The Woman Who Rose Above
This is The Story… of a woman who paid the ultimate price to become one of the greatest entrepreneurs, adventurers, and pioneers of all time.
And now… onto The Story
Millie was panicking.
Her small team was failing and the weather was conspiring against them. The entire day had been a waste.
In her journal that night she would write, “The days grow worse. I think each time we have reached the low but find we haven’t.”
One of her team members was nervous about their mission and had started drinking.
The other had a horrible attitude about everything.
It was rubbing off on Millie and she could barely hold their ragtag team together.
They were trying to do something crazy.
There was an American businesswoman before them who researched the project. She determined it was far too dangerous for her, so backed out. Instead of going herself, she decided to sponsor Millie and her team… if they were brave enough to do it.
Millie agreed, but now the choice seemed like the worst decision she’d ever made. She’d only slept a few hours last night.
They were running out of money, and their sponsor was on them non stop to hurry up and deliver.
The phone down the hall rang. Millie got up and answered. Immediately she regretted it. It was her sponsor, and she wasn’t happy.
Millie tried to tell her about the weather; about her teammate’s growing drinking problem.
But her sponsor didn’t care. She ranted as Millie listened.
“What do you think we’re paying you for? We aren’t paying for second or third place. The other two women are going to do it next week. If you don’t figure it out and launch now, it’s going to be too late. That means no more money, nobody is going to remember your name, and everything we’ve put into this is going to be wasted.”
Millie couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
After her sponsor was finished, she asked if she was sure — were there two other women really planning on launching next week?
Her sponsor was sure. They finished talking and Millie rubbed her temples, then sprinted down the hall and grabbed her gear.
By the time she got to the other end of the building, she was yelling.
Slim stuck his head out of the room. It was still three in the morning and he’d been fast asleep.
“The other two teams are going to beat us. Get up and get ready. We’re launching now.”
He nodded and broke into action.
Millie knocked on Bill’s door but didn’t get an answer. She opened it, and Bill shot up in bed.
The room reeked of alcohol.
“Get up Bill, we’re going now.”
Bill protested, but with Slim’s help, Millie managed to get him up and dressed. After a pot of coffee, he didn’t seem quite as drunk.
Outside in the freezing cold and blowing winds, she briefed the two men on what their sponsor had told them. It was now or never.
“We’re going today, and we’re going to make it.”
The three team members were at each other’s throats. Bill was still drunk. Slim was scowling as he propped him up. They weren’t prepared, and the weather was against them.
In their line of work, if you weren’t fully prepared, or if you hit bad weather, there was a high likelihood of death.
Thirty-three years before, Millie was born in Kansas. As a young girl, she climbed trees, collected toads, and hunted rodents. She was a natural explorer who loved new adventures — even risky ones.
On a trip to St. Louis, she discovered roller coasters. She became obsessed. When she got home, she set out to build what she had seen. With her Uncle’s help, she built a ramp off the roof of the family toolshed. Underneath the toolshed, the ground sloped down at just the right angle. She estimated her wagon could make the jump, land, and she’d continue down the hill at a record speed.
With nerves of steel, she climbed up on the roof, pulled up her wagon, and rode down and off the ramp.
The landing was as you expected — rough, and brought bruises, blood, and laughter.
When she wasn’t looking for thrills, she was reading. She was homeschooled, which gave her freedom to explore. But it also brought an old school way of thinking that irritated Millie. She was expected to “dress properly” and “behave like a lady”. Millie determined what it actually meant was to dress uncomfortably, and act like a robot. So instead she dressed how she wanted and pursued what she was interested in. Those around her immediately saw the difference in behavior, and labeled her a “Tomboy.”
She shrugged it off and kept doing her thing.
Like most young girls, she kept a scrapbook of things meaningful to her. But her scrapbook didn’t look like the ones most girls had. She included newspaper articles about women who worked in male-oriented jobs. She filled it with pictures and articles about mechanical engineering, film production, law, advertising, management, and inspiring stories.
