SpaceX Superstars: Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO
SpaceX is so much more than just Elon Musk, the company employs many other interesting people. Among the most recognizable are engineers who sometimes host the launch broadcasts. You may recognize John Insprucker, Brian Mahlstedt, Lauren Lyons or Michael Hammersley. However, one of the truly key figures at SpaceX is Gwynne Shotwell, Chief Operating Officer and President of the company.
Gwynne Shotwell was born on November 23, 1963, in Evanston, Illinois, as Gwynne Rowley to a neurosurgeon and an artist. She grew up in nearby Libertyville. She has two sisters, one younger and one older. As a child, Gwynne used to help her father with various tasks around the house. She also managed to repair her bike. Even as a child, she was interested in machines and especially cars.
Between 1978 and 1982, Gwynne went to Libertyville High School where she excelled. But she had no idea what she wanted to do in the future. In 1979, her mother ended up nudging Gwynne towards a career path of an engineer by hatching a secret weekend plan for her daughter. They went to the Society of Women Engineers convention at the Illinois Institute of Technology. In later interviews, Gwynne stated she wasn’t particularly enjoying the event because the speakers were boring. Ultimately, a perfectly dressed woman decided on her future career choice. Gwynne was very impressed by her stylish look. “Ok,” she thought. “Engineers can be cool too. I’ll just be a mechanical engineer.”
After finishing high school, she decided to go to Northwestern University where her father had taught at the Feinberg School of Medicine. Gwynne chose a different direction – McCormick School of Engineering. Interestingly, she applied to only one school and was admitted. However, her undergraduate years at Northwestern was “a very social time” for Shotwell so she didn’t excel the way she did in high school. She says she was also “horrible at labs”.
Interestingly, there were 36 students in her class, of which only 3 were women. It never caused her any issues during her studies but it was different once she started working. One summer, she was recruited by an HVAC company based solely on her CV. Three days before she was supposed to join the company, her new boss called and talked with her for the first time. He was shocked when she answered the phone and said: “You’re a girl. There is no way you can do this job as there is heavy lifting involved.” Gwynne replied: “I am an athlete, I played basketball in high school and was on the lacrosse team as a freshman in college, and I could probably kick the butts of all the guys you are going to hire as an intern.” But he said it was impossible and hung up.
Gwynne’s grades improved during the last year of studies. She went into the final exam with a C but ended up getting the highest grade in the class. That was also quite a shock to her professors.
After graduating and earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1986 and a master’s degree in applied mathematics in 1988, Gwynne decided to start working in the automotive industry, specifically at Chrysler. She didn’t stay very long, however, because it wasn’t an engineering job. She headed back to the university and began her PhD in applied mathematics, but after nine months left the studies for good and went back to work.
She got a job in El Segundo, California at Aerospace Corp. This company was and still is a federal space research center. There, Gwynne was doing real engineering work. She was creating thermal mathematical models of satellites (describing how differently heated and cooled components work together) and writing dozens of research articles on various topics. These included the concept for a small spacecraft design, the integration of a space shuttle, and the description of operational risks of a body returning from orbit. She left the company after ten years because she wanted to start designing and building spacecraft.
In 1998, Gwynne became the Director of Space Systems Division at Microcosm Inc. She did not even have to move, because this rocket company was also based in El Segundo. Microcosm specializes in space mission engineering for the US Air Force. It was exactly the firm Gwynne was looking for. She was with Microcosm for four years when she decided to have lunch with her former colleague.
This colleague was Hans Koenigsmann who only recently joined a startup called SpaceX. After lunch, he suggested a visit to the company. At the premises, they also encountered Elon Musk, and it was Elon who made the biggest impression. At that time he was known mainly as the co-founder of PayPal. Now he proposed selling rockets to commercial satellite companies at the lowest possible prices, and reducing them even further by reusing the rockets. Gwynne spoke to him for only a few minutes but still managed to rudely blurt out that he really needed a business developer.
It was enough to attract Elon’s attention. That evening, he called her and asked to apply for the VP of Business Development position. At that time, Gwynne had only just divorced her first husband Leon Gurevich, with whom she had two small children (son Aleksandr and daughter Anna). She knew she was taking a great risk by joining SpaceX, but she was enchanted by the boldness of Musk’s plan. Within two weeks, she started as only the seventh employee at the company. Her main job was to sell rocket launches to potential customers. But her duties expanded very quickly. She also took care of finance, legal matters and dealing with the government.
