Dreams Soar Founder, Shaesta Waiz Shares her Round-the-World Journey
WOI Founder, Sarah Keates, interviews Shaesta Waiz, Founder of Dreams Soar, a US founded a non-profit organisation that encourages and supports women and girls to enter aviation and STEM careers.
In 2017, Dream Soar launched a round-the-world solo flight, piloted by the youngest woman to do so in a single-engine airplane. Shaesta Waiz’s solo flight included outreach at 17 of the 30 stops around the world. Now that it’s “mission accomplished”, we find out what’s next for Shaesta and her outreach, funding, and scholarship initiatives for girls and women around the world.
You are the youngest woman and first Afghan American to fly solo around the world in a single-engine airplane: are you feeling the pressure of this title?
Yes and no. I feel great responsibility and pride because I respect and honour my heritage and there is a perceived disconnect in where I come from and my life now. My Afghani roots are deeply important to me and it’s challenging to be asked, “Are you really Afghani?”.
I understand why people are curious: they have an image in their mind of the typical Afghani woman, living in incredibly challenging conditions. She looks and behaves in a certain way; this is the stereotype. I look and speak differently because we left Afghanistan when I was a small child, and I was raised in the US. Whilst we always planned and wanted to return to our home in Afghanistan, sadly, this was not possible due to the ongoing conflict and safety issues in the country.
When you peel back the layers of our cultural or geographical identities, we are all women desiring to achieve something special in our lives and to achieve aspirational goals. During the conversations I had with women and girls in Afghanistan, I was thankful that they saw that there is little difference between us on that level. Yes, my life and my experiences are different now because of the opportunities I had and the career I have made for myself. This is why education and outreach are so vitally important: I want more girls and women to have opportunities via careers in STEM and aviation.
You crossed five continents, making thirty stops in twenty-two countries across nearly 25,000 nautical miles. What were the most thrilling moments?
During my first ocean crossing from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Santa Maria, Portugal, I became very aware of the seriousness of flying over the North Atlantic. The ocean is so cold that the survival time is 3-10 seconds, with up to 10 minutes if wearing an immersion or “gunny” suit. My only form of communication while flying over the ocean was my high-frequency HF radio. During the crossing, the antenna snapped and was dangling from the aircraft. I had to turn back to Canada, travelling 2 hours in complete silence and filled with fear.
That experience really put what I was attempting into a sharper perspective, and it began to make more sense why only 7 women have done this. The magnitude of being the 8th woman ever to complete this mission really struck me, along with a harsh reminder that the odds were stacked against me. It was thrilling, scary, awe-inspiring, and lots of other emotions all at once.
Did you visit Afghanistan?
My insurance company advised against me against landing in Afghanistan. It was unthinkable however for me to even consider not visiting my homeland, and, fortunately, my team and I found a way to make it happen by travelling via Dubai. I was honoured to be welcomed by Afghanistan’s President, Ashraf Ghani, and a whole cohort of women, who displayed great warmth and excitement about my arrival. The community and leadership in Afghanistan could not have been more welcoming and helpful, offering so much support and assistance. Encouragingly, the President also fully endorses Dream Soar in our mission to help more women access education and careers in STEM and aviation.
When meeting with these women and girls, I was reminded of my life as a child in Afghanistan: our home was taken away, we were poor, life was hard. This may sound trite, but even then, I genuinely dreamed of flying, of adventure, and seeing the world; that is where my determination was born. I saw that the same drive for a better life in the girls that I met, and spending time with them was one of the greatest privileges of the mission. Above all else, I was honoured to be making connections with them, encouraging them, and letting them know they can achieve great things.
While flying solo around the world, what did the solitude and challenges you faced teach you?
Solitude prompted a full spectrum of emotions from fear, to loneliness to awe. At night, I could not even see the stars. I knew the ocean was below and the stars were above, but it was so quiet and so dark, I had to keep checking my instruments to be certain I was still airborne. You learn a lot about yourself when faced with such extreme conditions, emotions, paired with solitude. I realised that I can be afraid but still focused and determined. I can feel lonely and worried but still purposeful. I can be tired but still able to get past that because of my commitment to the mission. In essence, I learned that humans are capable of overcoming adversity, we just need a purpose.
I also learned that I don’t like silence, so I talked to myself and lightened the mood by listening to lots of music on Bose A20’s. Finally, I learned that flying around the world alone is hungry work, so I also snacked; I snacked a lot!
We know that the world needs more female aviation and STEM professionals. Why is progress slow in this area?
All the obvious cultural reasons are still very real barriers to progress in this area. Women in many parts of the world are still expected to be the primary or sole caregiver to children. There are family and societal pressures on women that prevent them from accessing education and careers in STEM (or other areas). There is a perception that STEM is for males, which I hope is beginning to change. Women have to fight for their place in aviation, that needs to change. They have as much right as any man to claim their role and live their dream.
What is the mission of Dreams Soar?
The idea for Dream Soar came together when I was studying at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) Daytona Beach. I realised how fortunate I was to have reached that point but conversely, despite having worked extremely hard to get there, I knew that it should not be this hard. I decided I wanted to be part of the drive that supports more women entering careers in aviation and STEM.
Later, I joined the Women’s Ambassador Program, mentoring the incoming class. During this time, through team effort, female enrolment increased from 13-24%. This is very encouraging, but aviation remains a largely inaccessible and intimidating field for women globally. Through relentless determination, I created a job that I only dreamed of previously, and now it’s my mission to inspire the next generation of STEM and aviation professionals to do the same.
Our core mission is to provide critical information. Outreach is at the core of this effort and so far, we have reached 12,000 kids in 22 countries. This is only the beginning!
Were you surprised at the benevolence of the aviation community in its support of your flight around the world?
Not at all. Something unique about the aviation industry is that it’s full of deeply passionate professionals. That said, it was a 5-year project to get the support we needed for the round-the-world mission. In year 1, I networked at every industry conference to make connections. In years 2, 3, and 4, I followed up, nurturing relationships and explaining my vision to bring more talent into the industry. By year 5, the industry had noticed my persistence and conviction and they started getting behind Dream Soar and the round-the-world mission. I am deeply grateful for all the individuals, companies, and organisations that got behind Dream Soar; it wouldn’t have been possible without that support.
Some young women may feel that the odds are against them when approaching a career in aviation. What is your view on this?
It may feel like the odds are against women, but trust in the fact that the industry wants this to change too. Change and evolution are inevitable, however slow progress may feel. Through my journey founding Dream Soar, speaking with hundreds of leaders of the aviation industry, awareness is increasing that if we don’t adapt and embrace women in aviation and STEM, we will all miss out on a multitude of development opportunities.
How can women access guidance and advice via Dreams Soar?
Remember that every woman in this field is a great mentor – mine them for advice. Don’t be intimidated, go, and talk to these women to get support; we all have the same goal and most women are very happy to help you access guidance. Make use of resources and organisations such as the National Business Aviation Association NBAA, Women in Corporate Aviation WCA, the Women in Aviation Asia Project WiAA. Make connections, believe in your dream, and be relentlessly persistent in building a supportive and aspirational network.
Best foot forward ladies!
You may also be interested in reading Resilience is your Superpower – Job Hunting through COVID-19