The Uplifters
The Uplifters
Breaking Barriers and Embracing Challenges

Breaking Barriers and Embracing Challenges

Lessons in Courage and Excellence from M'Lis Ward, the First African-American Female Captain in Commercial Aviation

The first interview of The Uplifters Podcast is live! Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Substack, or watch on YouTube

M’Lis Ward’s bio reads as a string of “firsts”, so it’s only fitting that this pioneering aviator is the first interview for The Uplifters Podcast. M’Lis is a United Airlines pilot and the first African-American female captain in commercial aviation. She graduated from the University of Southern California, where she also played on a National Championship Basketball team. She then joined the US Air Force, where she was an instructor-pilot on the T-37 and a First Pilot on the C141, and the first black woman flight instructor for the U.S. Air Force. 

Lisa Feldman Barret’s work in neuroscience shows us that who we surround ourselves with matters, and that’s certainly true in M’Lis’s work. In the 1970’s her mother, Anne B. Ward, decided she wasn’t helping people enough while looking for cures for diseases in a laboratory, so she decided to go to medical school and became the first black woman to graduate from  The University of Chicago Medical School. She did it all while caring for three small children. Witnessing that inspired M’Lis to say yes to challenges throughout her life, instead of shying away from them.

Here are a few of the many lessons I learned from M’Lis’s approach to life:

  • How caring about doing a good job can stand in the way of courage and learning

  • Why we must learn from life’s ups and downs equally

  • How important it is to admit that we want success, and how fears of looking greedy or ambitious block our progress and potential

  • How to avoid letting other people’s opinions distract us from excellence

A few of our favorite M’Lis Ward quotes from this episode:

"Wherever you start, whatever you aspire to do, shine brightly but try and conquer the item that's right in front of you, not the final goal."

"Sometimes you have to find your role and if you're going to be part of something that's really, truly big, then you have to find what your role is in that space and do it really well so that the outcome is that the entire team or company or unit is going to be successful."

"If you don't like what you're doing, change it. It's never too late to change." 


M'lis Ward

Aransas: [00:00:00] Welcome to Uplifters the show that celebrates the women who inspire us, the women who help us believe that we can be bolder and stronger than we even know we can be. And for our very first interview, I am really freaking excited to chat with M'lis Ward. I'm going try to share the highlights of your story, mostly stolen from Wikipedia to be honest, so you can get more detail there.The first interview of The Uplifters Podcast launches today! Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Substack, or watch on YouTube

M’Lis Ward’s bio reads as a string of “firsts”, so it’s only fitting that this pioneering aviator is the first interview for The Uplifters Podcast. M’Lis is a United Airlines pilot and the first African-American female captain in commercial aviation. She graduated from the University of Southern California, where she also played on a National Championship Basketball team. She then joined the US Air Force, where she was an instructor-pilot on the T-37 and a First Pilot on the C141, and the first black woman flight instructor for the U.S. Air Force. 

Lisa Feldman Barret’s work in neuroscience shows us that who we surround ourselves with matters, and that’s certainly true in M’Lis’s work. In the 1970’s her mother, Anne B. Ward, decided she wasn’t helping people enough while looking for cures for diseases in a laboratory, so she decided to go to medical school and became the first black woman to graduate from  The University of Chicago Medical School. She did it all while caring for three small children. Witnessing that inspired M’Lis to say yes to challenges throughout her life, instead of shying away from them.

Here are a few of the many lessons I learned from M’Lis’s approach to life:

  • How caring about doing a good job can stand in the way of courage and learning

  • Why we must learn from life’s ups and downs equally

  • How important it is to admit that we want success, and how fears of looking greedy or ambitious block our progress and potential

  • How to avoid letting other people’s opinions distract us from excellence

A few of our favorite M’Lis Ward quotes from this episode:

"Wherever you start, whatever you aspire to do, shine brightly but try and conquer the item that's right in front of you, not the final goal."

"Sometimes you have to find your role and if you're going to be part of something that's really, truly big, then you have to find what your role is in that space and do it really well so that the outcome is that the entire team or company or unit is going to be successful."

"If you don't like what you're doing, change it. It's never too late to change." 

M'lis is a United Airlines pilot. She was the first African American female captain in commercial passenger aviation. Her mother was one of the first two black women to graduate from the Pritzker School of Medicine. M'lis was brought up in Chicago, attended Whitney Young High School, was awarded an ROTC scholarship for college and went to University of [00:01:00] Southern California where I think you played basketball and then joined the US Air Force. And then after the Air Force moved on to United.

M'lis: That's correct. 

Aransas: It's a lot of firsts in that story. 

M'lis: Yeah. That's sometimes just being in the right place at the right time I think. 

Aransas: Yeah. 

