As part of the University of Kentucky’s 70 Years of Integration commemoration, we are doing a monthly Q&A featuring a graduate to discuss their time at UK and how that helped shape what they have done in their life and career. Today we are featuring Taunya Phillips, who earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1987 and an MBA in 2004. She is the senior associate director for new ventures and alliances in the UK Office of Technology Commercialization. “It is at the interface of technology and business, which I really like,” she says. Phillips is also the UK Alumni Association president for 2019-2020.
Name: Taunya Phillips
Year graduated/degree: Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering, 1987; Master of Business Administration, 2004
Current city of residence: Lexington, Kentucky
Taunya Phillips has spent more than half of her adult life at the University of Kentucky. After receiving her education at UK, she worked in the private sector for 12 years at Milliken & Co. in South Carolina before returning to UK in 1999. For the past 20 years, she has worked at UK, first directing the minority engineering program, focusing in student recruitment and retention, as well as being an Engineering 101 instructor. For the past 15 years she has worked at the UK College Engineering.
Q: Tell us about your current job.
A: Our office is responsible for commercializing innovations that come from across campus. We work with researchers and help them decide if they have something that is novel and different. If so, we do a market and technology assessment to see if it is patentable and if it has potential to be commercialized. And we look at the strategic partners that we might need for that. We also work with startup companies who are trying to further develop innovations and position themselves for acquisition. We also work with startups in the Lexington area community.
One of our key programs is UKAccel. It is a program for faculty interested in starting a company, but do not know how to go about it. It’s a three-month program in partnership with Awesome Inc. We lay out a plan for them of milestones they have to accomplish. We want them out of their labs and in an entrepreneurial environment to get them thinking more about the business aspect of their technology rather than technical aspect. So that’s been a program that has been successful for us. We have a lot going on. We received a grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health, last year. It is a grant in partnership with 24 other institutions to create a biomedical accelerator in the southeast. That was a big deal for us.
Q: What clubs/groups/organizations were you involved in at UK?
A: Being in engineering, I didn’t have a lot of free time. But I was in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers. I was a little sister my first year or so for Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. That was pretty much all I had time to do. Especially after the first year, I had to really focus. The organizations I was in were more along the lines of engineering, so I aligned myself there.
And that was good because the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) was a great opportunity for me at the time. We would go to the NSBE national conference and they would have a career fair with 300 employers. Where else could you go and meet that many people? There were a lot of opportunities to get co-ops and summer internships and full-time employment. When I was at UK, there just weren’t many African-American engineering students. The whole time I was in chemical engineering, in my class I was the only African American. Being able to go to NSBE and see 2,000 African-American students trying to get an engineering degree, I was like “Wow” the first time I went. That was very important for me.
Q: How did your UK experience shape or help you in what you are doing now?
A: I think it shaped me more when I first came back to UK and in the College of Engineering. I felt my experience would help in advising and directing the minority students here. And I was faculty advisory for NSBE. My experience at UK and in corporate America allowed me to advise them on what they needed to do. Just engineering in general has helped me think a certain way and that comes into play now. Just being able to problem solve and strategize and think through certain situations — it’s just a way of thinking that has stuck with me throughout my life.
Q: What professors/instructors/mentors were instrumental in your success at UK and/or after?
A: There were a few in chemical engineering. When I came back in 1999 every professor I had in chemical engineering was still here except for one, so that was really neat. And Dr. (Dibakar) Bhattacharyya was very encouraging. He’s been involved in technology commercialization, and I’ve been able to help him. So it’s weird that I’m on the other side and able to help him with that.
Q: How do you stay connected to the University of Kentucky?
A: I feel UK is an appendage of mine! I love sports. I’ve been a football season ticket holder for probably going on 15 years, through thick and thin. I love going to the women’s basketball games, and I’m a season ticket holder there, as well. And I certainly follow men’s basketball and other sports. I also get asked to speak in different classes. Dr. (Bruce) Walcott always invites me to talk to his classes. For 15 years, I was on the Engineering Alumni Association board. I did a lot of work with them in their programs, letter writing and recruiting programs around the region. I love the UK Opera Theatre, so I go to a lot of its performances. Any other events UK sponsors, I like to try to take advantage of them if I can.
Q: Can you describe a particularly memorable experience you had at UK that had a lasting impact on you?
A: There really isn’t one particular incident or experience. I would say just being able to persevere through engineering taught me something about myself, that I could do anything I wanted if I was able to put my mind to it. It kind of opened up my world. If I could go through this very difficult major and do well and get out into the world and get a job, I could do pretty much anything I wanted to do. Also, the friends I made here my freshman year in Donovan Hall are still my good friends today. I made a lot of lasting relationships.
Q: You were in the private sector for many years but have been back at UK for 20. What is it about UK that keeps you here?
A: I love Lexington. I love UK, and I just think it’s been good to me. At UK, I have been able to do amazing things. I love the area I work in. I have always had a helping attitude, which is why I love working with students, and I love working with our researchers, helping get their work into the public sphere. It’s really neat when that happens, and they start a company and it does well or when they license technology to a company and they benefit financially.
So it’s fun to see them grow and learn. It’s funny, when I was doing my MBA I was faculty staff and student all at the same time, which was kind of weird. And right now being the alumni association president, it’s just fun to be here. I take advantage of a lot of opportunities to meet lots of different people here, and I really enjoy that part of it.
Q: What does it mean to you to be the UK Alumni Association president, particularly during this momentous academic year?
A: I’m honored, and of course I am grateful for what Mr. Johnson did for me and other African Americans here leading the way. I hope my being president brings other African Americans back to UK and into the alumni association fold. I was so happy about how many people came to the Lyman T. Johnson Awards Banquet. It was really nice and I talked to people from Texas, North Carolina and California, and I asked them why they came back. They said they had never been back before. But because UK had put all this effort into doing this big event for the 70th year of integration, they felt they had to come back. And they were happy to be here and said they would come back again. So that made me feel good that what the alumni association decided to do in partnership with the UK Office of Institutional Diversity was a big success. More than anything, it connected people back to the university that had not been back in a while. To be a part of that and be president of the UK Alumni Association was really special to me.
Q: So far, what have you enjoyed most about UK’s commemoration of 70 years of integration?
A: I really enjoyed the Lyman T. Johnson Awards Banquet because of the turnout and the spirit in the room. It was a good feeling to be there. But I also liked the Trevor Noah event. I’m a big fan of his, and I hadn’t read his book until I found out he was coming. I listened to it on Audible and hearing him read it added something to it. And I had seen him on “The Daily Show,” but seeing him in person was a highlight.
Q: What does the commemoration of 70 years of integration mean to you?
A: It means a lot to me that UK would take the opportunity to have a yearlong celebration. Being an African American and knowing my university puts this much value in commemorating 70 years of integration, it means a lot to me to see that. And having all these different events that allows people to come back and participate in the yearlong celebration is good. It means a lot to me to get to meet so many people. I met Jim Green, the track star, and didn’t really know how big of a deal he was until I met him. He came to the LTJ banquet and I don’t know if I would have ever met him otherwise.
I told my husband when I came back from LTJ that I thanked so many people for coming back to campus, because I needed to see them. I needed to see all the people who came before me and most of them are doing great in the world.