Shelli Brunswick Interview With Mandy Vaughn, CEO and Founder of GXO, Inc
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
Well hello, and welcome to another Space Foundation Space Commerce entrepreneurial interview. I’m Shelli Brunswick Chief Operating Officer at Space Foundation. Today I have the privilege to talk with Mandy Vaughn, CEO and founder of GXO, Inc. Well, hi, Mandy. Hi, Shelli. Thanks for having me. It’s an absolute pleasure to join you today.
Well, it’s a pleasure to join you as well. And first of all, your location looks a lot better than my office. So, I’m, I’m a little jealous there.
Welcome to Catalina Island. So, come on out.
Well, Mandy, I want to share a little bit about you with our audience, because I think they’re excited to learn more about you and your great entrepreneurial adventure you’ve been on. So, Mandy founded GXO, Inc, in 2021 to accelerate the pace of change across the space industry. The goal is supporting new commercial space ventures to quickly navigate the startup environment to start delivering capabilities and missions that matter for commercial and government customers. She was selected to serve on the National Space Council’s user advisory group, when it was re instituted in 2018, where she helps to streamline coordinate and the cooperation across the US space enterprise. And Mandy is the former president and CEO of Vox Space. So, Mandy, again, we are so excited to have you here with us today. Thank you very much. Awesome. Well, the first thing I just want to start with is congratulations on your new business, GXO, Inc. Tell us a little bit about it.
Sure, thanks. And I’m super excited to have founded the new company. One thing, I had the privilege of working with Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit, and then Vox Space for six years, as we were establishing this small satellite launch capability. And in the course of that effort, I was really exposed to this amazing new space ecosystem, and watching the different pockets of innovation from both the Air Force and the Space Force, where were these companies engaged with the government, what was working, what wasn’t working, and really saw some very foundational issues where it’s, it’s how do we get these companies geared to where in the smart dual use areas of the commercial space market can reach over that, that valley of death, if you will, to actually go from just being a think piece to an actual part of the national security architecture, and yet still be a commercially viable company. So it was really seeing that systemically kind of across the gamut of the industry that that prompted me to say, you know what, there’s some really fundamental issues here that are super important to an emerging economy, and to our national security interests. So, let’s go all in and try to help a lot of these companies accelerate and innovate at a faster rate of change. And how can we deliver these capabilities to both the commercial and the government users that really need them?
Amazing, amazing. Well, can you share a little bit about your background and your journey? I mean, how did you get to this point? Where did you start?
No, it’s kind of fun. And it’s one where I think my backgrounds a little unique that I started through more of the classic national security regime, if you will. So, I was in the Air Force. And I’m an MIT engineer. So, I went through the ROTC program at MIT, which was just an absolutely incredible experience. And then I was in the Air Force, I was an aerospace engineer and a program manager on active duty for seven years. And my last assignment there, I was in what is now the special programs Directorate at Air Force Base at SMC and worked a variety of amazing programs that had to deal with space, situational awareness, space domain awareness, and issues associated with counterspace. So that whole foundational line of thinking of military space and space domain awareness, and how does that enable what’s happening and how do we enable the use of capability in space was a very unique experience. So, then I coupled that with some time in industry, I worked with General Dynamics Mission Systems with the same portfolio and then moved to Virgin. And was at Virgin for six years, which I think there’s a space startup dog ratio, kind of math that happens in that and that experience of being really in the front edge of not just the small satellite kind of revolution, if you will, but again, this this very fundamental new space ecosystem, coupled with that national security background, I think is not super common. So that’s where I was quickly drawn into, okay, how do we bridge this gap? How do we make these two teams and these two halves of the ecosystem work together? And how can we help the government more quickly leverage these capabilities that are coming from these commercial startups? So it’s a it’s a fun perspective. And I just really hope that I can educate and help these other companies come to fruition so they can they can accelerate their own success quicker and officially.
