Inspiring Students to do Extraordinary Things

Innovator Mae Jemison encourages students to focus on the people they want to be, not the jobs they want to have.
Mae Jemison

Photograph by Ann Scherz for the IU Kelley School of Business.


FEW BUSINESS SCHOOL GRADUATES can imagine having careers as varied as that of Mae C. Jemison. After earning degrees in chemical engineering and in medicine, Jemison has been a physician, engineer, Peace Corps volunteer, dancer, television actress, entrepreneur, children’s book author, and astronaut. She has led The Earth We Share, a nonprofit that runs an international space camp for teenagers. She currently leads 100 Year Starship, a global initiative supported by a grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), whose goal is to help humans achieve interstellar travel within the next century.

Jemison now is lending her unique perspective to business education as leader in residence and 2016–2017 Poling Chair of Business and Government at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business in Bloomington. Jemison will discuss topics with students and faculty such as leadership, collaboration, technology, and sustainability.

In a recent conversation, Jemison spoke about how her own drive to explore the world has fueled her success. Her message to business students? To live the most fulfilling lives, they must focus not on the jobs they want to have, but on the people they want to be.

What ideas do you most want to emphasize in your role at Kelley?

I’m not a business professor and I don’t have an MBA, but I’m very interested in how different business models can do good for the world. I’ve been struck by the fact that many young people coming into business today use the term “socialpreneurship,” which reflects their desire to do good. But they’ve been educated to believe that if they don’t have a profit motive, they’re failing. That’s worrisome to me. I want students to understand that it’s OK to do good. It’s OK to care about folks. It’s OK to work with not-for-profit organizations. Some of today’s most innovative technology and research companies are not-for-profit. I’m not sure how much business schools teach those models.

Many schools are promoting the idea of “doing well by doing good.” Do you view that as the same thing?

When I talk about doing good, I’m also saying that we need more research into sustainable business practices—even if it’s research where we don’t necessarily know what the benefits will be. Just think about the work done with lasers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when scientists had no idea what would happen. Today, lasers are ubiquitous.

Schools need to emphasize that kind of basic research. It’s the only way to help business leaders develop a deeper scientific and environmental literacy. It’s about opening eyes, putting sustainability in front of people, and making them think about doing big, extraordinary things.

It seems that kind of curiosity—that sense of “Let’s try it and see if it works”—has really driven you in your own career.

My mother was a school teacher and very brilliant—she used to say “Look it up if you want to understand things.” That helped me develop a level of confidence. As I pursued my interest in the sciences, I ran into good people—both male and female—who pushed me to do things that I wouldn’t have thought of doing.

For example, when I was a junior in high school, I interned in a hematology lab where I worked on a science project on sickle cell anemia. My mother pushed me to do that project to challenge me to study a topic I didn’t know about. Then, the hematologist I was working for told me to write to the National Institutes of Health for research papers and to go to the Illinois Institute of Technology to read graduate-level papers to understand the topic. The thought of doing these things would have been intimidating if I hadn’t had that encouragement.

Do you think more women might pursue careers in business and STEM fields if given that same kind of “push”?

Not a push, as much as an expectation. Students need what I call the “three E’s”: exposure, experience, and expectation.

First, exposure. If women are not exposed to certain kinds of careers, behaviors, and ways of looking at things, it’s very difficult for them to aspire to those careers or model those behaviors. In some cases, they won’t even know those opportunities are out there.

Next comes experience. Many women want to make sure they have absolutely the right answers, even though sometimes there is no right answer. But we need to give women—and men, too—the experience to know that if they quote-unquote “fail,” they can still get back out there. If they fall down and skin their knees on the concrete, they can wipe themselves off and keep going.

The final “E” is expectation. We need to make clear that as teachers, professors, and bosses, we expect students to succeed—that we expect them to be our colleagues. Students have a tendency to live up or down to our expectations. Our expectations influence our behavior toward them.

You’re saying that educators can have an unconscious bias.

Right. My experience is in science, but I think the biases we see in the sciences would be very similar to those in business. In 2010, Bayer Corporation surveyed the heads of STEM departments at major research universities. It found that those heads believed that women were coming to college better prepared to graduate with degrees in STEM fields. And, yet, those same department heads were OK that fewer women graduated than men. They said things like, “Well, they couldn’t cut it.” Their job is to help develop this incredible talent, but if these professors expect that women aren’t tough enough, if they expect to weed people out, then they’ll keep getting the same result.

Do you think that kind of bias is self-perpetuating?

It absolutely is. But we can break that cycle. Look at Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College. In five years, she tripled the number of women graduating in computer sciences by doing three things. She first changed the curriculum so that first-year students who had a lot of computer science programming experience were separated from those who didn’t. Everybody in each group went through the same curriculum, but those without that experience didn’t have to hear other students say, “Oh, I learned that in high school.”

Klawe then integrated more problem-based approaches into the curriculum and arranged for women students to be mentored by women computer scientists. By making these small changes, Harvey Mudd addressed all three E’s.

Let’s talk about your work with 100 Year Starship. How important do you think the private sector will be in helping your organization achieve interstellar travel?

You know, when we talk about going to Mars, we know we could get to Mars without straining our intellectual and engineering capacity. That’s not true for interstellar travel—we don’t know how to do that. Government will not be able to sustain the push to achieve that goal. We won government funding from DARPA for this initiative, but private enterprise will help push it forward.

We want to bring together a lot of different people with different ideas— it’s a transdisciplinary effort. We’re holding public symposiums, and we now have different projects called “crucibles” to reflect the fact that we’re forging thoughts into reality. The first, called the “Virtual Human Crucible,” focuses on the human physiology and medical infrastructure needed for space travel. The clinical trials, the pharmaceutical development—how do you take that with you? If we’re able to solve that problem, just think of what we could do for health here on Earth. We want to jump-start new disciplines that help us think differently and press the boundaries of what we can do.

In an interview with Scholastic, you told an audience of younger readers that rather than follow their passions, they should ask themselves, “What do I intend to do, and how do I intend to do it?” Is that a message that you also want to convey to business students?

Actually, I think I would also tell business students to ask themselves, “Who do I intend to be?” By asking that question, students can have a guide that tells them where they can best put their hearts and energy.

For example, I knew I wanted to be an explorer. I intended to be someone who was always curious, who would travel around the world and see new things. If I had said, “I intend to be an astronaut,” I might have learned to fly airplanes because that’s the easiest way to become an astronaut. I would have assumed I could do only one thing. That’s an idea we’ve adopted, especially once we get to college, but we have to let that idea go. Success isn’t about wanting a particular job. It’s about becoming the kind of person you want to be.