|Gwynne Shotwell (Northwestern University)|
Gwynne Shotwell's meteoric rise to the top of SpaceX, a cutting-edge space
aeronautics company based out of Hawthorne, California, was by no means a
straight shot. Now an inspirational role model for women and girls aspiring
to succeed in the hard sciences and other technical fields, Shotwell's path to
achievement represents a refreshingly uncharacteristic American tale of life-
experience and trial and error. A Midwestern girl, born and raised in the suburbs
of Chicago, Gwynne's ascent to preeminence in the traditionally all-boys club of
space engineering is as much a story of happy coincidence and self-discovery than
narrowly focused career ambition.
In her recent opening keynote and Hall of Fame inductance address to WITI
(Women in Technology International) Shotwell, the current president of the cutting-
edge space exploration company SpaceX, described her early self as "a pretty
traditional little girl growing up in the sixties and seventies. I was a cheerleader,"
she continued, "I played varsity basketball, and never ever dreamed of being an
engineer. I mean, I didn't even know what they did. They drive trains, right?"
Even as Gwynne excelled academically in high school, her early preconceptions
of engineers as nose-picking nerds persisted, until she attended, "dragged by her
mom," a Society of Women Engineer panel at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
It was here that an impressive mechanical engineer charmed the young Shotwell
into reconsidering her notions of what it meant to be an engineer. "The mechanical
engineer was perfectly dressed," Shotwell relates, "she had a fabulous suit on, the
best shoes on the panel. No joke: I went and talked to her because I liked the way
she dressed." "Ok," she thought. "Engineers can be cool too. I'll just be a mechanical
|SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch (Northwestern University)|
Reassured, and possessing a newfound sense of enthusiasm and direction for her
studies, and maybe a touch of ambivalence, Gwynne applied to only one college.
She was accepted to Northwestern in Evanston Illinois, her hometown institution
that happened to boast a top-tier engineering program. Shotwell's undergraduate
years at Northwestern, however, were not typical for a future industry leader, but
instead "a very social time for me," she says. "I was not the student I was in high
school - by no stretch. I was little sister at a fraternity called Sigma Nu, and then
I was crowned the White Rose Queen. I was terrible at labs - horrible, horrible,
horrible at labs."
It wasn't until her extraordinary analytical talents became apparent later in college
that Shotwell began to fully embrace her identity as an aspiring engineer. And even
then, her varied interests, adventurous nature, and independent streak led her on
a rather untraditional path to industry success. After graduation, Shotwell took a
managerial position at Chrysler with which she quickly became disillusioned by its
lack of emphasis in pure engineering, as well as its remoteness from family back
in Chicago. These considerations proved decisive, and she returned to Chicago and
Northwestern to begin PhD work in applied mathematics. After completing her
masters in nine months (an impressive feat, especially for her particular field),
Shotwell opted to forego higher doctoral education in favor of the more lucrative
opportunities that awaited her in the private sector. Shotwell made her way
into space aeronautics through a series of jobs that combined rigorous scientific
knowledge with marketing and economics.
Gwynne isn't the stereotypical scientist. Her outgoing personality, social skills, and
varied interests have made her unique asset to the companies she works for. In
reference to her work in sales and business development for various engineering
companies, Shotwell notes with humor, "Cheerleaders make great salespeople."
On Tuesday, May 22, 2012, SpaceX made history as the first private company to
successfully launch a spacecraft, the Dragon, destined to the International Space
Station. That Friday, May 25, Dragon docked at the station with minor incident,
completing the historic voyage. And as president of the company, Gwynne Shotwell
deserves a large amount of credit for its success. Never the consummate academic-
track intellectual, Shotwell by no means conformed to prevalent conceptions of
high-level profession building. Instead, Gwynne, with all her smarts, found success
in her own way, without the usual degrees or career positions, but with a genuine
love of engineering and curiosity that eventually led her to the very top of her