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Breaking Boundaries: Gwynne Shotwell leads SpaceX into new frontiers

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Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX. Photo property of SpaceX.

Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX. Photo property of SpaceX.

Last year, Gwynne Shotwell,  president and chief operating officer of aerospace giant SpaceX, spoke to a room of Chapman University students in Orange County as part of a TEDx program. Her address was titled “Engineering America” and discussed the rise and fall of the United States as the global leader in science and technology.

“Let’s talk about an engineer who is actually known as an inventor, Thomas Edison,” said Shotwell. “The only reason he is known as an inventor and not an engineer is because engineers suck at marketing themselves.”

The comment was an aside and got laughs from the college crowd, as intended. But there was a kernel of absolute truth within it. Engineers are not known for gregariousness, and developing new technology does very little for a company if it doesn’t have a successful way to sell it. Selling high-tech space equipment, for example, requires a salesperson that not only understands the product intricately, but can relate to clients on a personal level and close the deal.

That’s where Shotwell comes in.

She joined SpaceX in 2002 when it was a tiny startup with big money and even bigger dreams. The space transport company was founded by billionaire business magnate Elon Musk of Tesla and PayPal fame. Shotwell became his seventh employee and the vice president of business development. Eight years later, she closed the single biggest commercial rocket launch deal in history: a $492 million contract with Iridium, a Virginia-based satellite communications company.

“Gwynne is dynamic,” said Tim Hughes, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at SpaceX. “She’s a rare mix of engineering talent, business acumen and likability. That has allowed her to do extremely amazing things.”

“Even before we had ever launched a rocket, Gwynne had sold about ten launch services,” he said. “There are very few people who could have done that.”

Not bad for a cheerleader from Illinois.

Shotwell, 50,  grew up in Libertyville, a suburb of Chicago, as a popular young girl who excelled in school but didn’t spend time thinking about a career path. Her mother, an artist, noticed Shotwell’s interest in how things work. She brought her daughter, begrudgingly, to a Society of Women Engineers conference.

“It was a panel discussion of engineers of all kinds,” Shotwell said. “I immediately liked what the mechanical engineer said. And she had a beautiful suit, fabulous shoes and I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m going to be a mechanical engineer.’ And that was it, it was as flaky as that.”

Not one to overthink a decision, Shotwell applied to just one school, Northwestern University in nearby Evanston, because of its strong mechanical engineering program. She was accepted and went on to get both her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science there in mechanical engineering and applied mathematics.

In 1988, after graduating with her masters and after a brief flirtation with the automotive industry, Shotwell moved to the South Bay to work for Aerospace Corporation. The company is a federally-funded think tank that provides assessments and analyses of space programs. Shotwell was hired to perform thermal analysis.

“I was there for ten years and I saw what government programs were and how they were executed,” Shotwell said. “ In some cases, they were executed beautifully, but in others, there was tremendous waste. I realized I wanted to see space from a broader perspective, not just government space.”

In 1998 Shotwell moved into the commercial side of aerospace. She accepted a job at Microcosm, a private space launch company in El Segundo, where she led the space systems division and directed business development. It was at Microcosm she learned to sell.

“I don’t have any formal training in business,” she said. “My business experience is all practical, on-the-job training. When you are trying to sell complex products, you have to really understand them and you have to be super engineer-minded.”

The Dragon spacecraft, a reusable robotic space craft created by SpaceX, journeys through space to dock with the International Space Station 2012. Photo property of SpaceX.

The Dragon spacecraft, a reusable robotic space craft created by SpaceX, journeys through space to dock with the International Space Station 2012. Photo property of SpaceX.

Four years later, in 2002, Shotwell met with an old Aerospace Corporation coworker for lunch. They were celebrating the friend’s new job at SpaceX, a radically new space startup. After lunch, Shotwell popped into the SpaceX headquarters for a quick tour.

“I met Elon and his team that day,” she said. “I talked to him briefly about business development and soon after I was hired as chief of sales.”

Shotwell quickly proved herself an essential part of the company’s upward trajectory. By 2008, she was named President and COO of SpaceX.

In its 12  years, SpaceX has grown from seven employees to 3400 and the company now holds over $5 billion in contracts. Its achievements are staggering: the first privately funded, liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit, the first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft, and the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station for NASA.

SpaceX won the $1.6 billion contract with NASA in 2008. Shotwell was instrumental in making it happen.

