Olympia LePoint showed courage on her path from poverty to rocket scientist
How do you get from a tough childhood in South Central Los Angeles to mission control? By taking fear out of the equation.
The room was cold and dark, but Olympia LePoint felt sweaty, wired, excited.
She and 12 colleagues were in the Rocketdyne Operations Support Center in Canoga Park, Calif., where they had been monitoring every millimeter of the space shuttle’s three enormous main engines for more than 12 hours. To her right was a big overhead monitor with live video from the launch pad across the country in Florida. On her left she kept track of data rolling by on screens, also glancing at information on consoles in front of her, while a loud voice from NASA’s launch control counted down, “10, 9, 8 …”
She’d painstakingly checked the status of every line and weld in the engines, measured the fluid, pressures, temperatures, and more, all to calculate the probability of catastrophic explosion. Mere seconds remained, and it was time to give the go-ahead for launch: “Pressure is good,” LePoint said. “Vibrations are nominal. No hydrogen leaks. Valve timing is good. Liquid hydrogen flow, unobstructed. We are go for launch.”
Then the magic words: “Engines ignite. Liftoff!” She watched, elated, as the 4.5-million-pound spacecraft majestically ascended and accelerated, faster and faster. In just 8 1/2 minutes, the main engines shut down. They had performed flawlessly, and the shuttle, now about 200 miles above Earth, was in orbit. Traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, it would circle the planet every 90 minutes.
The 27-year-old LePoint was by far the youngest person in the room that day in 2004, and one of only three women. This was what she had worked for and dreamed about since she was a child: to be a rocket scientist. She felt exhilarated, not only by what she had achieved but by all the obstacles – and fears – she’d conquered along the way.
LePoint knows about fear. She had to face it and fight it almost daily during her childhood in a rough section of South Central Los Angeles. She worried about the gang violence in her neighborhood, bullying in her school, and not having enough to eat at home. She was smart but afraid she wouldn’t be able to learn or achieve enough to be the first in her family to go to college.
The neighborhood where she grew up with her mother and three sisters was “a war zone,” says LePoint, a member of the Rotary Club of Los Angeles who now inspires others to learn, particularly in math and science. “There were gangs on our street, and I remember one day when I was nine, walking home from the dentist with my older sister, Crystal. We saw yellow police tape near where we lived. We started running to be sure Mom was OK.” (She was.)
The four girls had to become tough and street-smart, and they learned about courage from their mother, who had to support them mostly on government assistance.
“I remember walking to school with holes in the bottom of my shoes,” LePoint says. Sometimes the school lunch was the biggest meal she would eat all day.
Her mother would often say, “The only way to get out of this poverty is through an education.” Young Olympia wanted to do well in school and make her mother proud – and math became a path to that goal.
It started with a lemon tree in the backyard of their home. LePoint would gather the fruit that had fallen to the ground and experiment with making lemonade. Eventually, with help from Crystal, she graduated to lemon meringue pies.
“Baking brought a sense of creativity into my life,” she says, “and it offered a little escape from the outside world.” The measurements in her recipes taught her about fractions, and later Crystal showed her how to double the fractions when doubling recipes.
In class, when her teacher started talking about what “one-half” and “one-fourth” meant, LePoint gasped in recognition.
“That was my first realization that math was used in real life,” she says, laughing. She discovered that she liked figuring out math problems – and was good at it.
She also suspected she was a bit of a science geek. One of her favorite memories is the life-changing day in first grade when she went on a field trip to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
“For me, it was like walking into an enormous candy store,” LePoint recalls. She saw jet engines and the JPL Mission Control Room, where she was fascinated by all the high-tech gadgets, monitors, and even the plush red chairs. She studied the pictures on the wall of the people who had worked there and thought to herself, “I want to launch rockets too.”
But more obstacles were to come. In fifth grade she sat next to a troubled boy who’d been recruited into one of the local gangs.
“He started wearing a ring with spiked edges that were knife-sharp,” she says. “He would taunt me, and I’d defend myself with my smart mouth.” One day he grabbed her assignment and tore it up. She laughed at him and said, “All I have to do is get another piece of paper and write my answers down again. They’re all in my brain.”
Enraged, he punched her with the ring, slashing open the skin under her left eye. She was rushed to the hospital, and after five layers of stitches, her doctor told her she was lucky she didn’t lose her eye.
The incident led to a turning point in her education. Her mother requested that the boy be expelled from school, and when he wasn’t, LePoint’s mom home-schooled her for the rest of the year. Then everything changed when she was accepted into a magnet school for gifted children. She was bused across town and thrust into a world that was completely alien to her.
“That was the first time I had ever seen white kids and Asian kids close up, and I was so amazed,” she remembers. She also felt overwhelmed. Academically, she was far behind the other students in her class. She lost her confidence and developed a fear of math. She was ashamed when she failed Algebra 1.
Then LePoint realized something: “If you expect someone to succeed, they will,” she says. “Every one of those kids was expected to succeed, so they planned for college and achieved. In the area where I came from, no one expected success, so kids didn’t shoot for it. It has nothing to do with your DNA, but everything to do with the people around you who are encouraging you.”
This insight helped LePoint become more comfortable at school. Some of the kids were mean to her about her clothes and shoes, but she took it in stride.
