Considering the fact that she drives race cars for a living, it’s fitting that Collete Davis is living life on the road right now. “You’ve gotta excuse me,” she says offhandedly as she hoists her suitcase onto a table, “I’ve been living out of a suitcase for the past few months.” Having just flown in to New York from Indiana that morning, she unzips her luggage to reveal a black and pink racing suit and her helmet. Like any typical 23-year-old, she’s attending a graduation the next day — she flies out to Florida for it tonight.
Unlike any typical 23 year old, she’s carrying a flame-retardant jumpsuit and a harness that prevents decapitation in her overnight bag.
Today I'm chatting with her about her many accomplishments as part of our "Run With Me" series with MicrosoftMicrosoft Surface Laptop. In this series, we're bringing you stories of remarkable women in tech how they run their lives and run the world, which Collete is clearly doing.
If you don’t know about Collete already, you should. At just 23, a time when most other people are flailing, she’s going into her fifth year as a professional rallycross racer. She’s the host of Girl Starter on TLC, a show in which young women pitch startups to a team of VCs. She’s a young woman in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM. She will inspire you. She will make you feel like you need to do way more with your life, like get in a car and go fast, or build your own website.
“I was a very, very curious kid, always taking things apart and putting them back together,” she says. That impulse led her to working on cars, taking engines apart and reassembling them as a mechanic. Her discovery of racing was a logical next step. “The first time I sat in a go-kart, I fell in love immediately. For me it was that hyper-competitiveness that was satisfying. You also got a ton of adrenaline.”
Having discovered a field that married all the things she loved, Collete set out to actualize this new dream. But along the path, there were many problems to solve and many questions to answer. Unlike many other young pro racers, the Florida native doesn’t come from a wealthy family or a legacy of drivers. Her dad is a military man, which partially explains her action-oriented nature. To get good at racing, you have to practice, practice, practice. But unlike most other sports, getting that time in isn’t as simple as picking up a ball.
“At a very young age, I realized that racing is an expensive sport,” Collete recalls. As she says, one day of practice on the track can cost up to $10,000. “So I asked ‘What can I do to make myself a better driver?'” One of the solutions was to go to school for mechanical engineering and get to know her car inside and out. She attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, majored in mechanical engineering, and started to put the wheels of her career in motion. To this day, her background in STEM is crucial to her success on the track. She was often the only girl in her class, but the single-mindedness with which she approached her practical mission left no room or time for self-doubt.
Apart from the actual act of getting behind the wheel, Collete knew she needed to approach her ambition with the mind of an entrepreneur. Even before she graduated high school, she was thinking about her branding. She taught herself to code her own website, edit videos, and pitch herself to different companies.
“Not being from a wealthy family, I really need to get the business side of racing down,” Collete says. After all, your ability to secure track and seat time as a racer depends on getting the funding from a sponsor. So she approached her dreams like a business.
“My career as an athlete has always been a startup to me. I’ve done fundraising, I’ve done the branding. My startup is just a little bit different in terms of the product or service I’m offering.” After college, she earned a scholarship from legendary venture capitalist Tim Draper, moving to Silicon Valley to attend Draper University of Heroes. There, she was in meetings and pitches with the luminaries of the tech world — Draper, Elon Musk, and the like.
It’s one thing to be a woman (especially a young woman) in one male-dominated industry. Davis, however, in addition to being a young woman in the racing industry, was pitching herself as a race car driver in the boardrooms of Silicon Valley, also a male-dominated world.
“When I was younger, I battled the idea of being a young woman in all those meetings," she says. “But a key to that was believing in myself before the world did.” She credits her “military brat” upbringing with making her positively “oblivious” to the stereotype that racing, science, and engineering weren’t female fields. She just went for what she wanted.
With the platform of racing, she feels lucky to be able to pass that knowledge along. “I think I realized early on that racing was my platform to inspire girls and be a voice." As early as 16, she traveled the country and began speaking at middle schools about her burgeoning career on the track. “Girls would come up to me afterwards and say, 'I didn’t know girls could like math or science or could do something like race.' My jaw would drop.”
Today, her platform to inspire women in STEM is even wider. As the host of TLC’s GirlStarter, she helps as the face of a show dedicated to funding young women breaking into the start up industry with innovative tech ideas. She also works with Microsoft as one of their People in Action, benefiting from technological collaboration, and in turn her voice, name, and story are used to attract more young people — young women especially — to break into technology.
For her, the connection is natural, and has been from the beginning. “Technology in my racing career has helped me become a better driver and a better athlete.” For her, at this point, an understanding of tech is a necessity.
Whether she's optimizing her performance on the track with minute analytics, or doing so off the track by building her brand, her experiences in STEM and athletics make her a great resource and mentor. “We need more women in STEM and women doing traditionally male things,” she says with emphasis. “And if I can inspire people to do that, it’s my job to.”
This article is brought to you with the help of Microsoft Surface.
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