28 Days of Black Excellence: Khadijah El-Amin
Khadijah El-Amin is a research scientist at Kao USA where she is responsible for the formulation development of an array of well-known personal care products including shampoos, conditioners, serums and lotions. Prior to her 10-year career in hair care formulation, she spent several years working in skin, bath and body care and developed a variety of products from face creams to shower gels. El-Amin grew up on the south side of Chicago and received her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from UIC.
Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information.
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.
Aisha El-Amin 0:35
Hello and greetings, UIC family and friends. Welcome. Welcome to UIC’s 28 days of historically, historical Black excellence [“28 Days of Black Excellence”]. I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. It is my great honor to celebrate Black excellence with some powerful and inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni as well as some of our faculty and staff from the past. Each day we’ll have a new guest who’ll share their story. And today I’m really, really excited and honored to introduce our guest Khadijah El-Amin. She graduated in 2002 from the College of Engineering. And I’m going to pass the mic to her so she can introduce herself, kind of talk about what she’s been up to since 2002. And with her journey in life. Khadijah, welcome.
Khadijah El-Amin 1:33
Thank you so much for this opportunity to share my experience. I appreciate it. So I’ll just kind of jump in. Since I graduated, degree in chemical engineering, I kind of fell into the personal care field. Specific, a lot of formulation work, some process engineering. I think I’ve had a very mixed experience. Regulatory, just a mix. So after I graduated, I remember the job market and opportunities were still kind of, like, it was a struggle. There were not a lot of opportunities out there that I kind of came across. It was, there was some challenges in that respect. But I was fortunate to, I guess, to stumble upon personal care industry. I found a love for it. I’ve met a lot of really good people along the way. Some really good mentors. Great friendships that have formed.
I worked from food industry, which is where I actually kind of started off. And then I moved to, again, personal care industry where I did just more hands on bench work, formulation work, in a lot of process scale ups. I started with a very small company, which was an experience. I learned a great deal though. And that kind of led me to working with a few other companies. All personal care. Pretty much along the same line of work as far as formulation. It’s just been a great journey right now. I’m still working in that field right now, as a research scientist. I enjoy it. I can honestly say I enjoy what I do. Obviously, I think every job there’s going to be some kind of aspect of challenges and things like that aren’t like on the top of your list. But I think overall, I’m happy. I enjoy what I do.
Aisha El-Amin 3:45
You know it’s really funny. And I have to make the connection here. As my sister-in-law, I have you, who came before I came to UIC. I have my daughter who’s there now. So we have, you know, and my niece. So it’s huge. UIC is served our entire family in many ways. And one thing I know is that you are brilliant. Right? And so one of the things, like when you talk about personal care, most folks don’t actually know what you’re talking about [laughter]. Engineer talk, I know [laughter]. So what is personal care? Kind of, what do you do?
Khadijah El-Amin 4:28
Very good question. Alright. So essentially, you know, there’s different aspects of it. It’s pretty much exactly what you think. Personal care. Those things that you use to take care of your personal self. That can be within the skin care realm as far as lotions and shower gels, shampoos, hair care. So you’ve got any kind of hair care product that you walk down the aisles, you’re like, “Oh, I need some this.” Whether its conditioner or some styling product. So there’s an array. So you think about your routine, your daily routine. What you go through from start to finish from cleansing, moisturizing, fixing your hair and maintenance. Everything along that routine would be like personal care. So that within itself is like the personal care industry. All those products and things that are offered and put together for the care of your personal self.
Aisha El-Amin 5:27
Well, we know who to thank when we are smelling good, looking good [laughter]. We appreciate you being able to mix the right chemical so that it’s not burning our skin off. That is so, so valued. Look back too at your experience at UIC. And I know we’ve had conversations about your experience. And I love for you to share some of your fondest memories and takeaways from your experience and your journey to UIC.
