When Life Gives You Lemons, Build a Lemonade Factory

Written By Dr. Monica F. Cox

Turn on the television, read social media posts, or talk to almost anyone affiliated with a technical field in the United States. Front and center is bleak news about the state of minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. From a recent American Institutes for Research report (Turk-Bicakci, Berger, & Haxton, 2014) that notes that underrepresented minorities with STEM Ph.D.s are more likely to work outside of STEM than their majority counterparts to University of Florida Ph.D. students’ Corey Baker and Justin Dunnavant’s post about the disparaging percentages of Blacks in the field of engineering versus Blacks in companies such as Apple and Google, messages remain the same. The number of minorities in STEM is low in undergraduate education, in graduate education, in the academy, and in the workforce. Despite best efforts by policy bodies and other organizations to address these challenges, concrete solutions to reconcile these disparities remain pervasive across sectors.

Qualitative explorations about the state of people of color in STEM present similar, discouraging perspectives about the day-to-day interactions and experiences of people of color in the STEM workforce. From Dr. Carlotta’s Berry’s November 2014 New York Times post about being an African-American engineering professor at a small institution in the Midwest to my January 2014 Diverse Issues piece about how I was prepared to conduct the work of a professor but wasn’t ready for the challenges that I would face as an African-American female engineering professor, numerous stories highlight environments where STEM professionals’ credentials are questioned and where these highly educated individuals are disrespected in ways that are startling to most people who are non-minority or do not work in STEM careers.

After almost nine years of working in an environment where I was the first and the only of my “kind”, I decided that it was time to take a break, or a sabbatical, from my institution. Offered to many faculty after at least seven years of continual employment at an institution, sabbaticals are designed to present faculty with opportunities to rejuvenate their minds and bodies; to innovate via their research, teaching, and service interests; and to prepare strategically for the next phases of their careers. Little did I know that my sabbatical would change and save my life.

My primary sabbatical theme focused on entrepreneurship. Although I initially explored the expansion of an educational assessment tool to enhance teaching and pedagogical (teaching) feedback in STEM classrooms, I was drawn repeatedly to entrepreneurial activities related to the experiences of underrepresented groups in STEM. The more I reflected on my experiences as a woman of color in engineering, the more I realized that I wanted to create materials and products that empowered underrepresented groups who wanted to succeed in a variety of STEM environments. I was particularly interested in reaching those who would be the first or the only one in their professional environments.

Hence, “Prepared to Be a Pioneer”™ (website coming soon at www.preparedtobeapioneer.com ) was born. Instead of waiting for someone to rescue me from the perils of isolation within the Academy, I am creating an entrepreneurial professional development brand focused on people who are Pioneers (vision creators), Propellers (vision implementers), Prisms (vision reframers), and Pillars (vision sustainers). Among my services will include coaching and consulting along with a professional compatibility service inspired by a friend and colleague who is a matchmaker.

During my six month sabbatical, I have often reflected on my transition to entrepreneurship. Below are some thoughts that might guide others who, like me, are unique in their environments and wish to turn everyday problems into solutions that provide financial security and assistance to others who seek remedies to a variety of problems.

  • Identify your pain point. This is the thing that keeps you awake at night. It is the problem that nags you during meetings. Often, you are the most likely champion for solving this problem, because the problem is personal to you.

ACTION ITEM: Make a list of problems or situations that confront you most often. These could be technical or personal problems. Identify why they are problems to you, and write what your ideal solutions to the problem would be.

  • Find the thought leaders and other people who are as passionate about your problem as you are. Most STEM professionals expand their networks at conferences or professional meetings. Traveling to conferences can be expensive, however. In the age of social media, finding potential collaborators or partners is only a click away. Subscribe and listen to relevant podcasts on iTunes or read blogs in your emerging areas of interest. Believe it or not, many people outside of STEM fields have great advice about ways to implement entrepreneurial ideas practically in a noisy entrepreneurial world. Begin reading publications and posts by the Harvard Business Review, Fast Inc., Forbes, Black Enterprise, or Entrepreneur. Getting out of your comfort zone is a giant step in a potential launch for a new business.

ACTION ITEM: Using your social networks (e.g., LinkedIn or Twitter), find at least 5 to 10 new professionals with whom to connect. Once you connect, send an email or message informing that person why you would like to connect with him or her. Follow-up with these individuals periodically as you develop your entrepreneurial strategy.

  • Develop a community of people who encourage you. These “Bad Day Buddies” are people who you can call or text when you have questions or reach rough spots in your business. The life of an entrepreneur can be lonely and sometimes scary, and creating this support network is vital for success. “Bad Day Buddies” are the people who will see your real personality and will have permission to provide critical feedback to you about your entrepreneurial journey. The key to success in “Bad Day Buddy” relationships is reciprocity. In the same way that you expect these individuals to be available to you, you need to be available to them when they need your support. Be open with them about what this looks like in your life.

ACTION ITEM: Similar to creating a new professional network, identify up to 3 people with whom you are compatible and who understand you on a more personal level. Explicitly describe what you expect from your “Bad Day Buddy” entrepreneurial relationship, and negotiate areas where you are willing to provide entrepreneurial support.

  • Success does not happen overnight. I wanted to have 50,000 Twitter followers, media appearances, and credibility in my new area in a matter of months after being an entrepreneur. Unfortunately, in the same way that I had to develop my STEM research and professional portfolio, I must develop my entrepreneurial brand. For this reason, I have learned about the importance of creating quality content, building an audience, and monetizing my services appropriately. More than that, I realize that my entrepreneurial dream requires that I work my academic job and spend my “spare” time working my entrepreneurial job with no guarantee that my efforts will manifest in the ways that I would like for them to manifest. To become an entrepreneur, areas of your life must change. Whether you hire employees or delegate current tasks to others, you have to shift priorities to launch your entrepreneurial venture. In the same way that everyone doesn’t pursue a Ph.D., everyone doesn’t succeed as an entrepreneur. Both efforts take work and commitment but can pay big dividends if you are persistent.

ACTION ITEM: Revisit your priorities. Of the roles that you currently play, which are necessary and which are not? Deliberately add or eliminate activities that do not align with your entrepreneurial dreams. Do not allow, however, your overall well-being (e.g., healthy eating, exercise) to suffer with these shifting priorities.

In conclusion, although I am not yet ready to leave my full-time academic position, I have become intrigued by the freedom and innovation associated with entrepreneurship. Instead of feeling that I am a victim in a system where I am one of the few or am the only one, I have found entrepreneurship to provide me with a way to translate the limitations that I see as a woman of color in STEM into infinite possibilities. Unlike a tenure-track position where I am overly cautious of how my actions are perceived by others, entrepreneurship places the onus on me. In the words of Henley’s “Invictus,” I am the master of my fate, and I am the captain of my soul. Lemonade, anyone?