Excellent. Well, one of the questions that entrepreneurs many times have is, you know, you had a great idea, but how did you really get started with the company and concept? What were what were some of the first steps you needed to take to put this concept into action?
Sure. And I’ve had the fun experience of really having to kind of do that twice. So, the first time with Vox space, where the real driver with starting box space back in 2017, was Virgin Orbit has this amazing capability and a great team. But they needed to make some organizational or business changes to be able to really officially work with the US government customer. So, I had the fun privilege of getting to start a company that was really just as was just a subsidiary company. So, I had help along the way, which was fantastic. But we had to go through all of the mechanics of actually, what do we have to do to be efficient? How do we grow? What are some of the pitfalls of where whenever you’re ready to have a team that’s kind of at that point of scale or fail? How do you bridge that gap? How do you balance hiring needs? It’s like you need to have you need all the skills right up front, but you can’t hire everybody all at the same time. So how do you prioritize your resources? So, all of those growing pains to establish the team at Vox Space was just an absolute pleasure to get to experience that. So then, having the impetus to say let’s go do it, again, with with GXO is now at this point, it’s just, it’s fun, to be honest, right? To where you have to say, okay, it’s really a clean sheet of paper. What are we going to do? What is the team going to be? What is the culture we want to establish? What are our technical priorities? What are our areas of quick impact? Where we can say, hey, let’s let’s really get some meaningful wins for our customers? And how can we show clear value to the space community as quickly as possible, so we can really hit the ground running. So, it’s a it’s a fun challenge. And it’s, it’s been a fun ride so far, we’re just getting started.
It sounds amazing. And I love it. So, another question is, along the way, did you have partners that helped you that helped you both? At box as well as in this new adventure? it?
Of course, right. So, it’s always it takes a village to do anything meaningful. So, it’s kind of interesting in terms of some of the partners that that you meet along the way. And, and a lot of them also are serial entrepreneurs. So there’s a few people that I’ve worked with throughout both early in the Vox Space time, and now in terms of Okay, just help me with some of the abilities, how do I prioritize and get some of the basics going, that community of serial entrepreneurs can help make things a lot more efficient. So, you don’t have to go recreate it reinvent the wheel, you can leverage a wheel that somebody else had already invented. So, from a functional perspective, that’s been amazingly helpful, as well as core teams of people that are in this community that, you know, everybody has their own. Some people are either half retired or they’re just between things, whatever it is to where you’ve got this support, structure of functional support, whether it’s security help, operational concepts, contracts, finance, some of the abilities, there are just so many people that love to help companies get started, but then also have that balance of they’ve worked in the national security space, architecture and community too. And they’re also looking to learn something new. So, it’s kind of a fun, win-win. So, the ecosystem functionally from from people that are steeped in it that want to learn something new, and that as well as mentors, right. So, I’ve had a I’ve had the privilege of having a few mentors, where I really watched what they did in establishing their companies and leading their teams. Like one of them I’ve been in touch with forever is was Stan Dubin, so Stan Dubin started Millennium Space. And I was really impressed with what he created there, not just in terms of technical capability, but the smart areas of how to be efficient. So, he was one of my early entrepreneur mentors to where it’s like, Okay. And he was a big help in terms in terms of getting me over the fence to say let’s start GXO by of giving me the confidence. He’s like, you know how to build a team, go do it. So, I think he’s definitely one. Another is Pamela Melroy, who Yay, as the new Deputy Administrator of NASA, she’s just an amazing role model in terms of leadership in general. But then also in terms of, again, that confidence to say, you know, what, let’s go do it. Let’s go there. There’s, it’s a small community. And in terms of, especially on the national security linkages, like it’s a small community, who has the respect for who, who’s successfully built teams, these are kind of known entities. And to have someone that like, like, Pam, that can give you a void of voice of confidence is, you know, those are some of the big voices where it’s like, okay, maybe, you know, maybe I’m onto something. So, I have to certainly chalk two people up like that, that are huge mentors and influencers to say, Yep, let’s start in companies can be done, and they can be successful. And how do you have the flexibility in your business plan? To say, Okay, I need to pivot, I need to make an adjustment. And I think another role model also is Mel, Mel Strickland, she’s the CEO of Slingshot. And slingshot started, right about the same time that Vox space did, and Vox and Slingshot are actually next-door neighbors where our offices are in El Segundo right now. So, it’s been an amazing experience to kind of grow alongside her and her company, as well to see, okay, from their software perspective, where were they able to move a little faster than we were? Where did we have common issues with a competition or something? How did we get through COVID, and some of the clamp down from the pandemic that that had on our customers? So, having a partner in crime, that is going through some of the same things that you are is also very helpful. So huge shout out to Mel and the Slingshot team too.
