During Black History Month, WTOP is highlighting black men and women in the area who are doing groundbreaking work to better the community. This is Part II of a four-part series.
WASHINGTON — In recent years it was estimated that only 10 percent of aerospace engineers are women, and black women account for only one in tens of thousands in the field. Aisha Bowe beat the odds to not only have a standout career as an aerospace engineer at NASA, but even now as the CEO and founder of STEMBoard, a multi-million dollar, wholly-owned and self-funded business headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.
Bowe achieved all that before the age of 30, and her story has led her to become a motivational speaker of sorts. Her advice for others seeking the same level of success may be simple — “Stick to your script. Trust your gut.” — but her long, winding route to becoming a thriving entrepreneur is best defined by others recognizing her potential — and Bowe learning to see it in herself.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago that I was going to work at NASA and start a company, I would have thought that you were crazy,” Bowe said in an interview with WTOP. “If you told me 20 years ago that I was going to graduate from the University of Michigan, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
Bowe, 33, now lives in Northwest D.C. but grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her parents divorced when she was a kid, and that led to self-esteem and scholastic issues, she said. She didn’t have the grades to go to a top university, so she attended community college with a focus on international business. But all that changed when a teacher challenged her to think about what she wants out of life.
“It was there that I began to realize that at my age, I had no self-confidence and I didn’t have any direction,” Bowe said.
From community college, Bowe transferred to the aerospace engineering program at Michigan with the goal of working at NASA. Through a joint program there, a mentor offered her a job at NASA Ames in Mountain View, California. Initially, she turned it down.
“I was just flabbergasted,” Bowe said, noting she had the requisite grades to qualify for the program but again referenced her then-low self-esteem. “I felt like that was an injustice to all the 4.0 students out there.”
Bowe’s mentor talked her into accepting the position, and Bowe recalls the experience as “the first of many that really changed how I viewed life and what’s possible.”
“My first day at NASA, I wish there was a movie,” Bowe said. “The music going on in the background, my first In-N-Out Burger, I head over to check in, there’s this giant NASA sign.”
Bowe pointed out that NASA’s predecessor, NACA, is where the ladies featured in the based-on-a-true-story film “Hidden Figures” — Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson — worked.
“Going up to my building door every single day and looking at something that is historic, and putting context to that,” said Bowe. “That I, as a young, African-American woman could have even gone to school at the University of Michigan, a place where I may not have been able to attend 50 or 60 years before, and I can also gain an opportunity to work at NASA, who’s judging me not on the color of my skin or anything other than my academic qualifications … is just staggering to me.”
In her six years at NASA, Bowe said she took in all she could, walking around the facility, traveling to other NASA centers, and asking everyone what they do. She said she loved the challenge of facing “problems that had never been solved before,” and especially thrilled to meet Nichelle Nicols, the iconic actress who played Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek TV show.
“I don’t care where you are in your career, it’s just an incredible place,” Bowe said. “Everything from having lunch with Nichelle Nicols to getting the first peek at what was going on with the new launch vehicles to traveling all over the country and just roaming all around other NASA centers and asking them the same thing.”
While in the Bay Area at NASA, Bowe had interactions with groups focused on minorities in engineering.
“When I would tell kids that I was an aerospace engineer, they would look at me like I had 10 heads,” she said. “I realized that most students don’t have a clear understanding of what engineering is, nor what we do, so I wanted to challenge that.”
Bowe started doing tour groups for kids, and saw the impact on them and how it increased the number of kids getting into the field.
“The more that I was in contact with that, the more I wanted to understand: How could I have that experience and also feed my curiosity for technology?” Bowe said.
That, and being right there in Silicon Valley, is how the idea for STEMBoard took root.
Bowe was comfortable in her dream job with benefits at NASA, so again, it took a mentor to talk her into believing in herself enough to really explore entrepreneurship.
“What I realized was, it was a golden window for me to start to build a parachute,” Bowe said. “I want to be technical, I want to give back, and so we founded STEMBoard to do that.”
Five years ago, STEMBoard founded tech camps designed to teach high school students how to be entrepreneurs, “and not just ‘I’ve got a dollar and a dream’ type of entrepreneurs,” Bowe said, “but to be technically proficient and business savvy.”
“The mission is to develop technologies that advance our nation and our citizens, but we do it for social benefit,” Bowe said of her company of 26 people and growing.
Bowe said her program, which debuted in the Caribbean and reached to California and now the D.C. area, encourages youth to take everyday problems and come up with practical solutions, citing the example of one student who came up with a sensor-based temperature regulating shower head because his little brother kept burning himself in the shower.
“I love that they did two things: They applied an engineering fix to a modern day problem, and they built a business revenue model around it,” Bowe said. “So even if they don’t turn that into a business, they exercised that muscle of intersecting technology and entrepreneurship, and they built the confidence with, ‘Hey I can actually build something and solve this problem’ and that to me is a lifelong skill.”
STEMBoard also does engineering consulting, but Bowe says outreach remains the company’s bedrock.
“We’re focused on elevating the prospects for the historically underrepresented,” she said. “All of our programming is focused on organizations that have that as part of their mission as well as communities that have traditionally been underserved.”
Bowe said the program looks to continue its community engagement through students who have already come up through the program.
“What ends up happening is, our students come and they give back and they help us do more community engagement, more outreach, more content and it’s been something that started out as a passion project and it’s just growing rapidly,” Bowe said.
Avery in Georgia
Bowe’s success hasn’t just garnered attention in D.C. and her native Michigan. Word of her meteoric rise has apparently reached grade schools in Georgia.
A middle school student named Avery reached out to Bowe for a Black History Month school project, and even in recounting the phone conversation, Bowe was still floored by the attention from the confident youngster.
Over the course of their conversation, Avery took delight in Bowe’s love for hiking and mountain climbing, which prompted Bowe to end with the thought that it’s important for black women to have role models that are accessible and demonstrate that one can be smart and adventurous — not unlike Bowe’s role models portrayed in “Hidden Figures.”
“I’m beyond honored to think that I could even be part of that historical lineup,” she said. “And I’m so excited for what she has in store for her as black women and women of color become all the more visible in society’s landscape, with ‘Hidden Figures’ and the with the focus on achievement in science and technology.”