From education to inclusion and global sustainability, Dr Mae Jemison has a rare perspective.
When Dr Mae Jemison was a young girl growing up in Chicago’s South Side, space travel didn’t rank highly on her list of career ambitions. “I wanted to be a scientist,” she recalls. “I also wanted to be a fashion designer, and I wanted to be a dancer. I wanted to explore and be creative.”
But an astronaut? “I didn’t want to be an astronaut – I just assumed I’d go into space,” says Jemison with a smile. In the 1960s, space exploration was progressing at such speed, she reasoned that it would become commonplace. “I thought we’d be on Mars, you know? Or at least on the Moon. And I would just be going there to work – like I travel across oceans to do my work today,” she explains. “I didn’t think I would have to be a crew member.”
But a crew member is precisely what Jemison became. In September 1992, she became the first black woman to travel into space, orbiting Earth for more than a week in the Space Shuttle Endeavour. She has since dedicated her career to improving access to the sort of educational opportunities that opened doors for her, and to advancing diversity and inclusion.
Jemison was exposed to a remarkably broad range of experiences in childhood. Her father – “a man’s man”, as Jemison describes him – taught her to fish, and how to play cards. “I could do the arithmetic in my head, and that gives you a level of agency,” she says. His friends loved that she was smart – and could “trash talk” too. At the same time, Jemison was developing a life-long love of dance. Pursuing that passion started to open doors into the wider world: by the age of nine, her mother started to let Jemison take the train to classes alone. It is the type of independence and managed risk-taking that builds resilience. “By the time you get to a place where your confidence is tested, it’s already been tested,” she reflects.
Jemison attended Stanford University before training as a doctor at Cornell Medical School. After, she found a new way to step out of her comfort zone, working with the Peace Corps in West Africa for two-and-a-half years. “Being in a developing country practising medicine pushes your skill-set in ways that you don’t know are possible,” she says. “I learn so much about myself when I’m in different places.”
The secret, reflects Jemison, is following your passions. It would be possible to try different things and “tick the boxes”, she says. “But I think you get the best effect when you do those things that keep you engaged – the things that make you want to get up and make you want to contribute fully,” she enthuses.
Jemison was systematic about charting her own passions and assessing how they aligned with her abilities, especially when she hit setbacks. “I started to make lists when I thought things were not going the way I wanted them to,” she reveals. “I had this list of things that I like to do, and things that I don’t like to do; things that I’m good at, things that I’m not good at.” Those are not the same things, she points out. “Just because you’re good at something, doesn’t mean you like to do it.” By understanding the differences and trying to reconcile her lists with what she wanted to accomplish, she found clarity. “Just writing those things down sometimes helped me to figure out what I was doing.”
Her sense of personal direction was coupled with evident perseverance. “I didn’t shy away from challenges,” says Jemison. But she did learn to be open to the idea that there are different ways to approach challenges in life – including career development. Not everything goes absolutely right, she reflects, but that need not be a problem. “You don’t have to just go up the hierarchy: you can make a lateral move – go someplace else and get where you want to go.” The capacity to move laterally was one of the benefits of her breadth of perspective. “It was that freedom and creativity, and having been involved with a number of different fields, that allowed me to see other paths,” she says.
Asking the question
Jemison has been a champion for inclusion throughout her career. On her space mission, she made a small but symbolically powerful gesture. “Astronauts are allowed to take different kinds of souvenirs up to space,” she explains. Some took pennants from their alma mater, but Jemison opted not to take flags for Stanford University or Cornell, reasoning that they already had banners in space.
“I wanted to take up something for people who weren’t included,” recalls Jemison. She took up a flag for Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest African American sorority; a poster of famed black dancer Judith Jamison performing ‘Cry’; a certificate for Chicago public school students; and a statue from a women’s and girls’ society in Sierra Leone.
“My task all along has been, ‘How do I connect people who might not have been connected?’” says Jemison. She shares an Ashanti proverb that sums up her mindset: “No one shows a child the sky.” Every society around the world, she points out, has looked up at the stars and wondered what they were, and has formed mythologies or developed technologies associated with the sky. “It’s something that really ties us together as humans, and I wanted to invite other people in.”
‘Inviting people in’ requires leaders to take responsibility for challenging and changing the practices that keep some people out. Jemison has found herself having to do that more than once. “Sitting in a board room, or on a management or compensation committee, I look up from the papers and think, ‘Oh… I’m going to have to be the one to ask the question,’” she says.
Advocating for change can carry a personal cost: Jemison recognizes the risk of being perceived by others as overly-focused on diversity issues. “I know they’re going to tag me,” she says. But it comes down to honesty about one’s convictions: seeing when something is wrong and knowing, as she puts it, “I cannot continue to let this pass.”
Leaders also need to actively identify, encourage and recruit diverse talent. Jemison is critical of the “gatekeepers” in the education system for doing too little. “We don’t hold gatekeepers responsible,” she says. “These gatekeepers are often anonymous. But they’re the ones who accept the college application. They’re the ones who go and look for people to include. I remember asking folks: they would say, ‘Well, we just couldn’t find anybody.’
