Meet the ‘Geek’ Who Won UVA’s Distinguished Alumna Award

November 27, 2023 By Alice Berry, vfu6kd@virginia.edu Alice Berry, vfu6kd@virginia.edu

Margot Lee Shetterly describes herself as a “geek” growing up.

At her family’s home in Hampton, the future author of “Hidden Figures” read the business section of the newspaper every day, fascinated by the numbers she saw on the page. 

“I would cut the stock tables out of the newspaper and put them in a little binder so I could track them,” Shetterly said.

That geekiness helped her earn a spot at the University of Virginia, where she graduated from the McIntire School of Commerce in 1991. Even before she wrote the best-selling book, “Hidden Figures” – later made into a hit movie – she had a successful career in finance and digital media. 

Shetterly went from Wall Street to consulting for digital media startups, and even had a stint at HBO. In the early 2000s, she moved to Mexico with her husband, writer Aran Shetterly. 

She began working on “Hidden Figures” while living in Mexico, but had returned to the United States by the time the book was published in 2016. It illuminated the overlooked history of the Black women, some of whom Shetterly had known growing up, who made John Glenn’s successful 1962 space launch possible. 

One year after publishing the book, Shetterly won the NAACP Image Award. Now, she’s receiving UVA’s Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center’s 2023 Distinguished Alumna Award.

Since it was established in 1991, the Distinguished Alumna Award has annually recognized an alumna whose contributions at the highest level of her field reflect the spirit of excellence and service a UVA education represents. The award honors a woman who has used her talents as a force for change.

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Previous winners include Barbara Bass, a leader in academic medicine known for her work to improve surgeons’ training; Dawn Staley, an Olympic basketball gold medal winner and Hall of Famer as a player and a national title-winning collegiate coach; and journalist Katie Couric, a former anchor of NBC’s “Today” morning show.

Jane Kulow became aware of Shetterly through the publishing world when Kulow was the director of Virginia Humanities' Virginia Center for the Book. Kulow wanted to involve Shetterly with the Virginia Festival of the Book. Right away, Shetterly stood out.

“The immediate success of the book and the movie put Margot in the spotlight, and the grace with which she reacted to that fame and the demands it made of her was impressive,” Kulow said.

Since publishing “Hidden Figures,” Shetterly served as a historical consultant on the film adaptation, starring Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson, and wrote an illustrated children’s version of the book. She has also continued to work on The Human Computer Project, designed to teach people about the women behind America’s space program.

In telling the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, Shetterly encouraged Black girls to imagine a future in math or science, Kulow said.

“But she made a clear road for the publication of other stories like this, by demonstrating the immense appetite for more stories about our common past,” Kulow said.

Shetterly said winning the Distinguished Alumna Award wouldn’t have been possible without other women.

“I feel like I'm not so much accepting this award on my own behalf, but on behalf of the thousands of women who have come through here since women were allowed at this university, and made it possible for me to come,” Shetterly said.

Shetterly has come a long way since she collected newspaper clippings, but she says she still has the binder in her Charlottesville home.

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications