Darlene Damm

Change Leader

Location: Mountain View, CA

"Giving in to my fears would be an insult to so much that could be."

It was near midnight. I was alone, driving across the state of Mississippi, and I did not know what was going to happen next.

Two years earlier, I had decided to change my life. While I loved the nonprofit I was working with in Washington, DC, I felt unchallenged in my role after working there several years. Instead of quitting, though, I decided to apply to a ten-week leadership course on using cutting-edge technology to solve social problems. I wanted to see if time away could help me refocus. The leadership course was perfect for me as it combined my background in social entrepreneurship with my childhood passions: technology and outer space.

I was accepted into the program two days before it started. My organization told me that I could go, but it was not the best timing. While I was afraid of losing my job and inconveniencing my colleagues, I deeply believed the program would benefit all of us, so I trusted myself and went.

The program led to more than I could imagine—in addition to learning, I helped start a company that uses affordable flying robots to deliver medical goods, met great people who were interested in the work of the nonprofit, and, a few months later, found the courage to start a space company.

All of this happened within six months. I did it quietly so people wouldn’t think I was crazy. I was 36 and while many of my friends were settling down, I was shaking everything up and diving into two hi-tech endeavors as a woman with a history degree and non-profit background.

I knew I needed to leave DC and work in Silicon Valley, where I could better connect the nonprofit to the entrepreneurs I had met and ensure my startups had the best chance for success. It took me a year to convince the nonprofit to let me move. Then, two days before I was scheduled to go, the leadership grew anxious and told me to stay in DC. Although I was in tears, I said that I knew I could do it and got into my car and started driving across the country.

By the time I reached Mississippi, I was worried about losing my job and considered turning around. But I also knew if I succeeded, I could possibly help the nonprofit better serve millions of people, help the robotics company deliver medicine to those who most needed it, and help build a democratized space industry. Giving in to my fears would be an insult to so much that could be.

I decided to keep driving. Soon I was in California, launching new partnerships for the nonprofit and rolling out phase one of the space company. I learned to push through my discomfort, but more importantly realized that while my nonprofit was also uncomfortable with my actions, they ultimately let me disagree with them and follow my convictions. Some day, when I am in their shoes, I hope to have the grace to let others disagree and blaze ahead too.