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Amway Hero Awards 2023: Rochelle Kimbrell


In kindergarten, Rochelle Kimbrell wanted to be an astronaut. “I’ve always been fascinated by weightlessness, defying gravity and speed,” she said. Then, in third grade, she learned a sad truth: not all astronauts go to space. “I thought I wouldn’t want to spend all that time training and then not get chosen to go,” she said. “So I started looking for the next best thing.”

The next best thing, it turned out, could be found just an hour’s drive away from where Rochelle’s family was living in Parker, Colorado. In fourth grade, she heard cadets from the nearby Air Force Academy talk about their experiences, and she was inspired to evolve her dream. Instead of becoming an astronaut, she’d become a fighter pilot.

In some ways, it made perfect sense: Rochelle was the youngest child of South American immigrants whose values included education, self-belief and supporting their children’s dreams and goals, no matter what. And Rochelle was used to being different, since she grew up in a place where she was often the only child of color in the classroom and on the playground.

But in other ways, her dream made no sense at all. She was often told women weren’t allowed to fly fighters and the U.S. military still had restrictions on women in combat roles. Yet for Rochelle, it was all fuel for the fire. “For me, being told ‘no’ just makes the challenge more enticing,” she said. “I figured, ‘That’ll either change or I’ll change it.’”

At 14, she started flying. At 17, she got her pilot’s license. After high school, she joined the Air Force and vividly remembers the first time she soloed on an F-16: “I was 23, maybe 24. I was like, ‘Wait, you’re handing me a $30 million jet?’ It was amazing. That was the dream: to take off and go vertical.” In 2000, she became the first Black woman to serve as a fighter pilot in the U.S. military. However, her career turned out to be anything but a straight line.

“There were absolutely obstacles,” she said. “There were people that didn’t think I should be there.” Her abilities and work ethic changed hearts and minds, but every three years, she would change stations – like every fighter pilot – and need to prove her worth again. “When I showed up at my first squadron,” she said, “they had no place for me to change, they didn’t have any gear that fit. There was not a lot of room built in for having kids. They just hadn’t thought about so many things.” For her, it all points back to the planning that must happen to support true inclusivity.

There are all kinds of different people and values. We can work together to do amazing, phenomenal things.

Rochelle Kimbrell

“More inclusivity is a change I’d love to see,” she said. For Rochelle, that means asking in advance: What does it look like to show up for the first time in a space and feel welcomed? “If we provide that to people,” she said, “how much more are they going to work with their whole self, at 100%? I think that’s an important message.”

The dream of full inclusion, where different people and values come together to accomplish amazing things, is one that she gets to pursue with her Amway team. “At Amway,” she said, “you get among people that are really excited to dream and who value people, value the vision and overcoming obstacles.”

Rochelle retired from the Air Force in 2020. Today, she serves as an emergency services mission pilot and orientation pilot in Civil Air Patrol and a motivational speaker through her “Dare to Dream” platform. “I’ve always loved flying,” she said. “Flying is my freedom and my happy place, and I want to introduce that to as many people as I can.”

Her experience working with 13- to 18-year-old kids in Civil Air Patrol led her to motivational speaking. “Some people have to see it to believe it,” she said. “I realized that masses of people don’t understand the possibilities of things that they can do until they see somebody that is like them that has done it.” Her desire to be a beacon of hope and inspiration for young people led her to make herself available to groups beyond Civil Air Patrol and to tell her story not only to youth, but to other audiences, including corporations and industry.

When asked what she hopes people take away from her story, she said: “I hope that they do dare to dream, that they don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. There’s always a way. I wish more people would just go for it.”