run.

“Don’t be afraid to do the hard things. Then, when they don’t go as designed or as planned, don’t lose focus on your mission,” Smith-Attuquayefio said. “You can still achieve your mission on a different path.”

The importance of STEM education in schools and getting kids started early is a passion for her. Rigaud recalled a community service event she worked on with Smith-Attuquayefio at UMass Amherst, where members from their sorority went to a local high school to mentor girls of color.

“Alexis has always been interested in giving back in those kinds of ways,” Rigaud said. “Her interest in the sorority was about, ‘How do I continue to do this kind of service, to build community with people?’ Because UMass is like a huge school with a very small black population.”

Smith-Attuquayefio said it comes back to too many experiences she’s had where she’s been the only person in the room who looks like her — something she’s hoping to change for the next generation.

“My goal is that every space I enter, if I’m the only one, you’d best believe that by the time I spend a year in there, I’m bringing in diverse talent,” she said. “It’s not just Black engineers, it’s ‘Is there diversity of thought in this room? Is there diversity of experience in this room?’ … The singular approach, I think, just doesn’t get us there.”

Alexis Smith-Attuquayefio, medical technology, science, STEM