M'lis: Yeah. I do. And then the other half of that is taking the opportunities that present themselves and trying to run with them. 

Aransas: Yeah. I'm really interested in hearing more about that because I think as women and today is International Women's Day, so it feels just extra special.

M'lis: Yes, it does day. 

Aransas: As women, I think we have had a tendency, many of us, to stand back from challenges or opportunities or to be intimidated. A friend of mine the other day said, I gotta channel my tall white man courage here. 

M'lis: I would tell her to channel her own tall courage because I think women are more [00:02:00] courageous than men. 

Aransas: I agree. I think there is a boldness though that maybe we get talked out of at some point in adolescence, many of us. And when I read your story, and I heard you share your story, so much of it was just you saying yes to opportunity. 

M'lis: Right? Yeah. And I think that comes a lot from my mother. You know, she didn't go to medical school until she was about 24 years old, mother of three. She had a master's in medicine and was working on, I think a cure for some disease with lab mice, and decided I'm not helping people enough here, so she just said one day I'm gonna go back to medical school. To watch her do that with three kids while she's still at the time and we're talking like the seventies here, so you know, she's still making dinner and washing clothes and doing all the mom stuff as well as doing her own career.

When you have a mom that does that and then becomes the first black woman to graduate from the University of [00:03:00] Chicago medical school, you pretty much feel like yes, you can do anything. If your mom can do it, you definitely can do it. 

Aransas: There's a lot of neuroscience and other research, frankly, that's been done that's shown that, it's the whole see her be her idea. 

M'lis: Right. Exactly. 

Aransas: Yeah. If we believe something is possible, we are better prepared to explore and fail. Right. And that's what courage is, right. It's not like you're not going to fail, but it's that you're gonna keep trying.

M'lis: Yeah. Either that or, I think the difference between men and women is that men don't care. They're like, I'll try it, and then if it doesn't work, I'll just try something else. And they really don't care. And I think women care, they care about not just trying, but doing well, and they see not doing well as a failure.

And so that reflects poorly on themselves. And that's why women, I think, are sometimes a little bit timid to take an opportunity that men aren't. We see this a lot in sports. I had a softball coach who coached both men and women, and he said the difference between the men and the women is the men don't care if they strike out.

They just go, that's all right. I have another at bat coming up next inning. [00:04:00] The women would hang onto that strikeout and it would affect the next at bat and the next at bat. So it was something that I learned fairly early on in the psyche of men versus women. And I realized, opportunity, you have to just grab it and just work hard. If you work hard, you don't have to worry about failure. 

Aransas: And did that just come naturally to you or was that something you had to sort out how to do to let go of the strikeout? 

M'lis: Well, I think as an athlete I did have a little bit more learning than other folks had the opportunities fail and to succeed.

But I also think that I got better at it as I got older. I definitely wanted to succeed all the time. At USC playing on the basketball team, I walked onto that team and it was a national championship team. So it was a team that did not fail very often. And so you learn that you want to succeed and that's what the goal is. I don't know if you ever learn to take the losses better. You just maybe learn to work harder to avoid the losses. 

Aransas: That's interesting. I think definitely the hard work element of this comes through in your story. [00:05:00] There's also something you just said that I think is really distinctive, which is I wanted to succeed.

M'lis: Oh, absolutely. 

Aransas: And we all want to succeed. I think women are taught not to say we want it. 

M'lis: I agree. And, because they don't want to come off as being too greedy or too ambitious, because then we have other labels come with them and none of those labels are naturally positive.

I think that is definitely something we need to change in the younger generation of women today is that, you should decide what you want to do on your own, and you should just put all of your effort forward and nothing can stop you but you. And if you don't succeed at something you do, then find something else and do that really well.

There's no shame in failure. I do believe that a lot of women, my generation and before my generation were told not to try. That luckily was not my family, I was always told to try. 


Aransas: Well, [00:06:00] and I think what you're doing is you're normalizing failure as a part of the process.

M'lis: It is. That's what makes you better, right? I'm a big baseball fan. If you only succeeded at your job 30% of the time, you would probably not be doing the job you're doing. But baseball players deal with that every day. So it's kind of, interesting to watch the game and to see how do they get past it and move on and get better. 

I always compare myself to the baseball player. I'm like, well, I'm definitely better than the 300% or a third of the time, so I'm doing all right and I'm just gonna keep moving forward and getting better every day.

Aransas: It's like putting it in perspective there. 

M'lis: Yeah, absolutely. 

Aransas: It sounds like you have this very real conversation with yourself when you have setbacks. 

M'lis: Yeah, absolutely. For me, one of the biggest setbacks was going from high school to college onto a national championship basketball team. And, going from a starter who played the entire game to hardly playing at all. And you know, I had to decide what's my role gonna be on this team? To me, you measure success in many different ways. And so the team's success obviously is measured in wins and losses, but [00:07:00] the individual success, if you're a starter, is measured in your stats.

