On Episode 10 of The Executives Unpacked Podcast we were delighted to be joined by Shelli Brunswick, the COO of The Space Foundation, and an Executive Leader for the Centre of Innovation and Education. She brings a broad perspective and a deep vision to the Workforce Development roadmaps and the economic opportunities available to everyone for the space industry. Shelli has a distinguished career ranging across space acquisitions, programme management leadership and congressional liaison for the US Air Force. In her current role she’s leading the way when it comes to promotion of diversity and inclusion across the world, encouraging the next generation of women to pursue STEM subjects and join this wonderful space industry. Outside of Shelli’s passion for mentoring she spends most of her time travelling or getting outdoors, practising photography, and enjoying wildlife.
This incredible woman shared her insights with us, the highlights of which are below.
What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned during your career?
One of the biggest lessons is to never disqualify yourself from something you haven’t been offered. When I was transitioning out of the US Air Force to become a civilian and I was looking for a new job, someone sent me a job announcement to be the CFO of Space Foundation. Initially I went, ‘I don’t qualify for that, so I’m not going to apply’. I talked to one of my colleagues in the office, who’s also a good friend, and she said, ‘Never disqualify yourself from something you haven’t been offered’. Based on that advice, I applied to be the Chief Operating Officer at Space Foundation, and after a lengthy interview process, I was selected. Sometimes we go through life, and we eliminate ourselves from things we haven’t even been offered because we think we’re not qualified. Don’t do that. Try anyways, go for it. What do you have to lose?
What do you wish that you had been told earlier?
Your goals and dreams and aspirations are achievable, but they’re not achievable overnight. Sometimes, especially when we’re younger, we feel this great pressure that we have to accomplish things and it can be overwhelming. We’re seeing that in the workforce today, we’re seeing a lot of burnout, we’re seeing a lot of people not taking time to rejuvenate, spend time with their family or connect with nature.
Success is about creating the vision for yourself, and then breaking that into small, achievable milestones. I want to write a book next year, but I’m not going to write that overnight like I did my college paper, I’m going to have to outline and plan. Some days or weeks, I can do a lot more, the ideas flow a lot better, and some weeks I can do less. But how do you slowly work towards those goals? The same thing happens here at the Space Foundation and in any industry, so I sit down with my team and say, ‘What do we want to accomplish this year?’ We can’t accomplish it overnight, but we can lay in milestones and inch stones and every week, every day, we are slowly moving towards that goal. That helps to eliminate a lot of stress that people feel about achieving lofty goals when they think that they’re unattainable. They really are attainable, because you just have to break it into steps and look at that incremental achievement you’re doing every day. Even when you sent me the questions for today, I actually outlined several of my thoughts, and I thought ‘This might be great for my book’, so see, you’re helping me to slowly accomplish that goal!
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve been given?
When I started working on Capitol Hill as a congressional liaison for the US Air Force, my boss told me, ‘Life is all about building and maintaining relationships’. When you look back over your life and you think about mentors and champions that have supported you in your career, life is about building those relationships and maintaining them. Even when you and I look at our relationship, you reached out, we did a webinar, and that could have been it. But no, we stayed in touch over the last two years, we’ve tried to connect in Long Beach, now maybe we’ll finally meet in Paris. I do that with the champions and mentors who have supported me, and now I am a big proponent of giving back and building those relationships to help the next generation make their way into the technology and space industry. I’m an avid mentor. I support so many mentoring programmes, entrepreneurship programmes, not only for women, but for diversity and men, because we need to help that next generation the same way I was helped. I’m all about relationships.
What keeps you awake at night?
Well, as we just talked about, there are a lot of challenges going on in the world. We’re seeing a potential global recession, we’re seeing high inflation, we’re seeing climate change, we have war. Those things concern me. What concerns me is how are we preparing that future workforce? How are we creating that pathway? What I’ve learned is disruption is really the norm. There is no normal. People said after COVID we’re going back to normal – well, what was really normal? What we really have to do is change our mindset and say, that disruption is normal and the world continues to change. How do we create the resiliency and the tools that help humans lean into these disruptions and these challenges, and then come out with new solutions that make the world better? We can look at every problem as an opportunity for a solution. It’s an opportunity for an entrepreneur. I stay awake at night thinking about that, thinking about the workforce holistically, as well as my personal team. How do I be a servant leader? How do I empower them? How do I allow them to take on greater responsibility? I don’t mean this just in the macro world, I absolutely want to help make the change and create the workforce, but even at Space Foundation, how can I be a better leader every day with my team and be that servant leader? I’m working on a new concept for leadership, and as soon as I have it articulated, I hope to come back and share it with you. It relates to participative and innovative leadership on a global scale, which is what really keeps me motivated.
Can you identify a single thread that’s run through your career that’s led to success?
The one thing is to take advantage of every opportunity. I joined the Air Force right out of high school because I didn’t have money to go to college and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. The Air Force was a great opportunity for me to learn a skill set. I started in HR, that was what I was classified as. Because I started in the HR world I was able to go to school at night, taking advantage of tuition assistance, and I earned my degree by going to school at night, and then I was able to apply to become an officer. Whenever something came along or someone asked ‘Would you like to go to this training? Or would you like to go to this conference? Or would you like to meet somebody?’ the answer is always yes. Sometimes those opportunities are hard work. You shared that I’m part of several organisations, and those are all volunteer things I do. I spend a lot of my weekends doing volunteer work for these other organisations, because I’m passionate about it, but that’s part of taking advantage of those opportunities. When you take advantage and you put in the hard work, that’s when opportunity meets the right timing. Suddenly success happens. Take advantage of every opportunity, lean into it, learn and continue to grow. That’s how I got to where I am today.
What’s the one piece of advice that you always give to others?
Don’t fear the unknown. When I applied to become an officer in the Air Force, the first time I was not accepted because I don’t have a STEM degree. I was like, okay, you’re automatically allowed another time, so I applied again. The second time I was selected, but they classified me as the space programme management officer, and I was like, what is that? I was in HR. I was in personnel. I wanted to be a personnel officer for the Air Force because that’s what I knew. That’s a career field that everybody I knew was in, that’s what I wanted to do. Somebody from the Air Force personnel centre said, ‘Sergeant Brunswick, we need you to be a space programme Management Officer’. And I said ‘Yes, sir’. That decision the Air Force made for me started my 25 year career in the space industry. If I had my way we would not be talking today, I’d be a personnel officer, but instead, I’m a space industry leader. I’ve seen the amazing things that have happened in the space industry. Sometimes we convince ourselves that we don’t want to do things or we say ‘That’s not my passion. I want to follow my passion’. Back in the 90s, who knew that space would be my passion? That just goes to show not to fear the unknown, lean into those new opportunities, and embrace them. If it doesn’t work out, give it a try. If it still doesn’t work out, you’ve got a great thing to add to your resume and your toolkit and you can go back and do something else.
We hope you enjoyed hearing Shelli’s stories as much as we did! To hear more insights from our incredible executive guests, listen to The Executives Unpacked Podcast here.
For more behind-the-scenes insights into John Harris’s life, listen to the whole Executives Unpacked Podcast episode here.