Awesome, I think that highlights the importance of building those relationships, having a network and you you listed a number of connections, one mentors and coaches and champions, but then also, I’m going to call them like allies, you know, when you have the bad day, who can you reach out to and say, Hey, I’m going through this, and I went through that last week. So, I think that’s really helpful. And that, that leads me to my next question, because what have been some of your biggest challenges during, during your career or during your life as an entrepreneur?
Sure, I think some of the biggest challenges are first learning the resource constraints, right? And really learning that you have to be very self-reflecting as an entrepreneur to quickly know, what are you good at? And what do you need to bolster your own strengths and weaknesses, when with to get the support that you need to be able to hit the ground running and all the facets that you need? Like for, for myself, I’m an engineer by trade and a program manager by natural inclination. So, I tend to think about problems. And quickly from the program management and the technical perspective, and then it read rep, it ripples through the balance sheet and the P&L. Right. And so, I need to have I know I and I know, that’s how I naturally think about problems. So, I know I need to have a right-hand sidekick, that is is throwing the other facets of the problem set directly with me. So, I can have all of the inputs as quickly as possible. So, I think it’s a quick realization of what are your strengths or weaknesses? How do you make decisions? and learning how to know if you’re making a decision? Which ones are permanent? Which ones can you take your time on? That’s one that can require a little bit of self-reflecting to make sure that you’re you’re not doing something off the cuff just to feel like it’s done. Meanwhile you may have some more time to really think about it. So those are some of the I think critical things in terms of self-reflecting to do really quick,
Really insightful. And I highlight that you talked about that a little bit earlier to you know, hiring those right people and I’m similar to you Air Force Acquisition Program Manager. I always think of things from the programmatic side. But again, having that hiring the right person that complements you, and allows you to deliver a full suite of products and services that also is best for the business. So, I think that’s some great insight. We’ll take a short break for some great insight on what’s happening at Space foundation.
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Welcome back to our entrepreneurial interview with Mandy Vaughn CEO and founder of GXO, Inc. Well, we just concluded on what were some of your biggest challenges. So now I want to ask what are some of your biggest successes?
