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The Story of SHPE

Supporting Hispanics in STEM for nearly 50 years

The year was 1973. Rodrigo “Rod” Garcia was working as a civil engineer for the City of Los Angeles. When Rod was at work—even in the midst of a tech boom in California—he was a brown face in a sea of white. But when he drove home in the evenings or walked the streets, his city was far more colorful. LA was home to the largest Hispanic population in the country.

Rod is a man of action.

He gathered a cohort of fellow Hispanic engineers who shared his concerns, and they held a meeting in his garage to determine how they could contribute to diversifying the STEM field. The group quickly charged this side project with passion. Each of them had overcome barriers to break into the engineering world. It hadn’t been easy to get where they were; statistically, it had been nearly impossible. And after finally earning their places, they were still experiencing discrimination.

So the group set to work doing what engineers do best: designing and building. They leveraged their community and political contacts; making calls and meetings asking for support, upgrading their office from Rod’s garage to a PO Box across from City Hall, they called National Headquarters. In 1974, they officially formed the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE).

What was, back then, a small group of leaders has now grown into a nationwide professional association. SHPE serves more than 13,000 members, runs 280+ college and university chapters, and we’re coming up on 50 years at work.

Rod is thrilled with what his garage project has become, and he’s not the least bit surprised by SHPE’s success.

“No, I’m not surprised at all. We were engineers. We drew up the plan. This is what we dreamed of: an organization with a clear mission and a national presence. We always knew it had this kind of potential. To see it take off the way it has—it’s really special.” -Rodrigo Garcia, SHPE Founder

SHPE Through the Years - A Timeline

As we approach our 50th anniversary, it's more important than ever to reflect back on where we came from and how we got to the place we are now as leading Hispanics in STEM. Our history is our foundation. A foundation that supports what is now an internationally known and respected organization.

To memorialize the history of our Familia, we reached out to the team at History Associates Incorporated, a professional group of researchers, storytellers, and archivists. Using a variety of tools including conducting oral histories with our founders and several lifetime members, they compiled the full history of the organization.