When she was 17 years old, she faced her first encounter with death. Her grandmother passed away. Heartbroken and confused, she would look back at this time as the end of her childhood.
Ever since she was a little girl, her father had been supportive, but now things were different. He started drinking too much, then drinking during work, and soon he was fired.
From then on, Millie was in charge of the family finances. She developed a mindset and instinct to spot money making opportunities wherever they emerged. If she didn’t, the family wouldn’t eat.
Millie graduated high school, and then entered a two-year college for girls in Philadelphia. Once when she returned home for Christmas vacation, she visited her sister in Toronto. While there, she saw soldiers returning from World War I — many of them wounded.
She never returned to the girl’s college, and instead, immediately went to work as a nurse’s aid in the military hospital.
On weekends, Millie and her friend would try to take a break from the soul-crushing work of helping those crippled from the war. One weekend, they visited the Canadian National Exposition in Toronto.
The exposition included a flying show put on by a former World War I Ace Pilot. She and her friend went to watch it, and standing away from the crowd in the field, they caught the pilot’s attention.
The pilot banked, began heading back for them… and then dove directly towards them. The crowd gasped. Millie’s friend threw herself to the ground and covered her head.
Adrenaline filled Millie’s body, and she stood her ground and smiled. She had read enough about engineering and done enough math and physics homework to know his plane wasn’t anywhere near them.
The plane kept diving towards her, and Millie stood her ground. At the last moment, the pilot pulled up, the crowd let out a gasp, and Millie laughed with excitement.
After the airshow and her service helping soldiers, Millie decided to go to college to study medicine. At age 22, she enrolled in Columbia University. It didn’t take long before she determined that college and medicine were not for her. She dropped out of Columbia and moved to California to be with her parents.
A few days after Christmas in 1920, she was spending time with her father in Long Beach. They visited an airfield where a pilot was giving rides for $10 a piece. Although the ride only lasted ten minutes, Millie was hooked.
Flying lessons were $1000, so she worked in a mail room and other odd jobs in order to afford them. Her hard work and determination paid off. About a year later, she took her first lesson at Kinner Field. When she arrived, she was surprised to find the class taught by a woman instructor, Anita Snook.
Learning to fly in those days required a massive amount of work. The work didn’t bother her, and neither did the fact that almost everyone in the field was a man.
Millie kept working as hard as she could because flying was expensive. Six months after her first lesson, she saved up enough money to purchase her own plane. It was a secondhand Kinner Airster biplane. She nicknamed it “The Canary” because it was bright yellow.
On the first flight, when she tried to take off, she crashed. Her instructor was horrified, while she calmly climbed out.
The instructor was even more astonished when she began putting on makeup. When asked why, she said that reporters might arrive soon, and her image could be everywhere. She knew how expensive flying was and had to look perfect in the papers if she would ever secure the sponsors to fund her flights.
Millie had the plane repaired, and was soon flying without an instructor.
Flying lessons were expensive, but owning her own plane was an entirely new level of financial commitment. The odd jobs weren’t cutting it. She wanted to fly more, but she couldn’t make money when she was flying… Financial difficulties mounted, and she had to sell her plane.
She put her dreams on hold.
She soon found work in Boston as a teacher and then a social worker. On the side, she joined the American Aeronautical Society.
One afternoon in April 1928, a phone call came for her at work.
“How would you like to be the first woman to fly the Atlantic?” The man on the other end of the phone was Captain Hilton H. Railey.
Without hesitation, she replied, “Yes!”
She agreed to meet with the project coordinators in New York. At the meeting was well-known book publisher, George P. Putnam. The men asked her to join pilot Wilmer “Bill” Stultz and co-pilot and mechanic Louis E. “Slim” Gordon on the transatlantic flight.
The problem with the transatlantic flight was it was dangerous. Others had tried it. Three of them, in fact, in the last year alone. All three had died.
But with risk comes reward, and sponsors lined up to bankroll the pilots crazy enough to attempt it. This was a path where she could get paid to fly professionally she thought. It was also a cutthroat, secretive field. Millie couldn’t notify her parents or tell anyone until right after they had successfully taken off. Now, in the early morning hours, with the wind whipping around, Millie was nervous.
