Meet the Talent: Shelli Brunswick

Can you tell us about your background and how you got to where you are now?

My journey has three very distinct phases. The first was when I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force (USAF) right out of high school. The second is when I became an officer in the USAF. The third is where I am serving today as the Chief Operating Officer at Space Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1983 that offers information, education, and collaboration for the global space ecosystem.

Enlisting in the USAF right out of high school was a practical decision; I did not have a college fund or a career objective, but the USAF offered an excellent opportunity to see the world. It allowed me to learn a skill as a human relations and personnel expert technician, and it allowed me to earn some college money under the G.I. Bill as part of a veteran’s benefit. Fortunately, the military had a tuition assistance program at the time, so I could go to college at night and get both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Through that program, I built a college fund towards advanced degrees. That allowed me to meet the requirements to apply to become an officer.

Classified as a Space Program Manager, my selection as an officer in the USAF began my 25-year career in the space industry, where I had many career opportunities to expand and grow my leadership skills and acumen as a space professional, such as learning all about satellites, launch vehicles, and ground stations.

Upon retiring from the USAF, I applied to become the COO at Space Foundation, and it is the perfect culmination of my skills and experience. It is also a great place to work in a growing market segment now worth an estimated $469 billion annually. Today, the global space ecosystem is so much more than just satellites and rockets; space is a critical infrastructure that impacts our daily lives in many ways—think communications, healthcare, fire retardant clothing, and formulated foods. It’s been an incredible journey for the last eight years. As technology accelerates, we look to space innovation to help solve some of our most significant challenges here on Earth today.

How did you decide to pursue your college degree?

Learning is a lifelong journey. I earned a bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University Pueblo and a master’s and MBA from the University of Phoenix at night while serving in the U.S. Air Force by day. Still, my learning opportunities continued beyond graduation. You should always look for ways to learn and improve your skills outside of formal education: webinars, reading articles, finding role models to follow, and more. For example, I completed an executive course at International Space University. It was a great chance to brush up on what I know about the growing space industry. Beyond space exploration, the global space ecosystem is also about transferring technology innovation from space to Earth to benefit our daily lives. 

Projected to grow to $1.4 trillion by 2030 and over $3 trillion by 2040, the space industry offers access and career opportunities to a broad spectrum of STEM and non-STEM professionals to learn, grow, and contribute to space exploration and space-to-Earth industries. Taking courses at places like the International Space University and the Thunderbird School at Arizona State University, which both offer certification programs, are examples of entry points. These programs are great forums to learn and connect with like-minded peers and professionals who want to transition or move more profoundly in the space industry. 

Please tell us what projects you are working on now.

Space Foundation collaborates with organizations worldwide to connect commerce, government, and educational sectors. Together, we have many projects underway simultaneously that advocate for space technology, innovation, entrepreneurship, diversity/inclusion, and global partnership. 

This year is Space Foundation’s 40th anniversary and our 38th year producing Space Symposium, April 17–20, 2023, in Colorado Springs. This event is the largest gathering of the space community worldwide, with 11,000 attendees from 43 nations, including representatives from 15 space agencies, 20 top military space leaders, 235 exhibitors, and more than 220 speakers and presenters in attendance last year. We discuss what’s happening in the space industry, policies, business, government, etc. It’s an invaluable networking and learning opportunity. 

Addressing the workforce shortage in the global space ecosystem is another important initiative. Our Center for Innovation and Education programs and resources are designed to enhance the global space ecosystem’s outlook and opportunities for careers, jobs, and business ventures. 

Pre-K-12 Program & Resources: Standards-based courses and field trips for students; 

Teacher Programs & Resources: Training, professional development, curriculum, networking, and program opportunities for teachers, administrators, professors, and librarians; 

Entrepreneurs Programs & Resources: Workshops, training, mentoring and consulting for university students, entrepreneurs, professionals and established businesses; and, 

Public Programs & Resources: Programs and resources for regional communities. 

At every stage of engagement, from pre-K to space professionals, our Workforce Development Roadmap details five core disciplines designed to combat the obstacles standing in the way of building a sustainable workforce that spans space exploration and space-to-Earth industries: 

Awareness of space impact and the breadth of workforce opportunities 

Access to jobs, careers and business ventures for all people 

Training for tangible and actionable lifelong learning of sustainable skills 

Connections to a vast space network of experts, businesses and resources 

Mentorship of emerging talent and mid-career professionals to be next-generation leaders 

On April 20, 2023, at Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, our Center for Innovation and Education team will offer several panels to highlight the work of international organizations in workforce development. We’ll talk about space education for teachers and students in kindergarten through grade 12 and non-accredited adult learning programs. Industry experts will share how they are helping to build capacity through reskilling and upskilling. 

Lastly, I am passionate about advocating for mentors, champions, and coaches — particularly for women and underserved communities — to fill the void for role models in the space industry.

I love connecting with like-minded peers who are excited to share the opportunities available in the space industry and with people around the globe interested in advancing their journeys in this exciting field. 

I volunteer for several mentoring programs offered by the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), WomenTech Network, Global Policy Insights Institute, and Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC). For example, the Global Policy Insights Institute runs the Global Policy Diplomacy and Sustainability (GPODS) Fellows program, where I give a one-and-a-half-hour lecture followed by office hours three times a year. For the WomenTech Network, I mentor three outstanding individuals, and for the UNOOSA Space4Women program, I’m just about to find out who they’ve matched me with to mentor for this year. 

