Emelia Doku makes breaking barriers look easy. But that’s because she’s taken every opportunity offered to her and run with it, looking back only to thank those who helped make her journey possible.
Born in the patriarchal culture of Ghana, West Africa, she has risen to top-level management at Howmet Aerospace, a manufacturer of products for the aerospace, defense and commercial transportation industries. Doku is a human resources manager for an international team of more than 500 mostly Caucasian males, but the company is focused on increasing access to STEM fields for underrepresented individuals. Far from letting her circumstances shape her, she has a disarming way of shaping her circumstances to fit her substantial goals — and she does it all with a huge smile and big dose of humor.
Wacoan writer Susan Bean Aycock sat down with Doku to chat about cultural challenges, powering through personal and professional roadblocks, getting out of your comfort zone and trying to find the time to develop a hobby.
WACOAN: Where did you grow up, and how did that affect your childhood?
Doku: I grew up in Ghana, West Africa. I was the youngest and only female of three kids. We lived in the city of Tema, right outside Accra, the capital city. My family had a freight forwarding business at the Ghana Port Authority, and my older brothers were slated to work in the business and eventually run it. I knew that as a girl I’d never be part of the family business, so I just had to figure things out for myself. My parents were supportive, but knowing I wouldn’t be part of the family dynasty made me independent at a young age. I went to an international school, and that helped me form relationships with people outside Ghana and develop my intercultural competency.
WACOAN: When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Doku: I wanted to be a lawyer and advocate for people, to change things. Then I went to college at the University of Ghana and fell in love with psychology. For a while I thought I would be a psychologist, but I realized I didn’t really want that as a profession. I was intrigued by understanding the whys and hows of what people do much more than I was by actually practicing as a psychologist. But I apply that knowledge when navigating the employee relations component of my job in human resources.
WACOAN: When and why did you come to the U.S.?
Doku: That’s a funny story. A friend of mine in Ghana was approached by an individual about entering the Green Card lottery.[Editor’s note: Established in the Immigration Control and Financial Responsibility Act of 1996, the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program — known informally as the Green Card Lottery — awards visas to the U.S. through a lottery-style process from specified countries with a low immigration rate.]
I thought it sounded like a shady deal, so I called my brother, who said it was OK. My friend insisted that we both apply. But then I won, and my friend didn’t. I felt horrible! I took the opportunity to come to the U.S., even though my goal at the time was to pursue psychology and return to Ghana. I visited the U.S. my final year of university and moved here right after graduation.
WACOAN: What were your biggest challenges initially?
Doku: I moved from a third-world country to a first-world country, and the culture change alone was difficult to navigate. The English language itself was the biggest culture shock — I had spoken it all my life, but my accent was so distinct and potent that people couldn’t understand me, and frankly, the southern American accent wasn’t easy for me to grasp either. I was surprised at how hard and uncomfortable something as simple as communication became. I felt embarrassed and began to talk less. I would say ‘yes’ and ‘uh huh’ to almost everything in hopes of avoiding further engagement. It held me back in relationships and in my career.
We often feel we need to overcome fear, or discomfort — or any emotion, for that matter — before we can accomplish our goals, but sometimes you’ve got to expose yourself to the things that scare you and make you uncomfortable. So I powered through being uncomfortable and embraced speaking English by putting myself in positions that forced me to speak more. Fast forward to 2023: I make presentations to hundreds of people with confidence. Don’t get me wrong — there are some words that are nerve-wracking to even think about, but it no longer stops me from expressing myself.
WACOAN: Other than language, what cultural differences stood out for you in the beginning?
Doku: Besides spoken language, there are just a lot of differences culturally in body language, gestures and idiomatic expressions. In many parts of Africa using your left hand to do anything is seen as disrespectful. Your right hand is for eating and shaking hands; your left one is considered to be your toilet hand. Since this isn’t the case in the U.S., I struggled with understanding and accepting that people are not being disrespectful — we merely didn’t share the same values.
The culture in Ghana was very patriarchal when I was growing up, so I was considered a feminist. I recall telling my dad about my decision to transition to a different position and company, and his first question was, ‘Have you told your husband?’ I challenged his thought process. Yes, I did discuss it with my husband, but to share my opportunity and not for his approval.
Being aware of differences and nuances of different cultures from my travels has helped me to navigate cultural differences both personally and professionally. My culture was not to be confrontational, especially as a woman, but I do seek to understand nuances and adapt.
WACOAN: Your resume states that you speak Twi and Ga. Tell me about those languages.
Doku: Twi is a dialect of Akan, and Ga is the language spoken in and around the capital, Accra.[Editor’s note: About 80% of the population of Ghana speak Akan.]
My dad’s family spoke Ga, and I speak both Twi and Ga fluently. So even though I also grew up speaking English, it’s my third language. I also speak a little basic French and Spanish, but I didn’t learn those until later.
