Shelli Brunswick Interview, SheLeads with Carly
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
Shelli thank you so much for coming on to SheLeads today! I’m so excited to talk to you! How are you doing?
I’m doing fantastic how are you doing?
I’m doing well. So, where are you calling from today? Where in the world are you?
That’s a great question. Well, fortunately, due to telecommunications and space technology, I am calling you from Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Incredible, so we’ll hear more about space technology, which I’m excited about, but first, Shelli, you are the chief operating officer of the Space Foundation, and you’re also the executive leader of the Center for Innovation and Education. Prior to this, you were a space acquisition and program management leader and congressional liaison for the US Air Force, and, as a leading role role model for women in space, you were selected as the WomanTech Network diversity and inclusion officer, and mentor of the year in 2020, and to top it all off, one of only 35 women and selected by the United Nations as a mentor for the Space4Women program, and you’re a World Business Angels investment forum senator for the USA. So, Shelli, I am just honestly so excited to talk to you, not only as an incredible female leader, but also a leader in space, and that’s just incredible in itself. So, I’m excited to talk to you, and what I like to highlight, to get started is, you know, take me back to, usually college, but for you I want to go even before it to high school. You decided to enlist in the military, not traditional, not a conventional decision, usually go to college. I want to hear about this decision, what made you decide, you have, you know, family members who joined the military as well, so tell me about that decision.
Well, thank you. inviting me to join you today, I’m honored to be here, and I’m happy to share my story, and hopefully it will help inspire others to follow their track in their journey. As you said, I did join the military right out of high school, and while I was in high school I participated in sports, and I liked art, and I enjoyed other outside activities, theater, and other things, but when I graduated high school, you know, I wasn’t necessarily ready to jump right into going to college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, what I wanted to major in, and for me, the military was a great option to explore and learn more about myself. My dad had been in the US Air Force, so I enlisted in the US Air Force, and I had a wonderful opportunity learning more about myself, and what I wanted to be when I grow up, and I’m still working on that today, what I want to be when I grow up, so I’m not sure we ever, we ever cross the finish line.
Yeah, so tell me about that, that transitional period, because, you know, it’s not easy. Even going into college, but here you are going into the military. I believe you went straight to Europe, is that right? Or did you stay in America?
Correct, so I always like to say I have three chapters in my story. Right now my journey, and that first chapter, is enlisting in the US Air Force, and I was a personnel specialist, and I had the privilege of being stationed in both Turkey and Germany, and then here in Colorado Springs at the US Air Force Academy, and during that time I got to serve my country during the day, which was wonderful, learn, learn a skill, meet other people, network, and then at night I actually did start my college program and complete my bachelor’s and my master’s degree, going to school at night. So, during the day, I work, at night, I went to school, and when I completed my bachelor’s degree, I did apply to become an officer in the US Air Force, and that kind of closed that first chapter of my story and started the next chapter of my story, which is the story you probably most know before, which is what started my career in the aerospace and space industry.
Wow, OK, so before we even get to space, I think it’s incredible the fact that you’re in the military, also doing school at night, you know I can imagine there were challenges. How was that time, was a challenging, also, you know, are there many females, were there many females in the military at that time? You know, did you kind of go through this impostor syndrome, maybe feeling that you didn’t belong?
Well, that is a great question. The first part of my journey as an enlisted personnel specialist there were many women, so I was able to network with a lot of other women, but I also, I was an only child, so for me I really didn’t notice a difference between whether people were men or women. I mean people are just people, and so for me it was a different experience, especially when I became an officer and I was in the space career field, there were many times I was the only woman in a meeting. I never really noticed it but other people would notice it, and come up and say, how does it feel being the only woman in the meeting? And you know, you kind of look around and you’re like, oh. I didn’t notice it, so for me, I didn’t notice those perceptions or issues, and I, I just moved forward with life and did the best I could do. And, and it works out, so there are challenges, I mean it’s never fun to work during the day and go to school at night, but that’s no different than many other people in the world today who are going, who are working and going to school, or balancing a family. So, all I highlight is, we all have challenges, our schedules are all full, but there are ways to accomplish higher goals. So, if you want to go to school, especially nowadays, you can do it online, you know, I had to go to school in person, you know, ’cause that was back in the day, but you can go to school online, and there are many other ways to pursue higher education, so don’t let having a family, or a job, or any of those things stand in your way of accomplishing your goal. Set that goal out there, and work towards it.
