Aisha Bowe didn’t believe in herself. NASA did.
“In high school, my friends thought I was going to be a dropout,” Aisha says. “For a long time, I did too.” She’d drifted through a couple rudderless years at Washtenaw Community College in southeastern Michigan. But after acing her Calc-II exam—a test she confesses she took while recovering from a trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras—Aisha was held after her test by the professor. He told her he’d swapped in some more advanced questions on her exam, that she’d scored 100 percent, and that this result was exceptional. He implored her to take the test home and start thinking differently about herself.
Aisha had lived her whole life believing the opposite. “I spent middle school and high school thinking I was bad,” she says. “It was the story I told myself. ‘My parents got a divorce. I don’t come from money. I don’t get good grades. I’m not focused. I’m not driven.’ Someone like that doesn’t grow up to be special.”
Still, what her professor said resonated. “There comes a time in your life where you have to think critically about yourself. I realized, OK, I have low self-esteem. I don’t feel like I can be anything. Maybe that’s the problem?” Aisha read about the concept of manifestation, of bringing something into your life by focusing on it and believing it. She wrote out a list of what she wanted, taped it on her door, and looked at it every day. Every step built towards three words at the bottom:
Work for NASA.
What she didn't realize at the time was that NASA wouldn’t be her final step. It was just another on the path to founding her own company, and creating something that could teach and inspire kids who, like her, didn't believe they could be extraordinary.
Cut to five years later. Aisha had crossed off "Transfer to the University of Michigan" off her list, and was a couple semesters away from crossing off “Earn my Master’s”. In January 2008, Pete Klupar, then the Director of the Small Spacecraft Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center, had visited U of M’s Aerospace Engineering Department to deliver a seminar and recruit for their summer internship program. Klupar got to see some of the satellite concepts Aisha had worked on. At the end of his visit, the department arranged for someone in the cohort to drive Mr. Klupar to his next location.
Aisha sometimes wonders how different her life would have been if she hadn’t had a car and an open afternoon.
During the drive, the two chatted about the seminar and the internship program. “I was looking through resumes and noticed something’s missing,” Klupar said. “You didn’t apply.”
“There are kids with 4.0s in that stack,” said Aisha. “NASA only takes the best and brightest.” Worden didn’t respond. Aisha fessed up, “I didn’t think you’d want me.”
“I’ve seen your work. I’ve heard you speak. I’d like for you to submit your resume.”
She got the internship. And after mentoring her all summer, Klupar came to Aisha with less of a request and more of a direct order: “You’re going to go back, and wrap up that degree. Then you’re going to come work for NASA.”
“It’s surreal getting an official NASA badge,” she recalls. The first few weeks on the job, Aisha scanned her ID card to get into every wing she could get into. She met everyone. She learned about their job. Over the next 6 years, Aisha helped design launch adapters (the equivalent of car seats for satellites) for nanosatellites (i.e. the size of a shoebox) for small spacecraft and algorithms to make commercial air travel safer, cheaper, and more efficient. “It was the best job. So amazing. I look back on it fondly.”
Aisha often visited middle and high schools to speak with kids and get them excited about pursuing careers in science and tech. But usually, the students wanted to hear more about her. Aisha, a Bahamian-American, was one of the few women of color at NASA. The students couldn’t get past the fact that she didn’t look like what they thought a NASA scientist should look like. They couldn’t believe her parents had once earned their living as a taxi driver and a housekeeper. They couldn’t believe she went to a community college. “So many things about my story didn’t connect with them,” Aisha says. “I could see new folds forming in their brains.”
She understood all-too-well the bewilderment furrowing their brows—especially of the girls who looked like she did in middle school and who came from backgrounds like hers. Those girls believed the same story about themselves that Aisha had: people like us don’t get to be special. Aisha realized, at last, that she was special. As much as Aisha loved working at NASA, she felt she could only do one thing there: be an engineer. But Aisha’s talents and gifts had blossomed. She’d found her calling: “I wanted to give kids what I didn’t have growing up: opportunities to flourish.”
In 2013, when Aisha left NASA to found STEMBoard, she did so with a mission. “Many of the schools we visited lacked science labs,” she says. “Getting those students excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) proved challenging.” Since then, Aisha has been creating learning opportunities and increasing access to science and technology for students in communities all over the globe. In the Bahamas (where Aisha’s father was born), STEMBoard established Hack<IT>, a free, weeklong, hands-on computer engineering and technology camp attended by hundreds of kids since its inception. The program has since expanded to five cities in the U.S.
In June of 2020, in response to schools going virtual during the COVID-19 lockdown, Aisha launched LINGO, which puts coding kits into the homes of students who might otherwise never get a chance to experience the fun of learning to code. The LINGO STEM Coding Kit Bundle includes hardware and software, a collection of video lessons, and—exclusive to Groupon customers—access to live webinars hosted by engineers and technologists who answer questions. There’s a curriculum mapped to national learning standards for teachers who want to use these in virtual classrooms or parents who want to try their hand at home instruction. The kits, however, are also intuitive enough for kids to just dive in and start creating and learning how to code at their own pace.
“Technology is a language,” Aisha says. “LINGO gives kids the basic tools they need to speak it. You don’t need to know how to code, or even like it. I designed these kits for someone like young me, and young me didn’t care.” Aisha hopes LINGO changes the way kids think not only about engineering, but also about themselves and who belongs in the field.
“A lot of people have this idea that if you’re going to be high performing you come out of the womb ready to go,” Aisha says. “Nope. That wasn’t true for me. I don’t look back and think, ‘Wow, I’m a genius.’ I look back and think ‘I was lucky.’ What makes me unique is I chose to do the work. When I got my opportunity, I was dogged in my pursuit.”
Luck, opportunity, and hard work. These are the things that empowered Aisha to exceed the potential she felt she had as a young girl. But first she had to believe she could be exceptional. By providing opportunities through STEMBoard and LINGO and modeling success for kids from non-traditional backgrounds, Aisha Bowe is empowering the up-and-coming generation of engineers, entrepreneurs, and even NASA rocket scientists to do the same.