© 2024 WNIJ and WNIU
Northern Public Radio
801 N 1st St.
DeKalb, IL 60115
Northern Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Bite-sized stories of failure and success. Failure bites. It’s painful, discouraging and embarrassing. Just the idea of failure, whether it’s a big messy fail or a small setback, can be hard to digest. It’s time to change the way we think about failure. Yes, failure may be all of those negative things, but failure is also a very important part of learning and growing. Behind every great success story is a long series of failures and challenges that were also learning experiences. Join host Dr. Kristin Brynteson as she talks with successful people about failure, growth and success to inspire you and take the bite out of failure.

Failure Bites - Defining Your Own Success with Netia McCray


Visit Mbadika at mbadika.org/


KB: Welcome to the Failure Bites podcast. I'm Dr. Kristin Brynteson, helping you take the bite out of failure, one story at a time. Have you ever stepped back from a project well done, proud of the job you did, only to have someone else judge it as a failure. It can be crushing. Maybe even so crushing that you don't want to try again.

How do you even recover? In this episode, we hear from Netia McCray, the founder and executive director of Mbadika. Her passion is fostering the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs. Listen, as she shares the failure story that helped fuel that passion.

NM: Well, I know a lot of people probably aren’t excited to share their failure story, but this should give you an indicator this failure story did have a happy ending, so I'm very excited to share it. But I would say my failure story took place 16, 17 years ago when I was in the eighth grade. And depending where you are, especially if you're in the United States, for eighth grade you typically have to participate in one or two required fairs.

One is the science fair. The other one is history fair. As a person who felt very strongly aligned in the STEM field, science fair was like a breeze. Like I had no issues with science fair. It was just whether or not I wanted to do this project or this project versus trying to find a project. But history fair was the one that despite loving history, it didn't really excite me the way science fair did.

So, when I was in eighth grade, we had a theme for our history fair, and it was traveling through time. And I took traveling through time in the very literal sense. Like how do you travel through the world in past times? And I naturally as someone who wasn't able to swim at that time thought, what's the one thing I'm scared of? Boats.

And as an African American, what's the one thing that 81 who a descendant of slaves has been told to be scared of? Boats, large boats, ships, ships that probably transported slaves across the transatlantic. And so, I told my history teacher, I wanted my project to be on the transatlantic slave trade, but my teacher was like, well, that's a very heavy and serious topic.

Are you sure you don't want to do the Hindenburg or something maybe a little lighter? And I was like, no, I can't handle this. I'm like, after all, I just had my dad buy me for my birthday, the Afrikaan Encyclopedia, which is an encyclopedia on Black history, including Black American and African-American history, ‘cause that's how big of a nerd I was already in the eighth grade that I got an encyclopedia. I, for those of you who are in Gen Z, an encyclopedia is what Google was back in the nineties and early two thousands and Wikipedia. It was in paper form and you had to go to it all the information you couldn't figure out ‘cause you didn't have cell phones or steady internet.

So, I spent a month researching the transatlantic slave trade. As soon as I came home from school, I was reading books, whether it was American Girls’ portrayal of a transplanted slave trade or any books I can get my hands on. I would say this was one of the first times I became obsessed with a project, that I was going to make this history fair project interesting to me. 

When it came down to the project requirements we finally got, after we went through the research phase, being the big science nerd, I was like, okay, this is when I get my project requirements. And I remember getting this piece of paper and it said you had to do a poster board, and then you had to do a physical model or whatever of your history fair project was.

And a light bulb went off in my head and I said, I am building a slave ship. So, I remember coming home and I went to my parents, and I said, Hey, I'm building a slave ship. I remember my mother looking at me and going, why? Like before she could stop herself. And my dad was like, what do you mean a slave ship?

Because you have to remember to a pair of Black American parents... Why on earth would your child from the South want to build a slave ship when you have spent generations escaping slavery? And when I explained to them was for a history fair project, my dad that was like, Oh, okay... As soon as she realizes how much work this is, she's going to abandon it, but we'll entertain this project. 

I immediately was like, Hey, I know Saturdays is your time to go to Home Depot. I need to go to Home Depot and figure out what materials I need, how much it costs, so I can raise the money and sell the candy to make my slave ship replica. And at that point, I believe my parents realized I wasn't joking.

I wanted my slave ship. So, I started brainstorming with my dad. Hey, I want people to walk into my replica slave ship. And when they walk in, they see on the walls, pictures of how slaves were actually stored on board. I want them to see chains. Like we can get the chains I just saw home Depot. I can also have on the walls, like little figurines showing the items being left behind in their homeland.

Like, this is what I want, but my dad was like, Oh, so we're building a museum exhibit for a history fair project. And I said, yes. He was like, okay, we're not that rich. Can I ask you, can we scale it down to a one-tenth replica of a slave ship? I said, totally reasonable. Now, I'm seeing the price of the plywood. Totally makes sense.

