Mary Poffenroth, M.S.
Introduce yourself to our audience. Tell us who you are and what you are currently focused on.
My life is the F word. I research it. I give individual and high-growth organizational workshops about it. I get on stages around the world and talk about it. I teach about it at university. I’m writing a book about it. I experiment with it, both professionally and personally. It’s the F word no one wants to talk about, but everyone knows it so well. Fear.
I’m an academic researcher and lecturer at San Jose State University that focuses on how the world’s most impactful leaders in tech and creativity cultivate a relationship with fear, and how the rest of us can use those strategies to reach greatness. My focus is to get down and dirty with fear so I can share my science-based understanding with others on getting friendly with our deeply-shared fears. I also infuse my talks and trainings with stories from my own life of trying, failing, and sometimes...every once in a while...succeeding with my own very-human fears.
Tell us about your favorite Ellevate Network memory or success story. Why are you a member?
It was a foggy Thursday night when I met a man in a London piano bar. He was from LA and I was living in London. Fast-forward six months, and I had packed my bags and moved to the City of Angels. Originally from the Bay Area, LA wasn’t so far from home, but far enough that I didn’t know a soul other than him. Ellevate helped changed that!
My very first event was a coffee connection in WeHo. I had no idea what to expect, and the thought of going in cold to a networking event without a wine reception was more than a little daunting. I walked in the door and was immediately recognized by the host and organizer Jaclyn. How did she even know it was me? We had never met! But she ran over and said my name and "Hello" and "Welcome" and gave me a big hug.
In a sea of at least fifty vibrant women, that simple act of inclusion and being seen told me everything I needed to know: Ellevate and I were about to have a beautiful friendship.
How would you define your professional mission?
To help humans not be ashamed of being afraid and feel empowered to do something about it…with science! I want people to get past the ridiculous messaging of “fearlessness” and find powerful ways of interacting with a part of themselves that will always be with them. Fear can be a beautiful adventure, and I am so excited to share the journey.
What is one of your most memorable career accomplishments?
Stepping onto the TEDx stage in London, I knew I was making a choice. In that moment, I was choosing no longer to speak only to scientists – I was choosing to speak to the entire community. In my heart, I knew I should be able to speak to both at the same time, but that’s not always the case. By doing this, by sharing my passions aligned with my research in an authentic, story-focused, vulnerable way, I was closing the door on my traditional biology past and opening a brand-new future, where unknown possibilities awaited.
What project have you worked on that you’re most proud of? Why?
One of the projects I’m most proud of is one I was really only a facilitator for. In an attempt to galvanize my large university classes for good beyond the campus, I created an environmental volunteer program in 2009 that required my students to get outdoors and get a bit dirty. Whether it was planting trees, restoring marshlands, or harvesting organic vegetables, if they wanted the only extra credit I was offering, they needed to contribute to the local ecosystem.
To date, over 3,500 of my students have contributed over 15,000 work hours to the environment. In the process, many of the student volunteers have also had huge paradigm shifts. This comes from exposing city kids to getting dirty, many planting or working with their hands for the first time.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
When someone shares with me that something I said, assigned, or lectured upon has changed their lives in a positive way. It can be small, like the way they see an issue or the way they see themselves. It may sound borderline cliché, but affecting positive change really does make it all worth it.
What legacy do you hope to leave through your work?
Legacy is really about our own dance with death and mortality. We want to know that our life meant more than just the years we were present on Earth, and that our influence can stretch beyond our immediate existence. If I could pinpoint one thing, I would want to leave a legacy where someone used something I shared as fuel, as strength, to move forward during the times in their life where they thought they couldn’t.
What is it about your job that makes you feel it’s the right fit for you?
I get paid to talk. As a kid, you couldn't shut me up! I love to educate others, make them laugh, and make them happy. Now, I get to do at least two out of three. Sometimes even all three!
Who are your role models?
I believe role models give us a road map of who we want to be. I want to be Amanda Palmer meets Brene Brown. Science and art. Struggle and story.
What is the best career advice you ever received?
“It’s not about you.” This is a hard one to remember, because our brain wants to make everything about ourselves – that’s what helps us survive. But in the end, someone else’s reaction, hurtful words, or painful actions are not about us. Not that we’re all perfect, but so much of what we react to in someone else’s tone or actions is more rooted in what they are going through than their honest thoughts and interpretations of us.
Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.
Professor & Innovation Consultant
Mary Poffenroth is a biology lecturer and fear researcher for San Jose State University. In addition to contributing to Science magazine, Forbes, TED, and SXSW, she advises growth driven individuals and organizations on how to use science and the power of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® to transform their relationship with fear to increase creativity, improve strategic decision making and cultivate more authentic communications. Continue Reading
Join Ellevate Now
Here, you’ll meet professional women committed to helping you succeed. We use the power of community to help you take the next step in your career.
Already a Member?