Be Opportunistic! Make sure you are taking advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. If I hadn’t been open to going to events no one else was interested in, I would have missed out on the career-changing connection that catapulted me to the position of an Air Force congressional liaison. My advice: get out from behind your desk. Take the extra mile. Seek out opportunities and be prepared when they present themselves.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelli Brunswick, Chief Operating Officer, Space Foundation.
Shelli Brunswick brings a broad perspective and deep vision of the workforce development roadmap and economic opportunities available to women in the space economy — from enlisting in the U.S. Air Force out of high school and quickly rising to become a distinguished officer and congressional liaison to her current role leading the Center for Innovation and Education.
Advocating for space technology innovation, Shelli collaborates with organizations around the world to advance the opportunities for entrepreneurs. She piloted the launch of the Space Commerce Entrepreneurship Program, attended by more than 275 minority and women-owned small businesses across the country, and the Junior Space Entrepreneur Program that has trained its first 26 teachers from 16 states and 50 students for a Moon-to-Mars mission.
As a leading role model for women in space, Brunswick chairs the Women in Aerospace (WIA) Foundation, hosts the Women’s Global Gathering annually at the Space Symposium, was selected as a 2020 mentor for the United Nations Space4Women network, and serves on the board of directors for Manufacturer’s Edge. Her favorite pastime is the great outdoors of Colorado, hiking and photographing wildlife.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Shelli! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Igrew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, as the only child of a single mom. She worked at a tire manufacturing plant on the assembly line and then advanced to manager. When the leadership role opened up, she applied and was promoted. My mom was a wonderful role model for me, not only as a parent, but she also had a very successful career in a non-traditional role for women at that time. Being self-reliant, she encouraged my independence and desire to learn and explore.
I attended public school and engaged in a variety of sports, classes, plays and extracurricular activities and led a very full high school life. I went into the military right after graduation. Like any good businesswoman, I interviewed every service and listened to all the opportunities and benefits of each. I decided the best course of action was to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. That decision allowed me to continue to explore and grow while serving my country and being true to my values. This gave me the opportunity to earn my degree at night while working during the day.
After 12 years as an enlisted airman, I became an officer in 1997, which led to a career as a space acquisition and program management leader and congressional liaison for the U.S. Air Force and later to my current role as COO and leader of Center for Innovation and Education at Space Foundation, where I now lead initiatives and serve as a role model for empowering women around the globe in the space industry.
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?
I just finished the book “Churchill: Walking with Destiny” by the British historian and journalist Andrew Roberts. Churchill ultimately became prime minister and delivered his beloved British Empire from the devastation of war into a time of recovery and strength. He had significant ups and downs throughout his career, but he was a resilient leader. He was resolute. Churchill’s mindset and thinking allowed him to lead his nation during a time of crisis.
The author highlights that there is adversity throughout everyone’s career. How do we pick ourselves up, and how do we climb the next hill and move forward? During this time of COVID-19, we are all facing challenges, but underserved groups are being hit the hardest. Long before the pandemic, Space Foundation established a pragmatic workforce development roadmap through a grant from the Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency to reach women, minority and veteran-owned small businesses across the country and help them break down the barriers to entry and business opportunities in the space industry. I am reminded of Churchill’s legacy as I lead this initiative that is more vital now than ever before to help others navigate this period of global crisis.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
One of my favorite quotes is from Joel A. Barker, the author and businessman who popularized the concept of paradigm shifts for businesses: “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.”
To be a leader in the space industry, you have to be a visionary. That vision drives innovation, and space innovation drives technology advances that impact virtually every facet of daily life. And together, they drive the global space workforce that fuels the economy, enhancing the quality of life for us all.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the space industry? We’d love to hear it.