This is probably a two, $3,000 project. Let's scale it down to like $150 to $400. Totally understood. And for two months, every afternoon, every weekend, me and my father were cranking out... I don't know if people have parents who remember Bob Villa, but Bob Villa had a weekend show where he showed you how to do woodworking and basic crafts around your house.

We bought every woodworking book from Bob Villa in order to understand how to do templates and build the ship. After two months, I was ready for history fair. I saw what everybody else was doing for history fair. And I was like, pssssh, you don't have a replica slave ship. Like you have a papier-mache Hindenburg, or you have like a helicopter or you have a Wright Brothers prototype plane made of toothpicks and hot glue.

Like you don't have a slave ship that can actually float made entirely of wood with pictures inside that you can see of the slaves laying down, like, no, you cannot touch my history fair project. And I remembered doing the first round of judging for history fair. And I was so confident I was gonna make it to the semi-finals cause how could we not, looking at my competition?

And I remember walking up to my history teacher and she looked at me and looked at the ship and I remembered I had a smile from ear to ear as I gave my presentation. And she uttered the words, it's too happy. And I was like, what? Like almost as if someone just told you, you are not the father or you are the father on Maury, it was that moment of shock that I couldn't process what she was talking about. And she said your slave ship, despite being in burgundy and it's a feeling of dread, there's not enough blood on your poster board. And so, your project didn't meet the requirements for the topic you selected. 

And I was really confused because when the slaves were transported across the Atlantic, they didn't see blood. They saw sunny skies, calm blue waters, even when slaves were thrown overboard, it was still a bright sunny day.

So, I chose a blue poster board… to juxtapose my ship in front of it, to what the reality was beyond the ship, but to have a teacher completely destroy three to four months of work, that was my mom and dad and my sisters helping me bring this vision to life, because it seemed too cheery… And almost gave me a failing grade because of it.

I was devastated and I know for some people they're like, Oh, I was just history fair. Who cares about history fair? To me, it was the blood, sweat, and tears I put into something and how I went above and beyond and made it to something I was interested in despite the initial topic being boring upon first glance.

And so, me and my father kind of buried the fact that I didn't do well with that history fair, rarely mentioned it… And fast forward, six years later, my dad passed away and… It was one of the memories I cherish for years was that moment building with him and realizing that that was the first time I saw a hint of what my dad's dreams were because unbeknownst to me ’til the last year of his life, his dream was to be an engineer.

And he wasn't able to go to his dream school, which was MIT, because his guidance counselor told him that it wasn't a realistic dream despite his high grades, high sat scores and his letter recommendations got from top professors in the Chicago area where he was born and raised. And the words she uttered that devastated him was you will be a better trash collector than an engineer.

And she refused to send that letter of recommendation, which was the only thing he needed to apply to MIT. My entire childhood, I never heard the words MIT uttered until I got a mysterious letter years after we built that slave ship from MIT inviting me to their summer program. And I didn't know what MIT was.

I only knew them for the nuclear bomb. So, I'm in 11th grade receiving this letter thinking is some kind of scam. Like you're familiar with like certain honor societies, like once you start getting high SAT scores, you start getting those scammy letters and you're going, you want me to pay to be in your book kind of letter…

So, I just missed this letter from MIT as one of those scams. And my dad was like, no, you are totally going to the summer program. I don't care if I have to take out a loan, you're going. I was like, I don't even know what this place is. As far as I know, Boston is cold. It's up North. I have to get on the plane. What is this all about? 

And it was not till the last year of him being with us did he tell me the story about how his dream school was MIT, and how devastated he was that he never thought he could be an engineer and only made engineering his hobby. And then when he had all girls, myself included, he thought that dream was permanently destroyed.

And building that ship with me was the moment he realized that maybe that dream wasn't destroyed and he just had to go about it a different way. And when I was accepted to MIT with no pressure for him, no hints from him that I found my way there, he realized that what he saw as a failure in himself to realize his true talents, wasn't a failure.

It was the universe, guiding him to open the door for me. And so, I thought, Oh, well, at least I had that moment with him and he saw that. But fast forward to a couple months ago, his best friend called me out of the blue. And he was like, Oh, well, I just felt, I needed to tell you this funny story. And I was like, well, what's the funny story you're trying to tell me.

I'm like, it's been 10 years. Like, what other story could you possibly tell me about my father? And he's like, remember when you were building that slave ship. And I was like, Oh God, yes, I remember this. And he was like, Oh, do you know? Your dad never knew how to work with wood before that project, that he was calling me and all of his friends from childhood up to figure out how to build that slave ship with you and try to act like he knew what he was doing, because he felt that was his first test that he was supposed to be an engineer. And he was like, I will not fail my child. It’s a history fair project... It goes to show that something I saw as an initial failure was not a failure.