Khadijah El-Amin 5:58
I feel like I look back now and I think about college and some of it feels like a blur because I felt like I was in my own bubble. Which I pretty much was. I think I associated and just maintained my environment with other chemical engineering students. I didn’t do a lot of socializing outside of that. Only because I lived and breathed chemical engineering. And it was, that was like all I did. So those are my study partners, those are my friends and people that I live with. But I would say overall, from a social aspect, I kind of give you two different things. So from a social aspect, I really feel like one of the best experiences — just memories that kind of stick with me — were overall the relationships and a bonding. The bonding experiences that I had.
I remember a couple of incidents just sitting up late until three or four o’clock in the morning [laughter]. After just finishing homework or whatever else, but still trying to keep my eyes open because I wanted to finish this conversation and discussion. Talking to my dorm mate. And we still keep in touch to this day. But just getting a chance to learn and connect with different people from different places. Those opportunities I would not have had prior to going to UIC. And then at the end of the day, you realize that you are so much more alike than different. And you build a support system because of that. I found myself going through these late, late, late habitual nights, you know, studying, trying to keep up with homework. They’re right there with me doing the same thing. And when you have somebody else to struggle with you in a sense, it doesn’t seem so bad. It seems like normal actually [laughter]. It gets to the point where just seems normal, like, “Oh, this is just how life is.” Just those late night conversations talking and just connecting, I think those are really some of my best memories of UIC.
Aisha El-Amin 8:08
I love that because the struggle is real. But when you in a struggle with your tribe, then it’s a little bit, you know, it’s a little better. Absolutely.
Khadijah El-Amin 8:15
Aisha El-Amin 8:15
You said you want to tell me some two different sides of this; academic fondness that you have as well.
Khadijah El-Amin 8:22
I guess it wasn’t so much academic. It was the campus experience. I had an opportunity to stay on campus for four years. I think that was a priceless experience. Especially, up late at night, studying and everything else. It was helpful that I didn’t have to catch a bus to get home or drive home or whatever. So I definitely appreciate that. But one of the things that the campus would do is they had, like little things, to kind of bring this togetherness. And just kind of help give the students something else to do and kind of connect to each other. So they used to have this open mic. And I had never been to open mic before. And I remember though, it was like, I wouldn’t get a chance to catch them all the time. But I enjoyed them. And we didn’t like clap after someone. You do the snapping, you know. So I enjoyed those open mics. Those are good.
Aisha El-Amin 9:16
Did you get up and rap for folks?
Khadijah El-Amin 9:19
Oh, no [laughter]. I sat back quietly and I snapped after, that was about it. It was something that was supported, I believe, by I think AAAN, African American Academic Network. I believe they did that. And that was another thing. I was really happy, the fact that there was some supporting organizations for American American students. Places we can kind of connect and see people that look like us, you know. I think that was very helpful. Kind of looking back and just dissecting my experience. Just being able to kind of connect with previous students even. Or just students that were even like a year ahead of me and which professors were, stick with this one, they’re pretty good, or they did this. So just kind of getting that guidance and that mentorship was very helpful. So I appreciated those organizations.
Aisha El-Amin 10:23
Wow, I love it. Thank you. Thanks for that. So with every journey, there’s challenges. Right? There’s challenges that you faced, and you obviously engage them in a way that led to success. And there’s challenges that our students are currently facing. So can you talk a little bit about some of your challenges and how you manage those as a UIC student.
Khadijah El-Amin 10:46
I think the challenges that I probably got exposed to or had to kind of deal with maybe kind of changed. I don’t think I had consistent challenges. I think, initially, my challenge was really feeling like I belonged. You know, when you are sometimes the only minority, and in a lot of cases for me, the only African American in a class period. That can be uncomfortable. So you kind of get to a point where you kind of have to build your own confidence. And just kind of believe in yourself. And I think I was blessed with a good support system. Family, friends and things like that, that kind of that helped along the way. But I could really see, like without having that, how easy it would be for anybody to start questioning, like, “Man, do I belong here? Can I do this work?” But I think everybody needs that support. So my really biggest thing was just feeling like I belong and that I deserved a seat at the table. That I deserved the opportunity to go through that program and try my best just like everybody else. So that was that was my biggest hurdle, I think, in the beginning. Once I kind of got passed that — and I wouldn’t even say, I don’t want to say I got 100% passed it. I don’t think I was passed it until I had the degree in my hand. It was like, I did it, you know. I deserve this. I did it. But I think one of the other things that was a challenge was really learning a balance. Learning a balance. I think the college experience period can be difficult. Depending on everyone’s situation. Each situation has its own challenges by itself. So you can have a slew of responsibilities at home, family responsibilities or whatever. And then you add the academic responsibilities on top of that. That can really be a struggle.