Two other teams were about to make their move. If they were first, it would all be over. The opportunity she had in front of her was a clear path to get paid professionally to fly… to secure an income for years… and maybe even decades. She had left behind letters for her family that would be delivered if she never returned from her trip.
The words of her sponsor rang in her ears. Millie stared at Slim and Bill. They had to be first.
The winds swirled around them as they readied the plane.
As they got ready for takeoff, Millie ran pre-flight checks and calculations. Her heart sank. With the rising wind speed, their plane, a Fokker F7 would be too heavy to take off.
The three team members argued about what to do in the cockpit. There was only one conclusion. They needed a lighter plane, and their fuel was weighing them down. Millie made the final call to dump all the excess gas they could. If they were at risk before, now they had just upped the ante.
With the smell of gasoline and alcohol still lingering in the cockpit, the three crew members took off. In the air over the Atlantic, the weather soon turned from bad to worse. They entered a thick fog.
Their plane, dubbed the Friendship, had only one tool left for navigation… the radio. The team would have to use it to check on their position with the ships below them. Soon the radio went down, and the hours ticked by as the team tried to make do with maps.
They had originally planned to land in London, but couldn’t pinpoint their location. They guessed that Ireland was the closest place they could make it to with the fuel they had left.
The probability they would survive was falling. They had only an hour of fuel left. Their pilot Bill, who had been drunk during takeoff was now sober and battling a hangover. In a last-ditch effort, he banked the plane down below the clouds and dangerously close to the ocean. They had to find a ship or some indication of where they were.
Finally, they spotted a ship, and they banked down towards it. Back in those days, when planes banked towards ships, it would alert the captain of the ship that the pilot needed directions. So the captain would paint a latitude and longitude sign onto the deck for the pilot. The captain of the ship didn’t get their message. No response.
Millie sprung into action, writing the request for latitude and longitude in her logbook, she tore out the page and tied it to an orange. Bill readied the plane for another pass… Millie was going to lean out of the plane and drop the message to the ship. Bill steadied the plane, and Millie dropped the orange. It fell short. Then another with similar results. Now with no radio and almost no fuel, they had every excuse to find the first ship and land early. Their plane was equipped for water landings. They could land near the ship, where rescuers could find them more easily, or they could continue on with the half hour of fuel they had left.
They talked about landing, but at the last moment, decided to pull up the plane and keep going.
They double checked their maps, and Bill was confident that they would hit Ireland soon.
As they flew through the mist, it started to clear up. Then, Millie spotted something new on the horizon. Land. Bill brought the plane down close to the shore, and right as they touched down, they ran out of fuel. After a few hours, local townspeople started to show up.
They were in Wales, and Millie was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. The flight took approximately 21 hours. It made history and headlines across the world. Since Millie had no training on instrument flights, she was not able to pilot the plane. When interviewed after landing, she kept repeating that, Bill “did all the flying…” and that maybe someday she’d try it alone.
It didn’t take long until her words rang true. Millie became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
Millie, of course, was Amelia Earhart.
After her solo flight across the Atlantic, sponsors lined up. It was partly because of her bravery and skill, but also because Amelia put a painstaking amount of preparation to sell sponsors.
It had all started back when she was taking flying lessons. One day when she was walking there, a young girl asked her where she was going. Millie told her, and the young girl commented that with her long hair, she didn’t look like a pilot.
Amelia cut her hair, then bought a leather bomber jacket and slept in it until it had the “worn” pilot look.
Over the years, Amelia did her best to cultivate herself as THE image of female aviation. She would wake up early and curl her short hair to CREATE just the right look.
In August 1928, she became the first woman to fly solo across the North American continent.
