Gwynne Shotwell does for a living what most of us dreamed of doing as children: as the president and COO of SpaceX, she’s helping shape the future of mankind’s exploration of the universe. Yes, her boss Elon Musk might get more press coverage, but Shotwell is easily the company’s biggest hidden gem. The work she is doing is nothing less than astounding — as president, she oversees $5 billion in contracts, manages over 3,400 employees, and has helped lift more than fifty space missions off the ground. As of 2014, she is listed as the 90th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes.
Her road to SpaceX is a long but fascinating one. From an early age, she had an interest in machines. In the third grade, she remembers being in the car with her mother and wondering how the engine worked. “So my mom bought me a book on engines,” Shotwell said. “I read it and became really interested in car engines, and gears and differentials.”
In high school, Shotwell was a straight-A student who played varsity basketball and was on the cheerleading team when her mother told her she should be an engineer. “I was like, ‘What does an engineer do? Drive trains?'” she recalled, laughing. Shotwell and her mom attended a Society of Women Engineers panel at the Illinois Institute of Technology — and from there, she found out exactly what she wanted for a career.
She graduated a few years later from Northwestern University with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in applied mathematics. Although she was initially interested in the automotive industry, a friend connected her to the Aerospace Corporation, the federally funded research center in El Segundo that oversees the technical side of military space contracts. He invited her to look into an open position at Aerospace. She went on to spend over ten years at Aerospace Corporation, where she held positions in Space Systems Engineering & Technology as well as Project Management. She was promoted to Chief Engineer of an MLV-class satellite program, managed a landmark study for the Federal Aviation Administration on commercial space transportation, and completed an extensive analysis of space policy for NASA’s future investment in space transportation. Ms. Shotwell was subsequently recruited to be the Director of Microcosm’s Space Systems Division. By 2002 , however, she left Microcosm to join Space X. As she said in an interview with the LA Times, “I left… because I wanted to go build, and put spacecraft together.”
She was the seventh employee hired on to SpaceX in its founding year of 2002. She joined the then-struggling startup as the chief of sales, and she recalls that her job was simply to keep the company funded. She did that task extraordinarily well, and by 2008, it was clear that she was “the obvious choice” for company president. Thanks in no small part to her efforts, SpaceX had grown from a start-up with half a dozen employees to a major government contractor with nearly $5 billion in contracts and more than 3,000 people on its payroll. The company, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., had also successfully carried out two cargo resupply missions to astronauts aboard the space station for NASA, and remains the only commercial company to ever do so.
And yet, despite all of her accomplishments, Shotwell maintains a reputation of being very easy to talk to , whether it’s with her executive team or her welders. Although aerospace engineers are notoriously known for being introverted, Shotwell calls herself a “people engineer,” meaning she likes working with colleagues and customers.
Even outside of work, her passion for STEM and encouraging more women into the field remains, both of which she sees as crucial for the nation’s future. Under her leadership, the Frank J. Redd student competition, which involves small satellite concepts, has raised more than $350,000 in scholarships in six years.
So, what advice would Shotwell give young women starting out in the industry today? In her interview with Satellite Today, she said simply: “You have no control over whether you are going to be the smartest person at your company or even the smartest person in the room at any particular time… particularly at a company like SpaceX; there are a lot of smart people here. But, you do have control on how prepared you are, how hard you work and what kind of results you get.”