Women’s Leadership Panel Kicks off Women’s History Month

  • Published
  • By Alicia Garges
  • SMC Public Affairs

The Space and Missile Systems Center kicked off Women’s History Month with a Women in Leadership panel featuring Maj. Gen. Catherine Chilton, IMA to the Air Force Space Command commander; Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president; Barbara Westgate, Washington Headquarters Services director; and Dr. Claire Leon, Loyola Marymount University Systems Engineering and Engineering Management Graduate Program director and the former SMC Launch Enterprise director. The panel was held on March 1 as part of the center’s “Airmen Everywhere” speaker series.


The speakers and panel members shared that most of their careers were not planned out, they all agreed that seizing opportunities, seeking feedback, and embracing challenges are necessary to progress in their careers.


Maj. Gen. Chilton’s speech, “Flexing Your Career: When Life Calls for a U-Turn” emphasized the need for flexibility and resilience in our lives. As a military child, her parents instilled an attitude of excellence and told her to leave everyplace better than when you came. She wanted to fly fighter jets like her father but was told her eyesight wasn’t good enough. She decided that, if she couldn’t fly planes, then she would build them.


She joined the Air Force intending to stay for four years and then work for McDonnel Douglas. The defining moment in her career was finding the love of her life. Her husband is retired Air Force General Kevin Chilton, a former NASA astronaut, Air Force Space Command commander, and U.S. Strategic Command commander.


Maj. Gen. Chilton’s first detour was when her husband was selected as an astronaut. It took a lot of soul searching for her to determine that she would leave the Air Force to support her husband’s career. The next major course change came when the couple made the decision to return to the Air Force. She made her way to the Missile Defense Agency where she worked on the Kinetic Energy Interceptor source selection and technical advisory team.


Maj. Gen. Chilton’s advice to the audience was to stay true to yourself and love what you do.


Gwynne Shotwell spoke about the future of SpaceX. During her speech, she showed videos of the recent SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch and concept videos of a crewed version of the Dragon capsule and Big Falcon Rocket.


“The launch industry is probably the scrappiest industry,” she said. “Launch competitors are always duking it out in public.”


Shotwell joined SpaceX after working for the Aerospace Corporation for 10 years. She was looking for something more challenging in her life and has been with SpaceX since the company’s inception in 2002.


Shotwell’s advice was to reflect daily on what we have done well and what we can do better. Her focus is on progress by doing things better every day through feedback and taking a ‘building block’ approach.


Barbara Westgate wrapped up the speaker portion of the leadership forum with her perspectives on leadership. She started her career as a GS-3 and advanced to an SES. She credits her career progression to people who took chances on her. Westgate was given a lot of challenging assignments that many people did not want to take. She said that she could have had a ‘pity party’. Instead, she turned these assignments around and formed strong connected teams.


“Great leaders distinguish themselves by seizing opportunities,” she said. “If the opportunity is not there, go somewhere else.” Some of the other insights she offered were to develop a pool of people to replace you, pick your battles and set worthwhile goals.


“Only you are responsible for your career,” she said. “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”


Following the conclusion of the speaker’s portion of the program, Dr. Claire Leon joined the speakers on stage for a panel discussion moderated by Joy White, SMC executive Ddrector.


The panel discussed the importance of mentoring. Shotwell shared how SpaceX’s formal mentoring program has been implemented. Maj. Gen. Chilton talked about being mentored by the Company Grade Officer Council and getting good career advice from attending squadron Friday get-togethers.


“There is a difference between a sponsor and mentor,” Dr. Leon said. “A sponsor only helps move you around an organization.”


Westgate mentioned how “mentors can help you stretch and provide constructive feedback.”


During another panel discussion, Shotwell told a story of applying for an intern position at a heating and air conditioning company. She was selected for the position and called the company to get specifics about her first day.


“They said, oh, you’re a girl. There is heavy lifting. You can’t do it,” Ms. Shotwell said. She didn’t let it deter her and simply found another opportunity for a summer internship.


Dr. Leon also experienced a similar situation. She was transitioning from one job to another at Hughes. The manager was reluctant about hiring her because she was pregnant. She also said that women often hold back because of their family.


Ending the panel, each of the members was asked when they decided that they could become a leader.


“The minute you walk into the door, does it look like fun or what you aspire to do,” Dr. Leon said.


“I had no career goals, never saw myself as SpaceX president,” Shotwell said. “I always wanted to take new opportunities.”


Maj. Gen. Chilton said she didn’t have any career goals – she wanted to build planes. As a second lieutenant, she found herself running a team and assuming a leadership role.


 Westgate summed up the major theme of the Women in Leadership panel. “It’s all about the challenge – always moving on to the next challenge.”