Five women. Five unique paths leading to five similar stories. Kalpana Sundar, Lynn Kehoe, Letti Bozard, Fallon Taylor, and Patty Wagstaff each share their upbringing, their journeys into adulthood, and the choices they made along the way. None of these women knew their lives would bring them to where they are now. The picture woven by the tapestry of their stories was a mystery to them until they landed in their respective adventures, and, like magic, they knew it was right for them.
Patty Wagstaff, a world-renowned aerobatic pilot, grew up in California and Japan thanks to her father, a pilot for Japan Airlines. Even though she was always around larger planes, she never had the opportunity or desire to be around the smaller models. In her early adulthood, she traveled extensively, even building a boat then traveling by river through Australia. Eventually, she moved to Alaska, where her job took her to many remote locales in the Alaskan Bush. The only way to reach those places was by small plane or air taxi, but her first experience in something other than a jet turned out to be anything but routine.
The plane’s takeoff failed and the small plane crashed, rolling off the runway. Dazed and covered in leaking fuel, Patty managed to crawl out of the plane basically unscathed. She remembers laughing at how her knees were shaking uncontrollably and would not stop. Once the adrenaline faded and she realized she was fine, one thought crossed her mind, “I think it’s time I learned how to fly.”
So she began taking lessons and met her then-husband. He encouraged her to get all of her ratings and, thanks to a student loan program offered by the state of Alaska, she was able to do just that. She wasn’t sure where this path would take her, yet she knew one thing for certain: she did not want to just fly other people around. As a child, she loved going fast, performing daring moves in gymnastics, standing on her head — in other words, adventure was in her blood. When she attended her first airshow, watching the aerobatic planes performing struck a chord in her soul. She didn’t know how to be an aerobatic pilot, but she knew she was going to learn.
Soon she bought her first aerobatic plane but, at first, had many doubts. Patty remembers asking her husband, “What if I don’t like it?” He responded, “Fly one show, one competition. If you don’t like it, then don’t do it again. If it’s the right path, it will take you where you want to be.” And it was the right path.
By the time Patty moved to St. Augustine, she had flown her way to the top of the aerobatic field. At the height of her career, she was flying between 22-25 shows each year worldwide. She fought against preconceived expectations of being a female pilot in a male-dominated industry. She often heard comments like, “Oh isn’t that cute,” when she would perform. Men mostly didn’t take her seriously, but she refused to let them block her success. Rather, she used their “ignorance,” as she calls it, as fuel to propel her through the obstacles set by those who doubted she had much to offer the aerobatic world.
The turning point came when she won her first competition. There were many men who did not like it. Suddenly, her challenges went from being mild irritations to overt sexism. When she wanted to fly in airshows, she would be told, “Oh thanks, but we already have a woman pilot.” Her response was, “And…? You can’t have more than one?”
But one doesn’t get to be successful without resilience, and Patty Wagstaff has plenty of it. Instead of getting angry with her competitors, she worked to gently educate them by proving her worth, her value, and her skills. Soon, the very men who were intimidated by her became her collaborators and her friends.
In 1997, Patty moved to St. Augustine and joined an already strong aerobatic community here. She spends much of her days teaching the next generation of aerobatic pilots. While she only performs in about 10-12 shows per year now, she keeps busy with her school, producing online training videos and training other pilots around the world. And with women comprising only about 7% of all pilots, she knows she has a great opportunity to open the doors to other women and bring them into the aerobatic world.
Dr. Kalpana Sundar, an Ear, Nose, and Throat surgeon, can relate to fighting an uphill battle in a male-dominated arena. Kalpana has pushed back against negative perceptions her entire life, not only as a female surgeon, but also as a woman of color, of Indian descent. Kalpana had to fight the “old boys club” more times than she cares to remember. At times, giving up seemed tantalizing. She fought even harder, however. When people are condescending, “it makes me feel like I have to do things better, be better because I am held to a higher standard.” She now fights her tendency to work all the time and forces herself to find ways to enjoy life.
So when she was introduced to high-performance racing, she thought it would be fun to try. The first time she climbed into a car with her helmet on, the HANS (Head and Neck Support device) attached and the doors closed, she had a claustrophobic panic attack. She quickly jumped out of the car and had to regroup. She thought, “I can do this.” And she did. She got back in the car and, with a racing heartbeat, fell in love with the sport. “I felt so liberated after completing the race.”
Kalpana has been racing for about two and a half years, mostly in Sebring, Florida. When she began racing, she expected another “old boys club” and geared up for more challenges. Surprisingly, she found the complete opposite. Instead of resistance against women, she encountered men who were collaborators and mentors. “I feel more at home in the racing world than I do in my surgical work. Here, everyone works to help each other improve.”
