How armless pilot Jessica Cox made motivation a business

Ezra Ferraz
Jessica Cox did not always want to be a motivational speaker. So what was her motivation to become one?

Jessica Cox is the only armless person in history to hold a pilot’s certificate. Photo courtesy of Jessica Cox's Motivational Services

MANILA, Philippines – Jessica Cox’s life reads like that of an inspirational movie: Born armless, she went on to achieve what most people can only dream of achieving. For example, she has earned the distinction of being the first person without arms to earn a black belt from the American Taekwondo Association.

Most famously, she has a record in the Guinness Book of World Records for “being the first armless person in aviation history to earn a pilot’s certificate.” If that’s not impressive enough, she has gone into a long and successful career as a motivational speaker, one that’s taken her across 20 countries and 6 continents.

It is her success as a motivational speaker that made me want to interview her. I wanted to give the Rappler business readership an inside look at an often overlooked profession. Relatedly, as someone who excelled at motivating others, I thought it would be great to see what words of encouragement she had to offer to Filipino businessmen and entrepreneurs, who – let’s face it – can sometimes get down on themselves.

She took time to generously answer my questions over email, while on a brief break from her whirlwind speaking schedule. The curious might wonder: How did she manage to type? She used her feet – just as she does when going about her other myriad daily activities.

The use of her feet also explains the name of the forthcoming documentary on Cox’s life – Rightfooted. This thread of an idea – of making the most out of what we are given – was a recurring theme in her responses. (Read: Jessica Cox: It’s truly a gift to be different)

Motivation

Cox did not always want to be a motivational speaker. So what was her motivation to become one? The turning point came when she was still a teenager.

“The first time I gave a motivational speech was as a sophomore in high school,” Cox said. “A program to help underprivileged students invited me to speak at one of their meetings. I went in thinking I was just going to share my life and came out of that meeting realizing that I wanted to be a motivational speaker!”

Of course, desire was only one part of the equation. To actually become a successful motivational speaker, she had to first become an entrepreneur. She thus founded Jessica Cox’s Motivational Services in 2005 in Tuscon, Arizona.

This is not a guise for basic freelancing. Jessica Cox’s Motivational Services is organized and run by its employees in the way that a thriving business demands. It offers a full suite of speaking-related services, including everything from keynote addresses to leadership workshops. Cox serves as its CEO.

“My speaking career is managed as an actual business,” Cox said. “20 or 30 hours of negotiations, understanding what the client needs, contract writing, and prepping the speech is needed for a half-hour speech. One of the things I learned is that you can not take, ‘No’ for an answer; you have to persist.”

Cox continued, “It is also important to be the one to take the initiative! Not only do people admire people who take the initiative, but initiative is often one of the driving factors behind growth. As with most entrepreneurs, being a self-starter and taking initiative is critical because you do not have a boss.”

This kind of can-do attitude helps Cox keep upbeat in spite of the often grueling demands of going on tour. Cox said, “People always ask me what is the hardest part about motivational speaking. It is surely not walking on stage and delivering the talk. Rather, it’s all the work that has to happen in order for that talk to be possible. All the behind-the-scenes work like the administrative side, the marketing, etc.”

Perhaps the most often overlooked aspect of motivational speaking is the physical challenges of the job. This is reasonable, of course. As audience members, we only see the finished product – the speaker delivering their 10-, 20-, 30-minute speech.

We seldom step back to think that motivational speaking is a demand-oriented business. Cox has to go to where the demand for her speaking services is. If it’s a keynote address in Europe, she has to go there. If it’s a leadership workshop on the other side of the United States, she has to go there.

The challenges of constant travel are illustrated no better than by Cox herself. “Traveling takes a physical strain on your body. This past month, for example, I spent three weeks in the Philippines, travelled back home to Tucson, AZ for two days, and then drove a long 8 hour drive to California in order to take off on a flight the next morning to London, Ontario, Canada. 17 hours after arriving in Canada, I was on another flight back to California.”

Cox said, “Then I was home for another two days and packed my bags again to leave for Tampico, Mexico. Flying back from Tampico, Mexico, I had planned a personal trip for a family member’s wedding back in California so instead of flying directly home, I flew there. I’m not home yet as I reply to these questions. For the last month, I’ve stayed in 11 hotels and traveled to three different countries! One of the things I’ve had to learn is to sleep every chance I get especially on airline flights.”

Connection

There are many people who make their name on the speaking circuit, many of whom are as accomplished as Cox in their respective fields. To distinguish herself from other speakers, it helps that Cox is so keenly aware of her own personal brand.

Cox said, “One of the great advantages that I have in relating with audiences is my physical appearance. Because I do not have arms, it immediately connects with other people’s challenges and struggles.”

She continued, “When they see me for the first time, they think, ‘it must be so difficult!’ It makes their own challenges look easier. Then when they hear about my accomplishments in spite of the challenges, it blows them away! It eliminates their excuses. They see the possibility in themselves in overcoming their own obstacles and accomplishing greater feats.”

When prompted further, given that every business person and entrepreneur could benefit from giving public speeches related to their domain of expertise and being good at them, Cox had this to share:

“One of the most compelling aspects of my speeches are the stories. Audiences love the stories! They love especially hearing personal trials and how you overcome the challenges. Sharing moments when you felt like giving up or when the world was against you will draw the full attention of the audience.”

In other words, she elaborated, “They are much more interested in the ‘journey’ than the ‘accomplishment!’ People want to make an emotional connection with other people, rather than just receive information.

This may seem likely straightforward advice, but it really hits home once you begin to think about it in depth. Just think back to your last business presentation done on PowerPoint. More often than not, the speaker was more concerned with bombarding you with information rather than giving their message a more meaning emotional resonance.

When she herself presents to an audience of businessmen and entrepreneurs, Cox is no less poignant. “I share the importance of innovation, ingenuity, and creating possibilities,” she said. “Having a positive attitude that takes advantage of every opportunity harnesses the ability to think outside the shoe, as I like to call it.” – Rappler.com

Rappler business columnist Ezra Ferraz graduated from UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California, where he taught writing for 3 years. He now consults full-time for educational companies in the United States. He brings you Philippine business leaders, their insights, and their secrets via Executive Edge. Follow him on Twitter: @EzraFerraz

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