If you don't play much, it's measured in how good do the starters play against the other players. And so I vowed from day one that I would be the best practice player you've ever seen at the University of Southern California. And that the starters would say, oh, it was easy playing that game because it's harder to play against M'lis every day in practice.

So that was my goal every single day, and I took pride in that. Sometimes I think it's also about knowing that, you don't have to be the star to be successful. You just have to be great at what it is that you do at your role. So I started early at trying to be great every day in practice, and I think that's where I got the fortitude to try and be great at a lot of other things.

Aransas: It's interesting too, because I do think a lot of us, we stopped that conversation at the point of, well, I can't be the star. I can't be the dream. 

M'lis: I would hope not. I would hope going into anything that [00:08:00] that's exactly what you're trying to do is to be the star and to achieve the best success that you can. I don't know too many people that go, I just wanna come in here and maybe be okay. Right. You know? And if that is where they're starting, then we need to change that directive. That you always try to go in there to be the absolute best you can be. But you should only compare yourself to yourself and not to somebody else. 

Aransas: yeah. And I think there's something really interesting in what you said about, I went in and I was like, I'm not gonna be the star of this team. I'm gonna be the best part of this team in the way that I am of service and impact.

M'lis: Absolutely. 

Aransas: That distinction, I think is huge. In part because we don't see all the range of models and possibilities, and I hope through this show that we start to see more ways that women can show up and shine really freaking brightly in their own way but I think there are just, like you could say, oh, you're a [00:09:00] captain. That's kind of a starring role. 

M'lis: It is, but it also starts way before that. Nobody starts at the top and so you have to shine in whatever role you start in to move up. And then you gain that confidence and people see that and they want to work with you and they wanna work for you.

And so that becomes natural progression then, right? I would say you always wanna reach for the stars, but you can't, learn to run before you learn to walk. Wherever you start at whatever you aspire to do, shine brightly but try and conquer the item that's right in front of you, not the final goal. Steps along the way. 

Aransas: Yeah. How do you mark those moments? 

M'lis: You mean the successes? 

Aransas: Yeah. The little conquers. 

M'lis: I share them with friends a lot. I belong to this women's group. It's just a bunch of friends of us. We actually titled ourselves the Wander Women because we choose to go do adventurous things together and sometimes they're local and sometimes they're international.

I think every time we have any kind of [00:10:00] individual success, we share it immediately with that group. Like we will text in that group. That's the one place that we feel like you can kind of toot your own horn and nobody will blame you for it. I know a lot of people do that on social media.

People can be very narcissistic on social media and I try not to do that. But definitely with my small group of friends, and I would say there are probably about 12 of them, I definitely will say, Hey, this happened to me. Or I will toot the horn of another woman in the group so that they have the opportunity to shine just in their small group.

And that's how we mark our successes along the way. And I think that's so incredibly important not only to realize you did something yourself, but that other people acknowledge what you did. That's where it pays to have a really good group of professional women that you spend a lot of time with that when they say, Hey, congrats, I saw this, or I heard this, it makes you feel really good because you do need that positive reinforcement to take it up to the next level and do better there. 

Aransas: Yeah. And what is it about their opinion [00:11:00] specifically? 

M'lis: Well, we're all peers. We all have very similar backgrounds and we all have, although very different career fields, we're all very successful in our career fields.

These are the people that they are the standard. And so when they say you did well, you know you did well, because they'll be the first ones to say you didn't do well either. You know, hey, is that the best that you've got, you can do much better.

 I think that kind of honest feedback is what makes me better personally and everyone in the group better. And the group itself such a really fun group to hang out with and go do things with. 

Aransas: Yeah, it sounds like you enjoy one another a lot. 

M'lis: Oh my God, it's such a fun group. We just got back from Mexico. That was the last Wander Women event. We do theater group pretty much almost once a month. We started that last October and there'll be something coming up like the last play we just saw, we saw To Kill a Mockingbird. That turned into a dinner and a play event and a lot of discussion and it's really been just a fantastic subset of friends that I can't imagine not spending time [00:12:00] with them.

Aransas: Sounds really enriching.

M'lis: Yeah, it is. 

Aransas: So much of what I hear from you, I keep using the word normalizing in my head, right? You talked about there will be failures. That is a practice of normalizing what we call the oscillating narrative. There are highs and there are lows, and they are a part of the journey and every time you climb up from a low, you climb up stronger and wiser and better equipped to manage the next low and the next high. 

M'lis: Exactly. 

Aransas: There is this normalizing of the highs and lows. There's this normalizing of celebrating success and of the power of female friendship, which I think we just don't talk about enough.

