Veteran’s Day: From Female Navy Unicorn to Female Tech Founder Unicorn


by Mary Nelson, Owner/Founder, eSTEAM, LLC

I’m often asked the question, “How did your experience in the military impact your personal and professional life?”  Without being cliché, serving in the Navy was one of the best decisions of my life and made trading in up my uniform for business black one of the hardest.

When I first discussed joining the Navy with a recruiter, I was offered a four-year commitment to become a Yeoman, which is a clerical position.  I was appalled.  I couldn’t believe I’d been insulted with such a stereo-typical female job. After asking to review the Navy’s entire list of jobs, I didn’t see anything that interested me so I walked out. A few days later, I received a call from the recruiter, “Now, Mary. [I could hear the sigh] We have one more opportunity you may be interested in.” He described the opportunity to be trained in an advanced electronic program incorporating these new things called “computers” with satellite communications and weapons systems. Now he had my attention.  The Navy would send me to two years of basic and advanced electronics school prior to performing the job.  I agree and in total, volunteered for a 6-year basic commitment.

Throughout my career in the Navy, I served on 3 combatant vessels in a primarily male environment. At one point, I achieved a high-enough rank to be put charge as the class leader of 29 hard-core, strong-as-ox, testosterone-filled men!  While most of these guys were amazing there were a few who didn’t believe I belonged there and that my female presence somehow diminished the masculinity and toughness of the program.  One went so far to dye his hair pink in protest!  However, that individual was in the minority and I received incredible support from my leaders, including an Army ranger who took time to offer fantastic ideas for managing a large team. Experiences such as this were no doubt influential in my ability to start and run a successful business.

Since retiring in 1999, my time in the military continues to influence every aspect of my life; be it raising my pre-tween daughter, leading her girl scout troops, or developing the STEM workforce. In fact, because I saw my daughter’s budding passion for science and the workforce need for STEM professionals, I developed a pre-Kindergarten to career STEM initiative through eSTEAM, LLC.

The “eSTEAM eXplorers” program targets kindergarten through sixth grade children, providing them three very loosely structured activities and a box of materials where, as a group, they accomplish their intended STEM outcomes.  eSTEAM incorporates the arts into these activities to provide fun, creative, STE(A)M development aligned to real-world career opportunities in academia, industry, and government. This kind of program is perfect for Fairfax County, where it’s based, because of the abundance of tech professionals living and working here and the numerous companies headquartered here who require their employees to have a STEM-focused education.

I believe that, if developed and nurtured, a love of science in childhood can blossom into a lifelong love of the sciences. In my career, I was extremely fortunate to have opportunities to nourish and develop my STEM affection.  It’s my turn to pass-it on!