How to ‘Redefine Possible’ on your own terms

Siblings Winnette McIntosh Ambrose, Ph.D., MIT ’98 and Timothy McIntosh, MIT ‘08 were keynote speakers on Day 2 of the 2020 MOSTEC Virtual Final Symposium. They shared how they have “Redefined Possible” – this year’s OEOP theme – along their journey to become MIT students, OEOP volunteers, entrepreneurs, educators, winners of the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars and founders of the French-inspired bakery “The Sweet Lobby” in Washington D.C.

Siblings Winnette McIntosh Ambrose, Ph. D., MIT ’98 and Timothy McIntosh, MIT ’08, grew up in the small town of Tunapuna in Trinidad and Tobago. As part of a typical middle-class family in Trinidad they lived relatively comfortably. “But we knew that there was no money saved for something big like going to college, especially overseas – that was something that we’d need to figure out for ourselves,” said Winnette.

By crafting their own narrative, exploring options beyond their chosen field of study, and following their passions, they “Redefined Possible” for themselves and became MIT students, OEOP volunteers, entrepreneurs, educators, winners of the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, and founders of the French-inspired bakery “The Sweet Lobby” in Washington, D.C.


Crafting your own narrative and paving paths for those behind you

As a high-school student science really appealed to Winnette. Knowing that she wanted to go to college overseas, she began competing in science fairs and inventor competitions. It was fun to compete, but it was also a strategy to craft a narrative beyond schoolwork that would get her noticed by a top university. “She won everything!” said Timothy. And the strategy worked.

A few years later, knowing that Winnette had been admitted to MIT gave Timothy the motivation to apply. “I thought ‘my sister got in, and she looks like me, she talks like I do, we’re from the same country, same high school, so I probably have a chance,” he said. “That’s the funny thing about paving paths … All the shots you take and the decisions you make have these minor ripple effects that can gradually snowball into major impacts for yourself, and the people around you later on in life.”

Timothy’s narrative included basketball and top academic work. “When the odds are against you, just prepare and take the shot. The truth is you’re not always going to make it – Stephen Curry doesn’t always make all the shots he takes – but it’s better to prepare and take the shot and miss, than to go through life thinking you should have taken the shot.”


Taking shots until you find your own path

Tired of being broke and eating ramen as a student, Timothy decided to major in chemical engineering. With a major oil and gas company based in Trinidad, he knew that major would lead to a nice job and a nice car after graduation. And it was – in his sophomore year he landed an internship with the company, and a job offer for when he graduated. But the subject matter didn’t feel exciting. “The abstractness of it all didn’t always resonate with me,” he said.

Then, the summer before his senior year, Timothy stopped by to visit one of his friends who was working as an OEOP instructor. His friend needed help tutoring students on quadratic equations. “I jumped in and started to help some kids who he hadn’t gotten to yet – and that evening really changed my life,” he said. “I realized within that hour that I absolutely love teaching and that I have a certain knack for it. I got a real sense of accomplishment, almost a high from getting into the nitty gritty of those challenging concepts and seeing those ‘aha!’ moments from kids who were just genuinely excited to learn.”

Timothy went back to help students every day for the rest of the summer, and when the summer was over, continued going back to the OEOP office to help out and hang out. He stuck with chemical engineering but turned down the job he had been offered in Trinidad to become an afterschool instructor in Cambridge. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” he said. “That summer allowed me to redefine what was possible for my time at MIT, my career post MIT, my life in general, it allowed me to make a difference in other people’s lives.”


Finding where your hobby meets your passion

A few years earlier, Winnette had also majored in chemical engineering, and had really enjoyed it. She found a niche in the biomedical field and went on to develop minimally invasive cardiovascular devices after graduation, including a patent for the first FDA approved device for carotid stenting. She obtained a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, and did postdoctoral work in tissue engineering at the National Institutes of Health.

While at MIT, Winnette had also discovered languages, and traveled to Paris as part of her double major in French language and literature. “I became enamored with the beauty and craft of French pastry … I couldn’t afford most of the things I saw in those beautiful pastry windows but I wanted to replicate them, and make them.” A few years into practicing her hobby, Winnette called Timothy and asked him to come to Washington, D.C. to start a bakery with her. They opened “The Sweet Lobby,” and around the same time, auditioned for The Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, which they won.

For the McIntosh siblings, it’s important to be agile and versatile to recognize passions and callings that may be different to your chosen field of study. “Seemingly unrelated career experiences can give you a unique perspective or even a strategic advantage,” said Timothy. Their reality TV experience gave their business a boost, which led to the opening of “Souk,” an international pastry wholesale store, and motivated Winnette to compete in “Chopped,” which she also won.

The baking experience inspired Timothy to start weekend camps for elementary school children using baking and chocolate making as a platform to teach integrated science. He obtained a degree from Harvard Graduate School of Education and is now a user experience researcher at Google, which allowed him to fund his new venture: “Maco Taco,” a Mexican-Caribbean restaurant in Trinidad.