From SHPE's start in 1973 in Rod Garcia's garage all the way through to the history-making year that was 2020, they created this visual, animated timeline.
Humble Beginnings
Frustrated by a lack of both career opportunities and professional support for Hispanic engineers, Rodrigo T. (Rod) Garcia, a member of the Los Angeles City Employees Chicano Association, held a meeting in his garage in East Los Angeles to discuss creating a new advocacy organization. The group discussed ways to boost minority representation in STEM, and shared their vision for improving Hispanic employment prospects. The conversation that took place there inspired the founding of SHPE.
SHPE is Formed
In 1974, SHPE was officially incorporated, its first office listed as a post office box in Los Angeles. Rod Garcia served as the first president of the organization, which initially focused its efforts in Southern California. Administrators, professors, and students at California State University, East Los Angeles College, and the University of Southern California founded SHPE’s first collegiate chapters.
Contextual Event
As Rod Garcia and his cofounders laid the groundwork for SHPE, another group of engineers formed the Mexican American Engineering Society, today’s MAES: Latinos in Science and Engineering, Inc. SHPE and MAES often collaborate and support each other.
First Foundation Established
Hesitant to rely on government grants, SHPE actively solicited corporate donations. In 1976, SHPE leaders established the SHPE Foundation to raise money to support the organization’s mission. The fundraising arm of SHPE has undergone several transformations since its establishment—in 2015, the foundation and SHPE, Inc. (the main organization) formally merged together to form one unified organization.
Fostering Corporate Partnerships
To better facilitate relations with its corporate partners, SHPE established the Executive Advisory Council. Although the council eventually folded, SHPE revived the concept in 1992 with the Industry Partnership Council. Relationships with companies like IBM have ensured funding for programs, networking opportunities for members, and insight into employer hiring practices and priorities. In the early 2000s, SHPE actively worked to reinvigorate these partnerships and grow the council.
SHPE's First National Conference
SHPE’s first national conference in Los Angeles, California set a precedent for the future, offering opportunities for networking and education. The conference grew and expanded in the coming years, and would soon be held annually in winter and early spring. The conferences have also helped to create, as former SHPE president Serafin Fernandez put it, a sense of “familia” in the organization.
New Directions With New Staff
Initially an all-volunteer organization, SHPE began professionalizing its operations when it hired a secretary and administrator. In 1982, SHPE cofounder Rod Garcia became SHPE’s first executive director. In that position, he took on the responsibility of guiding SHPE’s day-to-day operations.
Empowering Regional Organizations
As SHPE grew, new chapters sprung up around the country. To empower these chapters, SHPE adopted a plan of regionalization. The national organization ceded power to individual chapters and allowed them to pursue initiatives and programs tailored to their specific needs. Regional representatives served on a national board that coordinated plans and policy for SHPE.
Contextual Event
In 1984 the first issue of Hispanic Engineer (later renamed Hispanic Engineer and Information Technology) went to print. The magazine is still in print today and is published by Career Communications Group, Inc.
Training The Next Generation of Leaders
From its early days, SHPE has worked to foster not just great engineers, but great leaders. In 1986, SHPE hosted the National Student Leadership Development Seminar, designed to provide training and development for a new generation of leaders. The program was reorganized as the National Student Leadership Conference in 1991 and eventually evolved into the National Institute for Leadership Advancement.
SHPE On Capital Hill
“Today I will be testifying about the future,” the SHPE representative told the congressional committee. As a sign of the organization’s growing influence and reputation, Congress invited SHPE to testify about Hispanic employment. SHPE called for greater investment in Hispanic youth to ensure they had the tools and skills necessary to thrive in the modern workplace.
Contextual Events
In 1989, the first Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference (HENNAAC) was held. Several future SHPE leaders attended the conference and were inspired by the program. HENAAC still exists today to honor and recognize the best and brightest Hispanic professionals in STEM.
New Leadership
SHPE elected Margarita Colmenares to serve as the organization’s president in 1989. The first woman to hold that role, Colmenares used her position to empower Hispanic students and ensure that SHPE remained committed to training the next generations of leaders. “We need to establish that every citizen, regardless of race or economic background, has the opportunity to reach their fullest potential,” she declared during her inaugural address.
Branching Out
In 1992, SHPE took another major step by hosting its conference outside of Los Angeles for the first time. This helped cement SHPE as a national organization, and laid the foundations for future conferences to occur all over the United States. Future conferences would employ paid consultants, another sign of the organization’s professionalization.
Clarifying the Mission
In 20 years, SHPE had grown from a small regional group to a truly national organization. In response, the organization adopted a mission that embraced and promoted further expansion. The mission statement read, “SHPE’s mission is to promote the development of Hispanics in engineering, science and other technical professions to achieve educational excellence, economic opportunity and social equity.” In the years since, SHPE has refined its mission statement. Today it reads, “SHPE changes lives by empowering the Hispanic community to realize its fullest potential and to impact the world through STEM awareness, access, support, and development.”
