During Covid, when the lockdowns first began, I found myself watching a lot of Netflix in my downtime. After a while, I started to feel bad that I was spending time watching Netflix and wasn’t really learning anything, so I made a commitment to spend one hour every day to learn something new. I started by learning and watching everything there was to know about the dinosaurs. (I’ve always been interested in dinosaurs ever since The Wall Street Journal wrote about the day the dinosaurs died.) From there I got interested in the cosmos and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I watched all of the cosmos videos then began watching “How the Universe Works,” which is where I discovered Hakeem Oluseyi.
As I dug into each episode, I was amazed by Oluseyi’s ability to explain extremely complex material in a way that I could understand. I listened to him untangle the mysteries of the universe in his calming Southern accent and was simply amazed by his intellect.
I googled him and discovered he had an amazing story and that he wrote and narrated the book “Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Streets to the Stars” which I immediately downloaded it on Audible. I was mesmerized by the book, and even more so by its details about where Oluseyi came from that inspired where he is today.
Since then, I’ve had the privilege to introduce him twice within a three-week span – first to our top producers at the HomeServices Stronger Together event in San Diego and then earlier this week in Boston at Summit.
Born James Edward Plummer Jr., Oluseyi was sent out west to live with his aunt at the age of 10. His genius was evident — people called him “the professor” and he learned to play bridge at age six— but so were his challenges. He lived with nine different households over the span of 16 months and went to five different schools, often landing in dangerous neighborhoods. He scored a 162 on an IQ test in the sixth grade. He smoked marijuana daily by age 13, living as Oluyesi described it, “like a feral animal.”
Despite his obvious gift, he spent much of his teen years in rural Mississippi, where he balanced advanced courses with the complications of life on the streets – poverty, drugs, and crime. In high school, he taught himself to program and coded parts of Einstein’s theory of relativity into a game, which won first place in physics at the Mississippi State Science Fair. He graduated high school at the top of his class.
Oluseyi had to join the Navy in order to pay for college, but a medical condition prevented him from serving, so he enrolled at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi.
At Tougaloo College, a Harvard-educated professor named David Teal noticed Oluseyi’s promise and encouraged him to join a meeting of African American physicists happening at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What Oluseyi took from that meeting was clear: He had to enroll in graduate school if he wanted to be a real physicist.
Oluseyi was accepted to the prestigious graduate program at Stanford University and even had famed African American astrophysicist Arthur B.C. Walker as his Ph.D. advisor, helping him find his way through the challenges of the program. Walker was one of the first three Black astrophysicists in America and, like Oluseyi, came from a military background. Walker’s former doctoral student, Sally Ride, was the first U.S. woman to go into space. Oluseyi told NPR that Walker “turned me into a gentleman and a scientist.”
After graduating with his doctorate in physics, he changed his name to Hakeem Muata Oluseyi to honor his African ancestors.
And the astrophysicist’s will to inspire was just beginning; Oluseyi made it his mission to motivate more Black students to become astrophysicists. In 2008, after receiving a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, Oluseyi traveled to South Africa to teach. After his instruction, the students passed their exams at the top 20% of their class.
So, what’s the message? There are so many highlights to Oluseyi’s incredible career—he taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; was NASA’s lead space science educator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate; was named Visiting Robinson Professor at George Mason University—and they all occurred because of his willingness to find the way to persevere from his difficult beginnings. His success may be as unlikely as our ability to interact with intelligent life-forms that inhabit planets far away and yet, it happened, proving that no matter where you came from, if you have a dream, there’s no limit to where you can go.
This article is adapted from Blefari’s weekly, company-wide “Thoughts on Leadership” column from HomeServices of America.