Talk to us about Chile and the Space playbook

Space Foundation is recognized as a global thought leader. The Chile article is part of a series of articles I’ve published for SpaceNews over the last two years to highlight countries and regions of the world and their space programs. In addition to Chile, I have published articles on Africa, Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Japan, South Africa, and New Zealand. The series shows that space is for everyone and how different parts of the world are building their workforces and participating in the growing space ecosystem. 

Another series of articles I am publishing is for Forbes. This series addresses space technology, innovation, leadership, and entrepreneurship. To date, I have published on quantum computing, smart finance, tech transfer, career building and predictions for 2023. 

What challenges did you face?

Life is rarely perfect. There will always be obstacles and setbacks, so being prepared is one of life’s challenges. I’ve talked to people worldwide and added their ideas to our plans for creating more access and opportunity in the global space ecosystem. 

There’s a misconception that space is only for astronauts, rocket scientists, and technical professionals. However, there are more than 50 different space-related jobs, such as project managers, policymakers, teachers, technicians, entrepreneurs, designers, investors, innovators, and so on. I know this firsthand, coming into the space industry with business degrees, serving as a program manager in the USAF and eventually becoming the COO of Space Foundation. 

People also may make biased statements that space careers are not for you. Some questions may be, “You already have a good job; why would you want to pursue a space job?” or “Our country does not have a space program; why would you want to pursue a job that does not exist at home? While well-intended by family and friends, you may face negativity or a lack of support from well-intended family and friends as you try to reach your goals, but follow your passion and persevere.

SpaceX is an excellent example of breaking barriers. When SpaceX first began, they had a new idea and concept for creating reusable launch vehicles—not the entire vehicle, but parts of it. That reusability would significantly reduce the cost of launch.

Many space industry experts claimed that reusability was impossible. It took many years of investment and dedication to solve root-cause problems. And compounding this concern, SpaceX had a string of failures that almost led to bankruptcy. However, SpaceX persisted, and they were successful. They have now changed the launch paradigm to make it more cost-effective. They lowered the price, which means that more developing countries, universities, and even high schools can launch payloads. 

Resources are plentiful. People in every region want to help you as mentors, coaches, or champions. I am passionate about being a mentor who can answer your call every day and give you a quick update on what you could do. A coach, on the other hand, thinks more strategically and asks questions about the big picture. “How do we develop a career strategy?” and “What’s your plan for getting there?” A champion is someone who can help position you for the next step in your career. Always look for mentors, coaches and champions in your field to guide you along your career journey. 

 What tips do you give to women who want to follow careers in technology?

I always say, “Get out from behind your desk.” We often think our excellent work will be rewarded, and sometimes that is true. However, more often, you need to take the initiative and seize opportunities as they arise. And this is part of my story. 

I was working at the Pentagon on certifications mandated by Congress through the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA). It was my job to find and check the key certifications people needed for important acquisition jobs. 

One evening, there was a reception for the Pentagon Acquisition Team, but none of my colleagues was able to attend. I was offered an invitation, so I got out from behind my desk and went to the reception. Having just moved from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, I didn’t know anyone but recognized a senior executive. As I approached the exec, he was in conversation with a team member about how important it was to find someone to take his place as a legislative liaison on Capitol Hill. The exec quickly turned to me, asking, “Brunswick, how would you like to be a legislative liaison?” 

Keep in mind he didn’t give me the job on the spot. Instead, he gave me the opportunity to interview for the job. After diligently preparing for the interview, I was grateful to be chosen to be a legislative liaison for Congress. This was my last job in the USAF while I was still on active duty. It would not have happened if I had not gotten out from behind my desk. 

Consider this lesson in the context of larger issues, such as volunteering for difficult projects. Do things above and beyond. Always do your best and be clear about what you are looking for in your career plan. Work on that with your mentor. And, if you have the opportunity to attend events, take on a complex project, volunteer your services, and meet someone who can champion your career, simply take that first step and get out from behind your desk.

What three words motivate you?

Passion, perseverance, and patience. When we think about passion, we need to be excited about what we’re doing and where we want to go. You need to be motivated. And if you’re a leader of an organization, you need to be passionate and motivated so that you can inspire others. So it starts with your passion for what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you want to improve the world. 

And then there is perseverance. There will be people who may not think you’re on the right track or not a fit for a job. There will be setbacks, or progress may not be made in giant leaps. Rather, persevere forward in small, incremental steps. Set a goal to do something daily or weekly that helps you move forward on your journey, and then string them together over months and years. 

Lastly, you need to be patient with yourself. It has been said, “My overnight success took 25 years!” Very rarely does success occur overnight, and it might just take longer than you planned. If you are a leader, you need to be patient with others. People do their best, and you need to mentor and coach them to succeed.

Do you have a famous quote to share about women’s leadership?

“The future is not in dominating mountains of influence; the future is in creating new frontiers.”

by Fiorella Giordano 

For me, this means helping to create the future workforce and helping the current workforce find their way into the space industry as entrepreneurs, leaders, innovators, and technology experts. Finding ways to bring diverse contributors into the space industry is essential to the workforce, and that’s the new frontier that I am dedicated to creating. So Giordano offers a great quote; you have to decide which path you want to take. The future is not in dominating mountains of influence. And while power does help, ultimately, the question is, are you creating new frontiers? And for me, I want to develop new frontiers that offer access and opportunity for all in the global space ecosystem. 

Andriani has been working in Publishing Industry since 2010. She has worked in major Publishing Houses in UK and Greece, such as Cambridge University Press and ProQuest. She gained experience in different departments in Publishing, including editing, sales, marketing, research and book launch (event planning). She started as Social Media Manager in 4i magazine, but very quickly became the Editor in Chief. At the moment, she lives in Greece, where she is mentoring women with job and education matters; and she is the mother of 3 boys.