Kalpana is currently racing against her own times, improving and learning with every race. Each track has a different configuration, and it is always a challenge to make the necessary adjustments to succeed. In a way, racing is like surgery. In surgery, it’s better to be good than fast, so she approaches her racing with similar methodology. “Speed is a by-product of executing the steps correctly over time,” Kalpana reflects. “And for me, driving is a form of meditation.”
While she’s behind the wheel, she cannot think about anything else but driving and what is happening at that moment. By focusing solely on driving, she blocks out everything else in her world. One of her mantras is to stop listening to the noise that surrounds her and listen to what she wants to do. Driving helps her practice that skill.
Lynn Kehoe echoes the sentiment of shutting out the noise. “As women, we tend to sell ourselves short,” she says. “We allow others to make plans for us or tell us we can’t do something and we accept that.” After a successful banking career that included both government and private sector roles, Lynn moved into real estate investment management. After losing the love of her life in 2010, she moved back home to Philadelphia and opened her own real estate consulting practice. While attending a charity event related to her work, she bid on, and won, a day at a race track experience. The experience changed her life in ways she could never have dreamed.
After that day, Lynn knew this was something she wanted to do full time. So she got into racing. She saw a lot of parallels between her work life and the race track — namely, both were male-dominated fields. And being a product of an all-girls high school where she was taught to have her own voice, an idea which married those two concepts began to take shape.
Shortly after that fateful one-day experience at the racetrack, Lynn started Shift Up Now. At its core, the idea was to use motorsports to inspire confidence in girls and women. The reality of the business quickly gained a foothold in Lynn’s racing community, and soon it began it encompass more than just racing.
Shift Up Now now works with the Girl Scouts and other organizations to encourage girls to try new things, to be bold, and develop their confidence. Recently, Lynn and her organization launched a Junior Ambassador program for girls ages 6-15. The program operates mainly through a private Facebook group where the members get advice, tips, and encouragement on racing and how to determine what they might want to pursue career-wise. The group often discusses the “Four Wheels” that drive us: Clarity, Confidence, Courage, and Charity.
Not one to do anything by halves, Lynn admits she has no work-life balance. She is busy building a business and, for her, any endeavor that invokes your passion enables you to find a sense of belonging and peace. It does consume her, she says, but she’s not ready to back away from it. She wants to build her business so the next generation may experience the same exhilaration she felt the first time she raced around the track.
Courage was definitely required for Lynn to step into the racing world, and while the sport is mainly pursued by men, for Lynn there has never been much resistance to her gender. “Motor sports are so different than other sports. It has nothing to with strength but has everything to do with talent. You get into a car, put on your helmet, and no one knows your gender. That is the ultimate playing field.”
There is much more to Lynn’s playing field than just the energy and thrill of racing. She wants to encourage women and help them grow. “I’m never going to be a professional racer, and I don’t speak car,” Lynn quips. What she does speak is courage and confidence,w which is clearly evident in every pore of her being.
Letti Bozard came to the racing world on a circuitous path that did involve “speaking car” to some extent. Letti’s grandparents started Bozard Ford in 1949 and, while she grew up around the dealership, she was never groomed to take over or become part of the heritage that went with her last name. After graduating from Flagler College and branching out on her own journey that did not involve the dealership, Letti got a call from her dad that changed everything.
His diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease led her dad to approach her with the idea of coming home and starting to learn the business. There was never any pressure by her dad to take over, but a more questioning thought process: is this something you could learn to love? Letti knew her education would have to be fast tracked due to her dad’s declining health. Her biggest motivator was that she would have to be able to hold her own when she lost her dad, as her younger brother was still too young to step in and help her.
In the last ten years, Letti has managed the dealership the way she manages all things in her life: one project at a time. Whether its buying additional property, developing and expanding an oil change business, or opening additional brands associated with the dealership, Letti pursues each project with grit and determination. It doesn’t matter if she finds herself in an environment where she doesn’t know what is necessary in order to succeed. “I’m not afraid of those spaces,” she says. “I am comfortable getting into those environments and finding people who can help me learn and grow.” She had grown up around the dealership but didn’t know anything about running one. So she surrounded herself with “the smartest, most experienced and high energy people necessary to move things along.”
Over a decade later, Letti’s success left her looking for new projects. That’s when she met her partner, Blake, who raced dirt late model cars as a hobby. Early in their relationship, she went to one of his races. Standing in the pits watching the racing environment at work, she felt something stirring inside. The entire process intrigued her and, by the end of the night, she had a crazy idea – let’s start our own racing team.
