P&Ger's drive to give back inspires confidence, intensified passion for STEM

Thirty-one high school sophomores and juniors will gather at Procter & Gamble June 15-19 for the 11th year of the Resident Scholar Program (RSP), which is aimed at exposing minority students to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). 

Students from varied backgrounds and schools across the city — everywhere from Withrow International High School to Summit Country Day School — will meet one another and visit a different P&G site each day. Over the course of the week they’ll be introduced to mentors, be presented with consumer-based problems, work in teams to find creative and sustainable solutions that appeal to customers, enter the lab and try their hand at perhaps creating a shampoo or liquid dish soap, and ultimately learn how to market not only their products but themselves.

RSP is the brainchild of Andrea Bowens-Jones, Research and Development Section Head of P&G Personal Care, who launched and took ownership of the program after having been asked to devise a set of objectives for one high schooler who wanted a glimpse into the life of a Procter & Gamble employee. 

“She wanted to go into biology, so she was in the labs, meeting professionals — very similar to what the program is now — and it gave her the experience of what it would be like to be a biologist in corporate America in a very technologically-focused arena,” Bowens-Jones says. 

The experience was fulfilling for the student, who was able to gain hands-on experience, develop problem-solving skills, network with other biologists and learn about P&G’s company culture. Surprisingly, it was fulfilling for Bowens-Jones as well.

“Once we finished, I asked if it was going be an initiative because I’d love to be involved. I had so much fun,” Bowens-Jones says. “But they told me no, and as I sat on the phone I don’t know what came over me, but out of my mouth came, 'Can I own it?' The HR manager on the other end was like, 'OK, sure, you can have it.'” 

So Bowens-Jones got busy writing a proposal and went to her manager, Gerald Cantey, who approved her plan with ease and went to his director to secure funding for its development.

“Andrea is one of those jewels that are very intelligent and very bright, who comes into P&G and does an exceptional job driving some business, yet has passion for other elements that the company easily supports without a lot of issue,” says Cantey, who currently serves as Associate Director of Research and Development for Global Shave Care. 

Students amazed at P&G's innovation and values

Eleven years later, Bowens-Jones’ vision has blossomed. 

The Resident Scholar Program has grown immensely, and its success is evident. At last year’s 10-year anniversary, survey results indicated 80 percent of students who participated in the program went on to pursue degrees in STEM and 70 percent attribute that decision to their experience at P&G. 

“What I think we do well is we inspire the students,” Bowens-Jones says. 

Take Oli Ononye, for example, who sees his involvement with RSP as being “full circle.” 

Ononye participated in the program during its early years as a Loveland High School student, interned with P&G as a college student and is now a full-time employee who will serve as a day leader when students visit his site in June.

“I was able to meet so many people,” Ononye says of his RSP participation. “After they do the week-long event during the year, Andrea has a follow-up event where they’ll go to UC or do social outings with each other, forming great friendships, being engaged in learning and in the idea of going to college to become scientists.

“It was amazing for me. I was happy to have been a part of it and am happy to give back to them as well.” 

Ononye isn’t the only RSP participant, though, to be inspired by the program and return to the company in following years. 

Kirsten Simpson, a senior at Cincinnati Country Day School who participated in RSP in 2013, will work for P&G this summer as a full-time paid apprentice through the company’s Careers in Business Initiative.  

Simpson, 17, will attend the University of Dayton in the fall to pursue chemical engineering as a major while hopefully minoring in business, she says, “because it’s not just what you make, it’s how you sell it” — one of the many takeaways she says she gained from RSP. 

It’s the company culture, though, Simpson says, that really motivates her. 

“It’s just so fantastic how they always want to be extremely innovative and make sure that their company is strong but look back and remember how they got there,” Simpson says. “Their values are so strong, and the shadowing program mirrors that.” 

Giving back 'is how I'm designed'

It’s easy for Bowens-Jones to look back and remember how she got to where she’s at, she says, because she sees herself in the students.

“I was always smart, my grades were always good and I always aspired to be something,” she says. “But until you’re exposed to it, you don’t know what you’re shooting for a lot of times.” 

There was a student last year, she says, “who on day one felt like she was out of place, felt like she didn’t deserve to be there because she was insecure being in the program with very high achieving students. It was a matter of taking her aside and telling her, ‘You wouldn’t be in the program if we didn’t think you should be there. You earned that chair, and you will perform well.’ For me — and this is where I get emotional — that’s why this was created.”

Around the time Bowens-Jones created RSP, she was also volunteering with now-retired P&G employee Haile Mehansho at the Black Achievers Program at the Melrose YMCA. 

“I was talking about my career path, how I ended up with a Ph.D. — a lot of students haven’t seen a person of color, especially a female, with a Ph.D. in chemistry — so being able to share that journey and my background with the students is where I was at that point,” Bowens-Jones says. 

For many students, that experience of professionals sharing their life story and being inspired to know what’s possible is invaluable. 

“As an African American myself, I chose engineering when I was 12 years old because I thought I’d make a lot of money,” Cantey says. “That was my goal: to get a job and buy a fancy red sports car. I had no idea what an engineer did, no idea what a company like P&G could offer to me.

“But now, 25 years later, programs like Resident Scholar are opening up that world to folks who have never been exposed to it. Even if they choose not to go into engineering or come to P&G, they’ve been exposed and can then expose other family members and totally change their lives.” 

For Bowens-Jones, the opportunity, life-changing potential and mentorship she can both facilitate and provide make up far more than the components of a program. They're the components that characterize her legacy.

When she graduated from college with her Ph.D., her expectations were high. She remembers the day vividly. 

“My whole family was there, 15 or so people traveled to Virginia to see me graduate,” Bowens-Jones says. “They put the hood on me, and I remember thinking I was supposed to feel some type of way. I remember thinking, ‘Where is it? Balloons? A marching band? Something would come out.' But it wasn’t there. Even when I started here (at P&G), I felt like I did all that and this is what I do? Go to work every day and go home?” 

If she’s not in a position to teach and give back, Bowens-Jones says she’s not whole. 

“It’s how I’m designed, what I was created to do,” she says, “and it has been a journey for me to get to that level of awareness. But when I think back on it, I’ve always done it.”

During graduate school, she initiated a mentoring program at local elementary schools in Blacksburg, Va. — home of Virginia Tech and primarily a college town — because she would see young girls standing at the bus stop and think to herself, “Gosh, I wonder if they aspire to go to this university here?”

“So I think I’ve always been that way but just didn’t know it,” Bowens-Jones says. “I never thought it was a big deal, because I thought people cared more about the Ph.D., the Section Head part, being at a company like P&G than what it is that I do in my spare time. So at some point that overtakes the other one.” 
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Brittany York is a college educator, freelance writer, and the event producer for Ohio Civics Essential. She loves travel and photography. Keep up with Brittany on Instagram @brittbrittbrittbrittany.