Yeah, amazing, and so, when you were getting your degree, at this point, did you have this passion for space, or what, you know, at this point, what did you imagine your career after the military, after becoming an officer?
So, I really did not expect my career to go into the space sector, you know, again that was not the normal trajectory for most people back in that in those days, that was the 1980s. So, I want to kind of share with everybody what has happened in the space sector, we all think today about Elon Musk and space is very popular, but back in the 1980s, you have to remember, we were out of the Apollo era, we were into the shuttle era, and so you either had to work at NASA or you had to be a defense contractor or certain areas of the US military to participate in space. It wasn’t a mainstream activity, but since the 1980s to today there’s been the right legislation that has allowed for commercialization of space like we see with Elon Musk and his recent announcement of commercial passengers riding in the Dragon, right? We also see the commercialization of taking technology that we’ve learned from space, and creating companies, and businesses, and bringing that to market, so over that course of that, 30 to 40 years, space has changed. So, no, space was not really a possibility for me at the time, I did not anticipate that would have been my career trajectory, but when I became an officer in the US Air Force, I became a space program management officer, and I was stationed at the Space and Missile Systems Center, and that really started my career in the space and aerospace industry where I worked on, you know, launch vehicles, and ground segments in on-orbit platforms, and I learned about the space industry enough that I then became a professor at Defense Acquisition University, and taught about space in the space lifecycle and project management, and then ultimately culminated my US Air Force career working on Capitol Hill as a budget and appropriation liaison, articulating to members of Congress US Air Force needs for the programs, and funding of what the Air Force does mission wise, so it was a great career, and again, it was not something I had planned. So, many times when people, when you’re going to college, or you’re wondering what your career is going to be, you don’t necessarily know what the future is, none of us have the magic 8 ball, but what you can do is what I did, or what many people do, you can prepare yourself, take classes, network, mentor, do webinars, so that when that opportunity presents itself, you can latch on to it, and who knows what the next ride will be. And I was able to latch on to space, in the aerospace sector, and it’s been a wonderful career. I love what I do, I think space is going to be the largest economy in the world in the next 10 to 20 years, and I want everyone to be able to find their place in the space sector.
Wow, incredible! So, even at that time in the 80s, as you said, it wasn’t a popular industry, it wasn’t easy to enter it, you know, where people saying to you, like, Shelli, you know, maybe go down this more traditional route instead of space, or, you know, or do you have mentors, on the other hand, saying, yeah, go for it, there’s a lot of innovations, a lot of excitement, a lot of opportunities? So, what were you kind of hearing, and how did you really navigate to go and take that dive into the industry?
So, that’s great. I did not have a choice, so that made it good for me, the Air Force made my place for me when I became an officer. I was looking at more traditional roles, like public affairs, or protocol, or HR, however, the Air Force had a need for people to become project managers in the space industry, so they made the choice for me. So, sometimes it is just luck, and then the other part was, as we progressed in my career, I did have wonderful mentors, and I like to highlight, there’s three different people, there’s mentors, there’s coaches, and there’s champions, and I was fortunate to have all of those. Mentors help you understand the basic skills and give you input so that you can incorporate it, coaches, is just like when you’re on a team, they help coach you to get your skill set and level up to a higher performing level, and then champions are usually individuals that are higher, in higher positions than you, that help you rise to the next level in your career. So, I was fortunate to have all three of those, and I recommend to anybody who is entering any career field to look for those mentors, coaches, and champions to help you as you progress through your career.
I love it, I love that I’ve never heard that phrase, I’m kind of, just put them in a bucket of “mentors”. So, I like that a lot, and so, keeping on this line, you know, what advice do you have for actually seeking out those mentors, coaches, and champions? Because, you know, it’s easy to say, just go find them, but like, what are some tangible steps that people can take? You know, they have this passion, they’re interested in this industry, how can we find those people who are willing to help and you are invested in us?
