FEMALES-IN-TECH SPOTLIGHT: GWYNNE SHOTWELL

Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO at SpaceX, came from a steady midwestern background, and notched her way up into the aerospace C-Suite stratosphere with curiosity, hard work, smarts, and people skills. She might be the “number 2” at SpaceX, but she is a hero to any girl or woman aiming for the stars. 

Gwynne was born to a brain surgeon father and artistic mother in the early 60s. She grew up the middle of three girls in Libertyville, IL. Living a conventional upbringing about an hour north of Chicago, Gwynne excelled in school and sports. She was about age nine when her mother handed her a book on machine engines. Shotwell later remembers, “I read it and became really interested in car engines, and gears and differentials.” 

In high school, Gwynne's mother further encouraged her math skills by encouraging her to become an engineer. They attended a local Society of Women Engineers panel together and soon Gwynne was enrolled at Northwestern University. Two degrees later, in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mathematics, Gwynne was already unusual in her field. Surrounded by men, her first job was in Michigan’s automotive ranks at Chrysler.  

Gwynne had a friend in Southern California working at Aerospace Corp. In 1988 she decided to take the leap and move from the midwest to El Segundo to oversee the technical side of military aerospace contracts at the company. Years of analyzing minute details of aerospace machinery led her to become an expert in thermal analysis, mechanics, and all types of design and engineering that rockets require. She had mastered the details and become accustomed to highly intense contracts with the western world’s forerunners in the industry. In 1998 she left Aerospace Corp. to become Director of Space Systems at Microcosm Inc. Here at the small and low-cost rocket builder, Shotwell cut her teeth in scrappy but exciting aerospace startup growth. It was the perfect background for SpaceX’s COO. She now knew the details required for successful rocket launches, contractual agreements, and what it means to be resourceful - to develop business from nothing, or at least very little.

 

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It’s rare to find someone with the brains, experience, and the personality to lead and inspire a team. Elon knew that when he hired Gwynne in 2002 as the seventh member of his SpaceX team. She joined as VP of Business Development and started building what we today know as the first aerospace organization to reuse rockets. 

Since the early hire, Gwynne has led SpaceX to unbelievable success. She’s personally accumulated an unbelievable resume too. She’s overseen seventy launches or $10 billion in business in the last 19 years. And she has an almost exhaustive list of awards and honors. Here are a few: 

  • Awarded the World Technology Award for Individual Achievement in Space

  • Inducted into the Women In Technology International Hall of Fame

  • Elected to grade of Fellow with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics 

  • Appointed to the United States Export Import Bank's Advisory Committee

  • Appointed to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Management Advisory Council 

  • 2018 Satellite Executive of the Year,

  • Helped raise over $1.4 million for STEM education programs. 

  • Forbes named her #55 on their list of Power Women 2019 and #72 on America's Self-Made Women 2020

  • Fortune Magazine placed Shotwell at #48 on their list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders in 2020

  • American Society of Mechanical Engineers Ralph Coats Roe Medal

  • Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2020

 

But more impressively, Gwynne holds the title of President and COO at SpaceX now, in addition to sitting on the SpaceX Board of Directors. It’s taken nothing short of hard work, but Gwynne’s at the top of the league. And she’s not slowing down. 

While Elon’s vision and work are famously unwavering, Gwynne is responsible to get it done. She does. SpaceX is currently valued at $46 Billion. By coordinating with NASA and the Depart of Defense, her team has secured satellite contracts for private company consulting in space exploration for our entire near future. Last May, SpaceX launched Dragon with a Crew —sending astronauts into space from U.S. soil for the first time in nearly a decade. Her next goals? Launching the first cargo mission to Mars in 2022, then sending the first humans to the next planet in 2024. Long-term, SpaceX hopes to take people to other planets beyond Mars, fly humans around the world in less than an hour, and meet beings from places or spaces beyond earth. 

It’s hard to think of Gwynne as anything less than a hero. She will lead the design, launch and entire operation of humankind’s first mission to Mars. At her core, she is a top advocate for humanity. “Machines are dumb without [people]” is one of her famous lines from a recent public appearance. She also believes that, “Diversity shouldn’t even be a thing. It’s the only thing that makes sense [in business].” If everyone looks alike, goes to the same schools, grows up in the same environments, they are going to have the same solutions. Diversity literally brings more ideas, more solutions to business. It shouldn’t even be a “thing.” 

Still, Gwynne encourages all to work hard. “Put your head down and do great work.” Is her advice to young aspiring professionals. And it’s true, if you’re curious, smart, have the people skills, and work hard, you can maybe become the next Gwynne Shotwell leading our best engineers, designers, and technologists into the future.