It was course correction because what I can look at now, 16, 17 years later was that incident. Despite me feeling like, Oh, I'm not going to build anything again, like screw history fair, these people don't respect me. They don't appreciate my talent. They don't appreciate my parents’ talent. It was a moment for my dad to realize he wasn't a failure.

And it was a moment for me later in life to realize I understand what it's like to have a talent and not have someone in the education system support it and being that diamond in the rough until a random opportunity strikes for you to showcase what you have to offer. If it wasn't for that moment, I wouldn't have founded Mbadika.

Cause I wouldn't have had that moment where my father understood that I was the realization of his dream. And, Mbadika, despite it sounding weird means idea. And we believe in ideas and those who create them regardless of who they are, where they come from or what they've gone through to get to this point, because everyone has an idea or some kind of purpose for this world.

And for those who are older, you may remember the Robert Rodriguez movie Grindhouse and there's a mini movie in there, Planet Terror in which the lead character has several useless skills that you're like, there is no way this could be applied to the real world. But my favorite quote from that movie is that there's always a moment that a useless skill is useful.

And I apply that to everything in life. You never know what failure teaches you or exposes you to something that will prove useful or game-changing for you later on in life. So, for over two, almost two decades, that slave ship project was probably my greatest emotional, personal ego-related failure. And to see the dividends it paid on later was amazing.

Also side note to also have the sweet revenge of seeing that teacher later on in life and being able to go like, Hey you, and she knows where you went to school and where you ended up at and being able to say remember that history fair project is so sweet, but at the same time, it wasn't as fulfilling as I thought it would be because she said that night, I immediately had regret when my daughter explained to me how much work you put into that project and that you actually built that slave ship with your parents, step-by-step, and you spent your spare time in the cafeteria sketching out how to do that project. She said I couldn't come back because my ego wouldn't let me go back and change that grade.

And she goes, but now seeing where your life ended up, that I understood it was something that you were passionate about. And my daughter's life and the children in this community's life is better for the work that you do and you have to go, this is not the like Hollywood revenge story I wanted, but thank you.

KB: I'm not crying. You're crying. 

NM: Right? So even in the failures, you have to realize that the failures are not only your failures to help you grow, but sometimes they're the failures of other people and you can't take it personally because they also have to go through their own failures. And sometimes, thankfully in my case, in this situation, they realized it.

And now with close friends, like she can even comment on my Facebook posts. I do allow that. So, it's one of those failure stories I appreciate. 

KB: And I think it's so interesting because by the conventional evaluation, you didn't fail the project, but you didn't get the grade you wanted, but in every other aspect of that project in accomplishing your goal in doing the research, in creating this artifact with your father, you achieved something and learned through it and grew through it, which I think is a really interesting way to reflect on failures that we have in our lives, who defined it as a failure and who defines it as a success? 

NM: I think for years, even when I graduated high school, I saw that project as a failure because I got a low C… it's sad even when you're in middle school and things like that are emotionally hurtful for you. And people are like a low C is great.

I'm like, but a low C was the same grade as somebody who literally the night before history fair, went to the supermarket and bought a bottle of Coke and said that is her project. It just had different pictures of Coke throughout the century. And knowing that I spent three months and every spare time I've could have been playing a video game or going to a movie theater and she only had to spend a night.. was how I saw it as a failure, either that she works smarter, not harder. And I had to do every extra credit assignment known to man in that school and clean up that classroom for extra credit for the next two months to keep my grade, at least at a high B. And I know people are like, but you didn't get an F. I'm like, yeah, but… It was close, like it was close. 

KB: It was so close! So, how has that experience really kind of crafted the way you work with students in Mbadika? So it sounds like, I mean, tell us a little bit about what you do there and how you help encourage these young entrepreneurs and idea makers. 

NM: What I love about that experience is that it helps me realize I have a very unique way of seeing challenges and seeing problems or assignments, and it's okay to approach it differently because in our society, that's what gets the big payout or return on investment or reward. The problem I realized as I got older is who those ideas come from sometimes is more of the issue than the actual ideas.

And so when I started Mbadika, my goal was I want this to be about ideas and those who create them. I want it to be a platform for those with great ideas to get the knowledge and resources necessary to bring those ideas to reality, regardless of where they came from, which is usually a barrier in and of itself.

And the word Mbadika came from my idol from that actual time period in middle school. So while I was researching about the transatlantic slave trade, I came across this Dear America spinoff series called the Royal Diaries. And they had a royal diary of this African queen named Queen Nzinga of Angola.

