JoAnn Morgan, MS ’77: Breaking Barriers

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JoAnn Morgan, MS ’77: Breaking Barriers

She went from NASA to Stanford and back to become the Kennedy Space Center’s first female senior executive.
November 15, 2018
”The professors forced you to make decisions,” JoAnn Morgan recalls of her time in the Stanford Sloan Program. “It broke me out of the mold of my upbringing.” | Kay Bjork

JoAnn Morgan knew the significance of a business degree when she first considered applying to the Stanford Sloan Program in 1976.

By then, she had already been the “lone woman” in several of her roles during her first 18 years with NASA. She had started working on the Mercury and Gemini programs of the late 1950s and early 1960s. When she started at Kennedy Space Center, she was the only female engineer there, and she would go on to become the first woman to work in NASA’s launch control center.

“I knew how important credentials were, so the engineers and scientists would give you the time of day,” Morgan says now. “A degree was very important to me.”

Morgan enrolled in the Sloan Class of 1977 — the first cohort to receive a Master of Science in Management degree at Stanford.

Professor George G.C. Parker, director of the Stanford Sloan Program at the time, pushed for the change in what had been a certificate program for nearly two decades.

“I realized very quickly that if the [Sloan] program was going to achieve its greatest potential, it really needed to be a degree program,” recalls Parker, now the Dean Witter Distinguished Professor of Finance, Emeritus, at Stanford GSB. “It could no longer survive as a certificate program.”

The Transition to Management

Morgan remembers the rigor of the newly revised curriculum. “The professors worked our tails off,” she says. “They made us earn that degree.”

Before starting at Stanford, she had some doubts about transitioning into the management world NASA was grooming her to take on.

“I loved being in the technical world,” she says. “The idea of having to leave the direct, hands-on work and becoming a decision-maker — it didn’t appeal to me in the beginning. I wasn’t confident I wanted to do it.”

Morgan was raised in Alabama in the 1940s and ’50s, brought up with the notion that “women were supposed to speak when they’re spoken to,” she says.

Once at Stanford, people like Parker, and professors like Harold Leavitt and Peter Keen, encouraged Morgan to adjust that assumption. She was one of three women in her 42-person Sloan Program cohort.

“The professors forced you to make decisions,” she says. “You’d have to stand up and present [your work]. It broke me out of the mold of my upbringing.”

NASA Reentry

Morgan went on to manage hundreds of people over the course of her career as one of the space center’s top executives. She became a change agent while NASA was adopting new technology and launching the International Space Station.

The professors worked our tails off. They made us earn that degree.
JoAnn Morgan

In fact, it was the prospect of exposure to peers from around the world and their differing perspectives that had nudged Morgan toward the Stanford Sloan Program in the first place. Her director at NASA had nominated her, she says, because they needed people with new ideas for the evolving agency.

“They said, ‘Nobody has the future ahead of them like you do,’” Morgan recalls.

Her international classmates at Stanford became some of Morgan’s closest friends during her time on campus.

One classmate, Derrick Dah-Yang Wang, who was an accountant in China, was a favorite study partner.

“I hated economics,” Morgan says. “I could not have gotten through it without him.”

Morgan returned to NASA after graduating from Stanford and would spend more than 40 years with the agency. She became the first female senior executive at the Kennedy Space Center and received numerous honors for her leadership over the years, including accolades from President Bill Clinton as well as the state of Florida. She was part of the three-person team running the space center before she retired in 2003, and she continues to volunteer for NASA today.

Reunions and Cowboy Songs

Morgan stays in touch with many of her Sloan classmates, and her cohort keeps up with an active reunion rotation. About half of the class gathers in a different international destination at least once every five years. In the last 40 years, the group has convened in places like Mexico, England, France, Monaco, Japan, and Washington, D.C.

Morgan hosted the cohort’s 35th reunion near her summer home in Bigfork, Montana, complete with storytelling and songs from local cowboys and a leader from the Blackfeet Nation.

At every reunion, she says, there is always something to learn.

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