Most of us enjoy a bag of chips from time to time, perhaps as an indulgence to brighten a dull afternoon, or a pick-me-up during a long road trip. According to the consumer research firm Nielsen, packaged snack foods are now a global industry worth $374 billion, with 91 percent of people around the world reporting that they snack at least once a day. But rarely, it’s safe to say, do snackers stop to consider the diverse skills, complex logistics, and hard work that ensure the tasty experience they have come to expect.
Industrial engineer Lailah Thompson ’16 (BS/MS) is one person who knows everything that goes into a bag of chips. As processing supply chain leader at a Frito-Lay plant outside Boston, she supervised a 30-member team making Stacy’s Pita Chips. The process began with bread dough mixed from scratch and ended with an oven-baked snack that has a satisfying crunch—something chip fans appreciate. But as in any manufacturing operation, quality control is crucial, and when the plant started getting reports of broken chips, Thompson immediately set out to investigate the problem—and solve it.
“My team took pride in their product, whether they were creating the chips or bagging them,” Thompson says. “I liked to get them involved, so I let them know what was going on. We looked at the data to see which product was incurring the most breakage, and we isolated it, went through the process to determine what had changed.”
The problem seemed to be that crumbs from the oven were making their way into the production stream. One employee who had worked at another plant manufacturing potato chips mentioned that a fan was used to blow away lighter, undersized chips before they entered the rest of the production stream. That sounded like a good idea, so Thompson worked with the maintenance team to design a piece of equipment that could remove what the industry refers to as the “fines.”
It was an elegant solution for an irritating problem, and figuring it out required an intimate understanding of the production line.
But Thompson also called on the management training she received at WPI, as well as an innate facility with people, as she listened to her team and drew upon their experience to help find answers. It’s not the sort of approach every boss might take, she acknowledges.
“But I’m like that,” she adds with a laugh. “It’s kind of my style.”
That style served Thompson well at Frito-Lay, and it promises to help distinguish her as she takes the next step in her career, enrolling at Harvard Business School this fall. And while most of her accomplishments no doubt lie ahead of her, Thompson’s unique talents have already allowed her to make a difference—in fact, her determination, hard work, and special touch with people helped change the face of WPI for years to come.
Thompson grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a historically African American neighborhood in Brooklyn. The only child of parents who often struggled financially, she learned early the importance of community—in fact, it was her community that launched her on the path to WPI, rallying around a 16-year-old and her family to help her attend the prestigious National Student Leadership Conference, a summer program for promising high schoolers at the University of California, Berkeley. Donations totaling more than $5,000 came from members of the Bedford-Stuyvesant YMCA (where she worked as a lifeguard and co-captained the swim team), local business-owners who held fundraisers on her behalf, and even readers of the New York Daily News, which featured her and her mother in an article.
The conference earned her college credit and exposed her to STEM career options, helping cement her desire to attend an engineering school. But the path that took her there fired up another dream. As a first-generation college student, she knew her life’s work would be to ensure that other young people could follow her up the ladder of opportunity.
“I want to be able to use my power, my networks, to help my community,” she explains.
Thompson was recruited to WPI, which appealed for its academic strengths, as well as the scholarship it offered her. But soon after she arrived on campus in the fall of 2012, she began to wonder if she had made a mistake. Sure, she was—as she puts it—“learning a ton” in her classes, and WPI’s “More in Four” program offered the unique chance to earn a master’s degree at the Foisie Business School alongside her BS in engineering, taking her that much closer to her dream of becoming a senior executive at a multinational corporation. But there were so few other black students on campus, and very little sense of a black community. And many of her white classmates displayed an ignorance about race that came as a shock to someone who had grown up in diverse, cosmopolitan New York City.
“There were a lot of microaggressions,” Thompson says, using a term coined to describe rude remarks, dismissals, and offensive questions commonly experienced by people from marginalized groups. “Everyone was intrigued by my hair, or why I wear a scarf at night. They made references to ghetto music. They were surprised that a black person went to WPI. They were surprised that I’m a swimmer, because I guess they thought black people don’t swim, so my being on the swim team was a shock.”
That casual racism from her swim teammates was especially hurtful. In Brooklyn the YMCA pool had been a second home, but—tired of having her presence questioned—Thompson soon quit the WPI team. In her darkest moments, she even considered leaving WPI altogether. Bonnie Walker, WPI’s former director of multicultural affairs and an informal mentor during Thompson’s years on campus, recalls giving the younger woman frequent pep talks.