Oh, gosh, in terms of successes, there’s two that really jumped out in? Well, we’ll go through. So, the first is, in terms of successes, watching the Vox space team, through 2020. The team finally kind of grew to the point where we had enough we had a person on each base, if you will, right. And so, we could actually kind of make sure that people could take a vacation, and enjoy it. But it was just great to see the team really embrace the thinking of scale or fail. Because I had challenged the team earlier in 2020, to say, hey, we need to think about what happens when we win one, two, or five, launch service contracts. What do we need, since I needed to help the team grow, and understand that they couldn’t just do all of the work, we needed to start creating the processes, getting the tools and the training, to say, Hey, what’s really needed. So when this takes off, you’re all ready to go and to watch their maturation in terms of how are they going to manage their teams in the future was an absolute awesome success just to watch the team really fire away. The other thing that I think was a huge success was COVID was was hard on on the ecosystem, and a lot of the non-traditional space companies and watching the team stay focused. And we were able to submit some proposals and got some pretty significant wins both not just in terms of backlog, but in terms of strategic customer wins. During that time when everyone kind of had the pressure also on the move. What’s happening, what’s the impact here to see the team ride through that with such success was was pretty awesome. On the GXO front, I’m really, I’ve I’m thrilled already to say, okay, between some of our clients that are pretty new in the ecosystem, that they’ve only been in business for a few months, or in some cases a couple of years, already seeing tangible progress of Okay, how can we get these companies audience with a customer set on the government side, that can help pull them through to an actual program of record? It’s not just about these little SIBR phase one sort of things, it’s how can we help these companies meaningfully find program managers and requirements that can be trends, really a total change for their for their company? So, I’m already seeing success on that side? Then, where I’m really optimistic about the future is, is seeing the the opening from the Space Force side in terms of how do we want to talk about commercial integration? How do we want to talk about what that means in terms of real operational capability, as well as deterrence? And how does all of how do all of these tools need to come together and be accepted? So, I’m, I’m hugely, hugely proud to see that, hey, the highest levels of the Space Force and Congressional leadership are talking about this. And as the space force then stands up Space Systems Command, out here in in El Segundo, how does that have to roll into how they’re going to change and do business differently moving forward. So seeing the change, through even the customers policy points of view, I think is a huge element of success that this whole kind of like minded set of companies and leaders can can take credit for, and hopefully really make a difference moving forward.
I think that’s an amazing story. And again, I even think about Space Foundation and our pivot during COVID. It was not just the digital transformation of pivot, but coming out Space Foundation, 2.0. And you you not only came out of box successful with the team all intact, but then you launched your own business so amazing. And again, it is exciting, because there used to be you talked about Space Command or the Air Force requirements, and then commercial and they used to be separate. And now you know, it’s military, commercial, civil or national. And there’s a lot of integration now taking place. How do we capture and use technology and synergize those four areas to save cost and reduce scheduled time? So, I think that’s amazing what you’re doing. So, congratulations on a successful last year as well as a successful career.
Thank you very much. And yeah, happy to see 2020 in the rearview mirror, but it was certainly a learning and a growth experience. That’s for sure.
Well speaking of that, now, let’s look back not just from 2020, but throughout your lifetime and say, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned? Not only maybe some mentoring advice you received, but also as an entrepreneur, what are some lessons you’d like to share with some entrepreneurs or one of the entrepreneurs that are out there?
Sure, I think some of the key lessons I’ve learned the first is, okay, go back to my first jumpmaster. So, I went through the I went through ROTC, but I went to the Academy’s freefall program between my freshman and sophomore year. And first jumpmaster, his his feedback to us is think breathe, relax, right. So, if you’re confronted with something that’s really stressful, or strange, or you’re way out of your element, slow down, think breathe, relax. So, I think that’s definitely one piece of advice you can carry through to anything. Especially when something is can be starting a company can be incredibly daunting, because you don’t even know what you don’t know. And to peel the onion back on all the things that you have to do. And they’re all important, but then it’s also realizing, hey, you’re not going to get it all done. So really learning how to prioritize and manage that priority, I think is definitely a big lesson learned. And it goes back to like Dan Hart at Virgin Orbit, he and I would talk about this too, of learning how to think fast and think slow. And when do you have to think fast and be bold? And when can you and when should you slow down? And how do you balance between that and know when you you’re gravitating one way or the other when maybe you shouldn’t? So and think in terms of entrepreneur, entrepreneurs, it’s, it’s, everything’s really important, but learning how to really think, breathe, relax, and you’ll get through it in that balance for yourself of when, when the pile is incredibly daunting. When do you have to move and be bold? And when do you have the confidence to move and be bold? Because that’s also kind of hard to teach sometimes. And then when can you take the luxury and slow down and really think about something? So, so very fun, really?
I think that’s a great lesson, learn, think fast and think slow. I think those are, that’s a good leadership tip for all of us. Now, as you launched GXO Inc. What makes this feat financially feasible for you as a business model?