“Where did they look? In terms of graduates and college, women do as well or better than men. What happened? You have this incredible talent, and you don’t develop it? How do you hold the gatekeepers responsible? Hold the tenured professors responsible and make their research money contingent on it.”
In business, leaders need to take personal responsibility for doing things differently, especially when hiring. “Go look someplace that you haven’t looked before – go to different schools and different universities,” she suggests. Managers should also consider reframing role requirements. “Perhaps the skill-set that you thought was important for that job is not the right skill-set. Perhaps it’s broad, and maybe it’s different.”
Getting people in through the door is only the start for creating diverse and inclusive workplaces, however. What leaders do after that is every bit as important. “The other part is to be able to hear people,” says Jemison. “I find that there’s a cadence of language that people use, and that’s the only language they can hear. But if people are bringing different perspectives, perhaps they’re speaking with a different language.” The onus for closing this communication gap is on leaders. “Your job as a leader is to be able to actually hear what people are saying. You can’t expect it always to be delivered in your lingo.”
What matters, says Jemison, is being “purposefully inclusive”. That means looking around the room, seeing who has not been called on to contribute, and involving them. “You’re trying to get their opinions and get their buy in.” Every time leaders do that, they set a standard for how others in the organization should act. “You want people to practise behaviours even when you’re not in the room.”
Today, Jemison leads the 100 Year Starship initiative, promoting the long-term work that would be needed to achieve interstellar travel. As a leader, she emphasizes the importance of knowing when to follow others. “There are a lot of times when other people know a whole lot more about a situation than you do – so not only do you have to be able to listen, sometimes you’re going to have to relinquish the point position so that they can go point, because they’re the ones who actually understand what’s happening.”
That in turn demands high levels of trust. “You have to have people on your team that you trust, and you have to establish that trust with them,” she adds.
Better educational opportunities
Jemison has had a long-standing interest in education. The first thing she did upon leaving NASA was to start an international camp to promote scientific literacy among 12- to 16-year-olds. She regrets the decline of hands-on science projects for students, and fears the pandemic has worsened the trend.
“We ended up doing a lot of education through Zoom or Teams,” she points out, “but we are three-dimensional beings.” We now know that to develop the brain’s neural pathways, we should seek the broadest range of experiences, stimulating what Jemison describes as our “3D skills”. It’s the difference between seeing a video of dancers, and being in a theatre to see a performance first-hand, she explains.
“The energy that comes off the dancers – that’s something that’s not transferred through the screen,” she says. There are things that we learn to do when we’re in a three-dimensional space that can’t be replicated in a virtual world, from learning to interpret the smells or sounds we hear, to understanding the feel of a material and its physical properties.
Those skills are vital to creativity. “The thing that I’m most frightened about is that we don’t do things that allow kids to use their own creativity,” Jemison reveals. She points to how children often play more creatively with the box that a new toy arrives in than with the toy itself – “because the toy is too restrictive”. With imagination, however, a box can be almost anything.
Jemison is clear that experiential learning and creativity are enhanced by good old-fashioned rote learning. She was slow to see the benefits of such an approach, once quizzing a medical school professor on why students had to learn so much detail about anatomy. “I was thinking, this is ridiculous – you could look that up!” she recalls. But the penny eventually dropped. “Having all that information at your fingertips in your mind allows you to make connections and see things in new ways,” she now says. “Training your memory and training your observational skills are some of the best things we can do.”
Jemison has a clear perspective on the global environmental challenges facing business and humanity as a whole.
There is a fundamental disconnect in much of our economic thinking, Jemison argues. “We were not put in this world to support businesses,” she says. “Businesses are a methodology for the exchange of goods and services to support human health and livelihood and wellbeing. We frequently get that backwards.”
Jemison learned through her studies in sustainable development that perverse economic incentives can lead businesses to do things that are harmful. “The reality is when we look at the world around us, GDP is not a good measure for sustainability, it’s not a good measure for human health, and it is not a good proxy for how our life will be in this world,” she says.
All the same, the role of business is evidently critical. “Businesses have an outsized influence on this planet and on people’s lives,” Jemison points out. That places real responsibility on leaders’ shoulders. “I would ask corporate leaders to open their minds to the range of things that are possible,” she says. “If you’re only looking very narrowly at what is good for your business within the next quarter or the next two quarters – if you are trying to keep the same business model or the same product in place – you may not be doing your business any good, and you may definitely not be doing this planet or yourself any good.” Remember, she adds: “You live in that same world; your children live in that same world; your friends and your family live in that same world.”
Jemison is crystal clear about the existential threat facing humanity from the harm we do to the environment – but fears we still frame it as the Earth’s problem, rather than our problem. Perhaps it is the perspective that comes with orbiting the planet. “We don’t have to save the Earth”, she says. “The Earth is still going to be here. It’s just that we might not be.”
Dr Mae Jemison spoke with Ellen McGirt, editor of Fortune magazine, at Duke CE’s Lead with Her 2022 event, and additionally with Patrick Woodman.