An air force brat standing six feet tall by the age of 13 and oft-covered in more mud, grease and blood than an entire platoon, Hillary Coe ('04 Digital Media) was smashing stereotypes before she was even old enough to drive - let alone set drag racing world records. Having inherited a thirst for adventure and inquisitive mind from her pilot-turned-agency exec father, by the age of 16 Hillary wasn’t just a scholar identified by G.M as a future tech leader but the very definition of a juxtaposition - welding and working the spanners on old cars and training for her pilot’s license to boot. But the catwalk was calling, Google, too, and in a matter of years Hillary’s extra curricular pursuits were limited to the weekends as she graced the cover of Vogue and established herself as a creative director at some of the world’s biggest ad agencies. Yet despite the commercial and catwalk success, Hillary’s but a rock-climbing gear-head at heart – forever the self-described “weird girl”.
THE RED BULLETIN: You’re barely 33 and a drag-racing, rock climbing, jet-flying, ad executive model. Where’s all that drive come from?
HILLARY COE: Not to dive too far into the dark depths of my upbringing, but I was a weird kid. I was six feet tall and was consistently covered in blood, dirt or paint. I was motivated by a tremendously talented father who understood the creative mind and everyone else who challenged it. Both motivators were (to me) essential for building that strong and driven foundation, especially when breaking tradition with cultural norms. Every time, I speak at a school, especially to girls looking to get into the tech field, I have this uncontrollable urge to shake them and tell them it’s worth the war. Just like that scene in Billy Madison, but with a more sincere and motivational undertone.
You hold the NHRA drag racing world record for fastest female in a diesel truck at 8.72 seconds. How did find yourself on the drag strip?
The idea of breaking into the unknown and unexpected is a life mantra, not just a career concept. I jumped out of planes because I was terrified of heights. I started working on cars because I enjoyed puzzles and was told too many times that a girl can’t weld. I spent every weekend turning wrenches for a racing team in Texas until they gave me a shot in the driver’s seat, and that didn’t stop me until I was shattering every record in my division. The drive to pursue the things that fascinate me, regardless of fear, uncertainty or difficulty is what makes this life worth the time. And sure, I believe a competitive mindset is a great motivator. This goes back to what got me through growing up the only girl I knew grinding rails, swimming in oceans and throwing paint on walls. I wasn’t just competing with the men, I was competing with the idea of what it meant to be a girl.
And then there’s flying jet-fighters. Please explain…
Anyone who grew up with Top Gun doesn’t need to answer this question. But I will still answer this question. My father was a pilot and I come from a long line of Air Force brats. That being said, I love flying because for one, we aren’t supposed to. Flying is one of the greatest gifts human ingenuity has bestowed us. We can throw ourselves at the ground and miss, and then shoot ourselves into the stars. As a creative I have stumbled to find the words to accurately describe what flying does to me. I can only say it’s as close as I’ve come to seeing God.
You seem to be constantly on the move. What is it about the globetrotting life that attracts you?
How can we define ourselves as human beings without a sense of adventure? A pursuit for exploring the unknown and discovering ourselves as something more that’s what makes this whole thing worth doing. For me, seeing the world opens up something that constantly surprises me—how small I am and how much I have to learn. I take that humility and apply it to every adventure I seek and pursuit I take on. This is important because in all honestly, no one likes ego-driven asshats and you’ve got to find that thing that keeps you grounded. Sometimes I find mine in the air.
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Photo: FLICKR / HILARY COE