10 People on What It Was Like to Be the First (or Only) at Work

It isn’t easy to do something new. That’s especially true when no one—or no one you can see yourself in—has done it before. Being the first one, or the only one like you, is daunting. And it doesn’t matter on what scale.

It was scary for Adam Rippon to be the first openly gay U.S. athlete to qualify for (and win a medal at) the Winter Olympics, with millions of people watching his journey. It was also scary for Chris Palma to be the first transgender employee to transition at his company.

Lynn Povich felt the pressure as the first-ever female senior editor at Newsweek after she and dozens of women at the magazine filed the first gender discrimination lawsuit in media in 1970. And today, Michael Tubbs contends with the scrutiny that comes with being the first African American and youngest ever mayor of Stockton, California.

They’ve all faced obstacles and dealt with moments of insecurity and doubt. Cesar Vargas fought to be admitted by the New York State Bar despite his undocumented status, sometimes wondering whether he went through law school and the bar exam only to be stymied by one final hurdle outside his control. And when Rumana Ahmed first arrived at her new post in the West Wing, the only hijab-wearing Muslim woman there, she “felt like the world was looking at me and I just kind of wanted to sink into my sofa and disappear.”

But they realized that breaking barriers also means an opportunity to pave the way for those who’ll come next and to change the workplace and the world—whether it’s a deaf engineer at NASA leading sessions on “How to Work with Deaf People for Dummies,” a black ballerina who retired from the stage to teach children of all colors and economic backgrounds, a former Wall Street trader with cerebral palsy trying to transform the way businesses approach disability, or a mom changing careers to fight for a cure for a rare disease her daughter has.

We gathered 10 stories of people who were the first (or the only one) at work in some way to remind you, our readers, that no matter what obstacles are standing in your way, you can go after your goals. We hope these stories will inspire you to break barriers, be brave, and accomplish everything you want to.

“If we’ve never done something before,” Rippon says, it can be terrifying, even if you’re not the first or the only one. “Everyone goes through those struggles,” he adds. But if you don’t limit yourself, “the possibilities are endless.”


I Was the First
Lauren Anderson

Lauren Anderson was nine years old when her mother first took her to see Dance Theatre of Harlem perform. She didn’t know going in what the company was all about. And so the first black dancer running across the stage in a tutu made her gasp…

Keep Reading: As an African American Ballet Star, Lauren Anderson Inspired the Next Generation


I Was the First
Chris Palma

Christopher Palma was living a comfortable life. Sure, the 26-year-old PricewaterhouseCoopers assurance associate was struggling with his gender identity, but he’d already achieved so much since moving to the United States at age 18: learning English, earning a master’s degree, landing the job of his dreams, and reaching financial security. Unhappiness still nagged at him, but it was manageable…

Keep Reading: Chris Palma Was the First Transgender Employee to Transition at His Company


I Was the Only
Rich Donovan

Rich Donovan wanted to be a rocket scientist in high school, which probably would have been a more sensible career for someone with cerebral palsy than the one he ultimately chose…

Keep Reading: Rich Donovan Proved Cerebral Palsy Wouldn’t Hold Him Back on Wall Street


I Was the First
Cesar Vargas

In high school, Cesar Vargas didn’t have a driver’s license. His friends thought it was odd, but he’d brush off their comments, saying he didn’t want one or would get it later. A few years later, his college registrar’s office started asking to see him. Apparently they’d spelled his name wrong on his forms, and all they needed was his social security number to clear it up. But Vargas didn’t have that either…

Keep Reading: Cesar Vargas Opened Doors for Dreamers as One of New York’s First Undocumented Lawyers


I Was the First
Michael Tubbs

Mayor Michael Tubbs’ office in Stockton City Hall looks more like a dorm room than the workplace of a city official. A well-used white board, full of colorful scrawl, sits as the focal piece of the room. Inspirational quotes from the Bible and the rapper J. Cole—“anything is possible, you gotta dream like you never seen obstacles”—shout out from the painted walls he describes as a “peaceful but energetic” blue…

Keep Reading: Meet Michael Tubbs: The Youngest (and First African American) Mayor of His City


I Was the First
Donna Appell

When Donna Appell’s daughter, Ashley, was six years old, she ran out to the store to buy her a purple dress with a matching barrette. It wasn’t for a friend’s birthday party or a class celebration. It was for their latest visit to the National Institutes of Health…

Keep Reading: Confronted With Her Daughter’s Rare Disease, Donna Appell Dedicated Her Career to Finding a Cure


I Was the First
Johanna Lucht

Johanna Lucht grabbed two donuts on the way to her station in mission control at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. That day—April 4, 2017—was a big one for her and she could use the sustenance…

Keep Reading: Johanna Lucht Taught Her NASA Co-workers “How to Work With Deaf People for Dummies”


I Was the First
Adam Rippon

Adam Rippon became a household name overnight as he prepared for and competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. He left not only as a bronze medalist, but also as the first openly gay man to make a US Winter Olympic team, and the first to win a medal at the Winter Games…

Keep Reading: Adam Rippon Made History as the First Openly Gay U.S. Athlete to Win at the Winter Olympics


I Was the Only
Rumana Ahmed

Rumana Ahmed knows what it’s like to stand out. As a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, she’s all too familiar with the curious glances and the occasional offensive remarks that people hurl her way…

Keep Reading: Rumana Ahmed Helped Obama Fight Hate as the Only Hijab-Wearing Muslim Woman in the West Wing


I Was the First
Lynn Povich

There’s a dramatic scene in the first episode of Good Girls Revolt that’d make a good prologue here. A male editor calls the newsroom to attention and praises a reporter’s well-written article. All’s good and well until a woman reveals that she wrote it. Or rather, that she secretly re-wrote a man’s copy…

Keep Reading: After Fighting Gender Discrimination, Lynn Povich Became Newsweek’s First Female Senior Editor


By Ali Machado
Ali Machado