We celebrate intimate relationships a lot in our society, but I think what you're pointing to is the importance of having other relationships. 

M'lis: The second piece of that is that then you also have a group of professional women friends and one of the shortcomings I think of women in general is that we don't lift each other up.

We don't support each other as much [00:13:00] as we do. We compare other women to ourselves, and we say, oh, well, they're not doing it as well as I did it. So I don't want them to get any attention because I don't want someone to think negatively of me. And that's the one thing men don't ever do.

Men never worry about how their buddy is gonna reflect on themselves. They promote their buddies all the time and they never hold them back. And I think women need to learn not to hold each other back. I think we need to be the one that lifts people up or pulls them up and each one be one type of mentality because until we do that as a a group, we are never going to find ourselves on equal footing with men. 

Aransas: I think that's a really interesting point that is in its own right a limiting factor 

Oh, it is. It is, absolutely. I see it a lot in my career field. 

And so how do you counter that as a woman, as a leader, as a first of first?

M'lis: Every time I have an opportunity to speak to a women's group, I talk about it. I talk about [00:14:00] the importance of, not only should you want to succeed for yourself, but that you should want to succeed for others, and that if you feel that you have a female colleague that's not doing well enough, that's your responsibility to coach them up and make them better so that they can succeed at the level or maybe even pass you by. It has through the 30 years I've been at United Airlines, I've seen this, particularly on the pilot hiring side where women pilots who were doing the interviews were more strict on female candidates than they were on male candidates.

And I was like, this is ridiculous. You talk about the fact that only 7% of pilots at United are women and how are we gonna increase those numbers? We increase them by actually hiring women that are competent and able and stop comparing them to you who've been at the airline for 20 or 30 years.

You have to compare them to you when you first got hired. Or how about let's just compare them to themselves and to the standard and say, do they meet the standard? Yes. And I am going to do everything I can to make [00:15:00] sure that she succeeds in this whole endeavor. So I think that it's true across all career fields.

I just think women judge each other. It's just something natural about it that we need to be conscious of and cease and desist. 

Aransas: Do you think there is a fear-based mindset behind it? Like there's only so many seats at the table. I've gotta hold on tightly to mine. 

M'lis: I think that was where it started. I think that a lot of women felt like, okay, there's only going to be one position for a woman in this company or at this executive level, or even in the pilot world. And so because they felt there were a limited number of chairs, they wanted to put the absolute best candidates in there, but that is not true anymore.

That is something we have to let go of. The limit on the number of seats is how many seats are there because all of them can be filled by women. What did Ruth RBG say all the time the answer was when there are nine. Right? And the question was, when are there, when will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?

And I love that [00:16:00] because that's exactly the attitude that we have to have as women, no matter what career field we're in and when we are assisting or interviewing other women for these positions, we have to realize there will never be enough. And so give everyone the opportunity that deserves it.

Aransas: Why do you think women make great leaders? 

M'lis: Oh, I think that just physically, I think we're stronger. I mean, we're obviously not stronger than men one-on-one, but I think mentally we're tougher. I mean, women bear children. I don't think there's a single man out there that could deal with that kind of pain.

Not to mention the pain of life itself. From the time we can all remember being around 10 or 11 years old until, you know, we die. We always are dealing with something and we live longer, so we deal with much more of it as well. But I also think it's because we're a little bit more rational.

We don't think that the solution to everything is well let's just go out back and settle this. You know, I think that we think logically we're like, okay, wait a minute, why don't we compromise this a little bit? You want this and I want this. Why don't we [00:17:00] find some fair round in the middle? I do think this world would be better with a lot of women leaders of countries.

This country would be better if there were more women in the house and Senate. I do believe it's because they think more logically, and I also think they seek for compromise more than men do. 

Aransas: Yeah. I think you're right, especially about compromise, this ability to find common ground. It's inherent in our DNA and our ancient survival mechanisms. 

M'lis: I mean, it's something as simple as book club. You know, we all have to decide on the next book and we eventually figure it out. Even if it's not a book we particularly want to read. We figure it out and we agree on one and we move on maybe knowing that there'll be another book next month.

And, you know, men don't even have book clubs. They don't even have those little small groups that we practice these things every single day. Not to mention that if you have children, the mom is the one that's usually dealing with how am I going to sort the issues out between the kids and between their friends [00:18:00] and, you seem to be more hands on. For my wife and I, we both had to deal with that and we tried to share that responsibility because it's a tough job and I just think more women do it and so it makes them natural negotiators.

Aransas: Yeah. I think you're right. It is that it's the emotional intelligence too and that is why so many women end up carrying so much of the emotional labor in families and why I think it can be really hard to do both to run a company or fly a plane and lead the emotional labor for a family.

