As a child, Antoinette Gant didn’t dream about a career in engineering or the military — she wanted to be an actress. Gant was part of a theater group in school, and that seemed like the perfect career to her, something in the theater arts. But her parents’ careers and influence showed her a different direction.
“I had a mom who taught biology, chemistry, and physics. So, in having her be the teacher, every summer, she ensured that my brothers and I had summer activities that included science, math, or computers,” she said. “When I got to my high school years, I had an opportunity to go to Northwestern to study theater. And my parents talked about being in that industry and how sometimes you do not know where your next meal is coming from — or how to pay your rent.
“I always enjoyed math and science. At that point, I thought I wanted to be a chemist, seeing some of the things my mom was doing during the summer. She was a teacher for nine months, and then she always did something different during the summer. I saw that and thought, ‘Okay, I’m pretty good at this science and math, so maybe a chemist is what I actually want to do.’ One of my mom’s students came and spoke to a group that I was a part of called Upward Bound. She talked about being a civil engineer and what they did.”
Gant comes from a family made up of what she calls community servants — individuals who always talk about giving back. That kind of idea interested her, and of all the engineering disciplines, civil engineering was the one that spoke to her as the best way to give back.
College and the military
For her undergraduate degree, Gant attended a historically black university, Prairie View A&M University in Texas, known as one of the top schools for producing minority engineers. Unlike what’s reported at some schools, she never felt like an “other” as a female in the engineering program there.
“I was around other females who wanted to be engineers, so we had this camaraderie of just understanding. Plus, civil engineering was a much smaller group, but there were quite a few of us who were females. I consider myself very fortunate,” she said. “Even going to the conferences, we were able to see other female engineers, which excited me and reinforced that this was something I could do. When I got my master’s degree at the University of Missouri Science and Technology, it was a little bit different. A lot of us were military, so of course, being an engineer and being military, our cohort was a little bit smaller. I was one of maybe three females in the room. But there was a very supportive group of guys who were with us.”
Her decision to enter the military was predicated on finding enough funds to attend college, and it wasn’t anything she thought she’d stay with once her four-year commitment was over. But the Army turned out to be exactly what she was looking for in a career.
“I was a basketball player, and I graduated second in my class in high school,” she said. “I was in the ROTC program at my local high school. I told my counselor I was looking for an Air Force scholarship. She said, ‘I don’t have an Air Force one, but I do have an Army scholarship application. Why don’t you fill it out? Maybe it’s transferrable.’ So, I filled out the scholarship and had the right requirements as far as an ACT score. I did my interview and was accepted and could select the school I wanted to go to. The military was not something that I thought I would be in forever.
“But I felt very welcome in the group that I was a part of. And lo and behold, to be accepted, to be commissioned as an engineer, to say you would do four years — and now being here with a 28-year career behind me — it’s amazing to see. This wasn’t the career I chose for me, it was the career, that path, that had already been chosen. I just had to do my part in participating.”
“The great thing about being an engineer in the Army is that you can do so many different things,” Gant explained. “You can go from blowing things up to building things. You can go from serving overseas or in deployed environments to being a member right here as a green-suiter in the United States — and doing something each and every day that helps the community in which we live. I find it to be the most diverse and most exciting branch of any of the branches in the Army.”
Beginnings of a career and a leader
Gant said that in her military career, every job has been very different. Unlike many who’ve made the Army a career, she’s never served in the same place twice. She’s served in locations as varied as Fort Hood (Texas), Korea, Albuquerque, Afghanistan, Louisville, and San Francisco. She also points to her husband, a middle school math teacher, as being critical to her success, explaining that a supportive and willing spouse is a must-have for any career military professional.
Gant decided around the 10-year mark that she was going to stay with the military for good, and before she knew it, 15 and 20 and 25 years crept up on her.
“I always say that a job is not a job. It really should be a passion. It should be something that you actually enjoy doing. And although there are trials and tribulations as you go through life, if you are enjoying what you’re doing, if you’re enjoying the impact that you are providing and the value that you’re adding, then there’s a passion there. And that passion has never stopped going for me,” she said.
Gant explained that in the military, you always feel like you have to prove yourself. She found value in constantly listening and learning, being a part of the team, and getting people to understand what value she brought, but also what value her fellow soldiers brought to the organization. Moving up through the ranks, she also felt a healthy fear of not wanting to fail her soldiers or missions. So, she channeled that into learning her craft, understanding the particulars of each project, and being open to saying she didn’t know so she’d be able to learn.
In October, Gant was the first African American female active-duty engineer to achieve the rank of general officer when she was promoted to Brigadier General. She currently serves as the Commander, South Pacific Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which covers all or part of 10 states, with four operating districts headquartered in Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Francisco. Gant has also received numerous national and community honors, such as the 2021 Black Engineer of the Year Conference Awards, Army Stars and Stripes Award, the 2020 Women of Color Career Achievement in Government Award, and the YWCA Women on the Move Award.
Gant feels that it is important to celebrate these types of achievements, to inspire our country’s youth, and to get more of them into STEAM careers.
“We talk a lot about the fact that we are this big melting pot, not just the United States, but as a world. Individuals have to see people who look like them so they can understand they have the possibilities and the opportunities,” she said. “I didn’t even know what an engineer was in my younger days; if you asked me what an engineer was, I probably would’ve said it was a train conductor. But again, having an engineer, a female African American come and talk to me about what it was that she was doing made me look and think — if she could do this, then there’s a possibility that I can do this as well. Because we all come from various backgrounds, it allows others to see that there’s no one-size-fits-all. There’s no one particular race or gender, it’s all of us together that help to make the organizations or even the world better. Some little girl is looking and saying, ‘I want to be in the Army,’ or saying, ‘I want to be an engineer,’ and now she can see a photo of someone who looks like her and shows that it’s possible.”
