Noramay Cadena, a mechanical engineer and entrepreneur fitted with three MIT degrees, is a trailblazer in both the corporate and community sectors on a national scale. She inspires future generations of STEM innovators at the Latinas in STEM Foundation, an organization she helped co-found, as well as cultivates local entrepreneurial opportunities at Make In LA. We recently asked our audience what career, education, and life questions they have for Noramay in our #AskASTEMPro campaign. Keep reading to see her answers.

Q. Prior to founding a company, you worked with Boeing. Did you always have a vision of founding your own company when you were an undergrad or did the idea come afterwards? Do you think having experience working at a huge company helped you to become a better founder of your company? – Fakhirah Nur

Some people grow up with clear vision of who they want to be. I certainly didn’t. Just like I did not grow up wanting to become an engineer, I also did not dream of leading my own company. Two things continuously happened that enabled me to consider making these changes for myself. Firstly, I began meeting individuals blazing these trails in my community – people I related to who were engineers, business leaders, and entrepreneurs. They allowed me to consider fields I previously didn’t know enough about by showing me that it could be done by someone like me. Secondly, the more I succeeded and grew professionally and in the community, the more I understood and valued my intelligence and ability to make an impact. This realization encouraged me to find ways to help others see what I saw and leverage my braintrust to grow their businesses.

Q. What is your advice on which career path I should take if I’ve always had a dream to start my own company? Is it better to build a start-up right after graduation, or work somewhere first? – Fakhirah Nur 

I don’t think there’s a roadmap that guarantees success. The entrepreneurship landscape is changing in favor of diversity and there are a growing number of opportunities for founders who don’t fit the mold previously correlated to startup success. So you don’t have to have a checklist of background/experience to be successful. Or maybe I should say you shouldn’t have to have it. The environment isn’t perfect, but I’m seeing it change every day. I’d recommend you pursue what you’re passionate about at the moment and while you’re working on that project, find ways to supplement your skills to make you successful. Maybe that means starting a company and taking a short course to fill in a skills gap, or bringing on a cofounder who complements your experience. Work experience can be a bonus or it can be a detour; it depends on the work. If your job is working for a startup in the same field/industry/vertical that interests you, then the experience is incredibly valuable as a preview to market forces, investor appetite, and workforce talent. If you take any job to gain experience, you’re killing your mojo and wasting time. If you’re working to live or take care of your familial responsibilities, that’s the reality of life and you should make sure that you’re also filling your creativity needs in off-hours or finding ways to continue growing your ideas even if at a small scale.

Q. What advice would you give to high school students interested in STEM? – Ingrid Ellerbe

Be open-minded and curious. STEM careers and pathways are changing so fast and so vastly that it’s important for students to continuously explore new roles and even invent their own. For example, it’s hard to understand the impact virtual reality will have on medicine, shopping, and connecting with loved ones unless you’ve tried a headset and have immersed yourself in a virtual experience. The ability for education to be an equalizer or roadway to success is diminishing as technology advances. It’s more and more important for students to be exposed to and well-versed in more software programs, technologies, and hardware than it was before. Being curious and hungry to learn is a way to differentiate oneself in a field that will grow in competition, but also a way to find an area of interest sooner vs later.

Q. My god-daughter is the only female in her HS engineering club and she is the president, how can she recruit other girls? – Maria Cervantes

Very cool! There are a few ways she can inspire other ladies to join the club:

  • She can be visible & use her bravery and initiative as a recruitment tool. This means giving PA announcements for the club at school, wearing a club t-shirt, or sitting at the club booth during lunch or club rush.
  • She can ask her friends to support her – they may surprise themselves with interest after attending a meeting and learning more.
  • She can work to bring and publicize events to campus that highlight females in the field and opportunities in engineering.
  • She can work with a school leader to find opportunities outside of campus for students to explore career opportunities. These can be crafted to highlight jobs or industries students are interested in that may not have an obvious link to engineering.

Q. You encountered a lot of adversity and obstacles on your journey to success. What advice do you give struggling students who may be battling their own personal hurdles but want to build a successful career in STEM? – Jade Kim

We can’t always escape the reality of our challenges and responsibilities. Some of us have to take baby steps in building our own lives while keeping our families afloat throughout the journey. My advice is to focus on long term goals but measure them in short increments. When I was in college, I focused on getting through the week ahead of me. If I had thought about the semester or the full degree, it would’ve been too overwhelming. Once the week was conquered, I’d focus on the next week. Taking a 4-year challenge and attacking it in one week increments helped me stay focused and sane. When life got hard, I’d remind myself that I was building a better life and pictured what that would look like, for myself and for those around me. Hang in there and find others with similar challenges. It helps to know others who face similar hurdles and to learn how they cope both tactfully and mentally.

To stay up-to-date with Noramay, you can follow her on Twitter here.