Sometimes you have to be the change you wish to see in the world. That’s what inspired today’s guest to step up and into a life in politics. Ukeme Aswakessien Jeter is passionate about driving innovation, equity and access. She is a Partner, Intellectual Property Law Group at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP and now a Council Member for the City of Upper Arlington. In her chat with host Elizabeth Bachman, she shares the heart-breaking story of how her daughter moved her to run for council in the city. As an engineer, Ukeme also highlights experiences that make equity and access a vital part of her advocacy. Tune in and be inspired by her story and her vision for change.
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Advocating For Ideas With Ukeme Awakessien Jeter
Driving Innovation, Equity And Access
Before I get into the conversation with my very interesting guest, I’d like to remind you that if you’re curious about how your presentation skills are helping you, you can take our free four-minute quiz at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where you can see where you are strong and where perhaps a little support could get you the results you need and the recognition that you deserve.
My guest is Ukeme Awakessien Jeter, who is a Lawyer and Engineer. She’s a City Councilwoman in Upper Arlington, Ohio. She had a wonderful story of how she came from growing up internationally. She’s originally from Nigeria going to school in America, having made her career in all sorts of interesting places, but most importantly, whenever there was an opportunity, she jumped. She went for each opportunity and has had a very interesting career and life. She’s still pretty young.
Ukeme is a partner at the law firm of intellectual property at the Taft Law firm in Columbus, Ohio. She focuses on negotiating and structuring intellectual property licenses, options and related agreements. She enjoys solving the emerging and complex challenges that are encountered when bringing revolutionary products and services to market. She specializes in driving innovation.
Ukeme is an active member of her community and she’s proud to call Upper Arlington, Ohio, her community of choice. That’s a suburb of Columbus, Ohio State Capitol. In 2021, she was elected to the Upper Arlington City Council, making history as the first person of color to be elected to the council in the city’s 100-year-old history.
Beyond her service to Upper Arlington, Ukeme is a tireless advocate for causes of access, equity and inclusion. She serves on the Board of Directors for Ohio Legal Help, which is a nonprofit that leverages technology and innovation to improve justice and fairness for all Ohioans. You will see in our conversation how they managed to get access to legal help on people’s phones. She also serves in the United Way of Central Ohio’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council.
Ukeme is the proud and doting mother of two young children. Together, they like to hike, bike and play an overly competitive game style of charades and perform songs from the Hamilton soundtrack. Ukeme received a JD, that’s Doctor of Jurisprudence, from Case Western University School of Law, an MBA from the University of Massachusetts Lowell and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Maine, where she was also a college athlete in track and field. Ukeme is an absolute delight to talk to. I know you’ll enjoy our conversation. Let’s go on to the interview.
Ukeme Awakessien Jeter, I’m so happy to have you on the show.
Thank you for having me.
You were connected by a mutual friend of ours who raves about you and now I know why she raves about you. I’m going to go a lot more into the many things that you do and have done, but who would be your dream interview before we get started? If you were to sit down with someone who’s no longer with us, who would it be? What would you ask them? Who should be listening?
It’s my grandfather, Simon Awakessien. I was nine years old when he passed away. I didn’t get to know him. There are pictures of me with him, but it didn’t get to capture his essence. I’ve come to learn about the man through my father and my grandmother, who lived a great long life until she was 98. He was the incredible man he was for his time in understanding the value of education for the opportunities that open up to you and empowering women to get an education and pursue careers.
He had three daughters of his own, my aunts, and they’re all educated. This is odd for the time, especially being Nigerian. Nigerian women are almost the last person to go to school. It’s like, “Your brothers go to school first, even if they’re younger than you. If there’s money in this time and space, we’ll send you to school.”
This was a man that was apparent that that’s what he believed and followed through on. He came here to the United States. He was in Washington, DC. He went to Howard and then he did a PhD at Case Western in Ohio. That’s how my dad and my grandmother all came along. This was a man who understood your key to opportunity is education. He transferred that to my dad. I have four sisters and my dad imparted the same thing.
I remember when I decided what I wanted to do for college, my grandmother was the only one that was pleased. I decided I wanted to be an engineer. Most of the women were like, “Why? Are there any women that are mechanical engineers?” My grandmother, my dad and my mom were the only ones that said, “Go for it.” The people reading will probably be my children and the readers because sometimes you hear better when history tells you about your privileges. I would want my children to be beyond it.
Lucky you, your children are still young enough that they listen to you. Wait until they turn into teenagers.
I beg to differ. My child is very precocious. We have to live with each other until she’s off to college.