“Closing the deal with NASA was huge,” said Shotwell. “You had to be in a certain place in launching and development to even be able to put in an offer. And out of 22 bids from companies all over the world, we won.”

Even more impressive than SpaceX’s ability to create technology is its ability to do it at an extremely competitive price. The aerospace industry has seen massive layoffs in the last twenty years due to a changing military climate. After the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, Southern California experienced a massive decline; the South Bay lost an estimated 47,000 jobs. Military spending spiked again after 9/11 but is expected to drop $487 billion in the next ten years due to automated federal sequestration cuts.

But business is booming at SpaceX. That is because the company is able to financially compete with foreign companies in ways that most American aerospace companies cannot.

The Falcon 9 launcher, the piece of equipment that first put SpaceX on the map, was developed for about $400 million, a tenth of what it would have cost for NASA to make it. Shotwell says SpaceX is able to do this because it questions conventional wisdom and has maintained  a “startup culture” that stresses innovation.

Most launchpad air conditioning systems, for instance, cost nearly half a million dollars. SpaceX executives questioned why it cost so much to cool an area the size of a conference room when it only cost them $75,000 to cool their entire headquarters and manufacturing plant. The company brought the cost down to about $35,000.

“During these difficult economic times of sequestration and relatively high unemployment, why are we paying the Russians more money than we’re paying U.S. companies to develop these capabilities?” said Shotwell. ”That’s why we designed a really smart contemporary launch system and a 21st century rocket that operates reliably in austere financial environment.”

The success of SpaceX in a troubled economic environment echoesi Shotwell’s determination to rise to the top in the male-dominated world of aerospace.

According to the National Science Foundation’s most recent data, women make up about 28 percent of the 5.4 million people working in science and engineering. In aerospace, women account for just 11 percent of the workforce and far fewer hold leadership roles.

Deborah Soon is the Senior Vice President of the non-profit Catalyst, a group that aims to expand opportunities for women in business. She is troubled by the numbers of women in science and technology and believes that gender equality in these fields is still a long way off.

“We look forward to the day when a woman leading an aerospace company is no longer news,” she said.

“There is slow increase in the  number of women in engineering and aerospace,” said Gwynne Shotwell. “But we have some serious work to do.”

Shotwell is certainly doing her part. She received the World Technology Award for Individual Achievement in Space in 2011. In 2012, she was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame and was awarded the Women in Aerospace Outstanding Achievement Award. In 2013, she was named one of Forbes Magazine’s “Most Powerful Women to Watch.” This year, the National Space Society gave Shotwell the Space Pioneer Award for the Entrepreneurial Business category.

Asked what she attributes to her extraordinary success at SpaceX, Shotwell is quick to give credit to all of those she works with.

“I think it’s easy to be successful when you work with the highest quality people,” she said. “And that is not a bullshit line. This is the highest performing company I have ever seen. Everyone here is so smart, motivated and genuinely wants to do a good job.”

And it helps that Shotwell loves her job.

“Engineering is essentially problem solving,” she said. “And it is so satisfying to solve problems. It is also very creative. People don’t tend to think of engineering as a creative field. But we create new things. That is as creative a job as I can imagine. And’s it’s incredibly rewarding.”

Shotwell, who lives on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, works closely with the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) Education Coalition to help bring young people into the sciences.

“It has become my personal mission is to get more people interested in engineering,” she said. “I believe an undergraduate education in engineering is extremely helpful, even for someone who wants to be a doctor or lawyer. It gives you a logical toolbox and teaches you how the world works. That’s why I am trying to get more people into it, especially women.”

Shotwell’s own daughter, a freshman at Stanford University, is helping improve those statistics. She is following her mother into a career in mechanical engineering.

“She decided she wanted to be an engineer,” said Shotwell. “And it wasn’t from any pressure from me. You can encourage, but I know too well that you can’t push a teenage girl to do anything.”

As for her own future, Shotwell is focusing her efforts on SpaceX’s most ambitious project yet: the Grasshopper, the first reusable rocket. The idea is to use the Grasshopper to transport people from Earth to Mars and back.

“It’s the most important technology that we are trying to develop-to launch a system that can take people to other planets,” she said. “We need to be able to have the Grasshopper land on land and this is a very hard problem. But we hope to do it this year.”

Asked if she’d like to experience space travel herself, and Shotwell again brings the focus to her SpaceX team.

“I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to go or not,” she said. “It’s unclear now whether SpaceX astronauts will fly or only NASA astronauts will fly, but I will make sure my employees are taken care of before me.”


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