So, I think that’s a great question. In the 1st place, you can start is, where are you at the moment? You know, the world has become flatter due to technology, and so we’re able to reach out to people, so where before, like when I was rising to my career, you really had to know somebody in your local area, or they had to know somebody you could call on the phone, which none of us have anymore right? We all have, we all have iPhones, and, you know, androids, but today, you’re able to reach out through technology, and there are so many programs available, whether it’s women in aerospace, Space Generation Advisory Council, WomenTech Network, as you mentioned, the UN Space4Women program. So, no matter where you are regionally, you can find a mentor who can help you, and the great thing about mentorship is, it opens up so many other opportunities. So, what I like to share is, at the Space Foundation, our Center for innovation and Education, we have a five-step workforce development road map, and its access, awareness, training, connecting, to mentoring, will mentoring, finding a mentor, can usually unlock those other four areas. A mentor can provide awareness of opportunities you may have not known existed before, career opportunities, a mentor can help provide access into that career opportunity, whether motivating you to go to college, or meet with recruiters, or look at NASA websites, or many other things, training, obviously a mentor, guide you in the right direction for the training you need, for the future you want, and, lastly, it’s about building that network and connecting, ’cause as we rise, like I said, you’re going to look for mentors, coaches, and advisors along the way, but you know, what else? You’re going to become a mentor, and a coach, and advisor, and a champion for somebody else, so always remember, find a mentor and you can be a mentor.
Yeah, I love it, I love it, I think it’s so great. So, now going back to your story, take me to where you are today, well, take me to that third chapter that you are now, tell me about this Space Foundation, in your role as the COO.
So, when I retired from the Air Force, I was fortunate that the Space Foundation was looking for a new chief operating officer, and I’ve now been here six years, it has passed in the blink of an eye, because I just love what I do, I love the team I work with, and ultimately, I love what we talk about, which is really about creating space opportunities for all, breaking down barriers, and allowing everyone to find their place in the space industry, whether there is a STEM degree, or non-STEM, entrepreneurial, business background, artists, there is a place for everyone now in the space ecosystem, and that’s what’s really exciting about sharing that message with others, how they can find their place in space.
I love it! So, before, you know, you saw this open position for operating officer, did you have experience in an operational role? Was that something that, you know, were you just excited about, were you maybe scared, or how was that transition into that role?
That’s a really great question, ’cause initially I do what many people think, I disqualified myself from the position of chief operating officer. I was retiring off Capitol Hill, and so, most people that were like me, with my skill set of program management and Capitol Hill experience, become government relations. So, they go work at a company, or they become, they go work in a government relations organization. However, when this position opened up, and somebody sent it to me, you know, I looked at the requirements, and I met many of them, you know, I had done many of those roles, leadership roles, facilities, operational management, program management. I had done those things in the Air Force, so uh, another mentor of mine said, you should apply, don’t ever disqualify yourself from a position you haven’t been offered. So, I applied, I was fortunate to be interviewed, and I made it to the final four. And when I walked out that day from that final interview, the CEO shook my hand and told me, welcome to the team.
Wow, amazing, and I think you touch on, like, a very important aspect, and I’ve talked about this in other, my other episodes, but the idea where, you know, I think women, females, go in, to reading job descriptions, and maybe they don’t have, you know, one of the qualifications, and then they immediately disqualify themselves, and so, and you know, there’s been studies about it versus men, they have maybe two or three and they’re like, OK, great, this is, this is my job. So, I think you just touch on that importance, of having that confidence, knowing that, OK, yes, maybe you don’t fit all of them to a “T”, but still, going there, showing, showing them who you are, what you’re capable of, and then from there, you know, like you said, like, you, you end up getting the role. So, I think that’s, I think that’s awesome. And how has that been, you know, what, what would you say are the three key skills that you think any successful COO needs to have? Well, that is an actual question, and there are a number of great skills, obviously, the first one is to be a compassionate leader, we need to listen to our employees, we need to empathize with our employees, and we need to help grow our employees, because the employees are the individuals that make it all happen. So, we have to be passionate leaders, we have to communicate both with our team internally, but also externally. Everybody on the team needs to know the message, it should not be a surprise to them, what I’m saying outside the Space Foundation, or any organization, so it’s good that everybody understands good communication skills, and then again, the other part is, being a reflective leader, processing what’s happening, how can you learn from it, and then set the next trajectory. So, we always set, you always create plans, you know your baseline, but life has a way of changing that baseline, COVID happens, so how do you flex, how do you flex yourself, your leadership style, and how do you help flex your team, and COVID is just the next thing, but there’ll be something else, and there’ll be something else, so I’d almost say, that’s building resiliency in yourself, because there are no constants, everything is changing, whether it’s competition, COVID, technology, we need to continually be prepared to flex, and change that baseline, so we can be responsive, and continue to be leaders.