Over the years, she started a relationship with George Putnam who had been following her since her first trip. The two became friends and finally, after six proposals, she agreed to marry him. Independent as always, she referred to their marriage as a “partnership” with “dual control.” She kept her own last name. But it wasn’t out of spite or because they were competing, it was because both of them were powerful entrepreneurs. The two of them made what most people think of as boring… “marriage” into a fun partnership. They would set up elaborate pranks for each other. Once, George got Amelia arrested for midnight speeding, and the police forced her to go to court. Once she was there, the judge began to lay out serious jail time for a simple speeding ticket. It turned out that everyone was in on the prank and the entire courtroom burst into laughter as George emerged.
As Amelia continued her work, she began to see it as proof that women could succeed in… “jobs requiring intelligence, coordination, speed, coolness, and willpower.”
Amelia continued to challenge herself. On January 11, 1935, she became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific, from Honolulu to Oakland, CA. Also that year, she was the first to fly solo from Mexico City to Newark.
Along the way, Earhart developed friendships with many notable individuals. One of her close friends was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The two shared a passion for women’s causes.
In 1935, Earhart joined the faculty of Purdue University as a visiting faculty member. She served as a technical advisor to the Department of Aeronautics. She was also a career counselor for women, and she would guest lecture at colleges. There, she would encourage the women students to do whatever they dreamt of. She famously said:
“There are many boys would be better off making pies, and a great many girls who would be better off as mechanics.”
The next year at that college, enrollment of women increased by 50%.
As she approached her 40th birthday, in 1936, she began planning a new goal: a round-the-world flight. She would not be the first to circle the globe, but she would be the first woman.
Plus, her flight would follow a newer and challenging equatorial route.
It would also be the longest flight at 29,000 miles. And, it would also be the most expensive. But George and Amelia were prudent investors.
They had worked with sponsors before and decided this time to partially self-fund the trip. It would take almost all of their savings, but they knew the resulting future sponsorships and endorsement deals would cover the costs. Amelia’s growing star power was rising, and the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was even having a small airstrip and airport built for her on a small island in the Pacific.
Before the flight, Amelia made an eerie statement.
“I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system, and I hope this trip is it.”
Lockheed Aircraft Company built the plane for her trip, a marvelous twin-engine monoplane. It was exactly to Earhart’s specifications. She called it her “flying laboratory.” The Lockheed Electra 10E included extensive modifications to the fuselage to incorporate a large fuel tank.
Earhart attempted the flight three times. The first two times she had to stop. She approached each flight more aggressively than the last.
The third flight was on July 2, 1937. On the flight, Amelia was flying over the central Pacific Ocean near Howland Island. In a broken transmission, she uttered her last known words, “We are running north and south.”
Nothing more was ever heard from her. After her disappearance, the military conducted the most extensive air and sea search in naval history. It cost millions of dollars and covered 250,000 square miles of ocean. In late July, the United States government finally ended the search. When they stopped, her husband, George Putnam immediately began and funded his own search.
As the months wore by, brokenhearted, he called off the search.
The mystery of what happened to Amelia is still open-ended.
Amelia Earhart was treasured by her country so much that they spent a fortune looking for her. She was loved so much by her partner and husband that he spent a fortune trying to find her as well. If your country and your partner is willing to invest their wealth into trying to save you, it’s one of the highest compliments that anyone can receive.
Amelia Earhart is remembered for her courageous vision, determination and groundbreaking achievements. She was an extraordinary aviator and a bold advocate for women. Her chosen profession was dangerous, and she was accustomed to writing letters to be opened in the event she didn’t return. In one of those letters to her husband George, she wrote:
“Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”
That’s her story, what’s yours going to be?
Thank you for reading this episode of The Story! We have an exclusive giveaway to celebrate Season 2 of The Story podcast — 2 free tickets to Salesforce Connections in Chicago on June 12–14th. Salesforce Connections is the digital marketing, commerce, and customer service event of the year. You’ll learn how to create personalized experiences at every touchpoint and deliver service that drives growth and exceeds consumer expectations. Head to contest.themission.co and enter to win today. Thank you again to our presenting sponsor Salesforce for helping share these stories of business trailblazers who changed the world.