Personal Stories: The Path of Perseverance
Myra Nawabi, a female refugee from a royal family in Afghanistan shares her story of fleeing her country to America as a young child in search of a brighter, bigger future only to find herself quitting on her dream of becoming an astronaut due to negative influences and sexist comments before eventually creating a successful career at Lockheed Martin Space Systems where she is now Senior Project Engineer & Program Manager for Advanced Technology Center. She is also Founder of the largest and most active LeanIn Circle in the US (Palo Alto). She credits much of her success due to her experience with a male ally or mentor. Read the transcript or watch the video below of Personal Stories: The Path of Perseverance.
My story starts with the Shah of Afghanistan. He’s the guy on the right with JFK. He was 14 years old when he came into power, his father was assassinated. He was the boy king as you might figure. He had a very interesting idea about Afghanistan, he wanted to modernize it but he also understood that it would take a long time and that people weren’t ready for it. He was in power about 40 years, a little more than 40 years...until the gentleman on the left, his name was Hamid Karzai, he also had ideas about modernizing Afghanistan but you can say he fell in with the wrong crowd, he actually developed some “fascist ideas”.........(silent pause) That was supposed to be funny (crowd laughs). He decided that he kind of wanted to put an end to monarchy and he launched the first coup d'état and overthrew the king, exiled him to to Italy, and took power, and he became the first President of Afghanistan and he was in power about 4 to 6 years. And you might be thinking, “Well, that’s a really good story…” First of all, I should tell you the first coup d'état was actually a family feud...these two guys are cousins. Do you now see the family resemblance? Yeah, the second thing I should tell you is these two knuckleheads are actually my relatives. (crowd laughs)
FOR 250 YEARS MY FAMILY RULED AFGHANISTAN.....I ESSENTIALLY BECAME A REFUGEE
Yeah, so Nawab is actually a title, my last name Nawabi means descendant of royalty. So for 250 years my family has ruled Afghanistan. Yeah, very humble beginnings. (crowd laughs) The gentleman on the left that I told you about, well, you know what they say, “what goes around comes around?” Well, he launched a coup d'état, took the power away, well, the same thing happened to him except he wasn’t exiled to Italy like the king was. His entire family was killed off and we would have been too had we been in the palace that night. Luckily, we weren’t. So, this started the Russian invasion. The puppet government took control. Anybody that was related to the king was basically targets and we were going to be (if we were found), we would be killed. So, I essentially became a refugee. I dressed exactly like that girl that you see, so did my sisters. My mom actually dawned one of those things called a burqa. And we fled Afghanistan. It took 7 days through the back roads and we went to Pakistan. So when I was 12, I came to America as a refugee.
WHEN I CAME TO AMERICA I REALLY WANTED TO BECOME AN ASTRONAUT and MY DREAM ALMOST CAME TO AN END
Growing up, I wanted to be her. In case you don’t know her, her name is Anousheh Ansari. She’s the first Iranian woman to go to outerspace, and she did it with her own money, which is really badass, if you ask me. She started a company, if anybody’s ever heard of the X-Prise, she’s the founder of X-Prise. So it was such an honor to actually meet her. When I was little, I was very similar to her in that sense that I would look at the skies and I would wonder if there was someone like me out there. I would wonder if there were little girls, what they wore, what they ate. I would ask all these questions of all these adults and they would look at me and go, “You need help.” But this never left me. So when I came to America, I really wanted to become an astronaut.
So I enrolled in aeronautical engineering and yes, I work in aerospace today. When I got to my calculus class I was (black listed) and a very nice professor told me that I should be home, bare feet and pregnant. And these little things happened throughout, to the point where in my fourth year I actually dropped out of aeronautical engineering. And this dream of mine almost came to an end. And it did actually, because I quit. I listened to everybody who said, “Oh, you should be a teacher.” I did become a teacher. I hated it. So I had an opportunity to go and work for 8 weeks as an intern at Lockheed Martin Space Systems and it was the best thing that ever happened. I don’t know how but somehow I convinced a vice president that I was worthy of hire and I was hired.
This is a genuine, bonafide satellite that I worked on (points to screen). I can’t tell you what it does. I really don’t want to go to jail for 250 years but, it’s in orbit today and it does work.