Yeah, I love it. I think that’s so excellent, and so, Shelli, I love asking my guests, you know, what is, what does failure mean to you? And like, when you experience daily, or step back, like, how do you respond to that? And I’ve learned it’s largely a mentality, but I want to know, kind of looking back at your career, maybe you’ve experienced challenges, how is that, how, how was that? And how did you respond to it?
Well, I think everyone needs understand, first of all, all careers have ups and downs, right? No career is straight up, so we have to remember, that as we’re transit, zigging and zagging, through our careers, there are going to be higher points, and lower points, and that’s OK, that’s normal, don’t get down on yourself. The best thing to do, is, look at failure as a learning opportunity, right? Thomas Edison, how many times did it take him to get the light bulb, right? SpaceX, you know, you can look at all kinds of cutting edge technology, breakthroughs, and leaders who made it happen, the ultimate thing is to step back and self-reflect, what could I have done better, what could I done differently, how can I improve, so make it a learning opportunity, and then do it again, right? Be resilient, don’t let that first set back set you back, I mean, the first time, you’re an A student, but you got a C, OK, let it go, you know what, get to be, the next time get an A, the next time, we’re not all perfect, so, we’re going to learn and that’s OK, life is, life-long learning, whether it’s in college, or it’s learning, learning on the job, just, just, be open- minded, be reflective, and be resilient, you will overcome this, you will learn from this, and, you know what? You’ll be ready for the next challenge and you will succeed.
I love it, I love it, so great. And so Shelli, I know you’re heavily involved in really getting minority groups and, you know, specifically, young females into the space industry, whether it’s being a mentor for Space4Women and what-not, so tell me, how has that been, and what’s been this big barrier to getting those minorities into the space industry?
Well, I think that’s an excellent way of looking at it. I think, the first question is, you know, it’s really about that workforce development road map I shared, it’s about awareness, most individuals, whether they’re minorities, or women, or underserved groups, so in the US I would say under-represented groups, could be inner-city, or rural communities, so again, who may not normally be represented in that aerospace or space industry, the first step is, it’s about awareness, that we now, because of the commercialization of space, have the opportunities for all individuals to find their place. Here in the US, 80% of our space economy is commercial, 20% is government, so when you think about that, that means not only do I need engineers and scientists, I need business administrators and technical experts, you know, trade skills, I need business experts, I need entrepreneurs, I may need artists, and marketing executives. So, the first thing that you have to look at is, breaking down the barrier that space is not inclusive, it is inclusive, but there’s still that perception that space is about astronauts, and launch vehicles, which is totally a great part of the space sector, but it’s a small fraction of the space ecosystem. What I like to highlight is, the current global space economy is $424 billion, and that is going to grow $1 to $3 trillion in the next 10 to 20 years, Bank of America is predicting that the global space economy will be $1.3 trillion by 2030, and again, that is democratizing space, not just in the US, but globally, so all countries and regions can determine, how do they want to participate in the space economy? Do they want to be entrepreneurial, and bring products to market, or do they want to use space technology to better life on earth, for instance, earth observation in Africa, you know, last year many countries in Africa used earth observation for locus control, animal migration, the COVID virus, tele-health, so I share with you, not every country has to use space technology the way the US does, they can look at how the US uses space technology, or Russia, or China, or others, and then they can determine, what is the path that’s best for their country, and community, and workforce.