I’d be curious how you went from being a mechanical engineer to turning around and being a lawyer and working on industrial property. You worked in Geneva and Arizona. Take us through how that progression happened, all those various pivots. What are the common threads?You hear better when history tells you about the privileges that you have now. Click To Tweet
I’ve always been driven by possibilities. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a support system that doesn’t limit that and says, “Go for it.” Very young, when I was six years old, my dad’s job, we were ex-pats in the Middle East. I was born in Nigeria and my formative years were spent in the Middle East, then college here. Wikipedia has a term for that, third culture kid, where your cultural development is not the development in which your parents were born or raised and not where you’re from. It imparted how I saw the world.
People would say, “College in America, one of the big metropolitan areas,” but it’s College in Maine, which is a very specific part of America.
I’d never seen snow until I was eighteen years old when I went to Maine. It’s that thread of possibility, the decision for where I was going to go to college. My dad had gone to college in Maine. He had spoken highly of it. I’d seen pictures of him in the snow. He looked perfectly happy rolling in the snow. No one tells you that you can’t wear wet clothes to class. You learn these life skills and you go for it.
I started in engineering because that’s where my skillset seemed to play. I’m the daughter of immigrants and I went to math camp. I didn’t go to band camp, so I was good in STEM. My dad’s a biochemist and he encouraged STEM. The periodic table was art in our home. You go through high school and tend to follow the path that your classes show you’re good at. That’s what I did. That’s how I ended up in mechanical engineering. I loved being a mechanical engineering student. I got the job after and started working in the first couple of years.
You became a mechanical engineer and then you went from Maine to Arizona but not the Arizona that everybody thinks of. It was Flagstaff, Arizona, which is mountainous and almost belongs more to our vision of Colorado than our vision of Arizona. What did you expect when you got there?
I didn’t know much. Going back to this connecting theme, following possibilities. I knew that I was going to be on a project that related to wastewater treatment. I knew Arizona and Flagstaff used wastewater in the process. I worked for Georgia Pacific. I worked in pulp and paper, thinking about paper consumer products. There is water in that process.
There’s water in the paper?
You have to create pulp. You need to melt woodchips with water and chemical. A part of the process involves a lot of water. The development of paper before it’s dried out takes a lot of water. The challenge here was we have a manufacturing facility in a city with limited water. How do we do that? This part of Arizona snows. I dealt with snow in Maine. It’s also very pretty. It’s 7,000 feet above sea level. I’ve never lived in a mountain town before. As a runner, the Olympic Training Center is in Flagstaff.
There were new opportunities. The possibilities seem endless here. I packed up cross country and followed that lead. While doing that work, I was exposed to how laws and regulations impact business decisions. As an engineer, we are tasked with solving a problem. I’ve always known I go a little beyond solving problems to imagining what could be. Engineering, at some point, became limiting and I had to solve a problem within this box.
What laws, policy and reg does is say, “How are people operating in this space? How do we want them to operate? How do we build policies and laws? How do we write that so we get that behavior?” It’s imagining a whole different way of doing things. It’s working in spaces that may not quite have regulation yet. I started to gain an interest in law, but I knew that engineering had a lifespan for me. I moved fast, done a lot of things and it was time to pivot.
How was it being a dark-skinned woman in engineering?
I love to give a story here, which goes back to my grandfather’s work imparted to my father and then him supporting careers. When I was getting ready to leave for engineering school, I told a lot of people, “My major is going to be Engineering. I’m not sure what type of engineering yet,” I would get, “There are not a lot of women engineers.” I uttered those words to my dad. At the time, I was very set on mechanical engineering. I knew I wanted to do more in that space. I love German cars. Mechanical engineering and the art of engineering a car were fascinating to me.
I’m talking to my dad and my mom at dinner. I said, “My only concern is there are not a lot of women in engineering.” I had gotten my class roster and I knew I was going to be 1 of 3 females in my engineering class. I was going to be the only Black female. We’re talking about these dynamics, especially with the backdrop that I went to an all-girls boarding school where I was told that I could be anything I wanted to be. I’m supported in every way that I need to be. I’m leaving a philosophy of bravery, courage and taking the steps to this. A week later, my dad brought in the female engineers that he worked with for dinner. They sat at dinner with me and told me about their world, which is engineering.
I remember that experience and that formative before I left. I was able to champion through. I had mentors. I remember doing a senior project. I’m the only girl on the senior project team. I’m talking, and I would somehow end up taking the notes for the project. My parents were going to be coming to my presentation for this project. We’re talking on the phone, asking me how it’s going. I say, “It’s going good, but I don’t get to run the experiments. I get to write the notes.”
I remember my mom saying, “You’re going to say, ‘It’s my turn to run the experiment and your turn to write notes,’ and you’re going to take turns as you learned in preschool and kindergarten so that you all have a chance.” It was this very simple idea, but somewhere along the way, as females, there’s a social construct that we fall into that is not what our kindergarten or preschool things were like where we were told to take turns and share. We lose that. I never thought about that. My mom’s like, “Take turns.” That’s what we did.
