Modern Life: Noramay Cadena's STEM Success Story

From teen mom to engineer, entrepreneur, role model and advocate.

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Wes Kuykendall, 48, deputy integration and test manager, Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Noramay Cadena, 35, engineer and entrepreneur, cofounder and managing director, Make in LA; and Chassitty, 18, first-year college student. 

Holding an MBA, a master’s in engineering systems and a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering—all from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—is impressive. Given that Noramay Cadena achieved all of this with the odds stacked against her makes it truly outstanding. “My upbringing was fodder for a fiery passion to change the course of my life,” says the daughter of Mexican immigrants. One summer when she was a teen, her mother got her a job putting hooks on bungee cords at the Los Angeles factory where she and her husband were employed. While it was familiar work for her parents, it was not the vision that Noramay had for herself—nor what her parents wanted for their gifted daughter, who excelled in school. Attending college was the plan.

But when Noramay gave birth to Chassitty in her senior year of high school, those dreams could have easily been deferred. A class visit from Jesus Perez, an alumnus of her school, changed everything. The MIT senior shared his story, one she could easily relate to: His father was a janitor and his mother was illiterate, yet he was determined not to be a victim of circumstance. He told Noramay about the power of an engineering degree and encouraged her to apply. Later she was accepted into MIT and headed to Cambridge, MA, with one-year-old daughter Chassitty in tow.

“Mechanical engineering picked me,” says Noramay. “I didn’t graduate high school with a solid idea of what I wanted to do, so I followed in the footsteps of people I admired.” She admits that juggling her studies and her child was a challenge. “What a ride! But fear of the status quo was greater than my fear of the unknown. I knew what doing nothing would yield and I didn’t want that, so I took every opportunity to build a better life.” Noramay went on to work as an engineer for The Boeing Company for 12 years.

Her belief in the power of relatable role models motivated her to cofound the Latinas in STEM Foundation in 2013 to encourage underrepresented women to thrive in careers in science, engineering, math and technology. “We had been lucky enough to receive support to pursue engineering, and wanted to do the same for other young women in our communities.” The organization now has a national presence and has served thousands. Noramay’s other bold move was leaving Boeing to start her own business—Make in LA, an early-stage hardware accelerator and fund.

By her side through much of this—along with Chassitty, now a college freshman—has been her partner of 13 years, Wes Kuykendall. Noramay is slowly adjusting to the newly empty nest. “My daughter has been a part of over half my life.” However, she’s looking ahead to the next phase. “I have several ideas, from incubating a hardware startup, to raising my own venture capital fund, to taking a sabbatical as I write a book—maybe all of the above!”

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Noramay, what does success mean to you?

Having the option of how to focus my time and energy—beyond putting food on the table, like my parents had to—is what I consider success.

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of where my family is at this very moment. My parents came to this country to give their kids opportunities and they raised an engineer, a business owner and a psychologist. This gives me great confidence and hope as our family continues to grow and unleash their talents.

Tell us about your work with outreach and the importance of inclusion.

Inclusion is not only a social benefit but also a business imperative. Investors reap returns when entrepreneurs exploit an underrepresented problem. When communities of underrepresented founders come together to build their own solutions, we’re exposed to a whole new slew of opportunities. The same is true on the investor side. It’s hard to share a business opportunity with a homogeneous group of investors. The more diverse the investor community, the more likely it is that we’ll inspire innovation to solve a wide variety of problems.

You were young when you had your daughter, so in many ways you grew up together. What was that like?

My undergrad experience is a bit of a blur, but graduate school was incredible. Chassitty was between 11 and 13 years old and we got to do homework together, explore the world together (Brazil, Argentina, France), and hang out with incredibly smart and wonderful people.

Growing up together meant lots of change, negotiations and discussions. I was constantly learning and extracting from the world and using what I learned to change my approaches and positions on things like tech use for kids, exposure, bedtimes and more.

What has been the hardest part about parenting, and what has been the best?

The hardest part of parenting was being out of phase with the family status of my friends. I’ve never really had a critical mass of friends on the same journey—many of my friends are just having kids now. This made parenting not only lonely but also emotionally and physically challenging. The best part of parenting is what I’m experiencing now. It’s observing a young lady chart her own course.

Do you ever “win” at parenting?

I don’t think so. I think winning at parenting is just as mythical as achieving work/life balance. We overcompensate. We overdo some things and we underdo others. There are many aspects of our experience that could’ve been better–more stable, slower, more intentional.

What do you love most about Chassitty?

Chassitty cares about people. As a kid she wanted to rescue all puppies, help every homeless person she saw, and buy from all elderly street vendors during our trips to Mexico.

What is your biggest hope for your daughter?

Beyond health, I want her to know happiness and friendship and love. I hope her giving heart is reciprocated, and I hope she feels as smart and beautiful as she is every single day of her life. I know that no matter what she chooses to pursue, she’ll also be committed to volunteer and community efforts and I love that about her personality.

Chassitty, how does your mom inspire you?

Despite being a single parent and the first in our family to go to college, she still managed to become an extremely successful and powerful woman.

My mom has always been my inspiration, and I look up to her on so many levels. She’s so strong and independent, which motivates me to excel and get things done on my own. I know I am capable of so much; it’s just a matter of the amount of effort I put in.

Just recently, she changed careers—she went from working at Boeing for 10-plus years to trying something completely different and ended up loving it. During her transition, I was getting ready to apply to colleges and stressed out about not fully knowing what I wanted to do. However, seeing her undertake such a huge career transition and master it like a champ definitely put me at ease. You can always pivot and do something different. But whatever it is, it requires your all to make it work.