“Be empathetic and caring.” With Tyler Gallagher & Liz Bourgault

Traditional gender stereotypes would place being a woman with empathy or emotions as a problem in the workplace. But, in my experience, being empathetic and caring about my colleagues, ultimately makes me a better leader. We will show up better for each other as a team, when we look out for each other, and can […]

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Traditional gender stereotypes would place being a woman with empathy or emotions as a problem in the workplace. But, in my experience, being empathetic and caring about my colleagues, ultimately makes me a better leader. We will show up better for each other as a team, when we look out for each other, and can trust that our teammates have our back. In my opinion, this cannot be fostered without some level of emotional connection.

As a part of my series about “Women Leading The Space Industry”, I had the pleasure of interviewingLiz Bourgault.

Liz is EarthCache’s Product Manager, an easy-to-use platform enabling the development of applications using Earth observation data. Prior to joining SkyWatch, Liz managed product development and user experience at the World Resources Institute for products of the Global Forest Watch program. These tools use satellite imagery to detect deforestation, so she appreciates the importance of affordable and accessible satellite imagery.

Aside from her passion for forest conservation, and a related dream of relocating to live in a Costa Rican rainforest, Liz teaches and studies yoga, and spends time with her rescue dog, husband and friends in Washington DC, where they currently live.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in suburban central Connecticut, in a neighborhood that felt so deep in the forest with the number of trees, that most visitors complained of getting lost. I spent my weekends (and really every day) playing soccer, so naturally most of my time was spent outside. As most people, I never appreciated all of that time in nature, until now, missing it as an adult living in a major city (Washington, DC), but I think subconsciously that had a significant impact on my draw towards conservation, which has led me down this path to my work in Space.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

There wasn’t a book, as much as a course in university that has had the greatest impact on me. I found myself completing my second year required writing course in a class called “Agriculture, Ethics, and the Environment” — I learned so much about the social impacts of our industrial food system. Once I learned about these things, I couldn’t ignore them, I gave up meat on the spot. From there, I pivoted to take every course I could with this professor, and created my own major, before the university had created their own environmental studies program (which came the year after I graduated).

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“It’s the little things that citizens do. That’s what will make a difference.” — Wangari Maathai, a leader in the environmental movement. I love the story Wangari Maathai shares about the Hummingbird, and the power of one’s actions. I have always willingly dived in to help out with even the tedious tasks, knowing that someone has to do them, and they contribute to the goal of the whole. It is about caring about the collective, being a team player and knowing that every individual can make a difference. This quote is also what drives me in my work at SkyWatch — we are a start-up made up of a small group of individuals looking to change the world.

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the space industry? We’d love to hear it.

Life has a funny way of evolving. I was working in forest conservation, and then saw how useful satellites could be for monitoring the health of the world’s forests, but also how difficult it was to access and afford high resolution satellite imagery. This pain point led me eagerly to SkyWatch, a company truly hoping to change the world by making earth observation data accessible and affordable.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

I was fortunate in my previous role to travel to many beautiful remote locations, to work with local NGOs to understand how they were using satellite-based analyses to conserve their own forests. One of the highlights was traveling to the Amazon Rainforest during the rainy season. The river was so high that we were traveling along tributaries that did not exist in other seasons without this level of flooding; floating in a dugout canoe to a remote community. We wanted to learn from the work they were already doing to monitor their forests. We hiked together on their land, led by the community forest monitors, deep into the forest using the satellite derived Global Forest Watch GLAD alerts through the Forest Watcher mobile app to navigate to deforested areas. Without the satellite based data, clearances nearby may go undiscovered, just out of site behind a thick curtain of forest from a trail. It’s never a happy moment to uncover deforestation, but it was a valuable trip that culminated in connecting and sharing experiences over a communal meal of river piranhas in a community member’s home.

It was a whirlwind few years. Building great relationships, visiting incredible places, and diving into cultural immersion over and over:

  • In Uganda, chimp watching one day and presenting to Uganda Wildlife Authority officials the next day about the power of satellite imagery in conservation,
  • Moderating a conservation technology panel one day and the next day seeing Sloth Bears in Chitwan National Park in Nepal,
  • Tracking deforestation through GLAD alerts and then visiting the surreal site of the 2004 tsunami in Aceh Indonesia (13 years later),
  • Capturing drone footage of new farm clearances in remote regions of Filadelfia and the next meeting with banks in Asuncion, Paraguay
  • Lemur spotting one day and presented to the Minister of the Environment the next day in Madagascar.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Starting out, I definitely said yes to every opportunity that came my way. I wouldn’t change that, and it helped me uncover skills that I didn’t really know I had, and also helped me identify the things I didn’t enjoy. For example, I led the coordination for a large partnership meeting several years in a row, and while it caused me immense stress, I did a good job putting the event together, and I felt good about the end result. What makes me laugh to think back to, was my boss acknowledging that she knew I didn’t enjoy it, but it was a shame because I was really good at it. I appreciate the compliment, but also know I couldn’t sustain doing it again. But all of that was learning, and has helped me better identify what I did enjoy and what I was looking for — so I’m grateful to it.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I was surrounded by a team of strong, brilliant, inspiring women at World Resources Institute. They challenged me to grow, trusting me with incredible opportunities, and supporting me through them. For example, within my first year with the team, I took on a really important mobile application as product manager, without any product management experience. I had to learn by doing, and definitely made mistakes along the way, but as I grew into this role, I learned to consult others for their expertise.

