Growing up poor with her five sisters and mother on a farm in Moro, Arkansas, a town of fewer than 200 people, Hattie Hill dreamed of opportunity. Through a fierce, unyielding determination, attributed to her mother’s character, faith and strength, Hill has successfully seized seemingly every opportunity within her grasp for more than 30 years in her career.
In her most recent challenge, though, Hill is providing opportunity for others, more than 5,000 students in Dallas, the United States and 23 other countries this summer alone, as the President and CEO of the T.D. Jakes Foundation. The nonprofit was launched by Bishop T.D. Jakes, the wildly influential author and senior pastor of the nondenominational megachurch The Potter’s House, in January. Its goal is to raise $100 million “to empower youth from all backgrounds to see their possibilities and dream of a better tomorrow by learning the power of STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics].”
“Our chairman [Bishop Jakes] sees this as his legacy work,” Hill says. “This entire platform is going to be our closing chapter; this is such a passion for so many of us. There are so many students and young adults who, because of their circumstances, know what they like and what they are interested in, but lack the vision and oftentimes the opportunity to get there. They can’t dream what they don’t see.”
This summer’s five-week STEAM Academy launch in Dallas took a haymaker from the COVID-19 pandemic. The initial plan was to host 500 students ages 5-16 at The Potter’s House with a focus on next-generation jobs. As social distancing protocols became the norm, Hill was left with only a few weeks to adapt on the fly.
It was decided to make the program virtual, and 5,000 students quickly signed up, but many didn’t have access to a computer or the internet at home. So Hill led an effort to raise funds from locally headquartered businesses, and brought in more than $400,000 in 45 days. The next challenge was changing how such a hands-on, in-person program like STEAM Academy would work virtually for the various age groups.
“Without question, 2020 will go down in history as game-changing,” Hill says. “Technology allowed us to lean on each other more, figure things out differently. With every tragedy you look for the silver lining. How can we come out of this as better human beings? The digital divide came forward with COVID and we pivoted to make the academy a reality for those who need it most.
“It’s so important for the students to understand these jobs exist, to hear a lot of real-world people tell real-world stories, to look at where the world is going. There are 700,000 tech jobs available right now.”
The academy introduced students to numerous companies specializing in these fields, including the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Texas Instruments, through virtual field trips. However, STEAM jobs are only reachable through exposure and education, which is at the very core of the foundation.
“You can’t dream what you don’t see,” Jakes says. “Big ideas come from forward-thinking people who challenge the norm, think outside the box, and invent the world they see inside rather than submitting to the limitations of current dilemmas.”
For Hill, this is just another example of her career changing lives, starting with her own. After earning a bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Arkansas State University, she started Hattie Hill Enterprises and became a pioneer in global diversity and inclusion. Among the companies for which she consulted were IBM, McDonald’s and Southwest Airlines. Her efforts spanned more than 70 countries over six continents.
In 2013, the best-selling author of multiple books became the President and CEO of the Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF), which focuses on accelerating the advancement of women and gender equity. In less than seven years, Hill overhauled the organization, increasing revenue and membership by more than 20 percent. A collaborative effort by the WFF, the Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org in 2017 led to revolutionary research and resulted in more jobs and higher pay around the globe.
Less than a month after her retirement from the WFF in 2019, she accepted the leadership role at the T.D. Jakes Foundation. Putting her resilient focus and passion toward future generations proved too much to pass up; yes, much progress has been made in social equality thanks to the efforts of people like Hill and Jakes, but much work remains.
“The greatest change today is we have more voices at the table,” Hill says. “We were at the table during Affirmative Action, and we have seen progress through the efforts of diversity and inclusion. But the current environment feels very different; there are various ages, races, economic statuses, all voices at the same table. This is the first time voices from around the globe are focused on social justice and racial equality.
“What hasn’t improved is women in upper management positions, people of color in upper management positions. Also, technology is very limited for low-income families. Those are areas we are hopeful the STEAM Academy and this foundation can help going forward. We have some challenges with the COVID-19, but we came together and found a way for the academy to be successful. And we see greater success long term.”
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
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