Early in my career, I made sure to get out from behind my desk to attend as many events as possible, and in Washington D.C., there are many to choose from. On one occasion, there was an after-hours reception for very senior executives from the Air Force, but no one was able to attend, so I was offered the opportunity. Of course, I jumped at the chance to go. It was a pivotal point in my career that opened up another invitation, but this one was an interview for a job in the Sam Rayburn House Office Building neighboring the U.S. Capitol. Selected as an Air Force congressional liaison, I represented the Air Force secretary and chief of staff to the U.S. House of Representatives, advocating for and securing the Air Force budget, which includes its space budget. I was responsible for delivering strategic recommendations on policy, programs and responses to members of Congress. I led multiple congressional delegations around the country to highlight the importance of the space mission to our nation and the world.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
In 2017, I was invited to attend the signing of the Presidential Executive Order at the White House that reinstated the National Space Council, the foremost body for the global space industry. It was created in 1989 to create economic growth and advance technology but was disbanded in 1993. One of the key issues addressed by the Council is creating long-term sustainability in space through innovation in private, public and government sectors, while ensuring companies can effectively compete in the global space marketplace. The Council’s return was pivotal to laying the groundwork for our Center for Innovation and Education and defining our workforce development roadmap.
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?
I can’t think of any funny mistakes, but I do have a story that has followed me since my early career! My call sign in the Air Force was TMZ, after the news program called TMZ where the reporters gather in a large room and share breaking stories. I was nicknamed TMZ because I was always in the know. I gathered information, and I would bring it back from Capitol Hill to share with the Pentagon or vice versa. The exchange of information assisted in building bridges, creating connections, and sustaining relationships. Today at the Space Foundation, I continue to draw on my skill set to exchange information and bridge the inclusion gap for women, minorities, veterans and other underserved groups in the space industry.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My champion was a senior executive at the Air Force who had the ability to see talent in an individual before they recognized it in themselves. He also had the ability to place people in the right jobs at the right time for success. This not only helped individuals realize their potential but also understand how they could best serve the Air Force and our country. The credit goes to this individual for championing me and several young Air Force officers and putting us on the trajectory for career success.
In my case, an opportunity opened up. I wasn’t handed the job, but rather, my champion reviewed my skills, coached me to always be prepared for the next job, and gave me the chance to interview. I was selected for the position that put me on the course to work on Capitol Hill and ultimately led me to Space Foundation.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
1 . Digitization of Space Innovation and Education. Since the onset of the pandemic, Space Foundation has quickly expanded its online presence and pivoted many of its live, in-person programs. Our Space Symposium is the premier global assembly of space professionals, enterprises and stakeholders in the world, gathering more than 15,000 people last year in Colorado Springs. This is where space business gets done. For 2020 and beyond, Space Foundation is examining new ways to best serve all our many different stakeholders without interruption by extending our programming through online channels well beyond the Space Symposium event.
Meanwhile, we’re bringing space discovery into the living rooms of families, teachers and students through virtual access to resources like the Space Foundation Discovery Center, Teacher Liaison Program, Auxilia webinar series, and space-inspired curriculum downloads. We’ve also expanded the online programming for our Space Commerce Entrepreneurship Program and Junior Space Entrepreneur Program. This series of online speakers and webinars provides lessons on how to overcome the most common obstacles space industry entrepreneurs face. Sessions focus on soft and hard skill development for creating a business strategy to become suppliers to the space industry.
2 . Globalization and Partnerships. As a hub for space technology professionals, Space Foundation partners with organizations around the world to provide opportunities for students, teachers, young professionals, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and professionals in space-related fields. From Sydney to Santiago, Delhi to Dubai, we convene gatherings and events to support and advance space technology innovation — from space exploration to bettering life on Earth. For the space community to truly provide opportunities for all, we must listen and understand our global audience. Much of my work is focused on customizing solutions to solidify these partnerships.
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 three things that most excite you about the space industry? Can you explain?
- Bettering life on earth. The space industry isn’t about exploring space for the sake of space; it’s about improving daily life on our own planet. For example, many parts of the world still lack reliable high-speed internet access. Space Foundation is working with multiple companies that are now able to provide access to the internet via satellites. That opens up new possibilities, such as telehealth programs, to people living in remote areas. There are plenty of less obvious ways that the space industry benefits people. Formulated food, Tempur-Pedic mattresses, breast cancer detection, and infrared thermometers are all great technologies that have come from the space industry.
- Democratization of the space community. When I started my career in the space industry, you worked for the government. Eighty percent of the space economy today is in commercial private industry. Opportunities in the space workforce are available to everyone: all demographics, all skill sets, all ages, all levels of experience, all functions, all ways of thinking. The industry needs welders, designers, electricians, communicators and technicians. Now more than ever, a large range of skill sets is part of the space economy, and they don’t require a Ph.D. That brings openings for higher quality, higher paying jobs that provide equality among citizens.