And my teacher was like, Oh, you absolutely have to read it. It's about a Black girl. And I was like, Oh my God, they have a book about a Black girl who's a queen. Yes. I need to read this. And when I read the story, I remembered it was like one or 2:00 AM. And I was sneaking with like a secret flashlight I had in my bedroom.

And I made a promise that if I can be as bold and as brave as this woman, that I will name something in her honor, and to realize that that moment of researching for that project gave me the confidence to tackle other challenges in middle school that endangered me from graduation as well as high school.

When people start to realize, Oh, I actually am going to have to put more effort or work towards this particular student because she wants to achieve the same things as her peers, but we're not prepared for that or someone who looks like her going that route. She had always been a role model to me. And so, when I got to MIT, one of the things I wanted to make sure I did was pay it forward.

And so, that's how Mbadika got started. And when I am working with my students, sometimes they look at me as a Queen Nzinga, like I'm the first Black female they know who does engineering and to them engineering, it's like what I see on TV. And they see this bubbly, smiley, excited character who's like, Oh my God, you want to make a Thor body pillow that could sense body temperature in case somebody's sick?

Which Thor are we talking about? Is it Thor: Ragnarok? Is it Thor: Dark World? Is it Thor in Avengers one, two… which Thor are we focusing on instead of, Oh, that sounds like a dumb project. I'm the one who's like, you know what I like Thor, let's do it. These are the sensors you need. These are the fabrics we'll look into you.

Let me know which ones you want and let's get started and taking those ideas seriously, as long as they don't cause harm to them or anybody else, is night and day for my students. And that's because I have the empathy of what it's like on the other side of having someone who doesn't understand your idea or your vision, cutting you off at the knee caps, whether intentionally or unintentionally. And so that brand empathy, I think is what makes Mbadika and our work stand out and side note, I had to do a history fair again in high school.

I was like, I am not doing a physical project. I'm going to make a documentary because I'm not touching anything physical because of how traumatic that experience was with the slave ship. And so I made a documentary film about the slave trade because I could not let that topic go cause I was going to get my top grade, and I made it to the semi-finals for the regional history fair with the documentary.

I said, Oh, well that was great. I at least now feel better that I at least show I can do a history fair project. But what I didn't realize was that… little pettiness that was inside of me, forced me to say you see something else that I'm good at, which is presenting, narrating and video. So now our work with Mbadika is not only in the classroom.

It's also on video and digital platforms where I bring the skills I learned from that documentary to actually helping them students unravel how to bring their ideas to reality. And once my students see that story, you see how all those little failures or petty moments I had actually led to a successful career as an adults makes them go, Oh, it's okay that my path is winding, and I'm like working at Dunkin donuts right now and Prime Art, maybe I'm going to make sustainable fashion from wasted donuts, which was one of my student’s ideas. I'm like ,actually people are using banana leaves, you could use leftover sugar and turn it into a renewable plastic.

Cause she was like, Oh, Oh my God, this is what I need to hear. And I was like, yeah, I got you.

KB: Creating origin stories every day for people, right? 

NM: Yes. That is our hope and dream. And I feel like after 10 years of Mbadika,  I can safely say that is what we're doing. We're making our own Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but for ideas is what I like to joke with my team.

KB: Well, that is fantastic. And thank you so much for sharing your story. It was wonderful. And thank you for all you do with the students you work with. All I can say is, please tell me the ship was a prop in the documentary. Did the ship make an appearance in the documentary? 

NM: No, I was not that petty, but I am proud to say in the documentary, I was a little petty.

And at this time, Barack Obama wasn't president, he was a sitting Senator for the great state of Illinois. And I did include a little bit of his DNC speech. And when he said we knock down ideas before we allow them to move properly because of where they come from. I did include that in the documentary.

And a couple of years later, my father was like, do you remember when you put that in your documentary? I said, I sure do. As soon as he was inaugurated. So, I did have my petty moment. It just wasn't with a slave ship. 

KB: Well, Thanks so much for chatting with us. This was wonderful and best of luck with everything that Mbadika has going on moving forward. And it was wonderful to talk with you. 

NM: Thank you so much. And thank you so much for providing this platform for me to share my failure story and hopefully to whoever's listening , if it provides you a little bit more of relief of where life is leading… You never know when your failures are going to lead to your next success. So, just thank you so much. It was an absolute pleasure.

KB: Netia’s story is one of perseverance and determination. She did not let a failed project stop her from going after her goals. Ultimately though, the failure wasn't hers, the failure was that someone else did not recognize her success. She turned that lesson into a place where all ideas can bloom, and hopefully, she has inspired you to live by your own definition of success.

Thank you for listening to the Failure Bites podcast. Be sure to subscribe so you don't miss an episode. Also, we would like to hear from you. Leave us a review. Thanks for listening. This podcast was produced by NIU STEAM at Northern Illinois University. Your future, our focus.

Related Stories