.To those who feel stuck in a box,
People will tell you not to dream. They will tell you what’s realistic for your life. The world will make you think you should be with this partner or have kids by that age. Strangers will look at you and put you in a box, explaining to you who they think you are and what they think you can or can’t be.
When I am at a bar, people will ask, “What do you do?”
I say,” I’m an engineer.”
They ask, “What kind of engineer? Are you a civil engineer? Are you a computer scientist?”
I say, “I’m an aerospace engineer.”
They are like, “No way. You’re a rocket scientist? Yeah, right!”
Then there’s a long line of assumptions.
“Your parents must have been geniuses, or you must have come from a rich family, or you must have had it easy.”
My parents weren’t geniuses or rich, and I didn’t have it easy.
As a black woman, who drinks whiskey and likes makeup, most people don’t think I look or act like I could be a rocket scientist. In fact, for many years, most people didn’t think I could be very much of anything.
In high school my parents went through an unpleasant divorce. It impacted the way that I experienced the world and how I felt about myself.
So badly, I wanted to feel like a normal teenager. Comparing myself to people whose parents were still together, I felt like I was coming up short.
I thought I was dumb and I nearly flunked out of high school. Instead of going to class, I spent my time being ratchet and boujee and hanging out with not the best crowd. My guidance counselor suggested I take advantage of the school’s vocational program in cosmetology instead of pursuing college. I told my dad and he went to the school and raised a stink about it.
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He said, “You don’t tell a child what they can’t do because the child will then internalize it and see it as a limitation.”
He got approved to homeschool me, so he could make sure that I graduated.
From there, I went to community college and I took an introductory set of classes in business. I sucked and I almost failed, leaving me with little self-esteem or self-confidence.
My dad encouraged me to take a math class and even offered to pay for it. So, I took pre-algebra, and I got an “A.” While building confidence takes years, that “A” was the beginning of a domino effect.
After pre-algebra, I took algebra. Then, I took precalculus. And after doing well in those courses, I took calculus. I was very nervous about calculus because many people describe it as the hardest coursework they’ve ever done. But a funny thing happened, not only did I love calculus, I got it.
So much so, during Mardi Gras, I visited my best friend, who went to Tulane in New Orleans. It was right before a calculus two exam. After I got home, all I wanted to do was lie on my kitchen floor and drink some almond milk and try to decompress after a solid two days of religious partying. But first I had to get through my exam. I was hungover, and I still got an A.
My teacher was pissed.
He said, “This is a perfect exam. I changed the questions to make it harder because I was afraid you would cheat, but you did well. And so I really need for you to think differently about what you’re doing in your life.”
I thought to myself, “Maybe I have spent a lot of time believing everybody else, instead of believing in myself.”
It was a wake up call.
After my parents’ divorce my mom, who didn’t have a college degree, struggled trying to figure out how she’d provide for two children. I realized I never wanted to be in that position and I started to become motivated by this idea of paying for my own space, where I could feel safe and secure.
However, what people don’t consider when they tell other people to dream is that if you are surrounded by people who have broken dreams or by circumstances that seem insurmountable, it’s not as easy as just flipping on a switch.
You don’t just wake up the next day and say, “I’m going to dream that I’m going to be a millionaire one day.”
I had to start with a small dream and then once I could see that dream come true, I could extend it a little bit and then a little bit more.
The University of Michigan had a transfer pathway from my school. Even though one of their admissions counselors told me I wasn’t Michigan material, I decided to apply.
My dad told me, “If you put together an application, write the essays, and don’t get in, you’re no worse off.”
Not too long after I applied, I got a letter in the mail. It wasn’t very thick, so I assumed I didn’t get in and I figured I’d open the letter when I got to work.
At my waitressing job, I opened it and I couldn’t believe it. I applied to Michigan as an aerospace engineer and I got in.
