Originally published on Forbes.com
This Trailblazers series takes a look at the pivotal milestones that make up the life trails of inspiring women from a diverse array of backgrounds and experiences. We all know what social media profiles display about the end results women have achieved. This series is intended to take a deeper, more authentic look at the journeys they have taken to get there.
Mary Nguyen is an Engineer at NASA and an online business owner at marynguyen.co. She aims to help girls dominate their journey’s in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) by sharing products, tools, and resources that empower them. Mary is the daughter of immigrants and a first-generation college student. Stemming from her own experiences of hustling to succeed and trying to find her place in the world, she is passionate about sharing her failures and success stories to help others overcome their own adversities so that they can thrive both personally and professionally.
After learning more about the trail that Mary has blazed, I got the chance to ask her some questions.
Rebekah Bastian: You went through a pivot in the trail you had planned for yourself pretty early when you changed majors to pursue mechanical engineering. Why do you think engineering wasn’t on your radar initially, and what gave you the vision and confidence to pursue this change in direction?
Mary Nguyen: I quite simply didn’t know or see anyone like me in the field or taking interest in entering the field, so I never considered it a possibility for me. When I was in school, all of my friends were taking the nursing or business route. So I did the same. It wasn’t until after I did my own dabbling that I was certain that I wanted more of a challenge and reward.
I sat out a semester, researched and explored a lot of career options, and maintained an open mind. When I came across engineering, I thought it was so cool. The projects and missions seemed limitless and full of impact. And that’s what I wanted for my future career. I was really terrified of the unknown, but at the same time, really excited for the possibilities.
Bastian: What about your own experience being a woman in engineering made you want to get involved with inspiring girls coming up through STEM paths?
Nguyen: I see a lot of people who have the same notions as I once did about STEM: you have to be some extraordinary genius or nerd, love Legos rather than Barbies, you can’t be girly or outgoing, etc. I just want to help change people’s idea of what an engineer or scientist looks like. I want girls to see that they can embrace who they are and also be a great problem solver, innovator, and world changer.
“I just want to help change people’s idea of what an engineer or scientist looks like.”
Bastian: You shared that being a daughter of immigrants and a first-generation college graduate brought a lot of trauma and pressure to your life. Do you see this pattern revealing itself in other women with similar backgrounds, and how do you recommend working past it?
Nguyen: Yes and not just women, but children of immigrants in general, because of our unique pressure and responsibilities. Growing up I was expected to help parent my siblings by the age of 9 and missed out on a great deal of having a “normal” childhood. I also lacked a lot of the parental support I witnessed my peers having when it came to education, hobbies, and overall life guidance. So not only do children of immigrants tend to carry their own weight and the weight of their family members, they also feel tremendously alone because they’re so relied upon.
My advice is to recognize and unlearn toxic traits resulting from cultural norms (suppressing your emotions, imposter syndrome, fear of failure, etc.) and recognize that you are good, you belong, and that it is OK not to be OK. Don’t be afraid to seek or reach out for help. We all deserve to be supported and heard.
“My advice is to recognize and unlearn toxic traits resulting from cultural norms (suppressing your emotions, imposter syndrome, fear of failure, etc.) and recognize that you are good, you belong, and that it is OK not to be OK.”
Bastian: Your focus on helping girls in STEM has taken on several forms of entrepreneurship, including a blog, a clothing line, and in-person meetups. How do you balance your day job as a NASA engineer with your entrepreneurial projects, and do you see those worlds merging more as you continue in this work?
Nguyen: It can be really difficult at times. I used to think that a “perfect balance” exists or develops from practice over time, but my priorities and responsibilities switch up often. Some weeks my job is really hectic and I have minimal energy for my personal goals. Other weeks, work is slower and I’m more mentally capable of tacking on my entrepreneurship responsibilities. Of course there are methods that help, such as scheduling, minimizing, etc. But I really try to give myself some flexibility and freedom to both enjoy life and conquer things as I am able. I sort of doubt that my corporate job and entrepreneurship will ever merge. But if they ever did, I would be super grateful!
Bastian: What skills, experience and perspective do you think that women — especially those from immigrant families — can bring to science and technology fields to help advance innovation?
Nguyen: I think women from immigrant families, such as myself, are some of the strongest and resilient people I know. And it stems from the need to survive and thrive. But if women like me apply the same drive we’ve acquired in life to our careers, there’s no limit to how much we can accomplish. Not only are we persevering from personal hardships, but we are also nurturing (because of how family-oriented we are) and creative (from thinking on our feet when it comes to daily challenges). These are all qualities that bring value to the workforce because they can translate to professional tenacity, positive team culture, and unconventional solutions.
Connect with Mary on OwnTrail to follow her journey and start a conversation!