Washington — “I’ve always been interested in many things,” said Mary Spio: deep space scientist, groundbreaker in digital cinema, founder of online dating service, marketing and video technology executive. The common source of Spio’s many roles is her ability to seize opportunities.
Spio was born in Syracuse, New York, to Ghanaian parents. When she was 5, her family returned to Ghana. The young Spio was intrigued by outer space — its mysteries and its vast reach. When her mind was back on earth, she loved movies. Neither of these interests made her different from many other children in the world.
She moved back to the United States at age 15 and attended secondary school in North Carolina. “In high school I inquired about [space exploration], but it just seemed like rocket science was in the same category as the Easter Bunny,” she said. “It was in the Air Force that it became a realistic goal.” Following her time in the Air Force, Spio attended Syracuse University and later did graduate work at Georgia Institute of Technology. “When I got my degree, a whole world opened up to me. As an engineer I could work on rockets, I could work on entertainment technology.”
In her first engineering job, Spio worked for a company contracted to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), designing orbital tracks for rockets. After working at Pan American Satellite Corporation, she was recruited to Boeing Company in 2001 as head of satellite communications. At Boeing, Spio started a digital cinema division that developed a secure method for the digital transfer of movies by satellite. She holds the patent for the process used to distribute Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clone, the first motion picture to be filmed completely with a high-definition digital system, as well as Spy Kids, Monsters Inc. and others.
In 2002, Spio surprised her friends and family. Wanting to combine her interest in writing with her knowledge of technology, she left her job to found a magazine for singles called One 2 One Living, which evolved into an online dating service. She had earlier worked on a NASA program sending probes into space. She said, “I thought: ‘Forget communications in outer space. What about communications right here on earth?’”
These days, Spio’s main company is Next Galaxy Media, which develops strategies for online media distribution and marketing. The firm’s clients include Coca-Cola Company, the Sundance Film Festival Music Lodge and the Orlando Chamber of Commerce. “I want to do for video what Google has done for search,” Spio told her alumni magazine at Syracuse.
Spio’s ability to reach diverse career goals has impressed those who have worked with her. Last year, Sandra Peart, trade commissioner for the Consulate General of Canada in Miami, was discussing digital-media technology on behalf of Canadian companies. “Mary’s name kept coming up in all the conversations I had. When I read [about her] background, I certainly had to meet her.”
“Tenacity is the word that comes to mind,” said Peart in summing up her impression. “Failure is not an option for Mary.”
Asked about advice she would give to young people, especially those in Africa, where she was raised, Spio does not hesitate. “Always look at the opportunities around you. Especially Africa. Look for opportunities to better your community, to better yourself, by using technology,” she said. “And mobile technology presents a massive opportunity. I am no different from any of those people. I went through the same challenges of malaria, the afflictions and everything that faces the African child today. But through education, I’ve been able to create a better life for myself and now … my community.”
“We’re in a time in our history when [there is] opportunity for everyone,” she said, “no matter where you are.”