It's a lot, and I think we can't underestimate either how heavy that can be, but I think, too what you're reminding us of is that we can create support networks to make it lighter and to make it a little bit easier to carry. And there is a mindset involved in this that can make it feel tremendously heavy and unbearable or can make it feel like it is just a part of that [00:19:00] isolating narrative.

M'lis: Absolutely. Yeah. I feel if you can deal with all of the things women deal with on a daily basis, then running a company is easy. You know, dial back a little on the emotion. I'm not saying be emotional less, because I think people that work with emotion really truly believe in the outcome and have a passion for it. And then they're gonna do better work. 

I used to have a motto in college control your emotions or they will control you. I thought about that a lot because I was a little bit of a hothead especially in my military duties in college and so I realized I had to kind of pick and choose my battles. 

Aransas: It's interesting. So talk to me about your own personal growth. Like how have you evolved as a human being over the course of your life? 

M'lis: Well, I would say I started out kind of like the bull in the China shop. Everywhere I went, I was usually the only woman, maybe the only black in the group. Definitely the only black woman in the group. And so I kind of announced myself and walked in with a chip on my shoulder and defied anyone [00:20:00] to tell me I didn't deserve to be there. And then I realized later in life that you can do so much better job by just being yourself and being more subtle.

People recognize your work through your work, and you don't have to, you shouldn't thrust upon them what you think they're thinking. Now I walk in a room and I'm just, this is me and I'm gonna do a great job. If you don't believe that I'm gonna do a great job, you'll just have to be proved wrong.

I do everything with a lot more humor and more smiles and definitely with more grace than I did when I was younger, for certain. In the Air Force, I was a scheduler, it was a flight scheduler. The students had certain flights they had to do per day, and I scheduled the entire flight and all the instructors. I was pretty mean when I was a scheduler. I had a sign that said, don't bother the scheduler at work. If people interrupted me, I did not have any patience for them. And years later I looked back on that and I realized I could have been so much nicer and done an even better job.

I did it [00:21:00] that way, because that's the way the scheduler before me did it and it seemed that was the way to do things. I realized that sometimes the best way to do things is to be yourself and to create your own job description and make it fit you, and then it's natural. Everything comes so natural for you and you're obviously going to be good at it because it's you, it's authentic. 

Aransas: Well, and I think it's interesting, this has come up a lot in conversations I've had today, but there are all these different ways that we hide ourselves.

Whether it's a woman who says, oh, I grew out my gray hair, and now suddenly I feel like me, or I was talking to a woman today who said, my whole professional life I was this woman Catherine, and I felt like I was getting scolded by other people at work and so finally I went back to the name I had grown up with, which was Kit.

And I felt like I got to bring my full joy from self to work, right? So there are all these little things we put on because they feel like professional or acceptable or normal but here you are walking into rooms [00:22:00] constantly where you were the first one in the room who looked like you, or the first woman, the first black woman, the first gay black woman.

A lot of places where you were breaking ground there. Did you feel the need to, was this intensity that you described, was that part of, I got to fit in here somehow and this validates me or, was it a defense? 

M'lis: I walked in with the intensity that I had a responsibility to do really well so that the next person that looked like me or fit into any of those categories that I fit into, that they had it a little bit easier.

To me it was a little bit more of a burden in the sense that, when I upgraded to Captain I didn't know I was going to be the first black woman captain of a passenger airline. I knew I was going to be the first black woman captain in United Airlines, and I thought, I cannot mess this up.

I studied and carried that burden throughout the entire process to make sure, and I wanted to make sure that I wasn't just good enough either. I wanted to be like the [00:23:00] best student that had ever gone through training so that the next black woman that came through training as a captain, she would say, someone's done this, it can be done.

And so I would say it was more of that burden that I brought with me as opposed to any statement that I wanted to make to anybody else. The statement was mostly to myself, but by the time I did do that upgrade training I had been a professional pilot for probably at least 13 years by then. I had matured to that. I would say that first lieutenant in the Air Force when I was first learning to fly, that's not how I looked at it. I looked at it like I had to defend my position. I have a right to be here type thing. And I realized that a lot of that I was thrusting that opinion upon others.

So now I don't even care who's in the room. I don't do a headcount anymore. I used to headcount and now I walk in the room and I really don't care in the who's in the room? I'm in the room. I'm in the room. And that's all that matters, right? So that's kind of the way I look at it.

Aransas: That is it right [00:24:00] there. Yeah. I guess the thing that I marvel at is it doesn't sound like your head is getting in your way. It sounds like you have an extraordinary level of confidence and self-efficacy. It's rare. 

M'lis: Well, I may not be as rare as you think as a pilot, it's very self-critiquing if you're not doing well. , it's a job where you have to be confident, obviously, to do it, and then you realize that you make mistakes and you need to correct them. It's not about being perfect, it's about recovering from errors and everyone makes mistakes. The idea is let's limit the mistakes that we do make to something small if we can.

