By Ciku Kimeria
Dr. Renee Welch is an experienced advocate for uncrewed aerial systems and digital equity. She has been involved in writing and reviewing government grants and incentives for over 20 years to encourage investment in innovation. At WeRobotics and previously at Drone Grantology, she supported clients in developing funding pathways to develop, expand, and scale their uncrewed systems technology products and services.
As a FAA Certificated Remote Pilot, Dr. Welch is passionate about promoting S.T.R.E.A.M (science, technology, reading, engineering, aviation, math) careers and exposing students, educators, and communities to these fields. She also serves as the Chair of the U.S. Drone Soccer National Engagement Strategy Advisory, demonstrating her commitment to bringing innovative and engaging experiences to students.
Dr. Welch graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a doctorate in educational policy, a master’s in curriculum, and a bachelor’s in finance. She leverages her 20 years of professional experience as a continuing education and workforce development specialist to provide comprehensive support to her clients. In addition to her work, Renee is an active member of several organizations that share her passion for UAS/AAM and drone technology, including Women and Drones, Drone Responders, AUVSI, and the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA).
This conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Renee, you have joined WeRobotics on May 1, 2023 as the organization’s new Co-Pilot of the Executive Management team as well as Administrator of the US legal entity. Why did you choose WeRobotics and the Flying Labs Network for your next professional chapter?
My decision to join the organization is driven by the organization’s focus on social impact and the diverse applications of drones for humanitarian missions. I have known WeRobotics for quite a while, starting with my first exposure to the Kenya Flying Labs as part of a webinar series facilitated by Women and Drones. I was mesmerized as I learned about their many applications of drones being used for social good. I was inspired by their innovative spirit and forward thinking.
I saw myself embedded in a role within WeRobotics and applied based on my genuine interest in contributing to their mission. The prospect of working with an amazing core team and collaborating with impressive individuals across the global network of Flying Labs was inspiring. Talk about impact!
Then I learned of the holacracy-inspired approach followed by WeRobotics, which emphasizes transparent rules and roles while decentralizing power. This presented a refreshing change, especially as I have experienced several top-down organizational structures in the past. The organization’s commitment to “walking the WALK” and aligning their actions with their purpose is commendable.
And the global diversity of the Flying Labs Network is yet another aspect that attracted me to WeRobotics. It’s impressive to see how the organization actively practices and promotes diversity, not just as a buzzword, but through the composition of its team, partners, network members, and the problems they are collectively tackling.
Your bio talks about STREAM rather than STEM which more people might be familiar with. Tell us more about your definition of STREAM and the application of drones in it.
Research in the U.S. says that by 2030, at least 80% of our current jobs will require STEM skills. We don’t even know what future job titles will be. I believe we have an opportunity through drone awareness and education to get children and their families to think about this evolving career path.
Yes, I say STREAM, adding another layer. STREAM is Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Aviation and Aerospace Education and Math. This is my twist on it and I believe there are many streams or career pathways, from entrepreneurship to working across many sectors. Drones are a tool that can be applied across at least 30 industries, and I’m excited about the possibilities. The Flying Labs are an example of a network of local experts in drone, data, robotics, and AI services who are addressing critical challenges affecting their communities.
I believe in this STREAM approach because to find the solutions to the world’s problems, we need people that are skilled in STREAM, and this starts with getting children interested in the technology and extends through reskilling adults. I envision WeRobotics programs as part of the solution. Research from a recent blog post from South Africa Flying Labs adds that according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupations in STEM are projected to grow by 8.0 percent by 2029 compared to the 3.7 percent growth for all other fields.
We plan to expand our STEM/youth programs to support the workforce of the future with the first implementation of the newly co-designed STEM Sheroes program. From the book series for the youngest children; training and awareness of robotics for the kids that follow them; STEM programs once they are a bit older using drones bringing in girls and women; to entrepreneurship opportunities for the adults [who get their licenses].
What would you like your legacy in robotics to be?
I’d like to be someone known for helping to close the digital divide, particularly among people of color globally, creating equal opportunities for underrepresented communities. As an advocate for diversity and inclusion in robotics, I’d like to be known as a warrior to the mission of bridging the gap and empowering individuals in these communities, especially girls and women. In my tenure at WeRobotics, I hope that my legacy will be defined by the positive impact I had on individuals and communities, creating a more inclusive and equitable world through robotics and emerging technologies.
Ciku Kimeria is sharing her storytelling talent with WeRobotics to make the many stories in our minds and hearts come alive from a different perspective. We believe that telling these stories will contribute to changing mindsets and inspiring local talent on how drones and their applications in the hands of local experts create positive social impact. Ciku is a Kenyan storyteller whose work spans storytelling for development agencies; journalistic writing and editing for different media houses; travel writing and mystery novels.