You started your career as a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. What was it like?
Watching spellbound as a child as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon inspired me to work for NASA on the Voyager mission. It was such an amazing experience to see the first up-close images of the planet Jupiter and its moon. The ability to work on the Solar Probe mission to figure out how to send a spacecraft to orbit the sun at close range to learn how the sun affects us on Earth was a technical challenge. It was an exhilarating experience to work on those projects.
Your motto is, “Don’t look for opportunity. Create it.” How can people do that, especially if they come from a less privileged background?
As a child, my family struggled—living paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes, there wasn’t even a paycheck, and we had to live with another family. There wasn’t anyone in my family who knew how to create opportunity. My Girl Scout troop leader taught me how to set a goal and then break that goal down into smaller more achievable steps. Next step, start taking action, and if you run into problems, ask for help. It was such a great lesson to learn and mindset to develop because at that young age of 7, I began to look at problems as opportunities.
You’ve also been a business executive for top tech companies like Apple, Dell and IBM. What did you learn about overcoming obstacles?
Thanks to earning my Girl Scout’s science badge, where I successfully launched an Estes Rocket, I gained the personal confidence that I could do science and math at a time when many girls were not encouraged to study those topics. I decided to excel at those skills so that I could be part of the space program and work for NASA. I defined the opportunity as work requiring math and science expertise, not as being male or female work. That mindset of focusing on the skills needed and getting really good at those skills allowed me to break through barriers to overcome many obstacles and barriers.
What do you see as the leadership challenges for the next generation? How can young people prepare for them?
One of my mottos I adopted from Girl Scouts is “always leave the campground better than you found it.” The leadership challenges for the next generation are global in scope and local in action—global because of climate change and local because of our ability to instantly communicate around the world doesn’t take away from the responsibility of improving your local community. Take time to be informed and then use your voice and take action to create the world and community that you want to live in.