Trailblazers in STEM and Business: Celebrating Cal Alumni in Black History

For Black History Month, we will be highlighting a series of Black Cal alumni trailblazers who have made significant accomplishments in their fields. These individuals were selected for the notable impact they have made in their communities, professions, and in the world. Although there are many more notable Black Cal alumni in both STEM and business, here is a glimpse at just a few individuals who have made a significant impact.

See a timeline of Pioneering Black Alumni in UC Berkeley History.


Archie Williams ’39

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An Oakland native and Olympic gold medalist who would eventually train the Tuskegee Airmen

Growing up in Oakland, Williams always dreamed of attending Cal. He once said, “My grandfather’s house on Telegraph Avenue…I could stand on the front porch, look right up Telegraph and look at the Campanile when I was [a] kid.”1

Williams began his education at UC Berkeley in 1935 after transfering from San Mateo Junior College. He was not recruited to run track at Cal, and initially did not think of running track; he was mostly focused on his dream of getting his mechanical engineering degree, even after a counselor told him he wouldn’t get a job in mechanical engineering because of his race.2 His determination to be a mechanical engineer stemmed from his love of airplanes: “That was what I wanted to do because I was fascinated with airplanes. I was an airplane nut.”3

Williams went out for Track and Field when he started at Cal in fall 1935, and was off to the Summer Olympics in Berlin the following year after a record-setting win at the NCAA Track and Field Championship that qualified him for the Olympic finals.4 Williams’s road to the Olympics was not easy, as he and his teammates had to travel by boat, leaving them unable to train for two weeks. Nonetheless, this hurdle did not prevent Williams from taking home the gold in the 400-meter race.

After becoming an Olympian, Williams went after his original dream: mechanical engineering and flying airplanes. After graduating in 1939 with his degree in mechanical engineering, Williams learned to fly with Oakland Flying Service and obtained his pilot’s license before heading to Alabama in 1943 to teach at the Tuskegee Institute in the Civilian Pilot Training Program.
 

Cynthia Marshall ’81

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First female CEO in the NBA (Dallas Mavericks) and first African American chair of the North Carolina State Chamber of Commerce

Marshall came to UC Berkeley on a full scholarship in the late 1970s to study business administration with a focus on organizational behavior and human resources.5 During her time at Cal, she vowed to limit distractions and focus on her future, telling herself often, “Girl, you gotta be big.”6 Of of the many “big” things Marshall would accomplish at UC Berkeley, one was becoming the first in her family to graduate from college.

After graduating in 1981, Marshall worked at AT&T for more than 30 years, rising from president of AT&T in North Carolina to senior vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer for the national corporation.7 During this time, she also became the first African American chair of the North Carolina State Chamber of Commerce.8

Because of Marshall’s decades of experience working in human resources and her prioritization of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, Mark Cuban called her to work for the Dallas Mavericks and use her expertise to improve the company culture. The position made Marshall the first female CEO in the NBA. Black Enterprise listed her as one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Corporate America” in 2015.
 

Nadine Burke Harris ’96, M.D., M.P.H.

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A pediatrician and leader in addressing toxic stress in youth, recently appointed California’s first-ever Surgeon General

Dr. Burke Harris decided early on to specialize in medicine and help children. She studied integrative biology at UC Berkeley and received her bachelor’s degree in 1996. After Cal, Dr. Burke Harris continued her education at UC Davis where she earned her medical degree, then at Harvard, where she earned her master’s in public health.

As a pediatrician, Dr. Burke Harris aimed to address toxic stress in children who have experienced early-childhood trauma. The Heinz Foundation recognized her for her work in establishing a system to screen and treat youth dealing with this toxic stress.9

In 2013, Dr. Burke Harris founded the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, “in the effort to advance pediatric medicine, raise public awareness, and transform the way society responds to children exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and toxic stress.”10 In 2019, she was appointed California’s first-ever Surgeon General, a role in which she will continue to stress the importance of screening children for toxic stress and addressing its root causes.
 

by Kiley Treacy

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