In 2002, Gwynne met her future second husband, Robert Shotwell, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They met when they both volunteered to help the University of Southern California students with their satellite project.
Gwynne achieved her first major success at SpaceX in December 2008 when she helped get their first big customer. The customer was NASA and they awarded SpaceX the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. The total value of the deal was $1.6 billion. Negotiations with NASA were led by Elon and Gwynne. After winning the contract, they gathered the entire SpaceX team. According to Gwynne, Elon looked woeful but then said: “We fucking won!” and people went crazy.
In late September 2008, Gwynne went to a conference in Scotland with her husband and some of the SpaceX employees. At that same time, on the Kwajalein Atoll, the fourth launch of Falcon 1 was being readied. On launch day, Gwynne decided to watch the live stream on her laptop. But since it was already night and her husband was asleep, she stepped into the bathroom and turned on the water so as not to disturb him. Seeing Falcon 1 rise through the sky and successfully reach orbit for the first time, Gwynne was unable to contain her joy. She started screaming and running in her pajamas down the hotel hallway where her SpaceX colleagues had already begun celebrating the first successful launch of their rocket. “It was totally unprofessional,” Gwynne commented years later, “but it was amazing.”
In 2008, Shotwell became the President of SpaceX. Today, she’s also the Chief Operating Officer, in charge of sales, marketing, manufacturing, launch operations, legal affairs, dealing with government and finance. But the best part of her work is still watching the launches. “Nothing can surpass the kind of joy associated with a successful flight,” says Shotwell. Most of her energy goes to sales that she herself believes is her biggest contribution to the company. “By the time we launched our first rocket, Gwynne had already sold about 10 launches,” adds Tim Hughes, a SpaceX VP, “very few people could do that.”
Starting in 2006, Shotwell also led the negotiations with Iridium who were planning to launch their second-generation satellite network. In addition to the negotiations, it was necessary to persuade a very skeptical group of investors to lend $1.8 billion to Iridium. Although investors liked the price of Falcon 9, they did not like the fact that the rocket had never flown before. Therefore, in June 2010, a few days after the Falcon 9’s demo launch, Gwynne flew to Paris to finally convince the investors. Her presentation included a video of the successful launch. “Gwynne has literally enchanted them,” said Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium, who shortly afterward signed a contract with SpaceX for $492 million to launch the entire constellation consisting of dozens of satellites.
Hans Koenigsmann about Gwynne Shotwell:
She sold our services to NASA at a time when we only had a small rocket on an island. Over the years, Gwynne has also gained a reputation as a woman who can turn Musk’s visions into reality. She’s just like a bridge between Elon and the rest of the company. For example, Elon says we’re going to Mars, then Gwynne tells us what exactly we need to do to actually get there.
“I try to run the company the way I think Elon would like me to run it,” Shotwell said, “He makes the big decisions. It’s irritating how often he’s right, but that doesn’t mean he’s always right.” A good example of this happened a few years ago when Elon tried to cancel the development of Falcon Heavy. Gwynne then had to sprint to the conference room and remind him that the U.S. Air Force, a very important customer, had already purchased a ride on this rocket.
Finally, how does Gwynne relax? “I drink a lot of wine,” she says with a laugh. “But seriously, the most comforting thing for me is reading. I often fall asleep while reading a book.” She also likes to watch various TV shows. She spends a lot of time with her family, husband and two children. Her husband is a flight engineer, so their conversation often gets very technical. Every few weeks Gwynne goes to their family ranch in North Fork San Gabriel River in Texas. There a lot of cows there but the family is prepping the property to turn it into a vineyard one day.
More Gwynne Shotwell trivia:
- In 2012 she was introduced to the Women in Technology Hall of Fame.
- In 2016 Forbes named her 76th most powerful woman in the world. On the 2018 list, she’s 59th.
- In 2018 she received the Via Satellite Executive of the Year Award for the manager of the year.
- She had sent Boring Company’s not-a-flamethrower to her husband as a Valentine’s Day present.
This article was originally published in Czech by Jiří Hadač and then translated into English by Vlastimil Švancara.
Previous installments of the SpaceX Superstars series: