Q&A With Mary Spio, A Rocket Scientist With Down-To-Earth Advice

By Nancy Dahlberg The Miami Herald

Growing up in Ghana, Mary Spio didn't know what an engineer was -- but she was the kid who tore radios apart, always asking how they worked.

When Spio was 16, her parents spent everything they had to send her to the United States for a better life.

Her first job was at a McDonald's, but after a while she found her way into the Air Force. "It was when I was in the Air Force that an engineer pulled me aside and told me I was really great at fixing electronics; and that I should look into becoming an engineer. I did and it was the best thing I've ever done."

After six years with the Air Force, she went to Syracuse and the Georgia Tech for engineering degrees, and she was soon working at satellite communications firms, some while in college, where she designed and launched satellites into deep space on a NASA project, headed up a satellite communications team for Boeing, and pioneered digital cinema technology for LucasFilms that redefined the distribution method for major motion pictures.

With a continued interest in media, Spio turned to entrepreneurship about a decade ago and has never looked back -- even though at one point she was voted out of her own company because her investor wanted a white male at the helm.

Now Spio heads her own company once again, Miami Beach-based Next Galaxy, a developer of innovative content and tools for virtual reality. Its flagship application is CEEK, a social VR hub for accessing entertainment, education and branded experiences.

One of her newest products, CEEKARS 4-D headphones, is out this month and Spio is currently running an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for the product. In January, Spio brought the B.I.G. Summit to the New World Center on Miami Beach, and her conference explored ways to use virtual reality across a broad spectrum of industries.

She also has a new book out. In It's Not Rocket Science: 7 Game-Changing Traits for Achieving Uncommon Success, she offers advice and insights by exploring the distinct actions and attributes that successful leaders across many fields share as they challenge old precepts and create worldwide impact.

The Miami Herald met with Spio recently in her Miami Beach office. Here are excerpts of that conversation:

Q. Why did you decide to write the book?

A. After working with the U.S. Department of State visiting and speaking at all these different countries like Pakistan, South Africa, Ukraine and Russia, I kept getting a lot of the same questions. I said I need to put something together that shares what I have learned along the way. To do that, I had to go back to my foundation. I had been studying game-changers for a long time and never realized it.

When I was young and living on my own in New York ... I was working in McDonald's, back then my idea of success was going from fries to cashier. But I started reading. My first book was Sumner Redstone's A Passion to Win -- I read it over and over and over and over, I could connect to something in there -- overcoming challenges. I also read about Bill Gates. As I read about these people who I admired, I thought there was more that I could do. It gave me the courage to try new things.

As I traveled later on, I got to meet all these game-changers, more than 100 over time. As a scientist I said, how do I codify this? A lot of times when I speak, some people say it is easy for you to say because you are a rocket scientist. But I was like those people, thinking technology is for those other people. Even when I went into the Air Force, I really didn't know technology. The more I learned about it, it's really not rocket science. For anyone who thinks technology is for those other people, this is the book for them and it has steps you can take to leverage tech for what you want to do. It's a combination of my observations and discoveries; this is my personal playbook, these are the people I go to over and over again when I am having a hard time and it keeps me going.

Q. Is there one particular trait among all these game-changers?

A. I think it's courage. Most of these people are almost crazy. When you do anything new, there is opposition and shaming that comes with it, and these people didn't care about that. It's not fearlessness; they have the fear but they act in spite of the fear. It's also the scientific mindset. As an engineer, I know failure is not failure, it is just an experiment. In entrepreneurship too, I realize these founders have the scientific approach to success. It's OK to fail. It's not failure, it's feedback.

Q. How did you fall into technology -- and stay?

A. I was the kid that always tore the radio apart, I wanted to know how it worked, how, how, how, how -- I drove my parents crazy. In the Air Force testing, I scored very high in electronics.

In the Air Force, I was usually the only woman, but it felt like home. I enjoyed what I was doing. And when I was working on Gen2Media, my last company, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. There is more to the movie industry than what happens on the big screen, there is so much excitement that happens behind the scenes.

A big part of why women and girls don't go into technology is they don't want to be in the lab all day. But there are so many opportunities, there are so many other options.

Q. Is that also why you also created the B.I.G. Summit?

A. Yes, I go to a lot of virtual reality conferences. Ninety-nine percent of everything I was seeing is games, shoot-'em-up games. I think enough is enough -- what about healthcare and education and all these other things? That was the idea of the B.I.G. Summit. We are looking at healthcare, we are looking at education.

Q. What were some of your biggest challenges along the way?

A. I felt like a kid in the candy store coming into tech because I was pulled in so many ways; it surprised me to see how much my perspective was needed. When everyone is the same, everyone thinks the same way and you miss a lot. But not all of what I have experienced was positive.

At one company, for example, I had a boss who was racist and sexist, the work environment was not ideal. ... Fortunately I was recruited by Boeing where my experiences were all wonderful. Culture starts at the top. I worked at Aerospace Corp. under a woman CEO, and my experience there was phenomenal. While at Georgia Tech they let me work remotely from my dorm room. From Boeing on I never felt any type of discrimination [as an employee], I felt right at home.

But as an entrepreneur raising capital, I ran into challenges. When I launched Gen2Media, we were doing a million before beta. We had an investor come in to help us raise capital -- and he said he was having a hard time because no one was writing checks to black women and he needed a white male at the helm. Then he got my other partners (they were all equal partners) on his side -- I was forced out of my own company.

This was a company I built with every dime I had. ... We had 26 employees. That was toughest thing I have gone through, and it happened not because of something I did but because of who I am. I am a black woman and that is not going to change. I was pregnant at the time. I took some time off [about two years, 2010-2012], moved in with my family for awhile, started writing the book, did some consulting but mostly spent time with my son and family in London.

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