BY RICH REZLER
Aisha Bowe has two aerospace engineering degrees from the University of Michigan, spent nearly seven years working for NASA in northern California and today is a successful tech entrepreneur based in the Washington D.C. area.
That impressive career progression all started with a single A in an algebra class at Washtenaw Community College. That set off what Bowe calls the key to any large-scale success – a series of small wins.
“The progress you make every day, the incremental wins you think are insignificant, are life-changing,” Bowe told a gathering of WCC students and staff, and members of the community, during a lecture on Monday. “If I take the time to think about how many opportunities there were for me to get stuck, it’s staggering. But then you find that next small win and you keep going.”
Bowe’s talk, “From Washtenaw to NASA,” was part of the programming for two different events on campus – STEM Week and CTE Month – that aimed to raise awareness of programs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and Career and Technical Education (CTE) areas of the college, respectively.
“Aisha’s words resonated deeply with students because her story is their story,” said Susan Dentel, a WCC life sciences faculty member and coordinator of the college’s STEM Scholars program. “Her message that one need not strive for perfection, but move toward progress is genuine because she lived it. She conveyed to students that failure is the chance to begin again, but more smartly. And that hard work, persistence and grit really do make the difference in the pursuit of our dreams.”
The Ann Arbor native spoke bluntly about being an “under-achieving” Pioneer High School graduate who enrolled at WCC in 2003 with plans to pursue a business degree. She promptly earned a C in Introduction to Economics.
Her self-doubt was monumentally strong when her father – who earned an engineering degree at the age of 40 – persuaded her to enroll in an Intermediate Algebra class. It’s a story she previously shared in a Forbes magazine profile, “From Community College to NASA,” written in early 2018.
“My dad believed I had this latent genius I wasn’t expressing,” Bowe says. “I didn’t do well in high school math. I didn’t do well in the math portions of that economics class. Why would you think I could tackle algebra at WCC? I wasn’t buying it, but he was persuasive.”
Turns out, dad was right. Bowe earned an A in that algebra class. Her self-confidence continued to flourish as she progressed through Calculus I, Calculus II, Calculus III and Differential Equations at WCC.
“The instructors at WCC were incredibly supportive. They didn’t look at me and say, ‘You should have learned this stuff in high school.’ They said, ‘We’re here to help you learn this now,’” Bowe said. “They challenged me to think differently about myself.”
From there, the small wins continued to pile up. She met University of Michigan engineering students in her WCC math classes – there to capitalize on WCC’s small class sizes and individualized instruction. “I started thinking, ‘If you and I are in the same class, we’re on the same level … why can’t I study engineering at Michigan?’”
Turns out, she could. She was accepted directly into the U-M Aerospace Engineering program in the winter of 2005, saving herself more than $30,000 on her undergraduate education.
There were some failures and “freak-outs” at U-M, Bowe admits, but each was overcome with more small wins. They led to a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and an internship at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and eventually to an award-winning career developing algorithms in support of air traffic management.
Being based in Silicon Valley, Bowe had another “why not me?” moment when she looked around a coffee shop and realized she was surrounded by aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to be the next Mark Zuckerberg.
In 2013, she co-founded STEMBoard, which partners with defense industry and private-sector organizations to provide multi-million dollar smart systems and software solutions. She has topped a list of “Brilliant Women Innovators” and been featured in Entrepreneur, Black Enterprise and Ebony magazines.
As the CEO of STEMBoard, Bowe has also made it a personal mission to close the achievement gap by empowering minority youth in STEM fields to become the industry’s future. Thus, her return to the campus where it all started for her.
“WCC is by far the best choice I made in my career,” Bowe said. “That’s really where my life started to take off.”
Event co-coordinator Anthony Webster, a CTE Student Success Specialist at WCC, said it wasn’t only students that were inspired by Bowe’s story. The faculty and staff in attendance were also energized, he said.
“Her journey from WCC to NASA is a true testament that we here at WCC and at community colleges around the country are making a difference,” Webster said.