The First African-American Woman to Travel to Space Shares How She Finds Solutions to the World's Biggest Problems

Dr. Mae Jemison says innovation starts with bringing a wealth of different perspectives to the table.
Entrepreneur Staff

Dr. Mae Jemison has built her career by taking big risks in pursuit of helping others and bettering our world -- while constantly searching for brand new ones for us to explore.

In 1992, she became the first African-American woman to travel to space as a crew member on board the Space Shuttle Endeavor. Before her tenure as a NASA astronaut, Jemison practiced medicine across the world, and served as a medical officer in the Peace Corps, overseeing care in Sierra Leone and Liberia when she was just 26-years-old.

The physician and engineer is also an educator. She taught environmental studies at Dartmouth University and is currently the lead ambassador for Bayer’s science literacy program Making Science Make Sense.

Jemison is also the leader of an organization called 100 Year Starship. Founded in 2011, it’s mission is to make it possible for humans to travel beyond our solar system within the next 100 years.

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The Alabama native says she believes that innovation cannot happen without collaboration between people who have different perspectives, disciplines and backgrounds. She’s especially passionate about getting women engaged in STEM fields and careers.

“One of the big issues is, how do women take their place at the table and [move] things forward? We have a tremendous amount of resources and power. We have to be willing to use it and not shy away from it,” Jemison told Entrepreneur. “Sometimes we sit back and allow others to sort of set the stage. We have to be willing to support each other. When somebody steps forward don't just just leave them standing there.”

Entrepreneur spoke with Jemison about why you should turn to your younger self for advice during tough moments and how to find the fortitude to stand up for what you believe in.

What was a critical decision you made in your career that you knew was really important, but you weren’t sure of what the outcome would be?

In my fourth year [of medical school], we were supposed to be choosing residencies and internship programs to apply to. I decided that I wanted to do a rotating internship with nothing after it, because I realized if I actually planned everything out I would never go overseas to another developing country or pick a position like that, [which I wanted to do]. It would be just too hard to get off the track. So I left myself completely open without anything set out. I was called down to the dean's office and she said, "Why are you doing this? You know you're throwing away your career?"

I applied for a position as a Peace Corps medical officer. I took care of Peace Corps volunteers and State Department personnel in Sierra Leone and Liberia for two and a half years. I was one of the youngest doctors they ever had in that position. I actually thought that those two and a half years were basically going to be throwaway years. Then I'd come back and I'd get into biomedical engineering. But what it did was it gave me a lot of operational experience. I was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I had to make life-and-death decisions.

My first two weeks in Sierra Leone, I had to call a military medical evacuation that cost over $80,000 to take care of a volunteer who was very ill. I had to be very forceful with a number of folks and [understand] that this was my ability and my authority to do this. That's one of those things that sticks with you. Sometimes if I start to falter, I can look back at my 26-year-old self. My mantra was, my job is first and foremost for my patients, to the volunteers and to people's health, and I will do my job. And I won't be intimidated from doing my job.

When I got back, I applied for the astronaut program and it turns out that [operational experience] was important to [them]. When they looked at me, they saw someone who had been working on their own in very difficult circumstances and in extreme environments and extreme medicine. It also set me on the path of really understanding and fully appreciating the idea of trans-disciplinary work, that you need to have different people at the table coming up with solutions.

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What do you do when you’re faced with a big decision or when you know you’re going to be taking a big risk?

The first thing I do is I actually make a pros and cons list. I look at the things I really like to do and things I don't like to do. And then what things I'm good at and what things I'm not so good at. And those are different lists, right? I might like to do some things that I'm not necessarily good at. And there may be some things you're good at that you're not particularly interested in doing. Which usually means that you don't do as good a job at those things in the long run.

I think about what my younger self would have advised me to do. You get wisdom when you get older but sometimes you also get a little bit of trepidation. You may not take those those risks that are actually really good for you to take. And the other thing I rely on is I've always been a quick study. I think I rely on my innate ability and the confidence I have in myself. If no one has ever done it before, I can give it a try.

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What was a time when you knew you had to stand up for what you believed in despite any pushback you might have gotten? How did you approach it?

I was an environmental studies professor at Dartmouth and I worked on a ton of issues around sustainable development. It's taken a while for the issue of the environment and sustainable development to flow into [the mainstream]. Fifteen or 20 years ago, it wasn't necessarily the thing to talk about, especially in corporations and board meeting or banks. But I [told myself], well, what difference does it make? Do your job. Your job is to bring a different point of view -- your point of view and the experiences that you have. Even though you know people are going to get irritated or they don't want to hear it, you have to do the right thing.

I think one of the things that we do is to give away our power by not talking about things, by not bringing them up. Women very frequently are taught not to not to make waves. People sometimes see you as more combative than they would see a male who brings up the same thing. It's not even that you're combative or aggressive, you're bringing up a different point of view. They get kind of irritated when you have your own views, especially if they depart from the baseline of what they are looking at. And that's where you have to have the fortitude. That's sometimes difficult, because you may know that you're not going to get brownie points for doing that. You have to figure out what's important to you at that time and how strong your position is.

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In your career, what as a mistake you’ve made and how did you address it and move forward from it?

Hiring people and not letting them go soon enough. And then you end up with all this baggage that you have to clean up when you finally realize it's time to let go. The mistake is not necessarily in hiring them. The mistake is when you recognized that something was wrong and you kept telling yourself it's going to get better, maybe it's something I'm doing that I need to correct and change. If it keeps going on and on and you don't act on it, you end up wasting a lot of time, money and energy. And that's particularly true in a small company when you have very few people. One of the parts of growing up and learning that maybe you can't [change things]. Maybe it's not you. There may not be anybody who's at fault. It's just not a good fit.

What are you working on now that has you excited about the future?

I'm very excited about continuing my work with science literacy. We need to fill this gap of the upcoming job shortage. That's the reason why we need to get women involved and underrepresented minorities. But for me it's not just the number of people -- it's really about the different perspectives that are brought to bear so that we get more robust solutions.

I'm also excited about the work I'm doing with 100 Year Starship. In 2011, it was seed funded through a competitive grant from DARPA. [Our mission is to] make sure we have the capabilities for human interstellar travel, to the outer solar system and to another star within a hundred years. [When we applied for the grant] I was channeling my younger self. And I brought in what I've learned about the importance of different perspectives. I thought that if anyone could do this, I should know how to do this, in terms of putting together the organization.

The title of our proposal that we put together was "An inclusive, audacious journey transforms life here on Earth and beyond." And the first word is inclusive. [Not just] ethnicity, gender and geography, but also the range of disciplines and getting people involved who were not just "space people"  and subject matter experts, but the public as well. It's what we need to do to get things accomplished. We also have to connect it to how we transform our lives here on Earth.

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