WACOAN: What ingrained cultural practices do you still carry with you, and how do they interface with all the cultures you interact with professionally?
Doku: In Ghana’s culture, there’s a very deep sense of respect to elders and using polite manners in general, saying ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir,’ ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are just so ingrained. I can’t turn that off, even when it’s been pointed out to me that it makes me seem passive in a professional setting. I just can’t shake it. I work in a global cultural environment, and I’ve actually had to work at toning down my manners to be taken seriously. But growing up with exposure to different cultures and different ways of thinking helps me recognize them when they appear.
WACOAN: What was your professional path to getting into human resources, and specifically, how did you segue into the aerospace industry?
Doku: I first stumbled into HR when I worked as an intern in an HR office in Ghana. Then I came to the U.S. with my bachelor’s degree in psychology and political science, and no one would hire me. Most people wouldn’t even give me an interview.
I was jobless for a year, and then I took a job at D-FW Airport, helping people with disabilities, basically pushing people in wheelchairs around the airport. I live by the Biblical scripture that says, ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might,’ and I pushed those wheelchairs like it was the last thing I was going to do on earth. I also formed relationships with my company’s local leadership, who gave me the opportunity to learn other parts of the business. With my widened scope of business, I was tasked with becoming a new hire trainer, and I audited different parts of the business. During this time my love for aviation really blossomed. Whenever our airline partners got a new plane, they had a training program on how to clean and stock it. There is just something fascinating about a new plane, and I knew I wanted to continue my career in this industry.
A role became available in HR to help with filing and administrative tasks, and my manager nominated me and served as my sponsor when I was selected. I did everything, even outside the scope of what I was brought in to do, and this got me noticed and recognized. I eventually was promoted to recruiter, then recruiting manager, HR manager and regional HR manager. I also pursued an Executive MBA at Texas Woman’s University during my time at ABM [Aviation] as part of positioning myself to progress in the HR field.
WACOAN: All of your initial experience was in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. How did you land in Waco?
Doku: I had spent the majority of my HR career as a generalist, however, I decided to build an HR specialization portfolio and accepted a position as a senior market employee experience consultant for Cargill at its Waco location. I worked there for four years.
I accepted a ‘stretch’ assignment there in hiring and outreach, working with talent acquisition teams and business leaders in salt evaporation and solar business to meet staffing needs by developing recruitment strategies and helping the team execute them seamlessly. I led several diversity equity and inclusion initiatives, which motivated me to pursue a HR Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Certification from Cornell University.
I wasn’t looking for another job, but my love for the aviation and aerospace industry was evident on my LinkedIn profile. A headhunter from Howmet Waco reached out to me last year, and the position aligned perfectly with my goals and interests. Howmet Aerospace has a division producing industrial fasteners for transportation equipment, like 18-wheelers, tractor/trailers and railway setups, and that division is what’s based in Waco.
WACOAN: What do you do in a typical workweek? Your LinkedIn profile describes you as ‘innovative and agile.’ What are some examples of that?
Doku: In a typical week I might be doing anything from compensation reviews to organization restructuring to talent acquisition and development to implementing recruitment and retention strategies, as well as guiding and advising managers in employee relations matters. We have to constantly come up with new ways to source and attract applicants. Working with the team to find creative ways to meet our staffing needs has been one of the ways I flex my innovative muscles. Operating the kinds of machines we use is such a special niche that there aren’t a lot of experienced individuals. It takes eight to twelve months of training for employees to be able to run a machine on their own.
One strategy we developed is to locate operators wherever they are and relocate them here. Even though this might seem costly, it cut down on training costs so much that it ended up paying for itself. That’s an example of an innovative strategy to address the long-standing problem of high training costs and staffing gaps.
The pandemic pushed us all to be more agile, and it forced us to learn to respond quickly. Cargill feeds America, and it couldn’t afford not to run effectively and efficiently even in the middle of the pandemic. People still needed to eat. We often had limited information to make informed decisions quickly, and we had to take that information and not be scared to make decisions based on the information we had. That might not always be the absolute best decision overall, but then we learned to course-correct.
WACOAN: Does your work keep evolving, and if so, how? What’s challenging about it?
Doku: The whole model of HR has changed. It used to be centered around day-to-day employee matters, but now HR is an empowerment resource for managers to manage their own teams. It’s now more empowerment than enforcement, but there’s still a large group of our tenured workforce that still remembers prior HR style. We have three generations working alongside each other in the workspace. Anything we push forward rubs one group the wrong way, is liked by another and despised by the third. It’s a challenge managing this multi-generational workforce.
HR has become more of a business partner rather than just an enforcer of policy, and that requires us to be more informed about and involved in business decisions. Sometimes HR professionals are still not taken as seriously as other business leaders. And even though women dominate the HR space, where business HR leadership is separated from other HR specializations, leaders are still predominately male, at least in my experience. I’m an advocate of lifelong learning because in this ever-changing world you’ll become obsolete if you’re not a lifelong learner.