- A surge in space collaborations. It is difficult not to catch space fever. This year, three spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates, China and the United States lifted off from around the globe to land on Mars in early 2021. Prior to those launches, NASA astronauts returned to space with an American rocket, launched from American soil for the first time since the Space Shuttle’s last mission in 2011. The successful two-month stay aboard the International Space Station by NASA astronauts, and subsequent picture-perfect splashdown, further spread today’s space fever. These missions are showing the world the new players, people and companies that are driving the future of space exploration and space technology innovation. With more than 80 countries and thousands of enterprises taking their own steps toward space, the future of the space economy is partnership and collaboration of all types.
What are the three things that concern you about the space industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
As the pandemic displaced millions of jobs and sent millions of our future workforce home from school, this mission of building a sustainable space workforce becomes even more opportunistic. Now is the time for our extensive partner ecosystem to step up and support the programs that will increase awareness, access, training, connections and mentorship so that all people can learn how they can become valued contributors to a thriving space industry that dramatically impacts our lives every day.
Here are the issues at the top of our list at Space Foundation:
1 . Workforce Shortage: Who will fill the jobs? The $424 billion space industry faces the same sort of worker shortages that other science and technology industries face. And that shortage is only getting worse as open jobs exceed qualified applicants, baby boomers retire leaving large employment gaps, and minorities, women, veterans and retirees remain untapped workforces in space industries. With space impacting our daily lives, jobs and careers in space-related industries can be found in healthcare, transportation, telecommunications, food production, energy and more. That is why it is so easy to say that there is a place for everyone in the space economy.
2 . Skills Deficit: What skills are needed for future jobs, yet defined? The space industry needs a broad spectrum of skills. Beyond popular perception of astronauts, mathematicians, rocket scientists and other STEM degrees, we need non-STEM professional contributors like trade workers, business administrators, designers, data analysts, and project managers. We can turn this around by instituting a culture of lifelong learning for the entire life cycle of one’s formal education and career. It starts with our youngest students, making space education and entrepreneurism integral to core curriculum. It follows the career journey of our young, mid and senior professionals where upskilling and reskilling are integral to ongoing job training and career advancement.
3 . Innovation Gap: Where will we find the next space innovators? Lack of awareness of space technology opportunities and knowledge of how to navigate the landscape are widening the innovation gap. Technology transfer is the commercialization of space technologies for use on Earth; NASA has a patent portfolio containing thousands of patents that are sitting idle waiting for commercialization in virtually every industry. Technology insertion is the application and integration of existing space-based technology products and services into established enterprise projects, both public and private. The field of space technology innovation is a rewarding opportunity for entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses to deliver a return on investment for space inventions, become a supplier to the space industry supply chain, and contribute to the betterment of daily life.
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?
Even though half the current workforce is women, there is a dire shortage of women in STEM. Women hold only 20% of space manufacturing jobs and less than 15% of aerospace engineering jobs. Women are an untapped demographic for solving challenges such as the workforce shortage. Here are three ways to turn around these statistics and start growing a sustainable workforce of women contributors to the space industry:
- Introduce young girls to STEM at an early age. Young girls should be introduced to STEM as early as possible and especially before their teen years when they often pull back, becoming self-conscious and aware of gender differences.
- Teach STEM subjects using a variety of methods. We all learn differently, so to cast the widest net, in-person or online, courses and skills should be taught using as many modalities as possible — kinesthetic, visual, auditory and tactile.
- Women in STEM need current role models. Rather than continually referencing history books, girls and women of all ages need present-day role models. They are everywhere, serving as mentors, teachers and leaders in the space industry. They just need their stories told.
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?
Being recognized as experts and access to capital are two key challenges that women face compared to their male counterparts.
Women need to continue to demonstrate competence, expertise and professionalism. Getting in front of people, showing up at the table, and being willing to dive deep on topics of importance is the first step. The annual Women’s Global Gathering at the Space Symposium and WomenTech Network, Women In Defense, and Society of Women Engineers are some of the organizations that produce events worth exploring.
All entrepreneurs have a need for access to capital, but women and underrepresented groups have an even greater challenge. Friends and family funds can help to initially demonstrate prototyping. It helps to connect with an accelerator or incubator and perhaps develop a strategic alliance with another company to establish a reputation. Tap successful women for advice and friendly funding sources, like Ellen Chang at LightSpeed Innovations or Tess Hatch at Bessemer. Join entrepreneurship organizations, chambers of commerce, and women’s organizations, like Women in Aerospace and United Nations Space4Women mentors.