It was a hard group to leave, but I am so grateful to be starting a new journey, with a great group of kind, motivated, focused people on this SkyWatch rocketship.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I recently joined the SkyWatch team, so everything is new and exciting — and our products take the pain and costs out of accessing Earth observation data for consumers and also on the supply side, making it easier for suppliers. There is no shortage of potential.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The space industry, as it is today, is such an exciting arena. What are the 3 things that most excite you about the space industry? Can you explain?

I am excited about being in a rapidly evolving space, that I still have so much to learn about it. I am most excited about the potential for Earth Observation data to be more readily accessible and understandable for a more general audience. I am excited about the rapidly evolving and improving satellite monitoring space with more satellite providers planning to launch in coming years.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the space industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

I am discouraged by traditional exclusionary, bureaucratic, expensive systems haunting the space sector, with contract processes that remain painful and intentionally vague. In public, everyone in the industry nods their head and agrees that we need to open the market to new actors. But, behind-the-scenes, most major satellite data providers are still bound by long-term, exclusionary, distribution contracts signed decades ago that they can’t quite shed even if they wanted to. This creates large barriers to innovation and they have little financial incentive to really push for rapid change. While larger corporations can just ‘wait it out’, younger companies and start-ups don’t have the same luxury. But I am excited about the work of SkyWatch to actively shift this, creating a more inclusive industry through the democratization of earth observation through EarthCache and TerraStream, and ultimately making a better experience for the entire supply chain.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I think women are working hard to actively change the status quo, and I hope to be a part of that (shifting expectations around women in STEM) but there is a lot of work to be done.

I have always been a believer that so much starts with equal opportunities for education. Having better opportunities from an early age and equal encouragement that girls can be just as qualified to pursue STEM fields will be critical for breaking down traditional gender norms and expectations. I share similar sentiments with my young nieces and nephews.

And also trusting smart, hard working people with opportunities: someone trusted that I could take on a project in my first job as a product manager, and I have worked hard to learn as much as possible, and continue to work hard to learn as much as possible, to continue to improve.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in the space industry that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I am grateful to work for a company that takes culture very seriously, and values everyone equally. My previous project was actually mostly female somehow, so I haven’t encountered this head on. I found traditional education to be unjustifiably more exclusive, despite practical experiences and knowledge. It’d be unfair to generalize: some were intentionally inclusive, while others were possibly unintentionally exclusive, but it was not always a great environment. Greater awareness, empathy, and equal opportunities will all help, but a continued push to shift cultural norms is critical.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech, or the space industry. Can you explain what you mean?

Traditional gender stereotypes would place being a woman with empathy or emotions as a problem in the workplace. But, in my experience, being empathetic and caring about my colleagues, ultimately makes me a better leader. We will show up better for each other as a team, when we look out for each other, and can trust that our teammates have our back. In my opinion, this cannot be fostered without some level of emotional connection.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

I think one of my strengths is empathy. Not only for customers, which is key as a product manager, but also for my colleagues. It’s important to me to meet my colleague’s where they are, and their working styles. Some people prefer a longer phone call, while others would prefer a short instant message on slack or to comment back and forth on an open ticket in jira (the platform we use to track the work needed to be completed by our Engineering team. I believe this empathy, and willingness to meet people where they are, helps me to be a better leader.

Leading by example. I have always been inspired and motivated to work hard, when I know my manager is also working hard. I have always wanted to emulate this. Same for managing a work life balance, I want my team to know that is important and valued as well.

I also value varied perspectives. You don’t want to surround yourself with people who just agree all the time — you won’t learn anything, and you won’t find different solutions to a problem to ultimately find the best solution.

Acknowledging that I don’t have all the answers, and surrounding myself with smart people who do, and then supporting their ownership over their domain. I like to think I know when something is within my domain, and when I need to consult others. I do not hesitate to consult others and lean on my experts for the things that they know better.

Avoiding any sort of blame. The team gets to celebrate the victories, just as the team has to pull together to resolve any pain points.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The reason I am in the space industry now is to drive more equitable access of satellite imagery. This aligns with my values, of creating a more equitable world with greater transparency. I believe in this global community, and that we need to care for each other, beyond borders. I think Covid-19 has just made this more apparent, but individuals don’t know where to start. I think you can start small. I truly believe in the power of the individual. Each action that we take, has an impact, and there is a chain effect. Being responsible, honest, and caring for other humans, and animals.

With this, I am glad to see Intersectional environmentalism gaining long overdue attention in the environmental space. Being a student of sustainable development, recognizing the disproportionate impact of environmental crises is critical. I hope Earth observation and derivative products can shed more light on this issue.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Megan Rapinoe or Maggie Rogers are the two at the top of my list, who inspire me in different ways. I love to see inspiring females using their platforms bolstered by their crafts in inspiring ways.

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