And then let's not worry about, let's not dwell on the mistake we make. Let's find a solution and move on. I think that all comes from being a pilot, though, that is the job. A lot of pilots will seem overconfident, but the truth is every single one of them, they've all crunched a landing on where they're like, oh, that was the worst landing ever.

Or, they've made mistakes. We can't let those mistakes, defeat us because [00:25:00] it's more than us. We're carrying, 150-plus people on board, and so they're counting on me to be confident and not to be overconfident. I would hope. that's the attitude you would see from all the pilots that you would encounter is that little bit of confidence without being too cocky and realizing that everyone makes mistakes. Yeah. 

Aransas: Yeah. I think too, that is maturity, right? But it's also being okay with making mistakes and learning. Right? So it's we talk a lot about the difference between a win-lose mindset and a win-learn mindset. And so if we have a win-learn mindset, we can't lose because we are always learning.

M'lis: Absolutely. 

Aransas: Learning is the winning. I was talking to my 12-year-old this morning on the walk to school about, I think we've gotten into a place in society where we feel like if we're uncomfortable at all, if we're not happy, if we don't feel joyful and balanced, then there must be something wrong.[00:26:00] We've gotten to a place, I think, where we feel like it's broken if it's not working.

But I think what you're saying is, yeah, we're going to get uncomfortable all the time and we're going to keep learning from it and pushing through it. And I just think sending yourself that message all day, every day. That's the game. 

M'lis: Well, and that's how you get better. You put yourself in challenging situations, you learn from them you may make mistakes the first time, but then the next time you encounter that you should make less mistakes. Or maybe no mistakes at all because you've already gone through it. 

Every day is a learning experience and that's personal relationships, it's professional work ethics. It's everything you do in life you're going to make mistakes. And so I've always had that attitude about, well, I'm not going to be perfect. I'm going to try and get better every day. Sometimes I achieve it and sometimes I don't. I got a lot more living to do I figure, maybe I'll get it right, by the time I'm a hundred. 

Aransas: So as somebody who's done all these amazing things [00:27:00] but is far from a hundred. 

M'lis: Closer than I was.

Aransas: Aren't we all thank goodness. 

M'lis: Yeah, I guess that's, yeah, that's a good thing. 

Aransas: So what's next? What dreams do you still have? 

M'lis: Well, my dream of retirement, that's my current dream. The pilots have a mandatory retirement age and since working as a pilot is kind of like being retired on active duty, meaning that we get about half the month off, it's kind of hard to walk away from such a good job. So I plan to fly until I'm 65. But definitely after that I plan on a lot of golf with my wife and our friends and a lot of travel the Wander Women. 

One of our bucket list items as a group is the Galapagos, which we definitely want to go achieve here in the next 10 years. I am really looking forward to the next chapter where it's a lot more fun and a lot less work. And the work is more on the relationships or managing your money so that [00:28:00] you can afford to do everything you want to do, or just possibly trying to not get too bored with the fact that you don't have any work to do. There's so many gentlemen at work that they retire and immediately they are back into some aviation-related workforce working. And I'm like, why are you still working? You just retired. And they're like, oh, I just love flying. I just can't walk away from it. And I'm like, oh, I can walk away from it. There are so many other things I want to conquer that I don't have the time to do. One of them is just to clean my office. There is a lot to do on the to-do list. I'm looking forward to that. I'm almost count days.

Aransas: What do you still want to learn? 

M'lis: I like to learn to play pickleball better, because I realize that a lot of my friends are way better than I am and I don't like that. I would like to learn how to express my opinion strongly without having to get into an argument about it. Which I think is something [00:29:00] everyone could achieve.

I might even like to learn to speak Spanish a little bit better because I don't speak it well at all. Spanish is a language that you encounter quite a bit in your day-to-day lives, and I just would like to communicate better, yeah. 

Aransas: Yeah. It's interesting that at least two of your goals came back to communication. 

M'lis: Oh yeah. We have CRM in work, so we talk about it every day. Crew resource management and there are a lot of different parts to it, but the biggest one is communication. And the biggest part of that is probably listening.

 I would say that everyone needs to listen better and I'm definitely one of those people. That probably is another goal I should put on there too. To listen better. 

Aransas: Listen better. Yeah. It's a big way. We learn, right? 

M'lis: Absolutely. 

Aransas: And it's a big way I think we find out what other people really want and need so that we can be successful.

M'lis: Yeah. Instead of what you think they want and need because you thought you heard one thing when they really said something else. Yeah. Right. 

Aransas: Yeah. Parenting is helping me doing that. 

M'lis: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. I did get a little bit better there but then parenting [00:30:00] also makes you bad at listening because you start tuning things out because you've heard a lot, so you have to kind of relearn it as they get older.

