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From ‘humble beginnings’ to Boeing S.C. site leader

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Joan Robinson-Berry took over after Beverly Wyse departed the Boeing site for the company's Shared Services Group. Robinson-Berry's role is a bit different from Wyse's, in that she does not oversee the 787 program specifically. (Photo/Kim McManus)

Joan Robinson-Berry, the new site leader at Boeing South Carolina, remembers seeing her father’s photo splash across the television screen while she was talking on the phone.

He was a police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.

“I thought, ‘Oh, Dad is on the news.’ And then I heard, and I dropped the phone,” Robinson-Berry said.

“We were all in the hood, and we made this little club. We said, ‘This is who we are today, but it’s not who we can be.’ We said that, even though we couldn’t see ourselves in other people yet. … There were no black Barbies. There were no girls in engineering. ... The Cosby Show wasn’t out yet. We were still watching The Brady Bunch.”
— Joan Robinson-Berry, head of Boeing S.C.

Q&A with Robinson-Berry:

How did you become site leader at Boeing S.C.?
They (management) said ‘This site is growing. We’re doing some amazing things. It could probably use an infusion of a new leader.’ ... All of the past leaders were fantastic, but we want to continue to grow the South Carolina site in terms of building external presence, and they know that I’m big on the external side of it. … They paired us (David Carbon, head of 787 operations in South Carolina) up to take the baton and build on the fabulous strength that already had been laid out before us.

What attracted you to the position?
This is an opportunity to be a part of my first love. We also have a technology center — I still have that techie nerdness in me — and the center is doing amazing things. ... We have the largest autoclave in the world here. ... We have IT. There’s an innovation center. ... Can you imagine bringing that entire ecosystem together where you get the chance to put your fingerprints on it? That doesn’t exist anywhere in the company. ... To have this playground where there are so many opportunities is just a good thing.

What are you initially focused on at Boeing S.C.?
I spend a lot of time listening. I’m not looking to make all these changes because it really is in good shape. I really want to focus on what our mission is today: to build the best 787s that we can. ... I just need to ensure we continue to have the strong discipline and all of the innovation and quality put in place to ensure that we are going to be competitive.

What are the biggest challenges facing the site right now?
We want to be competitive. It is trying to drive costs down at every opportunity where we can to get the unit cost down so we can be competitive with Airbus and others. We want to be the best value ... and best value is quality, on time, right price. I think we have an opportunity in that area. In everything we think and do, are we being efficient? ... Balancing all of those things together — people, processes, tools and the entire ecosystem to keep a business running — those are my challenges.

What is your stance on the IAM’s efforts to unionize Boeing South Carolina?
I’ve been in plants with unions and without unions, and that’s not really where I focus on my energy. ... Here’s what I know for sure after 35-plus years in the business: When you get a workforce that can do pretty much any innovative process — whether you are a mechanic or an engineer — and they can move around and have flexibility and have their voice directly involved at the table, I believe that’s the most productive and motivating environment.”

What else do you plan to do in Charleston?
I am personally passionate about this, and I know I’ll do it well into my retirement, and that’s STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and math. ... I’m about building the pipeline for successful students.

What advice do you have for business leaders and educators working with at-risk students?
Find out where their gifts are. Meet them at their needs. Tell them they can bloom wherever they are in that situation.

Her father had been stabbed by two men while checking the restrooms of the L.A. Public Services Department, according to records from a nonprofit that tracks police deaths. He shot one of the men while the other fled.

He died on Dec. 24, 1980. Robinson-Berry was 18 years old.

“If he had been sick or something, it’d be one thing, but it was like, boom, and he was gone,” she said. “He was everything to me.”

As one of the older children in her family — the third-born of nine — Robinson-Berry helped her mother take care of her younger siblings after her father died.

“I come from very humble beginnings,” she said. “I grew up in a very, very humble neighborhood.”

Robinson-Berry grew up with violence as a community backdrop. Her hometown of La Puente, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, was a gang-ridden city in the 1960s.

Many of the white families relocated to Orange County, while more black and Hispanic families moved into Los Angeles County. The mostly blue-collar and bilingual community struggled with racial tensions.

She remembers the Watts Riots of 1965, which were sparked in Los Angeles over accusations of police brutality. In the days following the looting and unrest, smoke rose up from burned-out buildings throughout the city. Thirty-four people died during the riots, according to the LA Times.

She remembers how gang violence scarred her community. She also felt the pangs of personal loss return when she witnessed the killing of her brother by a relative. Later on, her sister died from lupus. Robinson-Berry and her husband raised her sister’s children.