While Gant acknowledges that diverse teams are important within the engineering discipline, she’s quick to note that it’s critical to define what diversity is. She said that many times, the first thing people think about is race and gender, but it’s much more than that, including things like culture and background and people with disabilities.
“Understanding and knowing that everyone has a difference in perspective because of their backgrounds and where they’ve come from is important,” she said. “They each bring something to the table; we look at all those things and then determine what the best things for us to be able to do are. How can we make sure that we are touching more of the population than actually just a small subset of a population or just a community because of how we’re doing things?”
Full STEAM ahead
Gant is a big believer in STEAM (which is STEM plus the arts, which she thinks is important to include). Two of the things she feels we need to make sure to develop a better pipeline is to start really early and to make it fun.
“I was very fortunate when people saw potential in me and allowed me to have opportunities. We have to start very young. It’s not just when a person gets to high school. It’s the elementary school and middle school where we have to incorporate things that are fun for them and getting them to see that what they’re doing is a part of science, a part of math, and the technology piece of it,” she said.
“When you’re having fun with what you’re doing, then it’s more about, ‘I can do this.’ My husband is a math teacher, and many times, math and science are subjects of which people are so afraid. But I love the stories when he hears from students, ‘Man, I never thought I could actually do math,’ or ‘Now I want to do math. I want to come to your class because I enjoy it.’ It’s getting kids to see that everything that we do in life has something to do with those five areas of STEAM.
“We don’t do anything in this world right now without technology. Let’s make it fun for them in a way that now they see, ‘Oh, that’s what technology is about, that’s what science is about, that’s what engineering is about.’ We’ve taken marshmallows and spaghetti sticks and put them together and had students build towers, and we say, ‘That’s engineering.’ Getting our students to understand at a much younger age that everything in this world that you touch and do has something to do with those categories is the key.
“And also providing those opportunities. If I could be a genie and close my eyes and give more money to the underrepresented or underserved communities so that they can have these opportunities, what a great world we would live in — and we would have more individuals understand the importance of those areas.”
Becoming a true leader
Plenty of engineers have stumbled into leadership roles without much official training, depending on the company or the organization they’re with. So many times, they have to literally learn on the job. Gant, for one, actually saw the writing on the wall and smartly returned to college mid-career to pursue a master’s degree in engineering management.
“For me, it was a stepping stone and an opportunity. Engineering, to me, is the technical competence. Management is the leading and the planning and the organizing. I knew if I was going to stay in this field, I’d have to have both. And even if I decided to transition out of the military, it would still be something that would be relevant and make me marketable,” she said.
“I think that the technology, the engineering side of the house, you learn as you go, but with the management side of the house, how do you plan, how do you organize, how do you meet individuals where they are?” she said. “Sometimes we don’t talk about the soft skills because management and leadership right now — I know we say one is different than the other — but I think they go hand in hand. And the soft skills when you become a manager or a leader are not necessarily about you doing, being the executor, but how you are able to empower others? How are you able to support and challenge those who you see potential in to meet the potential they actually have, whether it’s in an organization or whether it’s just in life?”
As for her personal leadership style, she goes back to watching her parents, both of whom were schoolteachers for a long time. Her father eventually left teaching and went into public service. But whether at school or in organizations they were a part of, she was always cognizant of what kind of leaders they were.
“As I matriculated through high school and college, I somehow ended up in these roles where I was in charge. I don’t know — somebody saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, but I say it starts there. One time we were in church, and I was not doing what I was supposed to do. And my father told me, ‘Understand that everything you do, there’s someone watching you, and they’re watching you because they see things that they want to emulate, whether good or bad. What are you going to do to make sure that you’re helping make a difference and making a positive impact on someone else’s life?’” she recounted.
“Because he said that to me, it stuck with me all my life. Now, you go through these iterations of being leaders. If I were to solidify what type of leader I hope people say that I am, I would say it was a servant leader — one who wants to make sure that I’m helping someone else to be the better person that they can be,” she said. “But we also know that in being a leader, sometimes you have to use various leadership styles. If you’re trying to get something done and you have a group that’s not as focused, you got to be able to focus them.”
“If you need a decision on something really quick, it may not require a go-around and consensus, and you have to make a decision. But there are times when you can corral the group and get a consensus before you make those decisions. I try to incorporate all of those things in being a servant leader, but more important to me is for people to understand and know that I am here to serve you, to help you to be better,” Gant said. “There’s a quote that says a leader is not put in place to form or to have followers, but a leader is put in place to develop other leaders. And that’s definitely how I look at things and want to leave as an impact.
“Sometimes we are put in positions where we have no idea of the impacts we’ll make. I think being a leader is about taking on the challenge. Again, it’s not about you, but it’s about helping an organization or helping people be better than what they were before. A lot of times what I’ve found is, especially with individuals, they just need to be challenged. They need someone to understand and know that there’s someone who has their back. There’s someone who’s pushing them to do things more than they thought they were capable of actually doing, to challenge them a little bit.
“What I found is in doing that, we are helping to make individuals better. We’re helping to grow more leaders, and we make organizations better. And I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to wear a uniform and to work in a civilian organization where I am able to do that each and every day.”
Filed Under: NEWS • PROFILES • EDITORIALS, Engineering Diversity & Inclusion