Aransas: They now market earplugs to parents that are like half sound, so that you can't really hear your family anymore. 

M'lis: Oh, that's really, that's terrible, isn't it? But kind of true. 

Aransas: They definitely days. 

M'lis: We just have filters, you turn your ears to either all or no kids, no wife, you can just select, put the selector anywhere you want. I'm trying to leave it in all so I can hear everyone, so 

Aransas: Yeah. And maybe retirement would give you a little more time. 

M'lis: Oh, I can't wait. I'm going to try and perfect retirement, that's for sure.

Aransas: Who are the women that inspire you, M'lis? 

M'lis: Well, my mom for sure. 

Aransas: I don't even know her, and she inspires me. 

M'lis: Yeah, she's delivered like half of my friend's kids. 

Aransas: She's an obgyn? 

M'lis: Yeah. I was at an event about two weeks ago, and a woman came up to me in Chicago and she's like, you know, your mom delivered my kids, and I didn't even know her. I was like, oh my God, are you kidding me? And she's like, yeah, make sure you tell her I [00:31:00] said, hi and she works for United Airlines and some other department. I just thought, what a random event. Except for that my mom was, one of the few, I should say, women OBGYNs in Chicago.

So when they, when she started practice, a lot of women wanted to have a woman OBGYNs. So it just became, it was, I guess, natural progression. 

Then I would say that a lot of the women that inspired me in college were on the basketball team. I played with probably the best women to ever play the game.

Cheryl Miller, Cynthia Cooper, Pam and Paula McGee. It was awe inspiring to watch what they could do on the basketball court and how they just naturally knew that they were going to win. That kind of really taught me early that you can have that attitude. I just want to win. There's nothing wrong with that. I carried that with me and really made me believe that nothing was impossible. 

And then moving forward, once I got out of the Air Force and I went to United Airlines. I met a woman once who, she was an FAA inspector and she was giving me a checkout, and her name is [00:32:00] Emily Warner and I didn't know who she was, but she was the first woman commercial pilot in the United States.

And she had trained for years, she had trained all of the male pilots because women couldn't get hired as pilots at a commercial airline. Someone introduced us and said, you both are kind of first, did you know that? And she didn't know who I was and I didn't know who she was.

And so that was really cool because I mean, she was the icon, you know, she's a modern day, Amelia Earhart or Bessie Coleman. It was very cool to kind of parallel her path there for a short time where we actually worked together closely and she taught me a lot.

That was pretty amazing. And she always did it with such grace in class. And I always said, I want to be like Emily, I want everyone to respect me and like me which I think are two different things that don't necessarily go together. She definitely was inspiring to me.

 I've had quite a few along the way. Yeah. 

Aransas: That's is some [00:33:00] pretty amazing women and it sounds like your life is very much sustained by inspiring women, whether it's your wife or the Wander women. 

M'lis: Yeah. I wish it were my kids too. I'm not sure I inspire my kids, but I'm trying, I have twin girls and they're trying to find their path right now and so it's time to be patient and let them figure that out. But I'm very proud of them as well. And the hard work that they put in every day. Now for me it's more about watching. What really inspires me is, so we went from I was the first black woman captain at United and I was the only for a long time.

And then two other women upgraded and they were very senior. They were actually, I think both senior to me, but they have a quality of life issue. They wanted to keep a quality of life. And they also wanted to fly international. So they waited to upgrade until they were international captains instead of domestic like I am.

Then there were three of us, and then one retired, so then we're down to two. That was last [00:34:00] February. And now at United Airlines, we have eight black women captains. We went from two to eight in a span of eight months. And it has been very exciting to see that explosion of career paths for these women.

And so now I'm inspired by them and what they're doing. And the press that they're getting and the accomplishments that they're making because I feel like in maybe one really small way, I made it easier for them to do it because no one even blinked an eye when they upgraded.

No one said, oh, this is really a big moment because no one's ever done it before, you know? So hopefully it was just another School to go through at United Airlines. It's been really exciting to watch their careers and knowing that, things are in really good hands.

To me this is the time to just kind of be in the wings and make my speeches wherever I have to and just try and encourage as many people to try the career field and watch it grow. It's really been kind of cool. Yeah. 

Aransas: Really [00:35:00] incredible, and I can only imagine the ripples that come from this.

So every woman that hears your story and then every woman hears their stories and that keeps rippling out as a deeper sense of belief and possibility until, like you said, it just becomes taken for granted. Of course, there's women in the sky. 

