Doing Things “The Swanson Way”
Alumnus Robert Agbede Sets Course as New Chair of Swanson School's Board of Visitors
Robert O. Agbede has been making his mark as a member of the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering Board of Visitors for some 20 years, and this year assumes the position of its chair. But his work is far from over – indeed, it reflects more than forty years of passion and dedication for the school, its programs, and its students.
His goal is to help make the Swanson School first-class – not just in academics, research, and innovation but in also being what he calls “a safe place.” “A place where you feel as though you are important, where your contributions are appreciated. A place where diversity thrives – in thought, race and gender,” he said.
Agbede (ENG ’79, ’81G), also a member of the Pitt Board of Trustees and the Swanson School Hall of Fame, says things have improved greatly since he initially landed at the School in 1976 to study mining engineering. As the first and only Black student in that program, there were obstacles to overcome and not many tools in place to help him, so he relied on the guidance of a few kind professors to navigate that terrain.
Now as a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist, the Lagos, Nigeria native is leading the charge to enroll more students of color. He says the School is recruiting transferees from HBCUs and is reaching out more frequently to high schools in Maryland and Washington, DC. There are a number of diversity initiatives in place including Pitt’s EXCEL Program, which offers a summer engineering academy, tutoring, counseling and research internships. Agbede is hoping additional programs can be introduced, including those that are more data-driven.
From Nigeria Pitt by way of Montana
All this determination is what helped a young man from Lagos to eventually head up the largest African American-owned environmental and engineering design firm in the U.S.
Agbede came to Pitt by way of Butte, Montana. Anxious to leave Lagos, he seized the opportunity because Montana Tech was going to let him enroll that very winter. Showing up in the mid-1970s in his bell-bottoms and Afro, and clutching a red suitcase, Agbede didn’t even have the proper coat for the frosty climate. It was an uncle who worked at the University of Pittsburgh who eventually convinced him to enroll there for a summer semester.
“I did, and I never looked back,” said Agbede.
After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Pitt, he worked for Bituminous Coal Research, Inc, the research arm of the National Coal Association and then as an engineer for Babcock, Co. Then one day U.S. Steel called, seeking help in removing dust generated by machinery in one of its coal mines. Agbede modified and optimized an existing concept which resulted in a novel solution. He and a colleague subsequently invented and patented a mini-scrubber which prompted him, in 1987, to build his own company, Advanced Technology Systems, Inc. In 2003, he acquired Chester Engineers, which has offices across the country as well as international affiliates.
Robert O. Agbede receives the Distinguished Alumni Award for Civil and Environmental Engineering from CEE Department Chair Radisav Vidic (left) and U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering James R. Martin II. (John Altdorfer)
Pushing Back Against a Paradox
Although his role as president and CEO of Chester keeps him busy, his engagement with the Swanson School remains a priority. The number of Black faculty at the Swanson School has hovered at around 3 percent for decades – a number Agbede would like to boost.
He and James R. Martin II, the Swanson School’s U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering have discussed the diversity-innovation paradox, a phenomenon in academia where people of diverse backgrounds are brought in for their novel ideas, only to have those ideas devalued, especially when it comes to promotions.
“Essentially, we set people up for failure. We ask them to think differently, but in a system where those different ideas are not recognized,” said Martin.
“We have to create an enabling environment where folks with novel ideas are welcomed, and not ostracized” added Agbede. “That should become part of how we grade ourselves – we should reward folks that deliver value.”
Both scholars agree that it is key to evoke a sense of community and one of belonging when new hires come aboard.
Agbede gave this example, from the days in the mid-90s when he and several other people co-founded the African American Chamber of Commerce of Western Pennsylvania.
He was referred to a prominent Pittsburgh businessman and as he sat with him explaining the group’s mission, the man said, “Where were you six months ago when I needed you?” It turns out this man’s company had purchased a company in California and was trying to convince the top two executives, who were African American, to move to Pittsburgh. He had hosted them, along with their wives, for a visit but said they had no interest in living here.
“Well, where did you take them?” asked Agbede. “Did you show the women a place where they could get their hair done? Did you take them to a place of worship? Did they meet people like them in the community?”
No, the man did not do any of those things. “I told him, ‘Therein lies the problem’,” said Agbede.
“Although engineering is a global profession, we cannot continue with parochial attitudes that still impact some individuals,” Martin added. “China is heightening its role as a global superpower and has supplanted the U.S. in areas that we used to be number one, like manufacturing. We need to inspire our underrepresented minority population toward innovation and entrepreneurship, especially as our country inexorably moves toward a majority-minority population.”
“Bob represents the engineering role model that can help to inspire this new generation of students,” he said.
Martin also credits Agbede with helping to execute the Swanson School Strategic Plan – engineering solutions for the betterment of the human condition that are informed by recent global trends.
The Swanson Way
Carrying out the School’s mission with inclusivity in mind is what Agbede calls “The Swanson Way.” He says it is important to recruit and retain people by helping them find their place in our diverse city. Agbede says Pitt is not only part of the community; in many ways it is the heart of the community.
“Bob Agbede is focused on not just growth in the technical sense, but in leadership, vision, and building those platforms that raise everybody up,” said Martin. This includes putting the Swanson School within a framework of “Now, Next and Beyond.” This strategy reaches across boundaries, using transdisciplinary team training to make an impact at a nexus of engineering, medicine, health, climate, energy and sustainability. “To do what Bob has done in a town like Pittsburgh and as a person of color is a testament to his tenacity and drive.”
Since his graduation, Agbede has become a well-networked and an active member of several professional organizations. He also is an ordained minister at the Central Baptist Church in the Hill District, a neighborhood he has grown to love.
“I’d like to put my ministerial hat on for a moment to describe the way I look at the University of Pittsburgh” he said. “To quote the letter of Paul to the Philippians: “I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
Said Martin, “Bob Agbede is a champion committed to change.”
This article was authored by Sharon Blake, contributing writer for the Swanson School of Engineering.