Black History Month

Harvard, Heritage & HBCUs: How Dr. Kayla Lee is Driving Inclusive Innovation

Dr. Lee, a systems biology PhD from Harvard University and Hampton undergrad, is a third-generation graduate of an historically Black college and university (HBCU) and has a special appreciation for the culture and community that HBCUs provide long after she graduated. Upon joining IBM in 2018 as an industry consultant, she wanted to use her educational background and experience to help drive innovation for IBM and for HBCUs.

Today, Kayla serves as the product manager in IBM Research where she leads strategic initiatives to help create – and grow – a global quantum computing community.

In September of 2020, Dr. Lee championed an initiative that brought quantum computing to HBCUs known as the IBM-HBCU Quantum Center. As part of IBM’s social justice efforts in creating economic opportunity for underrepresented minorities, Dr. Lee was instrumental in helping to change the way HBCUs engage in quantum research. The multimillion-dollar, multi-year investment brought together researchers and students at 13 HBCUs. And in less than six months since its launch, the Center has nearly doubled the number of participating universities, announced during Black History Month.

The first-of-a-kind initiative’s mission is to educate, foster collaboration on joint research, and ultimately create a more diverse quantum-ready workforce for students studying everything from physics and chemistry to computer science and business. The Center is already working with an active community of over 500 students and researchers, across institutions and regions, including the launch of research projects, and career development through curriculum and virtual events.

Building a diverse ecosystem    

The IBM-HBCU Quantum Center is an ecosystem approach to changing the Black student and professional representation in an emerging field, focusing on building community within marginalized groups, creating research and career opportunities, and ensuring that these scientists and students work alongside IBM scientists, and the broader quantum community. Additionally, the Center fosters an environment that requires funding agencies, other academic institutions, and corporations to truly commit to diversity in the quantum future.

Launching the IBM-HBCU Quantum Center provided Kayla an opportunity to combine her background in scientific research, product management, and business strategy in a way that could transform the very institutions that were pivotal in her own career development. Dr. Lee also serves on the Leadership Advisory Board for the Center of Excellence for Minority Women in STEM, where she provides strategic guidance on how to engage more women in STEM research.

Kayla continues to pay it forward making history in the process for the rich heritage of HBCUs that develops the best Black talent, herself included.