An Official Magazine
To better promote its efforts, SHPE sought a partner that could serve as the official magazine of the organization. SHPE decided to work with Hispanic Engineer (known today as Hispanic Engineer and Information Technology). The partnership allowed SHPE to better promote its activities and remain connected to its members.
Remember the Professionals
SHPE’s membership includes students, civil servants, employees at firms, and entrepreneurs. In response to member concerns that the organization was prioritizing students, SHPE unveiled several new conference offerings for its professional members, including a track for members interested in starting their own engineering firms.
A Computer In Every School
Concerned by the growing digital divide in American schools and emboldened by President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore’s call to connect all students to the internet, SHPE embarked on an ambitious effort to fix the technological imbalance. SHPE chapters—beginning with the professional chapter in San Jose, California, in 1996— began to donate their time and expertise to help connect schools in their area. In 1998, SHPE partnered with the AFL-CIO to bring new technology into schools across the country.
An Intergalactic Partnership
Throughout its history, SHPE has collaborated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on several initiatives designed to promote Hispanic engagement in the aerospace industry. In 2004, NASA and SHPE hosted the National Academic Olympiad at SHPE’s annual National Technical and Career Conference.
Working For Student Success
To further support its student members, SHPE opened a new office at the University of Texas at Arlington campus that would be dedicated solely to student programs. At this point, scholarships to students totaled up to $500,000, a sign of both the organization’s fundraising abilities and commitment to young engineers.
The End of An Era
While the National Technology Career Conference, SHPE’s annual conference, had been a mainstay in the organization’s calendar for decades, by 2007 SHPE leaders realized that it was a time for a change. That year, two national conferences were held. One final winter conference in January 2007 and a new one in the fall (beginning in late October) to better coincide with corporate hiring trends. These changes represented a recentralization of the organization’s annual events and gave more power to the national organization.
SHPE's First CEO
By 2008, SHPE was undergoing further professionalization. That year, the Board of Directors hired a full-time CEO, Enrique Gomez, to administer operations, shifting responsibility away from the board and president. In future years, the organization would continue to build a dedicated, full-time staff, hiring more personnel, and granting the CEO greater decision-making powers. Since Gomez’s tenure, Pilar Montoya, Richard Morley, Barry Cordero, and Raquel Tamez have served as SHPE’s CEO.
Recession & Recovery
While the 2008 recession sent shockwaves throughout the economy, it offered unexpected new opportunities for SHPE. Student chapters recruited new members as many unemployed workers went back to school. In response, SHPE worked to improve its career support services. SHPE’s efforts paid off. Despite the economic hardships, SHPE numbered over 10,000 members in 2009, a new record.
Promoting Empowerment
Only about 3% of all women involved in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are Latinas. To promote Latina engagement in STEM, SHPE created a new track for its annual conference. Today, the SHPEtinas: Igniting Latinas in STEM program continues this effort.
A New Structure
After years of discussion and debate, SHPE revised and reformed its governance structure, adopting a streamlined approach designed to run the organization like a business to provide professionalized services and support to its members. As part of this reorganization, SHPE Inc. and the SHPE Foundation merged. These efforts yielded dividends. By 2018, SHPE exceeded 230 active chapters.
From Conference to Convention
SHPE’s commitment to its members manifested in the decision to redesign its annual gathering. No longer just a conference, the 2018 event was a dedicated convention that featured five smaller conferences: Academic, Professionals in STEM, SHPEtinas, Tech & Innovation, and Pre-College.
New Designs for a New Decade
By the end of the 2010s, SHPE had more than 11,000 members spread out over 245 chapters nationwide. This influx of members propelled the organization to its largest conference ever, as over 9,000 participants registered for the 2019 SHPE National Convention. That year, SHPE also unveiled a new website to better serve its members and a new logo that reflects how the organization has changed and evolved in recent years.
Finding New Opportunities In Unprecedented Times
As the COVID-19 pandemic took a tremendous economic and social toll on communities around the world, SHPE reacted quickly and moved all operations online. These efforts paid off—the organization fundraised more than $800,000, enabling SHPE to continue to serve its members during a challenging time. In 2020, SHPE CEO Raquel Tamez and Board Chair Miguel Alemany also had the distinction of attending the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos as part of the first Hispanic delegation. SHPE was the only professional society represented in the delegation, which included a total of five organizations.
Taking the Convention Online
To ensure the safety of members and staff in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, SHPE moved its National Convention online. Nearly 9,000 people took part in the virtual convention in October 2020, and the multi day event received enthusiastic reviews from attendees. “I loved the virtual event this year!” wrote one participant. “Even though it wasn’t what anybody had in mind when we think ‘convention,’ I think it turned out for the better. The SHPE team really did some astonishing work to ensure that we all had a great convention.”