In 2010, Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of Hidden Figures, was sitting in her parents’ home, catching up with her dad about some of his co-workers at NASA Langley Research Center, many of whom were black female scientists. “Why haven’t I heard this story before?” Shetterly’s husband asked.
It was then that she realized there were probably many people who didn’t realize the crucial role that women—and black women in particular—played in the early days of American space exploration. Not long after that, she wrote a book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, about the first African American women at NASA; it won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work and was adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie in 2016.
I recently spoke with Shetterly about working on Wall Street, dealing with restlessness on the job, and matching one’s temperament to a profession. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Lolade Fadulu: What did your parents do?
Margot Lee Shetterly: My mom taught English at Hampton [University]. My dad worked at NASA; he’s a retired research scientist. He spent his entire career as an atmospheric research scientist at NASA Langley. I grew up in Hampton, [Virginia,] and the women that I wrote about were people I knew growing up. That NASA connection was very much a part of my life from the very beginning.
Fadulu: Did you know all along that this was a story you wanted to write?
Shetterly: Yes and no. The genesis of the story really came out of a conversation that my husband and I had with my father. We were visiting my parents in December of 2010. My dad was talking about some of the women he had worked with. The facts of the story I knew growing up, because I knew what my father did. But it never really occurred to me to ask why there were so many women when I got to NASA to visit my dad at work. There were always women there, there were black women there. It was just part and parcel of my perception of what NASA was. There were black people, there were scientists, they did the scientific work and that was the nature of the thing. It was really that moment [in 2010] that called into question my understanding of that entire thing. Why the hell were there black women at Langley in the segregated south in the ’50s? How did they get there? Where did they come from?
The larger story of social mobility and work identity and race and gender—I think that is the story that has interested me forever. It's part of the reason why I went to work on Wall Street, which was something I wanted to do from the time I was really young. Writing Hidden Figures, for me, was a way of helping myself understand a lot of those things that I've always been trying to understand.
Fadulu: Did you write as a kid?
Shetterly: I did write as a kid. I've got this book of poetry that I wrote. A lot of times there were things that were part of a school project that I would turn into some elaborate thing, writing this whole kind of high-school soap opera.
I was always a good writer. I was a hugely voracious reader. I read everything, absolutely everything, and enjoyed it. I never knew that there was a possibility that one could be a professional writer. The idea that you could be a scientist—well, I totally understood that, because I grew up around scientists and engineers. You could be an English professor, an academic. There were a lot of things I had exposure to, but supporting yourself as a writer wasn’t really something I knew about as a kid.
Fadulu: You always wanted to work on Wall Street?
Shetterly: That was the core mission. Did you ever read the book The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin? I loved this book, partially because the protagonist was an adolescent girl whose name was Turtle Wexler, and she was into the stock market. I think I read this book when I was 8 or 9 years old. I was like, “Oh my God, the stock market thing, that’s what I want to do.” It totally captivated my sensibility. I started keeping track of selected stocks from the New York Stock Exchange. This was the 1980s. Wall Street was big in the ’80s.
Fadulu: Was working on Wall Street turn out the way you expected?
Shetterly: In a lot of ways. One of them was the excitement of Wall Street. And, of course, to be young in New York, that was very exciting—to be in a place where I wasn’t the only nerdy black woman.
Fadulu: How old were you when you were working in investment banking?
Shetterly: I was in my twenties when I was working in investment banking. It was great for my resume. It was a job that was well compensated. I learned a lot. I worked at J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch. I worked hard. I learned how to deal with a very stressful work environment. [Saving] up money during the times things were good made it possible to take some of the risks.
Fadulu: You ended up switching industries. What propelled that move?
Shetterly: In retrospect, I think it was part of a longer-term project of trying to find the right thing. A restlessness. There were so many interesting things going on. During the ’90s the internet really started to take off. I had friends who were working in that industry; it seemed really exciting.
There is really a fundamental part of me that is an entrepreneur and drawn to start-up ventures and drawn to the adventure. The idea of starting something new was really appealing and I think fundamentally closer to who I am as a person.
Fadulu: This whole idea of figuring out what your temperament is and matching it to a job—how do you figure that out?
Shetterly: I think it’s trial and error. I think it takes time. It would never have occurred to me to seek [a career as a] writer directly. I don’t think there is any way I could have sought it directly. I had to go through all of these different things and collect all of these different skills, and meet people, and fail, and be unhappy, and question myself. Then, once those things happened, I could move on to the next thing. There’s no way I could have connected these dots in the beginning.