Excellence Through Adversity with Merryl Tengesdal
Merryl Tengesdal is no stranger to adversity. Despite the deck being stacked against her Merryl rose through the ranks of the U.S. military eventually becoming the first and only African American woman to fly the United States Air Force’s U-2 “Dragon Lady” high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Now retired, she reflects on her experiences in the military and inspires students, business leaders, and organization to defeat the odds and excel in their endeavors.
Mental and Physical Strength
Mental and physical health are inextricably intertwined. As a leader in the Air Force, Merryl Tengesdal had to ensure peak personal health in order to meet and overcome the physiological challenges that come with flight. Now retired, she shares actionable advice and her unique insights to inspire you meet your wellness goals.
Groundbreaking aviator Merryl Tengesdal shares her riveting story and leadership expertise in motivating events across industries
Aviation pioneer Colonel Merryl Tengesdal (retired) offers high-impact motivation for audiences of all kinds with her riveting stories of barrier-breaking achievement. As the first (and only) African American woman USAF U-2 pilot, Tengesdal is no stranger to adversity – and she weaves powerful lessons of resilience and creative problem-solving throughout her meaningful talks. Rising through the ranks of the U.S. Military, the revered maverick is now a sought-after commentator and reality TV star – from a season on CBS’ hit reality show Tough as Nails, to appearances on PBS’ UNLADYLIKE20202: The Bessie Coleman Story and the Smithsonian Channel’s Air Warrior. In her acclaimed memoir, Shatter the Sky: What going to the stratosphere taught me about self-worth, sacrifice, and discipline, as well as in sought-after motivational keynotes, the dedicated STEM advocate reflects on her experiences in the military and inspires students, business leaders, and organization to defeat the odds, overcome self-doubt, and reach new heights.
Watch Merryl Tengesdal’s interview for the National Museum of USAF >>
Event Success Story: Merryl Tengesdal gets a rave review from a trade association for retail executives
The first and only African American woman USAF U-2 pilot and competitor on season two of CBS’ Tough as Nails, MERRYL TENGESDAL spoke to approximately 300+ key executives from the retail industry as well as current Women Impacting Storebrand Excellence (WISE) members. Tengesdal shared lessons from her journey, including how she overcomes biases to reach her goals. She also touched on diversity, equity, and inclusion. After hearing her speak, the host shared, “[The event] went amazing! Col. Merryl was phenomenal and is getting rave reviews.” Some of the ovations from the crowd included, “Col. Merryl Tengesdal ROCKS!!! Thanks for your exceptional service and paving the way for all of us and future generations! You are my HERO! ... I love this - let your performance and your professionalism shine through - amazing advice. Thank you! ... I am on the edge of my seat. The wisdom and confidence is off the charts. ... I could listen to you speak all day Col. Merryl!"
Watch her speak at WISE about her non-linear career trajectory > >
Watch her speak at WISE about getting out of your own way > >
Maverick Merryl Tengesdal defies expectations and inspires audiences with her life story
The First and Only African American Woman USAF U-2 Pilot MERRYL TENGESDAL shares her compelling life story and the experiences that shaped her - from her childhood in the Bronx; to her years deployed in the Middle East, South America, and Asia; to marriage and motherhood and everything in between. She is a star on the hit reality show Tough As Nails and author of Shatter the Sky: What going to the stratosphere taught me about self-worth, sacrifice, and discipline. The title of her book reveals so much about the woman herself and her outlook on life. In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Tengesdal has become one of the most compelling maverick women in aviation, captivating audiences through mesmerizing storytelling, and propelling them on their own journey to reach their goals.
What her speak about her ethos of self-worth, sacrifice, and discipline >>
Speaker Spotlight: Merryl Tengesdal
As the first and only African American woman USAF U-2 Pilot and a retired Colonel with over 23 years of aviation and leadership experience in both the Navy and the Air Force, MERRYL TENGESDAL inspires audiences with her tales of breaking barriers and overcoming adversity. A true storyteller, Tengesdal holds audiences at rapt attention as she shares her career and experiences with audiences as an example of how to reach their own goals. Tengesdal details how to use strategic planning to achieve a successful life by overcoming self-doubt, working through adversity, and looking at problems through a creative lens. She’s frequently in the spotlight, from being a competitor on season 2 of CBS’ Tough as Nails, appearing on Preston Ewell’s Mettle Mentality Podcast to speak about pride, perseverance, and her experiences, the Ready For Takeoff podcast where she discussed her life and career, being featured in an interview at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, appearing in PBS’s Unladylike, a story of Bessie Coleman, and more. She's the author of Shatter the Sky: What going to the stratosphere taught me about self-worth, sacrifice, and discipline, and the title of her book reveals so much about the woman herself and her outlook on life. Audiences leave Tengesdal’s events motivated, inspired, and ready to reach new heights.
Colonel Merryl Tengesdal (ret.) is the first and only African American woman to fly the United States Air Force’s U-2 “Dragon Lady” high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. As a former Naval Aviator and Air Force Combat Pilot, Merryl has flown over 3,400 flight hours including 330 combat hours in six different rotary and fixed wing aircraft. She has been deployed worldwide supporting combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and military operations in South America, the Caribbean, and the Horn of Africa.
Tengesdal has extensive command and senior leadership experience including Deputy Operations Group Commander and Inspector General for the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Director of Operations and Commander for the 9th Physiological Support Squadron. As the first female selected to be Commander of Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, Detachment 2 at Palmdale, CA, she led the oversight of a multi-billion-dollar depot-level maintenance, repair, and developmental testing program for the U-2. She retired in 2017 from the Pentagon in her last assignment as the Director of Inspections for the Air Force Inspector General, where she oversaw USAF’s conventional, nuclear and special access inspections program for 860,000 Airmen.
Since her retirement, Tengesdal has become a highly sought-after motivational speaker for industry, non-profit organizations and educational institutions on a wide range of topics including diversity and leadership, applying military leadership lessons to business enterprises and women in leadership. Tengesdal has a keen interest in promoting efforts to increase women and children of color in STEM.
Tengesdal is a Reality Television Star and cast member on season 2 of CBS’s uplifting, reality competition show Tough As Nails and promotes increased minority involvement in the Trades. She has also appeared as a commentator on PBS’s UNLADYLIKE2020: The Bessie Coleman Story (2020) and as a technical consultant to Steven Spielberg on Bridge of Spies (2015).
Tengesdal holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Newhaven, a Masters in Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle University, and is a graduate of the non-resident programs at the Air Command and Staff College and Air War College. She was inducted into the 2019 Gathering of Eagles Foundation as an aviation pioneer.