So for me, my challenge is just trying to figure out the best way for me to kind of balance life. You know, I was always used to working hard. And I had it really ingrained in me, like, work hard, work hard, work hard. But sometimes you’re just like, I just want to breathe. I just want to relax. Can I sleep in just once for 30 minutes? Can I see a friend or something? But it was really learning that balance, because I think I got so submerged in just the day to day work. And my family members can tell you to this day, and you probably remember, birthday parties, anything like that, I would go to, I would have books, my books with me. Doing homework and studying and stuff like that. So you kind of have to find your own rhythm and groove. But that was my struggle. Really just trying to find that balance of pulling myself out of the woods, just a little bit, to breathe a little bit. Because everybody needs the opportunity, a chance for your brain to recharge. You got to unplug a little bit. That state of, just your emotional state, your mental health, all of that is really important. If you don’t have something to balance it out, it’s not gonna go well. Yeah. That was that was my struggle. Finding that balance. And once I found it, I was good.
Aisha El-Amin 14:25
Wow. You know, it’s really interesting, because we talk a lot about mental wellness now. I think back then it wasn’t a thing that we actually put a name to. Right? We didn’t actually in focus on. But I think, you know, especially this new generation, they realize the importance of it. So it’s beautiful that you bring that kind of into your story and journey because we need that. We need that balance. Absolutely. If you had to go back to young Khadijah, even though you’re quite young now [laughter]. What would you tell your first year UIC self that would help kind of ease your journey or help inspire you? In hopes that as our students listen to this, they can use those words of advice.
Khadijah El-Amin 15:21
I probably have so many things I would tell myself. But I think, really, that that biggest thing that I wish I would have caught on to earlier was really building that self-confidence. I would encourage current students, future students, you have to believe in yourself. Because you’re really not going to come across anybody else that’s really trying to uplift you. You’re gonna come across a lot of people trying to tear you down to make themselves feel better. There are already so many stereotypes and things like that we deal with. And you aren’t really going to get, just in life period, you certainly want people that are really going to try to help and uplift you. So that confidence and that belief in yourself, it has to start as soon as possible. And then not just with yourself. You got to support each other too. You have to support each other. So, you know, whether those are through study groups, or sometimes just literally walking down the hall with a simple “Hi” or a nod or something. There’s a connection there. And it does a lot sometimes to just lift somebody’s spirits and make them feel better, whatever. Like they’re not alone.
And I guess that’s the whole point. You don’t want to feel alone. And you don’t want to feel like you don’t belong. So I would say just do anything you can to just increase your confidence. And don’t let anybody tell you that you don’t belong. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it or that you can’t succeed. Because you can. It’s just a matter of you getting out of your way and doing what needs to be done. You have to be your greatest champion. And that’s basically what it boils down to. That will be my advice.
Aisha El-Amin 17:13
That is some wise advice. That is wise advice. That I appreciate and I second that. That is really great advice. And I want to thank you for taking time out to share your journey with us today. And thank you for paving the way. I know chemical engineering, Black woman, doing it in 2002. You’ve paved the way for so many folks that are on their journey now. Thanks for sharing your story and for your advice. And we look forward to continuing to connect with you at UIC in any way we can. And we appreciate you.
Khadijah El-Amin 17:53
Thank you so much for the opportunity to share. I appreciate it.
Tariq El-Amin 17:57
[Music] Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.