WACOAN: Have you had mentors along the way?
Doku: Cargill had a program that allowed us to partner with mentors and coaches. I was so open to learning new skills that I latched on to anyone willing to share their knowledge and experience.
I’ve also had a lot of informal mentors over my career, mostly women who went before me in their reach and experience. One of my important unofficial mentors was the first female general manager ever at Cargill, Stephanie Peters, who I’m still in touch with. She has pushed me and challenged me to be a fearless leader. Lorelei Whitney was another unofficial mentor who taught me the essence of building real connections in the fields and paths you aspire to. Another unsung hero in my career development was a coach I worked with who allowed me to challenge some professionally crippling and stifling thoughts and ideologies.
WACOAN: You’ll graduate this July from this year’s cohort in Leadership Waco. What has that experience been like for you?
Doku: I was selected in June 2022 for this class of Leadership Waco. The program identifies potential community leaders and provides information about various facets of Waco. It includes regional service, Waco history and economic development (my favorite session so far). We also engage in serving others and learn different ways to get involved in the community. The last three months of the program take us through tourism and the city’s vision for the future. It’s been such an impactful learning and developmental experience, both personally and professionally, and has really solidified my position as a Wacoan.
WACOAN: What about your family? How often do you get back to Ghana?
Doku: My husband, Frederick Horthman, still lives in Ghana and runs his family’s business, manufacturing wood-based building materials. Our son, Edwin, is almost 4 and lives with me here. We got married in a traditional Ghanaian wedding in 2019.
My mom passed away in 2013, one of the lowest times of my life. She was my best friend and losing her put me in a state of depression. That time led me into a deeper relationship with God, though, and saved my life — though that’s probably a conversation for another time.
My dad still lives in Ghana. I FaceTime with him once a week, and he’s my biggest cheerleader. The family business experienced a great setback after a high-risk expansion investment, and my father’s still running it with support from my brothers.
I get back to Ghana an average of once a year. Of course, I connect with family and friends by internet, but I do miss it. And I miss the food, which I just can’t get around here. Some of my favorite Ghanaian foods are jollof rice [typically made with long grain rice, tomatoes, onions, spices, vegetables and meat in a single pot], which I can make through substitution with some spices I brought back from Ghana, and bofrot, a breakfast delicacy like a fried doughnut. I love breakfast foods.
WACOAN: What do you do for fun?
Doku: Well, since I have a young son, it mostly revolves around him. I do enjoy watching crime and investigative TV shows — both fictional and true — but we love to hang out and go to water parks in the summer. I don’t really have any hobbies since I’m always on the go. I would like to develop a hobby.
WACOAN: What are three words your friends and colleagues would use to describe you?
Doku: Since you sent me your questions in advance, I cheated and asked them! My friends say I’m loyal, caring and dependable. My colleagues say I’m persistent, strong and direct, but also caring, compassionate and resilient. I’ve been with this work team only about year, and it’s predominately composed of older Caucasian males. In the beginning I was firmer, and then I worried that I’d compromised my nature. But my colleagues still said I was jovial, so I guess I’ve eased up some as I’ve gotten to know everyone.
WACOAN: What is something most people don’t know about you?
Doku: I can’t ride a bicycle! I just never got the opportunity to learn, but I’d like to. I’ll learn one of these days. Maybe that will become my new hobby.
WACOAN: What keeps you up at night? What gives you hope?
Doku: It may sound strange, but I worry about Waco’s homeless population. God just put that on my heart. I used to keep sandwiches and blankets in my bag and even started a project for the homeless, where I collaborated with some local organizations to provide employment specifically for our homeless population. We had hiring events at various centers and shelters. But life has gotten in the way.
People give me hope. Before I moved here, the name ‘Waco’ to me was synonymous with ‘not diverse or welcoming’ — among other things that were not typically good, from what I was told and read about. But living here I’ve experienced the contrary and have found a home here. What I love about Waco is the people.
WACOAN: What advice would you give to young girls in Ghana who want to move beyond their cultural preconceptions and possibly pursue STEM careers?
Doku: I’d validate their emotions of fear, concern, self-doubt or whatever sentiments they’re riddled with in their desire for a STEM career. I’d encourage them to pursue their goals in spite of these emotions, especially in that part of the world where women are underrepresented. If you choose to do something challenging, like enter a STEM career, you may get looks from people, or even direct questions of, ‘What are you thinking?’ You may even hear that voice inside your head saying that you don’t deserve to be there or that you won’t be successful. But do it anyway — not because of anyone else’s expectations of what you can or can’t do, but because you love it. Do it for the next generation of girls you are paving a way for. Do it for those who wanted to, but couldn’t because they didn’t have the opportunity. Most importantly do it because that’s your heart’s desire. Find female connections who have established STEM careers and engage them in conversations about how they navigate roadblocks. Ask about the keys to their success and learn from them.