With a 2-year-old daughter at home and an itch to try something new, Sheila Boyington did what few employees had the courage to do 30 years ago and asked her boss at a Chattanooga engineering company if she could telecommute and come into the office once a week.
“Back then, no one was allowed to work at home,” says Boyington, co-founder, CEO and president of Thinking Media, a Chattanooga-based educational technology firm. “Everybody had to go to the office, and particularly for professional jobs.”
Her rare move to home-based work, she recalls, “was so notable that they did a little story about me on Channel 3 News, and my daughter was running around in front of me. It was just the idea that women could work at home and raise their family and still have their toe in their professional job, because that just wasn’t done back then. Today that seems absolutely crazy, but it was fairly new then.”
Boyington, 61, is still unafraid to blaze trails. Spurred by an unrelenting passion for what she does, she and husband/business partner Dane recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of Thinking Media, which in 2021 earned a spot on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies, with a reported 40% three-year growth rate.
A firm believer in paying it forward, Boyington currently serves as the national states chair for Million Women Mentors, a network dedicated to encouraging females around the world to pursue and succeed in STEM fields. Other leadership positions include vice chair for Erlanger Health System, board member of the Foundation of the College System of Tennessee, and member of the Brainerd High School Institute of Entrepreneurship Advisory Board.
On Nov. 1, Girl Scouts of the Southern Appalachians honored Boyington, a former Girl Scout and leader of her daughters’ troop, at its annual Trefoil Society Luncheon at The Chattanooga Golf and Country Club.
“Sheila is an exemplary role model for girls, has an unparalleled passion for STEM, and believes in the Girl Scout philosophy of building girls of courage, confidence and character,” says Lynne Fugate, the organization’s CEO. “It is so important for girls to have mentors like Sheila, and we are lucky to have her as part of the Girl Scout community.”
Not surprising, Boyington was a whiz kid in science and math. She was also good at motivating others and each year hosted a carnival in her backyard in Brevard, North Carolina, to raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Her parents – her mom, a lawyer and her dad, a chemical engineer, who met in the States after immigrating from India – were among the first from their native country to permanently move to America, Boyington says. “At that time, no one hardly was staying in the U.S. Now we have an Indian as a prime minister (in the United Kingdom). If that’s not full circle, I don’t know what is, because they occupied India and now India is leading them.”
It wasn’t until her family moved to the more cosmopolitan city of Tampa when she was 15 that she started to feel like she belonged. “I spent a lot of my childhood having to explain to people what was Indian because we were the only Indians in town [in Brevard] for a long time,” Boyington remembers. “Black kids thought I was white, and white kids thought I was Black. There was no brown at that time.
“There were definitely difficult moments of ‘Where do I fit in?’ But all of that is what has made me strong and made me able to persevere in difficult situations in all parts of my life. I don’t wish that was any different, to be honest, because it made me who I am today.”
She and her future husband met in chemistry class at the University of Florida. After marrying, they moved west, where she worked as an engineer and earned her master’s degree in civil environmental engineering from the University of California at Berkeley before heading to Chattanooga in 1988, where they both found work in their field.
But Boyington’s engineer dad, who by now was a consultant for international companies, believed the couple were destined for greatness and urged them to start their own business, even providing angel funds the first year.
The internet hadn’t really taken hold, but the Boyingtons were already predicting the future of computer-based training, now known as e-learning, so in 1997 they officially launched Thinking Media.
“For a long time, people thought we were teaching people how to use a computer,” Boyington says. “We were not. We were teaching people content using the computer as a vehicle. And that is still largely what we do today.”
Initially, they created training resources for the DuPont plant and other local clients but quickly learned that, if they wanted to scale the business in a big way, they needed to invent a product they could sell multiple times.
Researching the market, they discovered that WorkKeys, a career readiness program run by ACT, the nonprofit college testing company, offered few training materials. Beating out a number of qualified competitors, the Boyingtons created the first online WorkKeys curriculum.
By the time they sold it to ACT in 2010, the platform had been adopted by 7,000 organizations in 28 states. It is widely considered the most effective system for improving basic skills, with millions of users to date throughout the U.S. and abroad.
Thinking Media now focuses on Learning Blade, a “toolbox” of online lessons, projects and activities that introduce middle school students to STEM opportunities. “We’re really excited about getting more kids to consider STEM and computer science careers, but specifically girls and the underserved,” Boyington says. “We really believe that’s where the talent is and we should be doing more to draw them in.”
Studies have shown that girls are drawn to career paths that help people, Boyington says, and STEM professions don’t always come across that way. “We don’t typically take kids all the way to the finish line to show them the connection on how being an engineer or being in tech or being a programmer or being in finance can help people.”
Teacher feedback for Learning Blade has been tremendous, Boyington asserts. “We are depending too much on our teachers to raise our kids, almost, everything from social or emotional learning to academics to what they do after school. We’re just giving them so much responsibility, which is unfortunately just part of the culture that we live in, with working parents and parents with problems and all of that.
“I’ve had [teachers] be on our webinars when we’re showing our resources and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I can sleep at night now, because I don’t have to sit up all night and create these resources for my students to use.’”
Of working with Dane, whom she calls “my best friend on earth,” Boyington says, “We’re just a really great combination. We’re both engineers but we have different sides of what we do. His technical ability is unmatched, and my ability to network and create opportunity is unmatched. And together we’ve just been very, very successful.”
Central to her personal success, she adds, are hard work, perseverance and the networking savvy that has always come naturally. “Finding the right people that we see as advocates and will speak for you – that’s one of the things that women are not very good at, asking people to promote you and kind of build you up. That is one thing I’ve never been shy about. I can talk to anyone. I can talk to the governors and I can talk to the plain people. I don’t differentiate, because everybody’s important in this world.”
What’s more, she says, if she doesn’t know how to do something, she won’t stop until she finds a way. “For my first job, my boss gave me that same review when I was 27 years old. He said, ‘You know, the one thing about you we love is that we’ll tell you something and if you don’t know how to do it, you are not afraid to go ask and find the right person that does.’ That’s always been one of the keys to my success – not saying ‘I don’t know’ but saying, ‘OK, let’s figure this out.’”
Thinking Media recently released its newest offering, Ready for Industry, which prepares job seekers in late high school, community college and workforce training centers for interviews and basic entry-level tasks and helps them figure out the career paths that suit them and how to get there. “What we’re most proud of is continuing to innovate and create resources that no one else has really thought of,” Boyington says.
And her goals for the future?
“To be a grandmother,” she quips, laughing. “I think anybody who knows me knows that already. That’s one of my goals that’s left in my life that I haven’t done yet.”
Joking aside, Boyington couldn’t be more pleased with how her two grown daughters have turned out. Priya is a high-level executive at DoorDash in San Francisco, and Nisha works for a leading HR consulting firm in Chicago. “They have great starts to their lives,” Boyington says. “Nothing makes a parent any prouder than the work their kids do.”
As organized as she is, Boyington nixes the notion of starting a new year with specific goals. “I’ve always believed that my life is intertwined, so I don’t live my personal and my professional life as separate. My goals are definitely around family first, no question about it.”
As for Thinking Media, she says, “We just want to continue to innovate and collaborate with the right people in different states to improve our workforce for our country. We’ve had a lot of political [unrest] and uncertainty and upheaval given COVID.
“It doesn’t really matter how much money you have and things of that nature. It’s the impact that you make on people because we come here alone, we’re leaving alone and all we take is the love that people have shown you over your life. My goal is to continue to pour into others and make sure I can help the next generation behind me. That is what motivates, quite frankly, Dane and me both to do what we do. And we are doing well [by] doing good.”