Wow, amazing, and so, Shelli, honestly, I can keep talking for hours about this, ’cause it is fascinating, but, you mentioned early on that, you know, you’re always growing, and you, you know, you’re still, you still, think of your career as, you know, what’s next? So I’m, I’m interested to know, what do you imagine, how do you plan out your future in your career in terms of next steps, how do you think of that?
Well, that’s an excellent question, and what I share with people is, just always be prepared, be a lifelong learner, I am always learning, and growing, I’m taking webinars, I loved watching your show, I watch other shows, so, being a lifelong learner can mean going to college, but that’s just one path, another path is, there are so many things that you can learn from television, I love a couple shows for those of you who want to be entrepreneurs, one of the first things I always recommend is, are you watching Shark Tank, and in the UK they call it Dragonslayer, that’s, that’s where entrepreneurs have to pitch their idea to investors, I mean, it’s a great way of learning. I want to be an entrepreneur, one of the questions I’m going to have to answer, I love watching other shows on CNBC like with Jim Cramer, Mad Money, because he interviews executives and leaders and cutting edge technology, because I can learn about the technology that’s coming on-line, the Internet of Things, 5G, fintech, and those are also part of the space industry, part of, intertwined with space, so it helps me think about what’s coming, what are the trends, what are the future industries, how is space, my background, going to intersect with that, and how do I stay sharp and stay on top of cutting edge in my career field, and how can I share that, ’cause one of my passions is mentorship, how do I share that with others so they can find their pathway in this emerging ecosystem that we call the space economy?
Incredible, I love it, and another I’ll add to that list, another one of my favorite podcasts is, How I built This, with Guy Raz, a very well-known one, he interviews incredible founders and entrepreneurs, so I would add that to the list. So, Shelli, now for some fun questions. I want to know first, what’s a passion that you have that’s just completely unrelated to any, any of your work, what’s a hobby of yours?
Excellent, well, I love to travel, obviously, having joined the Air Force right outta high school, and wanting to see the world. I love to travel, I love to meet people, I look forward to meeting with you in Israel, or San Francisco, or wherever you might be post-COVID, so travel has always been a passion, along with photography, but right now, obviously with COVID, my, my trips are more local there, hiking here in the beautiful Colorado Rocky Mountains or going to our beautiful Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and taking photos of animals, and nature, and wildlife. So, that’s one of my passions, because people think about space, is outer space, but you know, it’s also about how space benefits us here on earth, so when I get to look at beautiful nature, and animals, and wildlife, space intersects those passions as well.
I love it, it’s awesome, and my last question, so Shelli, what is a fun or weird talent that you have that no one really knows about?
So, it’s like a weird, hidden talent, so I’m going to go first. So, what I do is, I like to throw blueberries into my mouth, so I’ve been doing this since the first episode and I’m going to do it for you right now, so, here’s a blueberry, alright, yeah, here this goes, and there we go!
Awesome, awesome, I don’t quite have that talent, skill, so this will be something that will be new to anybody who follows me, or my coworkers. I used to live in LA, and while I was in LA, one of the things I love to do was dance, so I would take many dance classes, I would also dance in many theater groups, and musicals, and so, dance is one of my hidden passions, Polynesian dancing, belly dancing, hip-hop dancing. I haven’t done it in a while, but again, I anticipate that at some point in my in my life, in my journey, I will find an opportunity to go back to dancing. I also found it wonderful, I made some amazing friends when I was in those dance troupes, and so I look at it, it was both fun, it was exercise, and I got to meet wonderful people.
Wow, Shelli, I love that. Well, it’s just been so much fun, really, thank you for coming on the show. I’ve loved learning about your journey, starting in the military, in the Air Force, to now being the COO of the Space Foundation, truly incredible, thank you for coming on the show.
I’ve loved it, it’s my pleasure, and I’m so honored that you invited me, and I look forward to learning more, and I’m working with you more on finding our journey together, and how I can help you elevate your space, and help your viewers find their, their place in the space ecosystem.
Amazing, thank you Shelli.
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