You know, it’s one thing that’s start easy, right? So, it’s it works as a business model, just mainly, because it’s a balance between how much do you want to overextend in terms of again, it’s the scale or fail, right? So how far do you want to lean forward to be able to scale quickly, but then balance it with some level of conservatism in terms of how does the business plan need to move? And how, what sort of reserves if you will, should you have to be able to pivot the business plan? Should something not work? Or should something take off and you need to accelerate in that direction? So, I think it’s a it’s that balance, both in terms of the business plan, realism and flexibility. And then as your resource management of Okay, if you need to pivot? How and how far do you want to lean forward because you want to be able to scale and move quick, but obviously don’t overextend where you’re taking too much risk. So just like systems engineering, where it’s the balance of cost, schedule, performance, and risk, it’s exactly the same thing. So, kind of boiling it back down to first principles of what am I really trying to accomplish? what’s what’s the mission? And how does that translate to your business plan? And then balancing the risk factor with it of how far are you willing to lean forward to move, but then make sure that you can react if something doesn’t go according to plan, because that’s part of it, too, you’ve got to be able to change direction if something works or if something is slower to materialize.
Excellent. Now, with your role on the National Space Council User Advisory Group, can you share with us the importance of advocacy and awareness in the space ecosystem?
Oh, great question. And no, it’s been a privilege to be part of the UAG since it was reinstituted in 2018. And I’ve been supporting the national security side, as well as the education and outreach side. And one thing that’s been very clear, and I’m happy to see that the Biden administration will start and continue the Space Council in some form. There’s so much that we’re doing in space right now with the advent of the Space Force, going back to the moon, this time to stay, changing this level of commercial and international and allied integration, that the only place where all of those equities come together really is at the cabinet level. So, when you really look at Okay, what are all of the other organizations and groups that exist in in the government today. There aren’t any other groups groups where Treasury and Commerce and the Department of Defense and the DNI do all come together to talk about these sorts of issues. So, the space Council and the UAG, I think, have been really key to say, Hey, we are kind of embarking in some new policy areas. And the only way to have this interagency process happen when we’re really trying to do something very new, an outline and take advantage of what will be this new space economy is at that level. So, I’m happy that the Biden administration is going to continue the Space Council in some form when when they’re staffed up and ready to go. And I think that’s a good acknowledgement of the importance of of this ecosystem. And that we really do touch everything from commerce, it’s about the economy, it’s about national security, and and how do we get people into this amazing part of our of our economy and ecosystem?
I think that’s amazing. And you know, at the Space Foundation, we are passionate about creating that workforce development for that space ecosystem. So, thank you for sharing the importance of awareness and advocacy. Well, as we wrap up our interview today, which went too fast, and it was a beautiful sight, looking at you and Catalina, could you share any last thoughts with our audience on being an entrepreneur or words of wisdom?
I think it thank you again, for having me. It’s just an absolute pleasure to be here. And I’m really looking forward to seeing everybody at the Space Symposium both this August and next April. There’s a lot to do, there’s a role in this ecosystem for everybody. And I think if you’re, if you have an entrepreneurial spirit, and you think you can start your own company, you have those ideas, go find some people like Shelli or even myself, like go reach out to the mentors you have in your, in your world, and, and bounce the ideas off them, right. So, get some feedback, write it down, and and give it a try, right? There’s people out here that are excited to help you and want to help you succeed. Because getting more people involved in this ever changing and very important part of our business is is critical. So, let’s do it. This will just be super fun. And thank you. Thank you again for having me. It was absolute absolute blast.
Well, it’s my pleasure. And thank you, Mandy. I’m looking forward to hosting you in August at our annual Space Symposium as well as an April for next year’s symposium. But in between, let’s get back together and have another podcast interview on where you are with your company and how things are going.
I would love that. Thank you. Awesome.
Well for our audience. If you’re interested in learning more about our space commerce program, or watching other entrepreneurial webinars, go to SpaceFoundation.org and check out our Space Commerce series under our Center for Innovation and Education. Thank you and we look forward to seeing you again. There’s a place for everyone in the new global space ecosystem.
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