Celebrating Inclusive Excellence: Renée Lartey on the Importance of Mentors

Photo of Renée Lartey standing in front of office building with the text Celebrating Inclusive Excellence: Renée Lartey on the Importance of Mentors
Madison McNair

"You have to be exceptional in the small things so people can trust you in the larger things." These were the words of advice shared by Electronic Systems Laboratory’s (ELSYS) new Associate Lab Director, Renée Lartey, when advising professionals who want to pursue a goal with a non-traditional background.

Lartey is the first Black woman with an operations and project management background to serve as an Associate Lab Director at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), supporting one of the Institute's largest labs. She officially began the role on Dec. 1, 2023, after serving as the lab's interim associate lab director for nine months. Lartey's new role is a major accomplishment in her career and a significant milestone for GTRI and ELSYS.

Lartey, who has worked at GTRI for over six years, credits her success and growth to consistency and mentorship. Her recent promotion is a testament to her hard work and dedication. It also serves as an encouragement to professionals navigating the workforce who desire to grow in their fields. Lartey's story proves that it is possible to achieve your goals even if your path doesn't look like everyone else's. She offers advice to professionals who desire to do the same.

Renée Lartey on mentors, career growth, and the path to excellence.

Finding Her Passion and Stepping Into Leadership

In 2009, Lartey began working at Lockheed Martin as a Program Analyst. In this role, Lartey was the primary contact between the client and Lockheed Martin. In 2011, she became a Program Analyst at Lockheed and did low-level project management work. Project management wasn't initially on Lartey's radar, but a seed was planted at Lockheed that set her trajectory forward.

While at Lockheed, Lartey's supervisor noticed her natural propensity toward organizing and managing. In 2012, after reflecting on her supervisor's advice, Lartey went on to receive her M.S. in Project Management from the University of Maryland Global Campus in 2012.

Shortly after, Lartey accepted a job at Lockheed in the Aberdeen Proving Grounds (APG) in Maryland, where she got hands-on experience in advanced project management and Department of Defense (DoD) work. At APG, Lartey worked on a software sustainability project for the Technical Ground Station, originally named the Common Ground Station (CGS), doing subcontractor management. She also learned the ins and outs of how Department of Defense (DoD) contracts worked.

During Lartey’s time at APG, her supervisor, a Project Management and Planning Operations Supervisor, at Lockheed, departed the company. The organization was left with a gap for someone to lead the $90 million program. Lartey's day-to-day work gave her the skills to step into the role, so she transitioned into serving as an interim. She accredits stepping into this leadership role as a defining moment that propelled her career.

Eventually, a new leader was brought in to fill the role permanently. However, the new supervisor continued to let Lartey support leading the team. She supervised direct reports, managed subcontractors, and led over 50 project team members. Not only this, but her new supervisor also aided her professional development through mentorship and coaching. Lartey gained skills such as learning how to lead project management for a large entity, which would benefit her well in her upcoming role at GTRI. While Lartey described it as an “intense job,” she realized this was the point in her life where she discovered that project management was her passion.

Three photos of Renée Lartey at work.
Left: Renée Lartey speaking at a recent GTRI Field Office Summit; middle and right: Renée Lartey speaking with Tommer Ender, Director of the GTRI Electronic Systems Laboratory (ELSYS). (Photos: Christopher Moore)

Growth and Evolution at GTRI

In 2014, Lartey packed her bags and moved to Georgia to start her new role at GTRI. She began as a Research Associate, leading a project support group in the Test Engineering Division (TEN) of ELSYS. As a Research Associate, Lartey spearheaded bringing together a group of individuals responsible for the Division's project management support tasks. The program that she led still continues today, speaking to its impact and importance.

Three years later, Lartey transferred to GTRI’s newly founded Project Management Support Office (PMSO), which would change its name to the Project Management Office (PMO) in 2021. Former PMO Director and recent retiree Jeff Hallman appointed Lartey and another colleague to help create the organization. At the PMO, Lartey supported sponsored projects and tracked deliverables for sponsors. In 2019, she transitioned to a role at a private company that created branded promotional products as an IT Product and Implementation Manager. However, it was only a short time before GTRI reached back out.

“I left GTRI for a little bit, and Jeff Hallman came and reached out to me and said, ’Hey, I took on this interim role as the COO. I really need somebody in there to help me get some of the tasks done,'" said Lartey.

So, she returned to GTRI, but this time, she was at the Operations Office as a Senior Researcher, Operations and Project Manager. In this position, she helped facilitate portfolio management of eight operations initiatives across GTRI. She also helped prepare executive-level decision briefs for the GTRI Executive Council to inform and provide insight into critical decisions.

