An HBCU Alumna Traded In Her Law School Dreams To Be A Trailblazer In Aviation

Howard University alumna Sierra Grimes wanted to be the next Thurgood Marshall before ditching law for a career in aviation. Now she’s helping shape the future of flight. Learn more in the story from Maia Anderson at Business Insider.

While most kids grow up idolizing pop stars and movie stars, as a child growing up in a small town in southern Virginia, Sierra Grimes looked up to Thurgood Marshall. 

“I was just like, ‘Oh, my goodness, this man is the holy grail. And guess what? This third grade girl, I’m going to be him. I’m gonna be the first Black female Supreme Court justice,'” Grimes told Insider. “So, I thought I was Ketanji Brown before there was a Ketanji Brown.”

She followed in Marshall’s footsteps, attending Howard University in Washington, DC, in 2006 to study political science. But during a college internship with Congresswoman Jo Ann Davis, she realized she didn’t want to go to law school. A call with a recruiting agency in 2012 led her to an interview with the National Business Aviation Association, at a time when she wasn’t sure what “business aviation” meant (the term generally means the use of an airplane for business purposes, such as moving equipment or getting to a meeting).

“The night before, I’m looking up ‘What the heck is business aviation?’ because when I think aviation at that time, all I knew was getting on a commercial flight to go on vacation with family,” Grimes said. 

Despite her lack of aviation expertise, Grimes landed a job as a registration assistant for NBAA, the leading trade group representing roughly 11,000 companies that rely on aviation to make their businesses run. After climbing the ranks, she was named senior manager of government affairs for NBAA in March 2021. 

“I’m one of those people that truly stumbled into aviation, and have caught the bug and loved it and plan to stay as long as I can,” Grimes told Insider. 

Fostering the future of business aviation 

The NBAA was founded in 1947 with the mission to foster growth of business aviation. As senior manager of government affairs, Grimes handles policy work, looking to help pass legislation to enhance the business aviation industry. 

In 2014, just two years into her tenure at NBAA, Grimes helped found its Young Professionals in Business Aviation, or YoPro, program, which helps to recruit and retain the next generation of professionals coming into business aviation. The program started off with networking and providing young people with professional development opportunities, and now includes an advocacy leg meant to foster the importance of advocating for NBAA’s mission on the Hill. 

“I’ve been able to be seen as a thought leader for the next generation and for workforce development, and for diversity, equity, and inclusion, not only in the sense of being a young, Black female working in an industry that’s male dominated, but also just coming from different backgrounds and not having the traditional aviation background,” Grimes said. 

Ushering in change for aviation 

Grimes’ favorite part of the job is getting involved with innovation taking place in aviation, such as advanced air mobility, she told Insider. NBAA is helping to get legislation passed and working with regulators to make sure everything is in place for the nascent industry.

Though she’s certainly faced obstacles in her career, she said she doesn’t tend to look at them that way.

“I’m really big on perspective. And so an obstacle to me doesn’t really mean defeat or failure,” she said. “I don’t really see a lot of things as an obstacle.” 

Aviation is ‘begging and pleading’ for diversity 

Looking to the future, Grimes said she plans to focus on honing her skills as a government affairs professional. 

“I think that switching over to the government affairs side has opened up a new pathway with so much room for growth,” she said. 

For young people looking to carve out their own path in aviation, Grimes said now is the time.

“Whenever I’m talking to young people nowadays, specifically people of a diverse background, I tell them that this is the time to get into this industry. I would say that right now, this industry is literally begging and pleading for diversity,” Grimes said. 

Her biggest piece of advice for landing a job in aviation: persistence. 

“You don’t have to have the background, per se, in it. But, just go after it,” Grimes said. “Be persistent. Have a goal and go after it.”