How did wastewater engineering turn into law?We can implement policies that create a welcoming community. You can do that in politics. Click To Tweet
It was more of an open book. I wanted to go to law school because I knew that law impacted a broader swath of what I wanted to do. I had thought in my head, perhaps environmental because that was the space that I knew at the time. It’s a buzzword, but it was then too that we have to confront greed in our society and all areas of our lives. You can do this by adjusting human behaviors. Some policies need to be in place.
Policies are what help reign in the greed because there are always the people who are going to do what’s best for them.
We also know the policy is long-term. I was fascinated by that idea. That’s what I thought. I was going to go to law school, but I kept an open mind because I don’t have any lawyers in my family. Unlike what I felt like when I was going to engineering that I was supported, I knew people in that field. Law was like a fish out of water. I knew no one and had no networks.
The reason I chose Case Western is that going back to my grandfather and my dad, when I’m short-listing to law schools that I want, my dad’s like, “Your granddad did a PhD at Case Western. I remember going to go visit him.” I said, “It’s destiny. That’s where I’m going.” That’s about the only connection I had. I’d never been to Ohio at that time or Cleveland. I went to visit the school, fell in love with the campus and called my sister up. She packed up a truck and we moved across the country again.
We got there and decided I was going to use the first year to be open-minded. The first semester of law school was very generic. You take these set courses. By your 2nd semester of the 1st year, you can take survey classes. These survey classes are intended to give you a blitz into different areas. I took an intellectual property survey class. At the advice of a couple of people that knew I had an engineering background, they felt, “That is a very specialized skillset. There are not a lot of people that do both. There is always a shortage in that area of law.”
It was in the middle of an economic downturn. As much as I chase possibilities, I’m also practical and pragmatic about the job after. I took that course and fell in love with this protection of ideas because that’s what intellectual property is. It’s people’s ideas towards innovation, brands, arts, music and all those things. It’s how we protect it and how it’s commercialized and that balance of using for good but at the same time, commercializing and making money.
That would lead to this policy tussle on intellectual property, which we know that the UN is always working on. How do all our member states enjoy health and intellectual property liberties? I got connected to a fellowship program at the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. It’s a branch of the UN that that’s what they do. They think about how we are leveraging intellectual property between member states. Intellectual property is jurisdiction. When you get those rights, they are rights within the country that you get them. They don’t cross into national.
We’ve seen all the innovation that has come out of the pandemic, whether it be the vaccines or masks, because it’s so jurisdictional. We need masks to protect the spread. Someone is going to have to give up their intellectual property license, cross-license or figure out that partnership so that another country can develop the masks or the vaccines. How does that work? I had an amazing experience understanding the complexity and the dynamics of that balance in Geneva. That’s why I was hooked.
Let’s turn to politics. Here you are. You’ve got a job working in intellectual property as a lawyer and you decide to be a politician. How did that happen? I’m curious. Did you ever hesitate?
Rarely do I hesitate at the time. When I’m in the middle of it, I realize that I leaped very high or far. I always say that if I had taken more time to think it through, maybe I wouldn’t leap as high and fast as I do. I leap and figure out the common thread you see in all my life and opportunities. Politics was no different. I saw the possibilities of how politics impact in a very real way, on a local level, the residents in civic engagements.
Tell us what you were campaigning for and why.
I was campaigning for a future city for my children.
The city council of Upper Arlington, Ohio, is a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, which is the Capitol of the State of Ohio, for those who aren’t familiar with American geography.
It’s an inner-ring suburb. It’s outside the city limits of the City of Columbus. It’s a 103-year-old plus community. It was developed with some not-so-savory practices, redlining, which throughout history determined the types of people that could live in Upper Arlington. Blacks and Jews were explicitly excluded from owning property in Upper Arlington. All those laws were abolished in the ‘70s and anybody could live where they live, but with systemic history like that, your city doesn’t tend to catch up.
You were living in Upper Arlington. What made you decide to run for the city council?
I had chosen this community to raise my children. My daughter was about to start kindergarten when I picked this community. When I got here, the city’s history meant they wanted a lot of people that looked like my daughter in school. They wanted a lot of people that looked like my son, even if my son was not yet school age. He would play out in her going to school, feeling different, not in a good way. Going to the playground or walking the sidewalks, very aware of her difference in the community. Knowing that I had chosen this community to raise my children lit that fire under me and understand that we can implement policies that create a welcoming community. You can do that in politics. It’s what inspired me to run.There are no dress rehearsals to living on your terms. There’s a pragmatic way to do it but don’t limit yourself thinking it’s never going to happen. Click To Tweet
You told a story about your daughter and her hair.
