Gwynne Shotwell, The Woman Behind the Success of SpaceX

5 minute read
Gwynne Shotwell

Currently holding the fort at SpaceX as President and Chief Operating Officer, Gwynne Shotwell’s journey of becoming an engineer is straight out of an inspirational movie! She presently oversees the daily affairs and customer and strategic relations at SpaceX but she never thought that she would actually pursue engineering and lead an international space transportation company! Here we bring you the success story of Gwynne Shotwell, the woman behind SpaceX!

Inspired by the Woman in the Suit!


After meeting a female engineer in a sharply dressed suit talking at an event of the Society of Women Engineers in 1979 at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Gwynne Shotwell was inspired to pursue a career in mechanical engineering. She didn’t know where her career would go until that fated Saturday. Shotwell who’d actually work with Elon Musk at SpaceX.

“I was a grumpy teenager. I didn’t want to be at that event. But, there was a female mechanical engineer that sat on the panel. I was fascinated with what she had to say.”

In contrast to those in the space sector, Gwynne did not have a specific obsession with space as a young kid.

 “I did not watch Star Trek as a kid. There was not a lot of aerospace industry in Chicago where I grew up, so I did not have a lot of exposure to it.” 

However, Shotwell admits that her interests in cars were more significant. One of her first jobs would be in Detroit with Chrysler Motors, but she ended up disappointed as she couldn’t do hardcore mechanics, so her degrees were advanced back to Northwestern University. Yet Shotwell had been taken to the job bug and her first encounter in the aerospace industry brought her to Los Angeles.

Education and Early Career


Born in Evanston and raised in Libertyville located in the state of Illinois, Gwynne Shotwell pursued her bachelor’s (BSc) in Mechanical Engineering and master’s degree (MSc) in Applied Mathematics from Northwestern University. With her inclination towards cars, she wanted to pursue a career in the automotive industry and when she was selected for a training program at Chrysler Corporation, she realised that she wants to work in a more engineer-oriented role and thus left the organisation.

Gwynne Shotwell worked on military space and development contracts at Aerospace which she joined in 1988 and stayed there for around 10 years. However, instead of becoming involved in a government-related business, she was aggressively searching for commercial opportunities.

Landing at SpaceX


“It was random, actually. I wasn’t looking for a job. I had been at Microcosm four years; that is not a long time to be in a job, but it is hard to walk away from an opportunity to work with Elon for sure.” 

Gwynne Shotwell was working at Microcosm, a small company, where she met Elon Musk, one of our generation’s top tech entrepreneurs. In the first part of the last decade, Dr Hans Konigsmann, a Microcosm colleague from Shotwell, was lured to collaborate with Musk on SpaceX. While taking Konigsmann for a congratulatory lunch, she left an impression on Musk, who finally interviewed her for the VP of Sales at SpaceX.

At SpaceX in December 2008, Gwynne gained the first huge win by helping to bring its first big client. This client was NASA and SpaceX awarded the contract to carry freight to the International Space Station for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services. The size of the transaction totalled $1.6 billion. Elon and Gwynne were in charge of negotiations with NASA. The year has been very promising since the business also saw the fourth flight of the Falcon 1 rocket SpaceX and its first successful mission. Shotwell was also named Chairman of SpaceX in 2008. Today, more than 30 years after, Shotwell is a pioneer in her profession and for many a role model.

Courtesy: TED

Leadership at SpaceX

Courtesy: The Wall Street Journal

“SpaceX is a flat organisation. Anyone gets to talk to anyone, and the best idea wins – even if it comes from an intern.” 

Gwynne has helped make SpaceX an organisation that is more about solutions rather than designations, far from the normal hierarchic setup into which aerospace and engineering firms would navigate easily. Gwynne recognises that she is always the balance element in the desire for risk of Musk. She also enjoys the teachings that those who challenge the frontiers of what can be learned. She has often talked about how much she has learned from Elon Musk and his role in founding SpaceX and space tourism which will not be where it is now without his risk-taking skills and vision.

“I have learned over my 15 years of working with him to not bet against him and not question whether something can be done.”

Shattering the Stereotypes

Courtesy: WIRED

“I never felt any issues whatsoever about being a woman in tech.” 

Gwynne Shotwell is not making a huge deal about stereotyping, as someone who hasn’t had gender get in the way of their performance. The mass media has long been depicting competitive women in male-dominated industries as “one of the guys.” But from the caricature, Gwynne couldn’t be far apart. She firmly insists that gender should not be reduced to succeed in men-dominated industries.

Work doesn’t mean a Personal Life Vacuum

Courtesy: ASME

Gwynne Shotwell has always been vocal on the approach to work-life harmony at SpaceX, so it doesn’t matter how many hours one logs in the job but what they do in those hours.

“We need people to self-check their workloads and focus on simplifying their jobs and making the task easier instead of putting their heads down and being a hero.”

As a mother of two, Gwynne’s attitude to the balancing between work and life is very realistic. It does not mean striking the ideal 50-50 but placing your spare time in the life element that requires the greatest commitment at all times.

“There are times when the balance is far more devoted towards work. And you get to pick the times that you get to spend with your family and you make those count. To me, work-life balance means stable, not necessarily 50-50.”

Thus, we hope that Gwynne Shotwell’s journey inspired you to follow your calling with perseverance and persistence! Keep watching this space at Leverage Edu for more such inspiring reads! Our experts and mentors are here to guide you at every step of your academic and professional journey. Sign up for a free career counselling session with us!

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