Mae Jemison was in kindergarten when the teacher asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“A scientist,” Jemison beamed.
The teacher looked down at the young Black girl and corrected her: “You mean a nurse?”
“I said, ‘No, a scientist,’” Jemison, 63, recently recalled. “She was trying to give me something that was achievable from her perspective. But that wasn’t going to work for me. I wanted to go places.”
Jemison went into space as the first Black female astronaut in NASA history, leveraging her skills as a biomedical engineer to become part of the Space Shuttle Endeavor’s eight-day orbit of Earth in 1992.
A fierce sense of mission, an abundance of inner drive and a dedication to mentorship are traits Jemison shares with other pioneering women of color, including U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.
As Joe Biden’s choice for vice president on the Democratic ticket, Harris, 55, has notched yet another first in a career of firsts: the first woman of color — daughter of an Indian mother, Shyamala Gopalan, and Jamaican father, Donald Harris — on a presidential ticket for a major party, the first woman of color attorney general of California, the first woman of color district attorney of San Francisco.
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Conversations with women of color who have achieved firsts in a range of fields, including science, sports and politics, reveal striking similarities.
The women describe being focused on achievement from an early age; an unwillingness to bow to societal pressure; welcoming the support of mentors of various races; and proudly and frustratingly having to work harder than white peers to achieve the same results.
Another foundational trait: wanting not so much success, but to make a difference.
Harris declined to be interviewed about her trailblazing path, but those who have gotten to know her well describe a woman with a steely resolve, tireless work ethic and unyielding commitment to a cause.
“Kamala has had so many doubters along the way simply because she did not fit the profile of her predecessors,” says Brian Brokaw, a political consultant based in Sacramento, California, who ran Harris’ 2010 attorney general campaign. “But she has a remarkable ability to not just tune out doubters, but to turn that into fuel to drive her.”
Harris was 38 in 2002 when she set her sights on the DA job. An unknown candidate running against a popular incumbent, Terence Hallinan, Harris beat him in a run-off thanks to a grassroots campaign buttressed by a political kingmaker, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, the city's first Black leader.
When she later ran for the state attorney general position in 2010, she was battling for a job that had been the domain of white males dating back decades. In both instances, Harris’ victories set the stage for other people of color to achieve their own firsts.
One of the volunteers on her 2010 AG campaign was London Breed, who in 2018 became the first Black woman to be mayor of San Francisco. And when Harris moved to Washington, D.C., as a California senator in 2016, her successor was Xavier Becerra, the first Latino attorney general in the state’s history.
Former advisor Brokaw recalls something Harris would say “a million times over,” an admonition her mother, a formative influence, would tell daughters Kamala and Maya.
“She would tell them, ‘Kamala, you might be the first to do what you do, but just make sure you are not the last,’” says Brokaw. “There’s a sense with Kamala and others like her that the point of success also is to pave the way for others to thrive.”
Successful women of color push to make a difference
Jennifer Martineau and Portia Mount interviewed many women for the book “Kick Some Glass: 10 Ways Women Succeed at Work On Their Own Terms.” Their subjects all described being driven by "a sense of purpose and intention, they didn’t go into careers thinking about salary or title but rather a mission,” says Martineau.
“For most women, a sense of tenacity is required, but for women of color they almost have to find yet another gear to break through the barriers they often run into,” says Martineau, founder of the workplace consultancy Leap and Inspire Global.
Women of color who honor their roots often have the best shot at achieving groundbreaking firsts, says Laura Morgan Roberts, professor at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and author of “Race, Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience.”
“Black women aren’t expected to be leaders, they’re often even mistaken for the secretary, so those who are successful develop a powerful authenticity within their leadership style that stays true to their cultural heritage and gender,” says Morgan Roberts, who conducted a study of Harvard Business School graduates that made it into the C-suite at various businesses.
“Many talked about sponsors and mentors who helped out, but largely these women didn’t try and blend into their white male counterparts, and it paid off,” she says.
Most of all, they worked harder than the next person. Since she was a young girl growing up in Minneapolis, Tamara Moore, 40, was obsessed with basketball and in particular the Chicago Bulls. For each game, she would pull out a piece of paper and chart ever shot, every assist, ever block.
“I didn’t look at it as me taking stats of a men’s game,” she says. “It was just basketball.”
A few months ago, Moore notched her own national first when she was the first Black woman to be named head coach of a men’s college basketball program, Mesabi Range College in Virginia, Minnesota.
That appointment crowned a stellar playing career at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and five years in the WNBA, followed by other high school coaching stints and the founding of a men’s semi-pro league, the 40-team Official Basketball Association.
Moore shrugs off pioneer labels, pointing instead to the various women of color who have achieved great success mostly coaching women’s collegiate programs. She does say that when it came time to meeting her new team, she was eager to get any issues of sex or race on the table early. But that wasn’t necessary.
“I met with the guys, to let them decide if they wanted to play for me, so I started to go through my resume and when I got to ‘drafted by the WNBA,’ they said, ‘OK, we’re in,’” Moore laughs.
For her, success has simply meant staying true to that little girl who would take stats during every Bulls game.