But after not being present in high school, going to a community college and then transitioning to a four-year school, there was a lot of content I missed. That first semester, I almost failed every class and nearly had a nervous breakdown.
I had to look at myself and say, “How badly do you want this?”
Over and over, I kept thinking that where I could go was infinitely better than where I came from. That’s when my dreams got even bigger.
I decided I would continue studying aerospace engineering. I would graduate and then I would go work for NASA.
When I told some people this plan, they laughed at me.
But the second that I began to challenge the box that people put me in, I realized that these limitations imposed on me throughout my life were only real if I bought into them.
I started to believe so strongly in my future that I was unwilling to accept the present-day circumstance. After many hard days and long nights, I graduated from Michigan with a degree in aerospace engineering. Then I got a master’s degree in space systems, which led me to a job at NASA.
After six years at NASA, I decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur.
First, I started STEMboard, which is a job board that exposes non-traditional applicants to pathways to careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
Venture Capitalists all told me, “No.”
At a conference in D.C., someone suggested I run an engineering company.
I started looking into it and I said, “What’s the worst thing that could happen? I could fail and I could be exactly where I’m at right now, which is trying to figure out how to run this business with no money and with people who are not willing to invest in it.”
As I worked to get my companies off the ground, people had all sorts of criticisms: “You’re too much. You’re too aggressive. You’re too bossy. You think too big”
I didn’t listen and those were the very qualities that led me to success. Eventually, we started doing government consulting while still keeping the education and outreach pieces. We started winning work.
It took an entire two years to bring in money and three years to realize my company was viable. I had a long-term vision and I was committed to taking the time to see that vision come to fruition. Now, I have three companies and just STEMboard alone, my first company, has made nearly 10 million dollars.
Despite reaching my goal of being able to take care of myself, I still had work to do in my personal life. For years I was in unhealthy relationships that were emotionally abusive.
In some of the relationships, I would feel that I had to make myself smaller in order to fit this idea of what a female partner should be and I had really had to check myself. I started working on my sense of self and learning the value of finding happiness alone.
I take two solo vacations every year. I get out and see the world, going somewhere far.
In 2016, I was sitting in my kitchen, thinking, “What can I do now that would scare me? What can I do that’s going to cause me to push my boundaries?”
I realized everything I have gotten in life that has been significant to me has come from me being in these great periods of discomfort and fear and just not knowing how things would work out.
I decided with no hiking experience whatsoever to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa.
With only 35 days to prepare, the experience forced me to redefine once again how I viewed the power of the mind.
While climbing, I got sick and I was puking for hours.
I thought to myself, “I don’t care how sick and how tired I feel. I’m going to make it to the top if it takes every single thing out of me. I’m going to make it.”
I did make it and when I got to the top, it felt great.
The mentality it took for me to make it to that summit is what it takes to not only succeed in life but also recognize the strength within yourself.
By taking a non-traditional approach to life, and being unafraid to be on my own, I have been able to nourish myself and develop a clear understanding of who I am and what I am capable of achieving in my life. I am happier now that I have ever been because I am comfortable and confident in my own skin and I truly believe that my businesses have grown as a result.
So, whether you want to be a rocket scientist or climb a mountain or do something entirely different than me, success not only comes from hard work and hustle. It also comes from discovering and appreciating who you are even if it defies stereotypes, traditional roles or simply other people’s opinions.
People have all these different ideas about success and fulfillment. They think you can’t be successful if you are not a high-performing high school student. Or if you don’t look the part or act the part, you can’t possibly be capable of a specific job. They assume if you are a woman you can’t be satisfied without a man. All of that is trash.
So, please, just dream big, really big, believe in yourself and find the joy in who you are and what you want in life.
When you really lean in to who you are and not what others expect you to be, you will break down the boxes and rise above any limitations. And what you will learn during that process is that no one, and I mean no one, knows for sure what you can do or what will make you happy until you show them.
So be determined and learn to love yourself along the way,