When I talked about her feeling different, she came home from school one day in kindergarten and asked whether she could straighten her hair for school the next day. The only reason for that is because that’s the community she was in. She felt like, to fit in, her hair had to be straight like the rest of the girls in her class. As a mom, it takes your breath away a little bit and you reinforce, “You’re beautiful and your hair is beautiful. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean anything.”
You realize that if she’s seeing it all around, representation matters. When you look at our leadership, the school administration and every leader around the city and she doesn’t see someone reflected that looks like her mother, as a 5-year-old and a 5-year-old mind, it’s like, “I need to look like them so that I’m valued.”
You decided to run and you won.
Against crazy odds. I don’t know how. I’ve never had taken a campaigning class or training session. I didn’t have the skillsets. I was convicted. I was completely purpose-driven, but I learned along the way. I found that village and the support system that was willing to take me under their arms, campaign with me and show me the ropes. I found in it a community that that message resonated with. I found a community that was ready for that change. I always felt it, but it took stepping out. With those votes affirming what I’ve always believed to be the community that I chose, I’m still awe-stricken when I think about those odds.
What could you say to younger women, people who are looking at you and saying, “I could never be as awesome as Ukeme?” What advice would you have to other women? Good and bad or mistakes not to make as well.
I say this often to my mentees, “Don’t be afraid of change.” I’ve pivoted so many times in my life. As long as there’s an opportunity there that you’re pursuing, go for it. When you see it to its end, pivot. It’s completely okay. We get one shot at this thing called life. There are no dress rehearsals. Live it on your terms. There’s a pragmatic way to do it, but don’t limit yourself to thinking, “That’s never going to happen. No one will set that in the future.” You don’t know that. You can only make the best decisions with the information you have before you.
I shouldn’t have restricted that question to women. You are very involved in diversity, equity, and inclusion in general and helping with an organization called Legal Help. Can you talk about the work that you’re doing there?
Ohio Legal Help is a very innovative platform. We deal with helping Ohio citizens understand their civil rights. This has nothing to do with criminal law and the criminal justice system. It’s things like landlord-tenant disputes, family law, “Where do I file my SNAP paperwork?” These things get everyday citizens caught up, especially when you’re overwhelmed with everything else you have going on with work.
We are in such an information-rich environment, yet at the same time, people don’t know where to get the legal help and information they need. There is a big justice gap. We noticed that that is happening that affects mostly the low-income and people of color. This was an innovative directive from the Ohio Supreme court that said, “Close the justice gap. We shouldn’t be dealing with these landlord-tenant issues that blew up. What can we do?”
A group got together and said, “If we could give them a platform that they could go to for whatever civil legal questions they have, right from their phone, pre-fill out the form that they need to take to a legal aid society or the court, it’s a trusted form of information.” No knock on Google or Wikipedia, but it’s specific to Ohio Laws. This will drastically help.
When I was called on for the opportunity, I jumped on it because I love innovative spaces and thinking about reimagining that future. It was such a lifesaver with COVID and people trying to understand all sorts of dynamic, moving information with that. We offered them a place to get that information. It’s an organization that I’m so honored to be part of and see real impact and real help across the state of Ohio.
Let me ask you a final question. If we’ve got a reader here who’s part of an establishment organization and wants to do something to expand their boundaries, moving into diversity and places to let in awesome people like you, where does one start? What would be one thing someone could do to learn from your experience?
You start right where you are. Start with the things that you already are involved with. If you pay closer attention to those things, there are access issues. There is no parity going on without those services delivered. Start with the places that you are involved in or with. Look at it deeply and ask the questions.
Awareness is so important, to be aware of the things that you’ve taken for granted. Ukeme, I want to bring you on for about four more episodes talking about all the things I want to ask you about. This has been awesome. Thank you so very much. Thank you for gracing the show with your information and your presence.
Thank you for having me. It was an absolute pleasure.
Let me remind you that if you are curious about how your presentation skills are doing, whether you’re strong or not, you can take our free four-minute quiz at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where you can see where you are strong and where perhaps a little bit of support could get you the results you need and the recognition that you deserve. If you enjoy this show, please tell your friends and give us a good rating. It helps people find us. I’ll see you at the next one.
- Ukeme Awakessien Jeter
- Taft Law
- Ohio Legal Help
About Ukeme Awakessien Jeter
Multidisciplinary leader with a strong business acumen and a proven track record of providing creative, practical solutions that meet business goals. Superior interpersonal, project management and communication abilities that have promoted strong business partnerships with stakeholders and colleagues. A love for travel and extensive travel adventures that has given me the ability to relate to people of different backgrounds.
Committed to creating smart, strategic and insightful solutions to issues facing innovative clients.
Candidate for Upper Arlington City Council www.ukemeforua.com