A Candid Conversation with Nancy Conrad: Conrad Challenge, Collaboration With NASA & Much More

Nancy Conrad of the Conrad Challenge speaks on career advice for students and young professionals
Nancy Conrad, Founder of the Conrad Challenge. PHOTO: COURTESY NANCY CONRAD

Imagine a world where students aren't just studying but solving real-world problems with innovative solutions. 

That's the vision driving Nancy Conrad, the founder of the Conrad Challenge, a prestigious competition supporting a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship among the next generation. Nancy Conrad, the wife of the late astronaut Pete Conrad Jr., is an educator, author, publisher, and captivating public speaker, providing young minds with the courage to think beyond traditional confines and produce meaningful change.

With over 17 years of experience leading the Conrad Challenge, Nancy worked with organizations like the US Department of State, and industry leaders like LMCO, Battelle, and Mondalez. Having collaborated with NASA, Nancy's journey is intertwined with the legacy of her husband, the Apollo 12 commander who was the third person who walked on the Moon. If Nancy’s story has piqued your interest, discover her advice below in this article. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and career journey?

I work in STEM education, innovation, and entrepreneurship. So, innovation and entrepreneurship are in my catalog of things I've done. I'm not a scientist, but an English teacher. I taught high school students, and I have been dedicated to what I call purpose-driven education. This is where kids actually learn how to think. It helps kids find their superpowers. Once you find your superpower, everything is possible. So that's been the purpose of my life. I've been doing that these last 17 years since my late husband was killed to honor his legacy.

Could you tell us about the Conrad Challenge and its mission?

Initially, we started with 20 students, and over the last 17 years, we grew. But we're not a numbers game. I'm not interested in 250,000 kids in a colosseum all doing the same thing. I am interested in helping young people understand this process of creating and visualizing a solution—taking it from the idea in your head to paper to a business plan and then potentially even creating a real product. That is the work that we do at the Conrad Challenge, and it's a difficult competition. It's so important to understand critical thinking skills, and even more so today, with all the AI. A lot of jobs are going to be replaced by machines, but if you are a critical thinker and understand how to think, you are miles ahead of everybody else. So that's the purpose of our purpose-driven education. 

What is Nancy Conrad’s superpower?

I have a couple of them, and I try to embed at least one of them in the students that come to us. I'm a master networker, and I'm good at it. And how does one do that? You ask questions, and you listen to what people say. Most people don't do either one of those. So I'm good at talking to people because I'm good at listening to them. Listening to their story will help you find where you connect with that human being. I've also taught students how to do this. 

Nancy Conrad of the Conrad Challenge speaks on professional development advice for students and young professionals
Nancy Conrad at the Conrad Challenge. PHOTO: COURTESY NANCY CONRAD

Remember, everybody is alone. We all have vulnerabilities, things that don't feel good, sadness, happiness, stories, and everything else. The story of the human being, not the human doing, is fascinating. As we learn about someone else, we also learn about ourselves. At the end of the day, the purpose of life—I learned this from my husband—is fun, and to get there, you need to be really comfortable with who you are. That's one piece; the other has to do with having faith and competency.

Many people struggle with self-doubt and self-limiting beliefs. What advice do you have for individuals looking to overcome these mental barriers?

That's why we work with teams. There's a safety net there. Back then, when a company was founded, it was founded by a [single] founder. Today, when you look at companies, it's a collaboration. We were very intentional about students working in teams. There was this young man—very shy—who came into the Conrad Challenge and had presentation issues. Eventually, he ended up at Villanova and now has a great job. So, through collaboration, he found his superpower. It's comforting to work with other kids who may also have the same challenge as you. When you're not safe in what you're doing, and you feel insecure, the best thing to do is to reach out and ask for help. Anytime people ask for help, there's someone there to help. 

How do you encourage individuals, especially young students, to think creatively and with “no box”?

I'm a big believer in theory. We've been taught that there's ‘in the box’ thinking and 'out of the box’ thinking. So we actually created a no-box toolbox—it's tools and resources, how to go out, and have a safety net under you. And the safety net is your colleagues, teachers, parents, and friends, as well as your own understanding that you are always evolving. There's always mysteries. There’s always things you will never understand. You might start getting into great, deep philosophies and all these sorts of things. But we don't know how much time we have, which is why you need to kick butt and take names. You can have fun, but you can also do something that means something.

Can you share an example of a project or initiative from the Conrad Challenge that showcased remarkable no-box thinking?

The Conrad Challenge is transitioning, and I think the climate challenge is probably the biggest challenge that we're hoping to solve. So I'm working on a NetZero Institute. We didn't know we needed a green workforce 10 years ago. We do now, but we don't have one. So part of this is to create a workforce that will be the next generation of solvers and young people who will do things that will create solutions to the climate challenge. 

Nancy Conrad of the Conrad Challenge speaks on career advancement for students and young professionals
Nancy Conrad, Founder of the Conrad Challenge. PHOTO: COURTESY NANCY CONRAD

There's a couple of things our kids did last year that blew my mind. I’ll share one. So, we've got a bee problem, and a lot of what's happening with the climate has to do with osmosis and regenerative farming. We're running out of bees, and bee's pollinate. That's how things grow. So our kids—I have no idea how they ever did this—found a way to harvest pollen, and they put it in little, tiny drones. They then pollinated a field with drones. Then, there was a team a couple years ago working on the plastic problem in the oceans. They created a biodegradable fishing net with a catch-and-release mechanism. 

How can students or young professionals discover their true passions or interests, especially when they may not be sure what they are yet?

I don't think there's a magic roadmap for that. I think it's trial and error. You have to take some chances. You know, my late husband, Pete, was lucky. He knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to fly. That's what he understood. He was a dyslexic kid and had a rough go. But what he understood were machines and how they operated. He's such an inspiration. It all happened because an educator took him under his wing and took a moonshot. So that's what we do. We take kids under our wing and hope to give them their moonshot; someone has to take you under their wing. Also, you have to figure out your superpower. It took me a long time to figure that out. And I'm not sure I have even today. It has to be something of value, but each of us determines what that might be. 

What advice do you have for students or young professionals interested in pursuing careers in STEM fields?

Just do it. STEM makes me crazy. I mean, I talked about innovation, entrepreneurship, and education. But this is about creative and critical thinking, and STEM is part of it. There are a gazillion things to do. For example, let's just say the space program. You don't just sit on a rocket. It took 100,000 people to send Pete to the moon. The workforce behind these efforts are massive. There are a gazillion things to do. So when we work in aerospace, energy, cyber, and health, each of those categories is loaded with a plethora of jobs and opportunities. Opening up your heart and your mind to opportunity is important. You need to find your superpower; it's a fun adventure.

Nancy Conrad's journey is far from over. As she continues to inspire young minds through the Conrad Challenge, her impact ripples outward, touching countless lives and igniting a passion for innovation that promises to burn brightly for generations to come.

Our conversation with Nancy Conrad was truly enlightening. If you want to learn more about Nancy Conrad and her work, please visit her LinkedIn.

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