Think science and creativity are mutually exclusive? Ria Persad isn’t buying it and will prove you wrong. The founder and CEO of StatWeather, a corporation specializing in state-of-the-art weather prediction systems for the risk management industry, and the 2017 keynote speaker for the SRQ Women in Business Leadership Luncheon, Persad is a multifaceted leader and mentor whose myriad accomplishments are testament to her determination, hard work and willingness to take risks. A child prodigy who studied mathematics and physics at Harvard, Princeton and Cambridge Universities with doctoral study at Rice University, the NASA scientist and mathematician is also an author, classical pianist, composer and fashion model. A happy paradox who refuses to be pigeonholed, Persad moves effortlessly between left and right brain passions with aplomb. She is a true renaissance woman, deeply serious about achieving her dreams—all of them—and there are many. SRQ sat with Persad as she shared how creativity is the foundation of innovation and why approaching life as a journey rather than a destination has been the key to her successful roar.
SRQ How do you define personal success? Personal success to me is a state of mind defined by inner contentment with life. We are each so unique that it behooves none of us to compare our lives or our accomplishments with those of others. Nobody else has or can walk in our shoes. As long as we are doing our best with what we have, and as long as we are content with our life’s trajectory, we are successful. The joy in life isn’t in ‘arriving’—it’s in the journey itself. We seldom ever ‘arrive,’ and that ‘arrival’ doesn’t usually take the shape we think it will. 99.99 percent of our life is spent in the journey, so let’s enjoy this very moment and time we live in to the very fullest.
How did you get into the scientific industry? I always loved astronomy, and when I was six years old and heard about people going to the moon, my dream was to someday work for NASA. My life took a lot of twists and turns. I studied music, I thought I might want to become a lawyer; I was all over the place. But my parents and teachers encouraged me to stay strong in my math and science coursework. I eventually looped back to my original childhood dream and, sure enough, at the age of 21, became a space scientist at NASA.
What personal experience has inspired your professional success? When I was 12 years old, a teacher identified that I had special talent in mathematics and he showed me a picture of our school’s math team captain who was accepted to study mathematics at Harvard. Up to that point, I really had no vision for my life, but this teacher built a vision for my life at a time when girls were seldom encouraged in mathematics. Several years later I became captain of our school math team and studied mathematics at Harvard as he “prophesied.”
How do you balance your love of science and math and your passion for the arts? When I was in the 8th grade, my science teacher told me, “Ria, promise me that you will never give up the piano. Keep playing it, because when you become a great scientist someday, you will rely upon the creative side of your brain to make discoveries and solve problems.” He couldn’t be more right. Innovation comes from the creative side of the brain. So does problem solving. We think that math and science are so analytical, but once you put it into practice, the right hemisphere is what gets engaged, because we’re trying to invent things, to see the world in a different way, to come up with solutions that nobody’s thought about. We’re trying to improve things, fix things and develop things. Then, after the creative process is engaged, we analyze things. Creativity is the foundation of innovation.
What trend concerns you the most about the future? What I am seeing is that the traditional 1950s corporate employment model, where a person could sell shoes for his entire life, support a family of four, buy a house, then retire on a pension, has evaporated. Those in corporate employment cannot be certain of job security next year, or even next month. It behooves our young people to learn to become entrepreneurs as stable corporate jobs become more difficult to secure. The world needs us to leverage our services and talents and lead innovation. I would like to see more business training in middle and high school so that becoming an entrepreneur becomes a reachable vision for young people.
Share one professional experience where you had to take a huge leap of faith/take a risk. How did it turn out? One of the biggest leaps of faith and risk in the life of an entrepreneur comes when you give up your day job and go 100 percent into your venture. You give up that cushy paycheck in exchange for the chance to change the world with your innovation and your ideas. You realize that in order to bring your invention to commercialization, you have to expend your blood, sweat and tears to get it off the ground. You don’t know where your next paycheck is coming from. You borrow from friends and family. You go to the banks, the angel investors, you apply for every type of funding imaginable. And you eat Ramen Noodles for two years straight. You sell your second car. You go without the perks you’re used to. Those junk mail coupons become your friend. All because you believe in your dream. That is what my founding partner and I did when we founded StatWeather as a lean, bootstrapped startup. We hustled and hustled. And that spirit of hustling is what’s got to be in the heart and soul of any successful entrepreneur, where you make the sacrifices needed to become a success. We changed our business plan 100 times, our product kept evolving, we changed verticals and we continue to evolve as a company in order to thrive. We rose to becoming the number one data provider globally, beating out multi-billion dollar corporations within four years of marketing our first product.
Do you believe the glass ceiling has changed for young women today? I believe that women, minorities, anyone can rise up to any challenge. But at the same time, I believe that it is still harder for women in many fields, particularly in management and in technology. In college you’ll still find that the upper level science courses might have one or at most two young women in a classroom of 20–30 young men. It makes it more difficult for women to find mentors, to network and therefore to gain opportunity. There is a need for women in business and in technology to mentor younger women and help them to navigate the land mines in their field, much the way that women are being helped through SRQ’s Women in Business Initiative.
What are the traits that you believe empower women the most to be leaders? Fear is what hinders empowerment the most, but when we can cultivate an attitude of, ‘I can do it. Or if I can’t do it just yet, I’ll learn to do it’, then a woman can be more confident in her abilities. We seldom are 100 percent prepared for all the challenges that life throws at us, be it starting a new family or starting a new job, but we have to at least be confident in our ability to learn and to grow and to rise up to the challenge. I want every woman to have an indomitable attitude, not because she herself can do everything, but because she can learn, she can employ the help of others and leverage her resources to accomplish her dreams.
Did you/do you have a mentor and are you a mentor to someone now? I have had the good fortune of having mentors all throughout my life and have always sought them out. I was that kid who went to a professor’s office hours to bounce ideas off of or to get additional help or insight. Over the last 20 years, I’ve mentored perhaps 100 students through a mentoring firm I started called Ivy League Consulting of America and a non-profit scholarship organization I founded called Freedom Scholars of America. Mentoring is a vital part of my life, and every year I will take several students under my wing to personally mentor throughout their high school and college years.
What one quote or motto best captures the essence of Ria Persad and why? “I am what I am, not because of what I am. I am what I am, because of what I believe.” Sometimes you accomplish things because you simply didn’t know that it was “impossible.” When we founded StatWeather, it was on the premise that the weather could be predicted three months to one year in advance. It seems preposterous, but if you think it’s possible, pretty soon you just might figure it out.
What advice would you give to women? I believe that we need to hold fast to our dreams, and never let them go. You might not “arrive” within one year, or even 10 years. Pretty soon baby steps lead to huge advances. Keep the vision in your mind and heart and, above all, enjoy the journey.
Describe your outlook on life in six words.
“Miracles happen—all things are possible.”