“I told her that part of the growth of being here is perspective,” Walker explains. “She would have to, on some level, be a teacher to people who weren’t familiar with her culture or where she was from. She could look at that negatively, or she could look at it positively, as a way she could make an impact on the education of other people. We talked a lot about it. I just told her, ‘You’ve got to give it a chance, absolutely don’t transfer out. It’s too early.’”
It wasn’t always what Thompson wanted to hear. But she also knew people back home were counting on her.
“I kept thinking, ‘I’m on track to graduate—with both of my degrees,’” she says. “I had this community that was really supporting me and really looking up to me, and I didn’t want to let them down. So I just kept my eyes on the plan.”
Thompson never did transfer. After all, she enjoyed her classes, liked her professors, and was even forging close friendships. Instead, she set about fixing the problem, for the good of the university she was beginning to feel a part of—and for the sake of future students like her. First, she got involved with the Admissions Office, volunteering to assist the coordinator of multicultural recruitment.
“It was about reaching out to get more students, making them feel comfortable, getting the different groups on campus to be a part of the recruitment process, to show that there is a support system,” Thompson explains.
She helped organize events, became a campus tour guide, and coordinated overnight visits. For a while the role became almost a full-time job as Thompson—along with two other student interns she trained and supervised—took it upon herself to reach out to high school students of color who had begun but not completed the application process.
“I called them, emailed them, helped get them whatever support they needed,” she says. “If I couldn’t get them, I would call their guidance counselors. I would call their homes. Sometimes it was something as simple as their teachers forgot to submit their letters of recommendation, or they forgot to submit their scores. I just wanted them to have whatever they needed to get a foot in the door. And in the end we got our numbers up, so that was really exciting.”
In 2012, the year Thompson enrolled, 557 students—10 percent of the student body—were members of underrepresented minority groups. By 2016 the numbers had ticked up to 750, or 11 percent, and last year there were 809, or 12 percent.
“She significantly impacted the admission decisions of many students of color,” says Walker. “I think she made a huge difference.”
Thompson’s work also fit into WPI’s larger effort to become a more welcoming place for engineers of all backgrounds.
“Diversity used to mean you had a double-E with a mechanical engineer,” says Debora Jackson ’89 (MS MG), ’89 (MS ENG), currently the only black member of the WPI Board of Trustees. “This is something we’re now having conversations about, as a board. If project based learning is our bedrock, we want teams with racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, so that the best teams and the best solutions come together.”
Thompson helped WPI take steps toward that vision, says Jackson, who was matched with her as a trustee mentor in her junior year.
“And she did it all while maintaining a stellar academic record and keeping her career dreams always at the forefront of her mind,” says Jackson. “I knew she was going places. I was just proud to get to walk with her for a couple of years on that journey.”
In February 2018, Thompson went back to WPI for an event that had recently become a highlight of the social calendar, the Black Student Union’s annual fashion show.
“It was phenomenal,” she says. “Even the president goes. They’ve gotten some up-and coming- artists to host the fashion show, which is like, ‘Whoa! I never would have imagined this before.’ They have designers from all over come and participate. It’s become a really big show.”
The evening was bittersweet—if only she had been able to attend such a gathering as a student, she thought—yet satisfying, because it represented the culmination of all the hard work Thompson and others at WPI had put into recruiting diverse students and building a community of engineers of color at WPI.
“It definitely has gotten a lot better,” she says. “I kept in contact with some of the Admissions staff, and they would tell me, ‘Your work is paying off! We increased our percentages by this amount!’ When I visit campus
I can see it. I can see that there are more black and brown faces, which is really exciting. And they’re getting to know each other, supporting each other, building a community.”
Thompson missed this year’s fashion show, but she had a good reason—last fall, she gave birth to a daughter, Yasmina. It was no easy feat balancing parenthood with work at the Stacy’s plant, but motherhood has also fueled her ambition.
During a few weeks of well earned vacation after leaving her Stacy’s position in July, Thompson enrolled in an accounting course online before starting full-time at Harvard Business School in the fall. She knows she is likely to face the same microagressions and cultural clashes she encountered during her first few semesters at WPI. Now, though, she considers herself better prepared to confront them, and to help pave a way forward for those who come after her.
“The biggest thing I want to do, and what I’m building my life upon—besides Yasmina—is showing people like me that they can do what I’ve done,”
Thompson says. “It’s not going to be easy, but black and brown people deserve to be at WPI, and at Harvard, and in engineering and business, just as much as anybody else, and they can’t let anyone tell them otherwise.”