“Whatever your passion is, put it all into that, don’t worry about outside voices,” she says. “Stay focused, and if you get knocked down, get up.”
'When we make a mistake, we speak for a whole gender or race'
That commitment to putting in more hours than the competition echoes for many women of color who have broken through barriers.
“The definition of being a person of color in a society dominated by Caucasian leadership is when you’re just good, it’s not good enough,” says Phyllis Wise, a Chinese American biomedical researcher who in 2010 became the first woman, as well as first Asian American, president of the University of Washington in Seattle.
“I can’t tell you how many men in academia screw up and get a second chance," she says. "But when we make a mistake, we speak for a whole gender or race and rarely get another try.”
Wise is CEO and president of the Colorado Longitudinal Study based in Aurora, a non-profit that is building a bank of biological samples to learn more about tracking diseases in their earliest stages. She was the daughter of two biologists “who expected me to excel, not so much to break down barriers but just to make the best use of the brain I was given.”
For Wise, Harris represents "the ultimate ambitious woman of color, and I mean that word in the best sense." Her own lifelong sense of ambition saw Wise hustle quickly up the ladder of academic success, only to hit a roadblock when she served as chancellor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“Let’s just say that many people there were not happy with how ambitious I was,” says Wise, noting that her drive was more welcome in Seattle, home to many Asian Americans. “My advice to women of color is develop a network of supporters and mentors you can count on and use them to get you through the tough times.”
That support network has steadily been growing. After centuries in which largely white and male faces dominated society’s top positions, more women of color are making inroads in a broad array of professions.
Finance world maven Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments and wife of "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, became the first Black woman to head The Economic Club of Chicago in 2017. Last year, Ashely James became the Guggenheim museum’s first Black woman curator. Early this year, the comedian Awkwafina, co-star of “Crazy Rich Asians,” became the first Asian American to win a Golden Globe for Best Actress.
Perhaps nowhere is the recent progress of women of color most evident than in politics, where of the 127 women (of more than 500 total members) serving in the 116th Congress, some 40% are of color, including upstarts Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota).
“Once you get those firsts in there, then people like you see their futures differently, they start imagining themselves in that same position,” says U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington), the first South Asian Woman elected to the House of Representatives. Her other firsts include being the only woman of color in Washington’s state Senate when she was serving there, and the only person of color the state had ever sent to Congress.
“Things are better today, but we started from such a low place and are not yet close to where we want to be,” says Jayapal, 54, whose recent book is “Use The Power You Have: A Brown Woman’s Guide to Politics and Political Change.”
Her book urges women of color to trust themselves and “be willing to work harder than everyone else around you, because that’s the world we live in.”
Jayapal, who came to the U.S. alone at age 16 for college at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., attributes her drive to her Indian parents, particularly the women in her family. Her great aunt, PK Devi, was the first female OB-GYN in India who wrote the definitive textbook for medical schools. In a small-world twist, one of Devi’s mentees was Sarala Gopalan — Sen. Harris’ aunt on her mother’s side.
“Women of color are part of the future of this country,” says Jayapal. “When I work on policy issues with Kamala, who is the daughter of two immigrant parents, I don’t ever have to wonder whether she understands where many of our citizens are coming from.”
Lina Hidalgo, 29, is one such American. She was born in Colombia and lived in Peru and Mexico before emigrating to the U.S. at age 14. In 2018, Hidalgo became the first Latina and first woman elected as county judge of Harris County, Texas. The job entails overseeing the $5 billion budget apportioned for Houston and other cities around the county, the largest in the state.
“When I looked into running, most people said a county judge needs to be an engineer, it’s about buildings and bridges, you should just run for school board, but that slid off me,” says Hidalgo, whose county is 43% Latino and 30% white. “I made up my mind I had to do this for the community.”
Since her victory, Hidalgo says many other Latinos in her county have reached out to thank her for serving as a role model, particularly for their daughters. She says Harris' ascent to the Democratic ticket is "totally amazing" and bound to inspire others.
“This is about updating our perception of what a government leader looks like,” she says.
For former astronaut Jemison, who currently helms the 100 Year Starship project to explore interstellar flight for all humans, the notion that success is limited to a select few women of color is a myth.
"When I joined NASA, it seemed special because of the barriers put up for people like me, but the truth was that I did not see myself as the only person who could have done this, there were many women who could have, Black, white and Asian," she says, citing as her own personal heroine Bessie Coleman, a Floridian who a century ago became the first woman of Black and Native American ancestry to get a pilot's license.
Jemison says true breakthrough moments aren't public but private, such as when she decided she had to go through parachute training to become an astronaut despite being terrified of heights. Or when she defiantly told her kindergarten teacher what she truly wanted to become.
She cautions against turning Harris into a mere trivia game answer and instead urges anyone who admires her path to "recognize that she's there because of great skills, great intellect, great passion and a great work ethic."
Work. In the end, these women say, it all circles back to that. And once your work ethic delivers the results, don't stop there.
"You must believe you can do whatever you want, and work for it," she says. "Then once you get it, ask yourself simply, 'What am I going to do with my place at the table?'"
Follow USA TODAY National Correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kamala Harris' background resonates with trailblazing women of color