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?
There is a myth that women are quantitatively challenged, but the reality is that women are simply underrepresented in the fields of math, statistics, engineering and physics. Girls’ interest in STEM starts declining in middle school and progresses from high school to college to graduate school to career placement. Why is that?
The reason for the disparity is that girls try to be less challenging to their male counterparts at an early point of maturation. Prior to this point, girls perform as well or better than boys in STEM subjects. It’s critical to encourage young girls before the shift begins, support young women in STEM throughout their formal education, and mentor professional women to be lifelong learners.
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.)
Be Opportunistic: Make sure you are taking advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. If I hadn’t been open to going to events no one else was interested in, I would have missed out on the career-changing connection that catapulted me to the position of an Air Force congressional liaison. My advice: get out from behind your desk. Take the extra mile. Seek out opportunities and be prepared when they present themselves.
Be a Lifelong Learner: Understand the importance of being a lifelong learner. Only by being prepared and sometimes over-prepared can you move to the next position. Learning doesn’t stop when formal education ends. Young professionals, entrepreneurs, mid-life workers, and retirees are finding avenues for training, mentoring, upskilling and reskilling through our space commerce entrepreneurship workshops and online services. Seek every opportunity for learning and personal growth.
Be Collaborative: The future of the space economy is partnership. While it takes a deep and rich supply chain of small businesses and innovators to launch Mars Perseverance, partnership is equally important to every phase of your career life cycle. Seek allies to achieve far more together than you can do alone.
Be Resilient: We need to create a workforce that’s resilient and sustainable. To prepare a workforce for a future of jobs that don’t exist yet, it is imperative to develop 21st century essential skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, entrepreneurship, strategic planning, leadership and collaboration. Our Space Commerce Entrepreneurship Program and Junior Space Entrepreneurship Program can help with that. Space Foundation also delivers space education to more than 50,000 students per year by developing live and virtual curriculum based on immersive experiences for teachers, parents and students.
Be a Mentor: Students run the risk of abandoning their dreams of participating in the space industry if they can’t find role models like themselves. But role models aren’t enough. Students and professionals alike need access to mentors who can give them advice about what courses to take and how to navigate their careers. Space Foundation offers mentorship programs like the NewGen Ambassadors for middle and high school students and the Senior Leader Mentors for young leaders, entrepreneurs and small businesses. Our Teacher Liaisons program, meanwhile, offers training and resources for educators who want to advocate for space education in their classrooms.
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. 🙂
An endowment. Space Foundation is currently delivering a comprehensive array of programs to a broad spectrum of audiences, each funded independently by donors, partners and sponsors. An endowment is the next level in scaling services to inner cities, rural communities, and underserved regions around the globe. Development of an endowment would enable Space Foundation to facilitate space innovation and educational programming free of charge to all people, where it is needed most to further equity and inclusion in the global space community.
We are very blessed that prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
It would be an honor to meet with Bill and Melinda Gates. Their approach to philanthropic activities solves problems and breaks down barriers. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, much like Space Foundation, realizes that financial resources alone are not enough to solve the inequality problems. We need to engage at multiple levels to create and manifest change from the individual to communities with the end results having a positive impact on global gender inequality.
I may want more diversity for women in the space industry, but it is not as simple as just saying I’m going to offer more STEM programs in underserved locations. They get that. There may be barriers that prohibit success, such as safety or food scarcity or healthcare. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation examines situations systemically as opposed to in isolation. Lunching with them would create a great exchange of ideas on how we can work collaboratively across philanthropic organizations, and public and private partnerships, to find solutions to some of the challenges facing the global space industry.
How can our readers follow you online?
- Shelli Brunswick on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/shellibrunswick/
- Shelli Brunswick on Twitter: @shellibrunswick; https://twitter.com/shellibrunswick
- Space Foundation on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/space-foundation/
- Space Foundation on Twitter: @SpaceFoundation; https://twitter.com/SpaceFoundation
- Space Foundation on Facebook: www.facebook.com/SpaceFoundation1/
- Space Foundation on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/spacefoundation/
- Space Symposium 365: https://www.spacesymposium.org