While Lartey was dedicating her time and efforts to the Operations Office, another unexpected opportunity presented itself in 2023. ELSYS' Lab Director, Tommer Ender, contacted her and asked if she was open to returning to the lab as an interim Associate Lab Director. Lartey was shocked and pleased. Nonetheless, she accepted the role and embraced the idea of taking on a new challenge.

Lartey served as an interim for nine months. During this time, she and several distinguished candidates went through the interview process for the position. On Dec. 1, she assumed a permanent role as the Associate Lab Director. In her new role, the team focuses on refining processes, including how they intake new hires.

She shared that her recent promotion is what she is most proud of in her career thus far: “I've said to so many people, and I mean it from the bottom of my heart, I never thought in a million years that this (role) would be on my trajectory path at GTRI. You go to GTRI, and see everyone with an engineering or scientific background. And so, I never thought this would be on my path.”

She went on to share that she hopes her successes serve as an inspiration to others.

“It is something that I am proud of because I hope that it gives hope to others and potentially has others considering careers or even applying to positions that they may not feel like they fit the mold of.”

Photo of attractive Black woman sitting at an outdoor table in front of an office building.
(Photo of Renée Lartey by Christopher Moore)

The Power of Mentorship

Lartey’s success can be attributed in large part to the mentorship she has received throughout her career. The genuine relationships she’s developed have played an instrumental role in shaping her path. She shares the importance of having a network of individuals who can give guidance and support and who can advocate for you. One of Lartey’s core people is Kim Toatley, GTRI’s CFO/Associate Vice President for Finance and Research Administration.

“There would be many days where I would just sit in Kim Toatley’s office, or I would call her up at night and get advice from her. I would encourage everyone, no matter where they are, to have someone that you can trust to be that sounding board. You can grow infinitely when you have others coaching you along the way,” said Lartey.

She also shared that as people navigate promotions and grow in their careers, they can be presented with challenges, such as loneliness. During these difficult moments, she said that having someone you can talk to is indispensable.

Having experienced the benefits of mentorship herself, Lartey is committed to mentoring other professionals and supporting them in achieving their goals. She said the advice she would give to anyone she is mentoring is to put themselves out there and “let your work shine and speak for itself.”

She also speaks on the importance of excelling in the small things at your workplace so that you can become an individual who is trusted with larger projects and tasks.

“Oftentimes, people want to rise to the top so quickly that they don't realize they're not putting in the effort on the small things. You're never going to get anywhere because everybody sees you as a person trying to rush to the top… It's not the glamorous stuff, but if you can do well with the things that aren't glamorous, I really believe people will start to notice. And, I don't think that should be your intention. Your intention should be to do a good job in anything you do.”

Photo of attractive Black woman outdoors in front of an office building.
(Photo of Renée Lartey by Christopher Moore)

Word to Live By: Determination

As a minority woman, Lartey understands the obstacles that can present themselves when navigating growing in one's career. However, she shares that she doesn't let that stop her from pursuing her goals and offers advice to similar professionals.

“It has been difficult, but I don't use that as my crutch in any way. There have been hundreds of meetings that I have been the only female, the only minority, or both in the room…There have been several times in my career that I have been the youngest or the least experienced, but I've always seen people as people. They're humans before they have a title. I felt if I truly had something of value to say, I would never shy away from saying it,” said Lartey.

When asked what word she lives by, Lartey shared one word: determination.

“If there’s a word, it's ‘determination.’ It has always been the word that described me. I've always felt that if I can do the best that I can do in whatever those little things are, everything else will come. And I've lived by that. And right now, I feel like it's proving to be successful.”

What’s Next for Lartey?

While Lartey has achieved great success in her career, she doesn’t let that stop her from pursuing professional development and being a life-long learner. She is currently active in GTRI's CareerLINK Mentoring program, which facilitates purposeful learning, career development, and networking by intentionally pairing employees based on a specific set of criteria established by their professional development needs.

Lartey's plans also include taking Georgia Tech Professional Education courses to better understand the work her lab is producing. She plans to further enhance her skills to support ELSYS by learning more performance improvement training methods, such as Lean Six Sigma, to build on operational efficiencies within the lab. Her efforts to improve her skill set will continue to serve GTRI and herself as she evolves and grows as a professional and leader.

The Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) is the nonprofit, applied research division of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). Founded in 1934 as the Engineering Experiment Station, GTRI has grown to more than 2,900 employees, supporting eight laboratories in over 20 locations around the country and performing more than $940 million of problem-solving research annually for government and industry. GTRI's renowned researchers combine science, engineering, economics, policy, and technical expertise to solve complex problems for the U.S. federal government, state, and industry.