Doing a World of Good

Gerry Lessells Makes a Major Gift to Support the Henry T. Brown Endowment for the Education of Under-represented Minority Chemical Engineers

Advancing diversity and inclusion in AIChE and the chemical engineering profession is a core priority of the AIChE Foundation’s Doing a World of Good campaign. A key program to support this priority is the Henry T. Brown Endowment for the Education of Under-Represented Minority Chemical Engineers. Gerry Lessells, an AIChE Fellow and longtime friend of Henry Brown who collaborated with him on AIChE’s earliest minority outreach activities, has made a tremendous investment in building the endowment by initiating a challenge gift to match all donations to the fund up to $50,000!

The AIChE Foundation had the honor of talking with Gerry, a pioneering driver and advocate for diversity, to learn more about what inspired his generous matching gift to support the education of under-represented minority chemical engineers.

AIChE Foundation: What inspired you to gift a $50,000 matching challenge to the Henry Brown Endowment?

Gerry Lessells:  Quite simply that AIChE has been incredibly kind to me over many years.  The granting of Fellow Grade rewarded me for leadership positions in two AIChE Local Sections, as chair of the original National Career Guidance Sub-Committee for Disadvantaged Youth, plus serving on other National committees, as Minority Affairs Coordinater, and as a Member of Council, 1973-75.  

In 1974 I received the Service to Society Award recognizing community involvement such as my NAACP activities in the 1950's; in the 1960's as chair of the Decatur, IL Mayor's Commission on Human Relations, as a member of the Edison, NJ Mayor's Advisory Committee, as a member of the New Brunswick, NJ Urban League Board of Directors, plus service on my alma mater, MIT's Educational Council. Then in 1987, during my retirement, I received the Van Antwerpen Award.  Van also returned from his retirement to present his Award to me - a great honor. 

And finally, I was graced with the William W. Grimes Award for Excellence in in Chemical Engineering, by the Minority Affairs Committee (MAC) of the Institute in 2001, and then again with MAC's Pioneers of Diversity Award in 2015. So you can see how much I owe to AIChE!

AIChE Foundation: What do you believe is central in knowing Henry, how you would describe his character and legacy?

Gerry Lessells: Henry Brown has given unstintingly of himself in expanding AIChE's diversity and inclusion over a period of 50 years as of 2018.  This is especially true of his getting the Institute to establish MAC and his continually nurturing over a 27-year period the activities and membership of this most important National Committee.

AIChE Foundation: In your opinion, what is the single most important impact AIChE and this particular endowment can have on the future education of under-represented minority chemical engineers?

Gerry Lessells: By providing financial backing to the education of under-represented minority chemical engineering students, AIChE is exhibiting very tangible support to equal opportunity for this class of youngsters in the best spirit of the half-century AIChE has been active in this effort.

AIChE Foundation: Do you have an anecdote about your early days in launching MAC that really moved you and motivated you to stay involved?

Gerry Lessells: During the period (1968) leading up to the establishment of the original Career Guidance Sub-Committee for Disadvantaged Youth, strangely enough it was the statement by the wife of an Institute President that she thought that it was the responsibility of AIChE to work to increase the minority & female membership of the Institute, while the then President of AIChE said that AIChE's sole responsibility was for the welfare of the existing membership!!!

AIChE Foundation: Are there any other thoughts or a particular message you’d like to share with the chemical engineering community about the Henry Brown Endowment or AIChE’s work more broadly in advancing diversity and inclusion in the chemical engineering profession?

Gerry Lessells: Only that the Henry Brown Endowment is, I believe, currently the most important aspect of the Institute's ongoing efforts on behalf of under-represented minority youngsters.

Read Gerry’s Bio and full interview.  

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