When I moved to D.C. in the summer of 2014, two things were true: I was broke and had no friends. This changed in the Fall (minus the broke thing), when I attended a creative facilitation workshop as an AmeriCorps VISTA. Here is where I first met Autumn Breon Williams. My interaction with Autumn would go from a one-time shared experience, as one of the only POCs at this workshop, to moments celebrating birthdays, career moves and recurring conversations on social justice and equity.
Autumn’s commanding presence while pitching a world class education that is both affordable and scalable, then seamlessly gliding to her take on D.C.’s best kept-secret wifi coffee bars, is uniquely her. Whether she’s providing detail on her background studying Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford, or her outlook on why the future is youth-led and female, when Autumn speaks her audience listens.
I sat down with the big-haired, stilettos-wearing, Executive Director of the African School for Excellence (ASE), to talk about her insights on how she rises to the challenge of changing the way the world educates. Our full conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows below.
1. Location: Washington, DC/ Johannesburg, South Africa
2. Current Gig: Global Executive Director, African School for Excellence Foundation
3. One word that best describes how you rise: Unapologetically.
4. Current mobile device: Apple iPhone 7. I have a bad habit of breaking screens on my phones. I had to upgrade to this one after my poor iPhone 6 just couldn’t function anymore.
5. Current computer: Macbook Air/ Microsoft Surface Pro/ iPad. I travel a lot and use different devices for different types of meetings and presentations.
6. First of all, tell me a little about your background. I grew up in Los Angeles, CA with my mother and grandparents. My mother was very busy with her career in construction and as a result, I spent most of my time with my grandparents when I was small. They lived in South LA and my school was in the South Bay, so I saw very different sides of Los Angeles everyday. One of those differences was the stark contrast in public education that was determined just from a zip code. I didn’t know much about education policy as a child, but I knew that it didn’t make sense that I had opportunities that some of my friends didn’t and the only difference was our schools.
As my grandparents were shuttling me around to school and dance practices, I read A Wrinkle in Time and became obsessed with rocket science. My grandparents and mother noticed and encouraged my interest by enrolling me in science camps and taking me to all of my science fairs. I went on to Stanford and studied Aeronautics and Astronautics and Physics.
7. Rocket Science to Social Entrepreneurship and Education, how’d that happen? I was really stimulated by all that I was learning and practicing in my classes and research, but also annoyed by the fact that I was the only woman of color in most of my classes and labs. I was the only chocolate drop in the work I was doing at NASA and Northrop Grumman as well. Now that I look back on it, I can see that this lack of representation was a manifestation of the same inequity I recognized as a kid in LA. I had a creative idea to attempt to solve the problem while I was an undergrad. I launched a pilot after-school program for middle schoolers in the neighborhood where I grew up.
Some other engineers and I went to Watts during our spring break and taught everything we were learning in a way that middle schoolers could understand and practice it. The program was successful and grew to work with high school students during the school year and the summer as well. I called it STEMgineers Shifting Gears and it became my start-up. The more I worked on STEMgineers Shifting Gears, the more I realized that the solutions we were testing could work in environments around the world where young people deserved the same universal right of a quality education. Providing opportunities for that right and eliminating obstacles to that right became my mission in life.
8. What are you doing now? What excites you about it? I guess I can’t quit the start-up life! I’m now the Executive Director of the the African Schools for Excellence Foundation. I lead the global fundraising and advancement for the African Schools for Excellence- a network of affordable and world-class independent schools in South Africa. I’m excited about it for a few reasons. I think that the work we’re doing is reimagining what affordable education looks like in resource constrained environments. South Africa has such a rich history and so much potential, and our young people are the leaders of the charge to reimagine South Africa, or perhaps to “reimagineer” it. They not only are reimagining the future of their country, but also designing and building the path to that future.
9. What apps, software, or tools can’t you live without? Podcasts, my calendar app, Google Drive, my paper planner, and my journal and pen. I actually have a few pens in different colors that I use to organize my notes and weekly planning.
10. What’s your workspace setup like? Totally virtual. I have no office and I’m the only employee in the States, so I work from coffee shops and bookstores.
11. What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack? If I can finish something in less than a minute, I try to do it immediately.
12. What’s your favorite to-do list manager? Probably my planner. I love colorful stickers and sticky notes. I like to use more stickers to make projects I’m less excited about more exciting.
13. Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why? Does a stovetop espresso maker count? I love being able to make a latte or cappuccino at home. I have a pink Lavazza 3-cup espresso maker that I love to use.
14. What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? Running in or riding a bicycle in stilettos.
15. What’s your secret? Balance and good shoes 🙂
16. What do you listen to while you work? I listen to podcasts sometimes. My favorites are Stuff you Missed in History Class, Giants of History, The Read, and all of W. Kamau Bell’s podcasts. When I listen to music I like Childish Gambino, Youssou N’Dour, and Edith Piaf. When I’m feeling low I listen to live versions of Beyonce’s songs.
17. What are you currently reading? In the Company of Women and Sister Outsider (again).
18. How do you recharge? Reading. I enjoy historical fiction. I also love museums and throwing parties for or with my friends.
19.What do you do when you want to forget about work? Usually watching shows and movies on Netflix, reading books, and taking photographs. When I see visually stimulating films and pieces of art, I recharge and find myself more creative about my work.
20.Fill in the blank: I’d love to see AudreLorde answer these same questions.
21. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? To trust my gut and not be afraid to toot my own horn sometimes. I think many women (and especially women of color) are conditioned to believe that if we speak about our accomplishments, we’re cocky or not being “teamplayers.” That’s bullshit. When a man does the same thing, he’s called “confident.” If you put in the hard work and achieve anything, be proud of yourself and share it. You sure as hell can’t expect someone else to recognize you if you don’t recognize yourself.
Also drink lots of water and always moisturize.
The How I Rise series asks rising black millennial voices to share personal stories of success, hustle and more in their work to break barriers and change the world.
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Mariel Kanene is Founder and Editor of TheArtOfPersptive.co and lead storyteller with a focus on music, startups and travel. His passion for storytelling was born in Kinshasa, Congo, groomed in Dallas, Texas, and cultivated in Washington, DC where he now resides. By day, Mariel spends his days slowly trying to change the world—one meaningful interaction at a time. He loves reading factual-fiction, good podcasts, traveling, health and fitness, foreign languages and good conversations over good coffee and even better rum. He hates talking about himself in third person.Thanks for stopping by. Always appreciated. Find me on: Twitter | Instagram | Linkedin | Website.