Blake was apprehensive at first, but Letti’s determination and focus quickly convinced him. Within two months, they owned two cars and three motors. The entire project had so many aspects that Letti knew nothing about, that once again, she found herself searching out the people who would mentor and collaborate with her. Like Kalpana and Lynn, she found the male-heavy world of racing inviting and nurturing. “You spend six hours working on a car around everyone else doing the same thing. During those times, the collaborations and teaching and learning really step up.” There is a healthy respect for competition, Letti continues, but off-track, it’s an amazing community.
Always being open and honest with everyone she met that she knew absolutely nothing about racing helped others realize she was truly in it for the passion of the sport, Letti says. Her end goal? Letti hopes to take this race team to the most competitive aspect of the sport — winning a series. She knows that this is not a type of racing that one person dominates for a long time, but she would love to know they went the whole spectrum from hobby racing to a truly respected, competitive team. After that? There are always more projects to take on, like teaching her daughters about the dealership business.
One of Letti’s greatest inspirations is the way her dad never treated her any differently than her brother. “He encouraged us both to learn what we were passionate about.” Letti feels grateful that she grew up in such a supportive family environment, never having to fight male prejudices against women. She realizes she is an anomaly and that most women in her industry do struggle. In racing, however, more women are becoming drivers, but she would enjoy seeing women take on the challenge of team ownership.
Fallon Taylor doesn’t race cars or own racing teams or fly aerobatic planes, but she is nonetheless as gritty and determined as all of these women combined. Growing up in a nomadic lifestyle as a young child, she lived with her parents and traveled in an RV from campground to campground. She had no roots and hated the lifestyle forced upon her. She always felt dirty and smelled of campfire. Eventually, after her parents’ divorce, she settled with her mom in New Mexico until she was 21.
After high school, Fallon entered college intent on obtaining a mechanical engineering degree, until she began working in one of her new husband’s car repair businesses. As those entities became successful and she had more time on her hands, she and her husband started repairing classic and muscle cars as a hobby, then taking them to auction. The cars were sold to collectors, and the tires never touched the road. At one point, Fallon came across an old VW bus for sale on Craigslist and considered restoring it but was hesitant at first.
“It reminded me of my nomadic childhood which I was still unsettled about,” Fallon remembers. But despite her concerns, she restored the bus, selling it on Ebay. This event changed everything for Fallon. The buyers came as a family, complete with dog and camping equipment. These were not collectors. These people were excited about using their newly-restored VW bus. She realized they were the only kind of people she wanted to work with, and she never worked on anything other than a VW again.
The fact that she has created such a successful business alone as a young woman in this industry is a big part of what keeps her going. Getting business is not a problem — she currently has a three-year waiting list for her services — but getting recognized as a legitimate member of the repair and renovation industry is her biggest challenge.
Fallon learned that in order to get her peers’ acknowledgement of her contributions to the industry, she has to “lean in” and make sure they remember she is responsible for the completed work. Often she finds herself on the outside of a group of male peers, and she has to force her way in. “I’m not a feminist or an advocate. I just want to make people realize that there are other ways to achieve their goals,” Fallon says. It’s not just men that are successful at these types of jobs.
Her determination has paid off. Fallon is able to flip her projects in about four-weeks. As she gains more recognition for her work, she is learning to embrace that recognition — not only for herself, but for what it might mean to other women in the industry. Her ideal is to have some female mechanics on her staff, mentoring and challenging them as she was challenged.
Succeeding in the face of challenge is a common thread throughout the tapestry of all five women’s stories. Each woman traveled a different path, and, while they might not know one another, they echo each other’s determination of not giving into the pressures of “how things should be done.” “In anything, like aviation, you might be the only woman, but there is a huge support system out there for women today,” Patty Wagstaff says. Finding a strong support system of others in your field is essential when starting a new adventure.
Lynn Kehoe simplifies it down to one phrase — “Don’t think you can’t do it. ‘No’ is not an option. ‘No’ is giving up.” Instead of asking “Can I do it?” Lynn encourages, “Ask ‘How can I do it?’” Kalpana Sundar believes that all women probably have the courage to do anything if they dig down deep inside. The key, however, is shutting out dissenting opinions that keep you from trying something your gut is telling you to try.
“Build your confidence with knowledge,” Letti Bozard offers. “Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know.” There will always be someone or something that can help you learn, she insists. Finding your way through knowledge, experience, and hands-on work will give you confidence to stand up to someone who might have more experience.
For Fallon Taylor, success is as simple as being prepared to start at the bottom. Learning, doing research before jumping in will help build your confidence as you start a new adventure. Take that time to know what you’re talking about, so others will respect what you want to do.
Confidence. Courage. Knowledge. Support. Each thread weaves together around racetracks, through cloudless skies, and in memories of restored vintage vehicles, binding each of these women to her chosen path and opening doors for others to follow. And beyond those doors might be your greatest adventure yet.
Photography by Richard Dole