By Holly Fisher
Joan Robinson-Berry has the best office view. A windowed wall overlooks the assembly line for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Exterior and interiors parts are installed in the massive hanger. It’s like looking down on a Lego playset where workers are dwarfed by the jetliners that will be sent to commercial airlines around the world.
Robinson-Berry, who took the helm as vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina in June, calls it “Disneyland.” The long-time Boeing employee has an unparalleled enthusiasm for the company and the engineering marvels within it.
Before coming to Charleston, Robinson-Berry was vice president of the Shared Services Group Supplier Management organization where she led the strategy, contracting, daily management and development of the supply chain providing more than $8 billion of non-production goods and services for The Boeing Co. She wasn’t necessarily looking to leave Seattle, but her skills and the opportunity in North Charleston collided, she said.
A few months into the job, and Robinson-Berry is feeling right at home. Her “extrovert on steroids” personality fits in with Charleston’s Southern hospitality. She never tires of being greeted with hugs and a “How are you doing?”
Charleston’s spirit was on full display in early October as Robinson-Berry navigated the company through Hurricane Matthew.
Boeing South Carolina’s operations shut down after Gov. Nikki Haley ordered a coastal evacuation. Employees readied the facilities, brought the planes indoors, and then almost all of the 7,500 workers left. Just 35 employees – mostly security and fire departments – stayed behind. Robinson-Berry slept on her office floor. If her employees were there, she needed to be as well, she said.
“That spirit of teamwork, compassion and caring for one another, it was so visible during that hurricane,” she said. “It was the true spirit of Charleston.”
Robinson-Berry said she feels incredibly lucky to have landed in North Charleston. She describes Boeing South Carolina as the “perfect ecosystem for being successful.” She credits the government support, supply base and available talent for turning Boeing South Carolina into one of the company’s premier facilities. Not to mention the impact Boeing has had on the Charleston region and state as a whole.
In 2015, the Center for Business Research at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce published a report on the “Economic Impact of The Charleston International Airport Complex,” including Boeing South Carolina.
The report found that Boeing facilities directly employ 8,200 workers in the Charleston region in aircraft and aircraft parts manufacturing. The company also supports another 20,000 jobs in the region with its spin-off effect in every sector. The total estimated impact of Boeing’s local employment is more than $11 billion in economic activity in the Charleston region.
Robinson-Berry said her job is largely to maintain what’s been built here. “I’m blessed to inherit a site that is a center of excellence in so many ways.”
That doesn’t mean she isn’t reviewing each piece of the business, looking for ways to drive down spending while bringing more value to Boeing’s customers and ramping up the facility’s production to 12 planes a month.
Since the first Dreamliner rolled off the assembly line in April 2012, Boeing has had an eye toward growth. At the Interiors Responsibility Center South Carolina, employees manufacture 787 interior parts, including stow bins, closets, video-control stations and attendant modules. In 2014, the north campus expanded again with the opening of the Boeing Research & Technology Center, which focuses on advanced manufacturing technology and composite fuselage manufacturing. The company also has plans for Propulsion South Carolina, where it will design and assemble the 737 MAX engine housing component.
Building a pipeline
To keep the assembly line moving and the innovative ideas flowing, it takes a skilled workforce of engineers and technologically-minded workers. Building that pipeline may be Robinson-Berry’s greatest challenge.
She’s seen the statistics – a disturbing lack of academic performance and college readiness. “That bothers me,” she said. “I want to be part of the solution.”
Educating the next generation of scientists, engineers and tech gurus is a passion for Robinson-Berry. In fact, she devotes most of her free time to STEM education and mentoring young people. She’s already poised to take Boeing’s DreamLearner program to the next level – 2.0 as she calls it – by adding in 3-D printing, animation and robotics for the middle school students who visit the campus for programs and tours.
“The next generation won’t be building airplanes the way we do today,” Robinson-Berry said.
She’s already been tapped to be on the board of the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, a group of dedicated leaders from the tri-county region focused on improving educational outcomes in the community. And she’s organizing her own summit of like-minded thought leaders.
Robinson-Berry believes in bringing together children of all socioeconomic backgrounds and races. “Technology and education is a great equalizer,” she said.
STEM is for girls
Being herself a woman of color in engineering, Robinson-Berry is a role model and example of the contributions women can make in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
In 2016, Robinson-Berry was recognized as one of Women’s Enterprise USA’s Top 100 Leaders in Supplier Diversity. She was honored with the Women of Color Professional Achievement Award in 2015. She received the Career Communications Group 2007 Black Engineer of the Year Achievement Award and was inducted into their Alumni Hall of Fame in 2012.
"STEM is absolutely a “girl’s thing,” she said, noting the diversity of thought that women contribute to technology and science. “What we bring to the table leads to innovation. The world needs our thinking.”
Robinson-Berry grew up in Los Angeles, her background “humble,” she said. As she was approaching her college years, the aerospace industry was rising up. Companies like McDonnell Douglas Corp., Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon had a significant presence in Southern California and were heavily recruiting at colleges in the 1980s.
Despite a high school counselor who told her “girls don’t do engineering,” Robinson-Berry found her calling in the sciences. As a sophomore at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona, Robinson-Berry took a job with General Dynamics. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering technology.
In 2015, she was named to the College of Engineering Hall of Fame – her photo now hanging in the school that didn’t even have a women’s restroom when she started there.
Taking the good with the bad
Despite her skill, being a woman in a male-dominated field wasn’t easy. Sexual harassment wasn’t reported but rather tolerated.
Robinson-Berry reflects on the good times and bad times in her life, giving each equal credit for shaping her into the woman and leader she is today. “I’m not going to give obstacles power,” she said.
She’s grateful for the blessings and the challenges because they have prepared her to face anything. “When you can develop courage, you can do almost anything.”
Part of those good times include a career spent largely at Boeing, which Robinson-Berry describes as a “company of choices.” She recounts her good fortune to have traveled around the world and witnessed once-in-a-lifetime moments.
She recalls watching her first space shuttle launch and being around the astronauts. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is the day I would write a check to Boeing.’”
Robinson-Berry loves technology and how it intersects with aerospace. “We’re about technology, and we always have been,” she said. “The world depends on aerospace to connect, explore and inspire.
“To have the opportunity to be part of designing an airplane and see it fly for the first time, I can’t even describe it.”