But there are those who make a bigger impression than others. It’s not that they’re more famous or wealthier, more knowledgeable or connected. There’s something about them that resonates with you, something in their character that strikes you, something in their journey that compels you. Perhaps there are things about them that remind you of yourself — either who you are, who you could’ve been or who you aspire to be.
Enter Mary Spio. In a different world, Spio’s name would be known around the globe as a disruptor and pioneer in the pale, male industries of engineering and tech. Born in New York to Ghanaian parents, Spio toiled in a fast-food restaurant before fulfilling her potential and becoming a deep-space engineer. While working at Boeing with Lucasfilm, she created the technology for the digital distribution of film, for which she holds four patents, revolutionizing the movie industry and saving it millions. By any standards, hers is a success story worthy of recognition.
But because we live in the real world — a patriarchal, systematised world in which the absence of Spio’s story, and those of others like her, speaks to the near-total erasure of black women from the intellectual narrative — the onus is on us as enlightened minority women to self-educate so that we may do justice to the achievements of those like us deserving of celebration.
So what does it mean to be Mary Spio? It means being a mother, a partner, a scientist, an author, a leader and a truly humble and inspirational human being.
I caught up with Spio at the Web Summit in Ireland, an annual tech extravaganza with over 40,000 attendees and 1,000 speakers. She was one of only a handful of black women to take the stage as a speaker; I was one of only a handful of black women in the pressroom. I asked her about her backstory and where she is today. Ironically, Spio’s latest venture is in the virtual realm where, as founder and CEO of Next Galaxy Corp, she’s once again breaking down barriers in the fields of medicine, entertainment and sport through virtual reality. There’s CEEK, a virtual reality content hub, CEEKARS, the world’s first virtual reality audio headphones, and contracts with clients including Universal Music, Coca-Cola and Sony.
This is her story in her own words:
On the importance of mentors
“When I first got to university, there were people who tried to make me feel like I don’t belong there. Fortunately, I had a really good support system. The dean of engineering was actually another person of color and, not only that, but a woman. The day I went in to quit because I was like, “I can’t do this. I don’t know my basics, I don’t understand coding,” because I had never coded a day in my life and there were people there who had been coding since they were 13 — she really sat me down and talked to me. She became a mentor. Without her — her name was Laurie Hunter — honestly, I don’t think I would’ve become an engineer. Not because I couldn’t do the work, but because the environment wasn’t very friendly at first and also I just didn’t know the basics. But with her support, I was able to graduate number one in my class. When I graduated, I was the only woman there. So I think that goes a very long way for programs that help support people.”
On the need for role models
“Early on in my career, I didn’t have direct mentors. For example, I got an internship at the Aerospace Corporation, which is the research and requisition arm for the Department of Defense. When I went there, again, another big surprise was the fact that the CEO, Wanda Austin, was another woman and a person of color. And I think there was a pattern. Because these organizations had diverse people at their head, they had gone through different struggles so they made sure that they reached back to other people to create a very warm and welcoming environment. These types of environments end up working out because, here I was, a person who thought engineering wasn’t for me, I was going to quit, but I got Laurie to mentor me and then I got to the Aerospace Corporation, which had an internship program that specifically sought out women and other minorities to be a part of it. And while some people felt like it wasn’t necessary, there’s a reason why minorities aren’t in technology and that’s because we don’t have these welcoming environments. When we have these, not only do we thrive but we excel.”
On overcoming racism at work
“I was at one company where, even though I was doing very well, I didn’t feel welcome. I would walk into the break room and there were certain jokes that I would hear my boss make and there were other people that they brought in that they promoted ahead of me that did half the work. It was very blatant but it was also the best thing to happen for me because then I started looking around. When Boeing heard I was looking, they contacted me to come and work for them, and that’s where I came up with the technology that, today, is the de facto standard for delivering movies to theaters.”
On going it alone
“I’d say I was an accidental entrepreneur. But, looking back, my mom never worked a day for anybody else. At age 3, I was helping her count money. I learned to count money before I knew my ABCs. So I think that a seed had been planted very early. Although I had never really contemplated starting my own company, it just happened and I really enjoyed it. I realized that this is what I want to do — make a greater impact — and I believe I can do it this way. There were things that I wanted to do that didn’t fit specifically into any company. There wasn’t a job description for what I wanted to do — to merge technology and entertainment, creating platforms for brands to use. The things that I wanted to do just didn’t exist. So I created them.“
On the necessity of networking
“I had to do a lot of networking to meet the people who would give me the contracts. Some people say eighty-twenty but, in my experience, about 99 percent of the contracts that I’ve gotten have been through people that were either introduced to me by someone or someone walked me into there. It’s all about access because it’s very difficult to just cold call and get a big contract. It just doesn’t happen. So once I discovered I have to network and I have to have this access, things really shifted for me.”
On achieving uncommon success
“I think everyone has the chance to achieve uncommon success. The reason I wrote the book (It’s Not Rocket Science: 7 Game-Changing Traits for Uncommon Success (Penguin)) is because I wanted to create a process for people to be very intentional about the types of outcomes that they want to have. This is, again, the book that didn’t exist that I wish had existed when I was coming up. So I wrote it. And I think anybody can have it and that’s why I say it’s not rocket science. Because here I was thinking engineering and technology is not for this African kid and it wasn’t even in my realm of thought because I didn’t know anyone in it. But then once I discovered the process I said, “Wow!” Even though I was working as a rocket scientist, even rocket science isn’t rocket science!”
On balancing motherhood and career
“The exciting thing about being an entrepreneur is that I get to set my hours in which my meetings happen after my child is at school. I also have a very supportive partner and we work with each other to make sure that family is a priority. So when my son’s at school, I put everything into work so that the time that I spend with him is quality time. And I have a great team. I haven’t coded in a very long time but I have people that are extraordinary so I leave the coding to them. That allows me to really implement my vision.”
It’s Not Rocket Science: 7 Game-Changing Traits for Uncommon Success is out now (Penguin). CEEKARS 4D Audio Headphones will be out in early 2016.
Sylvia Arthur is a Black British writer who’s working on a book about her journey through Europe against the backdrop of evolving European identity. Follow her work at sylviaarthur.wordpress.com.