M'lis: Right? Absolutely. The numbers are bleak, something around 5% of all professional aviators are women. Black women don't even register on the scale. It's less than a percent, half of a percent I think. And so that is one thing that I hope in my lifetime, that I will see numbers grow significantly enough that maybe we stop talking about the numbers. I have a lot of hopes for that, as we delve right here into Women's History Month, and we'll be talking about this all month long. It would be nice if we didn't have to have a Women's History month, because every month was Women's History Month, that would be fantastic.

Aransas: It'd be great if there were no more trailblazers needed. 

M'lis: Right? [00:36:00] Yes, absolutely. That has always been the kind of my mantra for not only for women, but for minorities as well. It's just, let's stop celebrating first because we've accomplished it all. Hopefully I'll see that in my lifetime.

Aransas: Yeah, I hope so. I hope so. I think you're doing all the things. You're taking care of yourself. You're taking care of your inner circle. You're taking care of your role within your organization. You're inspiring people at all these different corners and angles and creating a greater sense of belief.

Your daughters now are out there touching all these different people, taking for granted that this is what success looks like, right? And I just think, that's how change happens. So what would you say to a young woman, like, you know, say your twin daughters who was looking for her place in the world.

M'lis: I would say find something you're passionate about doing, and pursue that because if you can find something you love to do, then doing it every day won't seem like work. And then you never have that feeling of, oh, I have to go to work today, because that always seems to be a [00:37:00] negative connotation.

But if you find something to do that you're really passionate about, and it really doesn't matter what that is, and the only measurement of success is against yourself and not against anyone else. If you can go someplace every day and be happy and do your best and be your true, authentic self, then you are incredibly successful in my book, and I'm the first one to be cheering you on.

Aransas: Yeah. I love that. I wondered how you define success, and I think you just said it. Finding that place of greatness where you're deeply curious and maybe have some aptitude. I think too I still think it's really interesting what you're saying about the basketball team. We're not all going to be the tallest person on the team. 

M'lis: Right. I wasn't even close. Yeah, I mean, sometimes you have to find your role and if you're going to be part of something that's really, truly big, then you have to find what is your role in that space, and do it really well so that the outcome is that the entire team or company or unit is going to be [00:38:00] successful. I coached high school basketball for about seven years with a really good friend of mine and one of our favorite things to tell the girls was try to be a part of something bigger than yourself. And try to make your part the best that you possibly could be. In that something that's bigger than yourself. And if you can do that, you will go home and sleep well every night going, I did something good today. Yeah. Yeah. 

Aransas: It sounds like you learned that from your mom too. 

M'lis: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, definitely. No doubt. Still do every day. She lives four blocks from me, so I hear a lot of time.

Aransas: Even better. I loved that part of your story initially when she said I don't want to do this anymore because I could have more impact. 

M'lis: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And she also made me realize that, if you don't like what you're doing, change it. It's never too late to change. If you wake up one day and you're like, I really don't like my job or my career field or what I'm doing, do something else. I mean, you have the ability, just change it, you know. We have [00:39:00] one woman at United that I know of, probably several, but she was in her thirties I believe when she started learning how to fly.

And she is now just upgraded to Captain at United at 58, 59 years old. And that just goes to show you're never too late until, unless you get over 65 where they actually make a stop flying. But you know, honestly if you don't like what you're doing or you've always dreamed of doing something else, go do it. You know, don't let anybody hold you back. 

Aransas: Beautifully said. All right. So lightning round to close us off. Sure. Absolutely. All right. One quick way you raise your own energy? 

M'lis: Exercise. 

Aransas: One easy way you boost other women. 

M'lis: Laughter 

Aransas: One little way that you elevate your community, the planet, or the world? 

M'lis: Contribute.

Aransas: Pretty powerful stuff. 

Thank you, M'lis. 

It was so nice meeting you. Good luck with your entire podcast and [00:40:00] it's blazing paths. That sounds like so much fun. 

It's pretty exciting. Like you said, the whole goal in life, or at least for me with my career, is I want to do what I love and enjoy. And the things that make me deeply, profoundly curious and where it feels like we can have an impact and make a difference. And having this conversation with you feels like a really beautiful beginning for all of that. 

M'lis: Awesome. Well, happy women's International Day. International Women's day. 

Aransas: Yeah, that too. For all of you listening, please tell us what you think of this conversation, what you're learning from your own life, what you're taking from M'lis' story. We can be found and all the places, but also, and most especially Tell us who inspires you.

Leave a voicemail with a nomination and we'll invite that amazing woman onto the show to inspire lots of other women so we can all keep learning and growing together.[00:41:00] 

The Uplifters
The Uplifters
This podcast is dedicated to celebrating the Uplifters.
In every episode, we share the tools and strategies Uplifters use to take care of themselves.
You'll hear the deeply personal stories of inspiring women who have worked through challenges to create big, joyful lives; how blocks and barriers became tools for success; and powerful mindset techniques you can use to live up. 💫