MR. HAYES, MY MENTOR
But I wanted to tell you that the second time my dream almost came to an end, I actually had what you can call a “negative experience” with a cowboy and in a moment of sheer desperation, I walked into somebody’s office, I closed the door, and I blurted out, “Mr Hayes, you’re black!” And he sat back, chuckled and said, “Thanks for pointing out the obvious.”
I said, “Sorry, Mr. Hayes, I meant African American!” He was like, “No, “black” was fine." And feeling even more mortified I just launched into my story and I said, “So this is what happened… and, you think I’m crazy?” And he said, “No, I just don’t understand the “black” comment.” He said, “I need to gather my thoughts. We’ll sit quietly here.” And what felt like eternity to me, he actually told me, “I still need to think about this.” And I was like, “Okay!” And then finally he said, “Well, you’re not crazy. What happened to you shouldn’t happen to you, so you can take that.” So I was really happy to hear that part. And he said, “You’re an oddball, but that’s okay because I’m an oddball and I think the universe wants us to work together.” And so we did. He became my mentor. And he didn’t go and you know, ride a white horse and charge into anybody’s office. What he did was (remind me) of the things I had forgotten about myself and he really, truly reminded me of what that was. He made me do things like read micro-inequalities and micro-aggressions by Steve Young (not the football player). He made me re-read Stephen Covey’s, 7 Habits of Highly Successful People and he drilled in me the whole "circle of influence" thing. Oh my God did he drill it in my head!
YOU BELONG ON A BIGGER STAGE
You know, towards the end he was retiring and so I sat down with him in his last lunch that I had with him and I said, “So, Mr. Hayes, you have some words of advice?” He said, “Yeah, I do. You belong on a bigger stage. And I hope I’m alive to see it, but if I’m not, I’ll be watching you.” The last time I talked to Mr. Hayes, he was about to get on a plane, he had retired, he was enjoying retirement, and he said, “Well, I’m about to get on a plane. I’m going to be traveling for a while. I’ll call you back but remember, “Why be ordinary, when you can be extraordinary?” Those were his last words. Shortly after, he passed away.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WEREN'T AFRAID?
But what I realized Mr. Hayes did was actually prepare me for the bigger stage. He laid down the foundation. And today as you heard, I run the largest Lean In Circle and I get to do the work that he did with me, with other women. And when I read Sheryl Sandberg's book, the last page says, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” And for me, empowering others was something that I wanted to do and I was going to do that work despite of being afraid. I leave you with, "What’s one action that you’re going to take?” and please remember, “What would you do, if you weren’t afraid?”
- TO BE CONTINUED SOON with Our Personal Stories Panelists Participating In A Q & A Session -
The #MeToo movement and stories have inspired people to share stories of and have brought new awareness to just how rampant sexual assault is. Hearing stories helps those seemingly unaffected or those who aren’t aware of the issues at hand become aware, compassionate, empathetic and/or use their privilege to help make positive change. It is in this spirit that we invited 4 individuals to engage in #storypower by sharing their stories of inequity and/or lack of inclusion at the Better Man Conference earlier this year for a panel entitled, Sharing Our Truths: Intersectional Stories and Perspectives. The transcript and recording above is an excerpt from that Sharing Our Truths panel that was hosted by Sumayyah Emeh- Edu, Gender Leadership Group's Diversity and Inclusion Strategist.
CALL TO SPEAKERS!
BETTER MAN CONFERENCE 2018: CALL TO SPEAKERS, PANELISTS, AND MORE
We invite business professionals, concerned citizens, expert practitioners and allies to share their voices for the 3rd annual Better Man Conference. We are securing dates and locations soon, but looking forward to these
- BMC San Francisco- October 26, 2018 (Application deadline August 15th, 2018)
- BMC New York- November 6, 2018 (Application deadline August 15th, 2018)
We expect 200 people in NYC and 500+ in SF. Previous registrants were 60/40 Men/Women and included:
- Executives, Leaders, Emerging Leaders, Change Makers.
- Human Resources, Diversity Staff and Council Leaders.
- Learners and Leaders seeking workforce inclusion.
The conference theme, STAND UP. SPEAK UP. IT’S TIME. is intended to educate, inspire and move male allies into action in support of women and target groups. Given the context of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the focus of The Better Man Conference is on galvanizing men inside organizations by providing them with the tools to support partnership and the role that healthy masculinity plays. Learn more or apply here.