Inspiration in business can come from the strangest places. The other evening I was watching the film Hidden Figures. It tells the true story of a group of African-American women who played a crucial role in the space race for NASA during the 1960s. It’s an inspiring and moving story of their fight against prejudice and discrimination in an America that still had segregation.
It’s a great film, well worth watching, but next day I realised it had a lot of messages about building successful businesses.
One of the three main characters is Dorothy Vaughan. Dorothy headed a 30-strong segregated team of ‘human computers’, women who made the complex mathematical calculations needed for space flight by hand. The film tells how she realised that the new IBM computer would soon replace her job, so she took matters into her own hands, taught herself the programming language Fortran then trained her entire team in it too.
There are three key things all of us can learn from Dorothy Vaughan’s story.
1. She had her eyes open
Dorothy identified and understood the threat to her livelihood – she was alert to the changes going on around her. Are you looking to see trends and developments in your particular marketplace? Are you awake to changes? What are the threats to your business right now? These may not be technical, as in Dorothy’s case, but may pose just as big a threat.
Too many business owners have their heads in the sand, focusing purely on what they are doing – and the way they have always done it. Develop a strategy for making yourself aware of the changing business environment.
2. She embraced the change
Dorothy Vaughan refused to be left behind. She didn’t moan or complain about her bad luck, being a ‘human computer’ just when a machine that could do 24,000 calculations per second was being launched. She equipped herself with the knowledge to take advantage of the brave new world of machine computers.
And it wasn’t easy – in the film, the book she needs to teach herself programming is in the ‘white only’ section of the library where she is not allowed to go. So she ‘borrows’ it as she is thrown out by police, telling her son ‘I have paid my taxes, you can’t steal something that you have already paid for’!
As an African-American woman in the segregated south of the USA, Dorothy faced just about every level of opposition she could. Her determination and effort made the difference; through her struggle she positioned herself as the go-to expert.
As Charles Darwin said, ‘it is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change’. Dorothy took a threat and turned it into an opportunity.
3. She took her team with her
Throughout her career Dorothy Vaughan was an advocate of women of all colours. Having learned Fortran, she taught her team, so that when NASA realised it needed more programmers, she could meet that need with her team, thus keeping them all in a job.
Investing in your team, keeping their skill set up to date, is crucial for any business to grow. If you find yourself unable to trust your workforce with tasks, ask yourself if you have equipped them with the skills necessary. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link!
In a rapidly changing business environment, we all need to be looking at what’s coming down the line. We’ll need to adapt, to develop our skills, and ensure our team is ready too.
Now, the big question is who to cast in the lead role of ‘Altus – The Movie’?