“I thought to myself, when I get older, I’ll be able to afford the things I want. Meanwhile, I’m going to let people know that it doesn’t matter how much money you have; it matters what’s inside.”
LePoint was accepted into college at California State University, Northridge, and began her freshman year in 1993. She chose math as her major, she says, because a professor inspired her: “Mark Schilling, PhD, was the best math professor I’ve ever had. Learning calculus from him, I realized that I not only understood it but understood it quickly. And I could explain it to other people. I even gained enough confidence to become a math tutor.”
But in January 1994, just when everything seemed to be going well, the magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake hit. LePoint’s two younger sisters happened to be visiting. In her dorm room, glass broke, and everything flew.After the first tremors stopped, they tried to get out, but an aftershock hit when they were in the stairwell, and the stairs started separating from the wall.
“I remember looking back at the bolts as they were being ripped out of the wall and the stairs were turning, as if in slow motion,” she says. LePoint lifted one of her sisters onto her back and grabbed the other, and they jumped from the second story. “Thank God we didn’t break any bones. But sheets of glass were coming down, and there were fires everywhere. Mother came and got us. I lost everything I owned.”
Classes continued in trailers, which helped all the students bond after the earthquake, she recalls: “We were like champions getting through that difficult time, and many became my friends for life.” LePoint continued to excel and graduated in the top five of her undergraduate class of 6,500 students.
After a two-month job search, she was hired at Boeing (then owner of Rocketdyne) as a quality analyst. While working full time, LePoint went back to school at night to earn her master’s degree in applied mathematics.
“I learned amazing things, like chaos theory and fluid dynamics – things I could apply to launching the space shuttle,” she says. LePoint adds that she’s thankful for the mentors she had at the company, who inspired her to work twice as hard until she was finally in that cold, dark room giving the go-ahead for launch. She won the 2003 National Black Engineer of the Year “Modern Day Technology Leader” Award, and then the 2004 Boeing Company Professional Excellence Award.
LePoint served on the team for 28 space shuttle launches. She had to face her fears again, though, when she realized her true calling might lie somewhere else.
“I loved my job at Rocketdyne,” she says. “I could do the science forever. But I wanted to inspire young people to go into science fields.” She knew there was a deficit in math and science education in the United States. Not only was LePoint one of the youngest people in her division but also one of the few Americans. Many of her mentors had come from other countries. A 2012 global education survey showed that out of 65 countries, students in the United States ranked 36th in math and 28th in science education.
This was the big turning point of her life, she says. LePoint taught math part time at a junior college to work with young people one-on-one while she thought about how to help them on a larger scale. In 2008, worried about her finances, she considered going back into aerospace, but then the economy crashed.
“I had to reprogram my brain, and I wanted to help others do that too. I decided I was going to hire myself,” she says.
LePoint had no idea how to start her own business, but she plunged in and began writing a book to help kids get over their fear of math. It was a stressful time, as creditors were calling and she wasn’t sure how she would pay her rent. “But to me, courage means taking action on faith,” she says. She told herself to keep focusing on the writing, and had faith that help would come from somewhere.
That’s when her friend Maureen Tepedino invited her to a meeting of the Rotary Club of Los Angeles.
When she stepped into the meeting, LePoint recalls, “I hadn’t felt so uplifted in years. The person who greeted me first on the elevator was Alan Bernstein, who later was elected the first African American president in LA5’s 106-year history. Two people asked me if I was interested in joining, and yes just came out of my mouth.”
It was exciting to be around other businesspeople, she says, and some of them became mentors. LePoint realized that this was the missing piece: “I had the science, I had the corporate experience, I had the passion, but I needed the courage and entrepreneurship,” she says.
One person who guided her was Paul Richey, a longtime Rotarian and regional managing director of Focus Investment Banking in Los Angeles. They met over a Rotary lunch in 2008.
“She was seeking advice on how to build her business and make it viable,” Richey says. “I had 40 years of experience, 30 of them running offices for large international accounting firms. I wanted to help, and she was willing to listen.”
In 2013, LePoint published her book Mathaphobia – part memoir of her own struggles, part guidebook on how to conquer the fear of math. It is full of easy strategies for people of any age. Retired astronaut Robert Curbeam has said the book is “inspiring, and is needed in American schools.”
Richey encouraged her to promote her work and sign on for speaking engagements. Her 2013 TEDx Talk, “Reprogramming Your Brain to Overcome Fear,” has received more than 110,000 views on YouTube.
Now she’s ready to broaden her message: She plans to publish books by other authors on education, health, and emotional and psychological well-being, and to produce a video series.
No matter what her next step is, LePoint is sure it will include helping others face their fears. As she wrote in her book, “If I became a rocket scientist, given such early dysfunction, I am convinced that you can be anything you desire: if you choose to work on removing fear from your life.”
• This article originally appeared in The Rotarian, the official magazine of Rotary International. Rotary connects 1.2 million members of more than 34,000 Rotary clubs to provide humanitarian service and build goodwill throughout the world through addressing issues such as disease prevention, maternal and child health, literacy, peace and conflict resolution, economic development, and clean water. The Rotarian challenges readers to become more involved in service to their neighborhoods and to the global community. It's found on Twitter at @therotarian and @Rotary.