By Kristen Domingue
When we spoke to Kamala Meader, founder, and CEO of Aerokam Engineering, we were inspired by her tenacity despite the challenges she recounts being one of the only women in her classrooms and jobs. Caught at the crossroads between societal expectations of being “the perfect mother” while having a “full career,” Kami’s honesty about the costs and the choices serve to remind us that while having it all is possible, having it all at once is not.
When I consider how I got into aerospace engineering, I think DNA chose my path. My father was an aerospace stress engineer and he used to take me to work to solve numeric equations. We also built and flew remote control aircraft together for fun. I went on to study Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. I was only 17 when I had to declare my major for college; I had no idea if this was my passion or just making my dad proud. I’m still not sure.
At the time, I was the only woman in my class. When I started my first job in San Antonio, Texas amongst 300 engineers, I was the only woman in the building. That was interesting — I had three bathrooms all to myself.
I never thought I’d start my own aerospace company. In the end, it was the right choice. I remember telling my husband, “What will I do as an aerospace engineer in Michigan?” He wanted to move back to Ann Arbor after living in San Antonio for ten years. Our son was three and he didn’t know his grandparents or cousins, which bothered both of us, but moving back to Michigan meant that I would have to give up my career.
Ultimately, we moved back in 1995, and I quit working to be a stay-at-home mom. We were only in Ann Arbor for four months when my husband lost his job. I called my old boss and began working from home. With my situation the way it was, I decided that starting my own business was the most practical thing to do. After 23 years, I’m still working with my own company.
Now my children are 24 and 21, and they are both currently in college. Since my company is over my garage in my house, my work and family have always been blended. It was nice working in my home so that I could get dishes, laundry, and bills done during work breaks and help my kids with homework and sports after they came home from school. I always appeared pulled-together and organized on the outside with my career and family. However, I never felt like I was giving enough to any part of my life.
When I really thought about it, I felt I could only give myself a “C” grade at work, family, and self-care. My job competition was always men with non-working wives who handled their personal world. My husband is in sales and travels a lot, so I had trouble competing for projects. My kids always complained that they couldn’t be part of more extra-curricular events since I had to work. The truth is that I did the best I could. Of course, I didn’t always make perfect choices, but failing actually improved my decision-making and built my character into what it is today.
In 2008, my mentor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He asked me if I could take over a high-security clearance project while he went through medical issues. I accepted the work and flew to Switzerland within a week of the diagnosis to work on the King of Saudi Arabia’s head-of-state aircraft.
Then, nine months later, my mentor died and my career was elevated to an international level with direct contacts at Airbus, Boeing, and the US government. I was asked to review and approve over 10,000 designs and oversee 400 engineers. Honestly, it began as an “acting” job. I was pretending that I was totally in control, all-knowing, and calm about heavy issues — all while thinking that my mentor would be cured of cancer and return to take back control. However, once I was immersed in the project, I was able to stop pretending. My mentor was right, I really did know what to do and being in charge wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.
The hardest challenge has always been and will continue to be my gender: a woman in a male-dominated world. I received unwanted attention from my classmates, teachers, and workmates. I never knew if I got an “A” or a “C” because I deserved it or if it was because I was a woman.
My “Control Theory” professor made me go to the board every single day of class. No other classmate had to do that. My Thermodynamics professor told me that I would never get higher than a C from him because I’m a woman and I don’t need high grades to get a job, I’ll just fill someone’s quota.
At my first job, my boss’s boss asked me to sleep with him for a vice president position at the company. In the aircraft hangar, the mechanics would pinch my butt when I turned around.
When I had my first baby, I tried breastfeeding, but my boss wouldn’t allow me to go out to the aircraft to review projects. He believed that I needed to stay home and secretly tried to get me to quit by making me work on the desk-job projects. Even now, when I attend Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) conferences, only about 1% of the people there are women, and it’s hard to blend into the background.
When I look back on my career, one of the things I’m most proud of is my interns. They work so hard and love learning. I like to think I had a hand in that work ethic and love for education. I’ve always been outspoken, and I think that at least part of my success is due to that. By the same token, my advice to my younger self is to listen more. The quiet people don’t usually offer opinions, but they have a lot to say. My 25-year-old self talked too much and now, at 50, I think that I know very little.
Kami’s choice to stay in touch with her truth throughout her journey paints a brave path to follow for those of us who rise past the glass ceilings her life choices shattered. The challenge of trying to be it all and have it all is real. And we applaud Kami (and you) for the gargantuan effort it takes to find the path that works for you when the world provides no maps.