“I have literally been through every major drama you can have — watching your brother die, learning about your father’s death on the news, having my sister die, having the Watts Riots in our city and seeing bodies in your neighborhood from gang violence. We had a lot of tragedy. I don’t focus on that,” Robinson-Berry said. “You cannot give obstacles power. You have to really focus on using that as the strength of building character, perseverance and the desire to want more.”

‘I can see the vision out’

While gangs influenced the world around her, Robinson-Berry said her formative years were pretty typical. She lived with her big family. She had a strong group of friends and participated in cheerleading, student council and band.

Her father had introduced her to mechanics at an early age, sparking an interest. As she progressed through high school, she realized she had an aptitude for math. She joined the math club and traveled the area for math competitions against private schools.

“We were all in the hood, and we made this little club,” she said of her friends. “We said, ‘This is who we are today, but it’s not who we can be.’ We said that, even though we couldn’t see ourselves in other people yet. … There were no black Barbies. There were no girls in engineering. ... The Cosby Show wasn’t out yet. We were still watching The Brady Bunch.” 

Robinson-Berry said she was hungry for an education. But at school, she was repeatedly discouraged from pursuing math or engineering as a career. One teacher told her that those studies were “for boys” and that she “could never compete.”  

But one guidance counselor defied the common thread of negativity toward women and engineering-related subjects at the time and encouraged her to study math.

She was pushed to take a calculus course at a nearby community college and apply to a four-year college. She enrolled in California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, Calif.

“It was a miracle from God that they brought in this career counselor,” Robinson-Berry said, laughing. “I remember thinking, ‘I can see the vision out of the neighborhood. It’s there.’”

‘Didn’t have a women’s bathroom’

When Robinson-Berry arrived on the Cal Poly campus, she was one of few women, particularly black women, studying engineering.

The engineering department building only had a men’s bathroom inside of it in the 1970s.

“It was very, very challenging,” she said.

Robinson-Berry went on to earn a bachelor’s in engineering technology and two master’s degrees. While she was in school, she worked part time at General Dynamics and launched an engineering startup with seven other students. The firm grew to 19 employees.

Shortly thereafter, Robinson-Berry accepted a position at McDonnell Douglas, which merged with the Boeing Co. in 1996. She has remained with Boeing for more than 30 years.

“It was that fire in my belly that I knew there is something better, and I’m going to do everything I can to do it,” she said.

‘Now young folks can see that’

Robinson-Berry has worked all over the country with Boeing in engineering, human resources, supplier management, business operations and program management positions. She has held jobs in the commercial, defense, space and corporate divisions.

She said much of her career has been spent building businesses and supplier networks, working on airplane programs and driving long-term strategies. She worked on the C-17 program and helped small-business suppliers grow into multimillion-dollar companies.

Most recently, Robinson-Berry was vice president of the supplier management organization within the Shared Services Group, a Boeing division that handles company business like supplier relationships and land purchases. She recently went to Saudi Arabia to meet with a women-led Boeing group to work on supply chain strategies.

Robinson-Berry then replaced Beverly Wyse as vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina this summer. Wyse, now the president of Boeing’s Shared Services Group in Seattle, served as the site lead for a little more than a year.

The leadership transition also included management shifts for the 787 jets, which are built in North Charleston and Everett, Wash.

As the Boeing S.C. site leader in North Charleston, Robinson-Berry oversees the Dreamliner program, but day-to-day operations fall to David Carbon, the 787 production leader in North Charleston. Carbon also reports to Mark Jenks, the Everett-based vice president and general manager of the 787 program.

Robinson-Berry will mostly focus on Boeing’s overall Lowcountry footprint, which includes a research and development lab to create new technologies for Boeing programs; a propulsion center that produces parts for the 737 Max and 777X; an interiors facility that produces Dreamliner seats and luggage bins; and a new engineering, IT and design center.

As Robinson-Berry has climbed the corporate ladder, she said stereotypes have continually resurfaced, such as when suppliers walk in for a meeting and begin presenting to a man in the room even though she is the decision-maker.

She said she tries to not let those situations define her.

“My sister embedded that mindset in me. She said, ‘You’re going to be called everything on this planet when you go into that engineering program. How are you going to operate through that?’” Robinson-Berry said. “It’s not the situation that I’ve always focused on — you can’t control that — especially being an African-American woman. It’s how you have the courage to confront it and not give it power.”

Robinson-Berry has now been inducted into Cal Poly Pomona's Alumni Hall of Fame for her leadership and contributions to engineering.

“One thing I’m really proud of is that award — remember the school had no women and very few minorities then — and now a group of us are on the walls in the engineering buildings,” she said. “Now young folks can see that.” 

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story misstated Robinson-Berry's university. She attended California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, Calif.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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