Gwynne Shotwell on Aiming High and Taking Big Risks
The president and COO of SpaceX talks about risk taking, feedback, and leading teams through moments of failure.
“You face adversity and I think the only way to get through it is to understand the situation and then be honest with yourself. Pick a path and do it and don’t be afraid to say you made a mistake, if you make a mistake.”
In this episode of the View From The Top podcast, Gwynne Shotwell, the president and COO of SpaceX, sits down with Christopher Stromeyer, MBA ’22, to discuss putting people on Mars within a decade, her pre-launch ritual, and the value of taking risks.
“Aim high. We have always achieved what we wanted to, never in the the timeline. We fail on timeline, but that feels like the right fail to make as oppose to not achieving what you are trying to achieve technically.”
Stanford GSB’s View From The Top is the dean’s premier speaker series. It launched in 1978 and is supported in part by the F. Kirk Brennan Speaker Series Fund.
During student-led interviews and before a live audience, leaders from around the world share insights on effective leadership, their personal core values, and lessons learned throughout their career.
Gwynne Shotwell: It’s really important to have these big moments, figure out what the big moments where you can bring your teams together. It cures a lot of ills, it really helps with morale, and it’s incredible for team building. Launches are easy, it’s an easy spectacle to do that with, but I think it’s really important to find those kinds of moments in the development of your future businesses.
Christopher Stromeyer: Welcome to View From The Top, the podcast. That was Gwynne Shotwell, President and Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX. Gwynne visited Stanford Graduate School of Business, as part of View From The Top, a speaker series where students, like me, sit down to interview leaders from around the world.
I’m Christopher Stromeyer, an MBA student of the class of 2022. In our conversation, we went back and re-explored some of SpaceX’s most iconic rocket launches and spoke about the future of SpaceX and space travel. Gwynne also shared advice around risk taking, feedback and how to lead teams in moments of failure.
Gwynne, welcome to Stanford.
Gwynne Shotwell: Thank you very much. I’m really excited to be here actually. I love this school.
Christopher Stromeyer: I’ve been looking forward to this interview for a very long time, as I know have many of my classmates. I’m a bit of a space nerd. I as a kid would read all the space books over the ‘60s. Apollo 13 was my favorite movie, I think still is my favorite movie.
Gene Kranz, the mythical flight director, was a [talented] hero. So it’s really great to have you. To me, space has always been about the next frontier and testing the limits of what is possible. And today, nobody embodies that better than SpaceX and your story. So with that, let’s get started.
One of the defining characteristics of SpaceX is risk taking. But the same can be said about you joining the company 20 years ago this year after a stable career in aerospace. What led you to join SpaceX and take that risk at that time?
Gwynne Shotwell: Well, first of all, I want to start out by saying thank goodness I took that risk because I almost didn’t. In fact, when Elon asked me to be President in 2008, I almost didn’t say yes. What a mistake that would have been. Yeah, so I was in the aerospace industry. I started — I started my engineering career — when was it — in ’86 with Chrysler Motors. Went back to school because I was unsatisfied with the level of technology that I was working on there. Went back to the university, thought I’d get my Ph.D. [Whacky] said I can’t be at school again. I’m going to go back to work. And so I went to aerospace, and I think I started in ’88.
Interestingly, I started on Halloween in 1988 at the Aerospace Corporation. And my boss wasn’t there when I started but came back a week later; he was on vacation. And he said something about flying in on my broom in 1988, which you can’t say now — [laughter], but he could say it then. So the world is changing, even if we feel like it’s too slow. Yeah, so okay. So I started my career in ’88 in the aerospace industry and thought — had been there for roughly 15 years, roughly. And I thought, look, it wasn’t an industry that was vibrant. It wasn’t innovative. We weren’t moving quickly. We hadn’t gotten back to the moon. And I thought, you know, this is my last job in the aerospace industry working for Elon. If we can’t do it at SpaceX, then I’d rather sell real estate or be a barista or something else. I did — I wouldn’t — I didn’t want to work in the industry.
And so I know this would be my last job in the aerospace industry, and it will turn out to be the case. So that’s super cool. About risk. You asked about risk —
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah.
Gwynne Shotwell: — and I’m blabbing around. Sorry.
Christopher Stromeyer: Okay.
Gwynne Shotwell: So it seemed risky. Actually, I had a very stable job. I owned three percent share of the company that I was working for, which is large for an employee. And it was a pretty safe job. So this was not a safe job. And I didn’t know Elon well, at all, in fact, at that time. But I really kind of jumped off the cliff. I was dithering around. He said he wanted me to join the company, and I said, “Ah, you know, I’m fine. I don’t need a job,” and kind of dithered for about a month. And then finally — like I’m such an idiot. I was driving on the freeway in L.A. Like what an idiot. Say yes. So I called him on the phone and I said, “I’ve been a bleeping idiot.” And he laughed, and he said, “Welcome to the team.”
Christopher Stromeyer: So you got sold on the idea, right?
Gwynne Shotwell: Yes.
Christopher Stromeyer: Had a lot of confidence at 55 it was going to be your last job.
Gwynne Shotwell: Last job in the industry.
Christopher Stromeyer: Oh, I got it [laughs].
Gwynne Shotwell: I could always be a barista —
Christopher Stromeyer: Fair enough, fair enough.
Gwynne Shotwell: — or [some other thing]. [Laughter]
Christopher Stromeyer: But your first job was Vice President of Business Development. So now you had to sell that idea to customers.
Gwynne Shotwell: Yes.
Christopher Stromeyer: And SpaceX was little more than a pipe dream at the time, right? You were many years away from launch. What was that selling process like?
Gwynne Shotwell: You know, it’s interesting. When you don’t have a product, we had an ideal to sell, and it came at probably the best possible time. We had the events of 9/11 and Rapid Launch. Low-cost access to space, it was obvious that it was going to be very critical. And so it was great engineers; I am not going to take away. In fact, SpaceX is the great company and does the great things that we do because of our extraordinary staff. It’s not because of me. It’s not because of Elon. And so I was selling the team. I was selling the ideal. I was selling the promise and the hope of reasonably priced launch. I still don’t think launch is reasonably priced, but if you go by comparison, it’s much less than it was before. We’re getting there.
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah. So let’s talk about launch and about the first rocket, right? The first rocket was called the Falcon 1. You had three unsuccessful launches.
Gwynne Shotwell: Mm-hmm.
Christopher Stromeyer: It was 2008. The company was running out of money. It was the financial crisis. You were promoted to present [COO] because of promises you had made customers at this point, so you’d already been promoted. [Laughter] And the company bet the entire company on this one launch, on the fourth launch or the Falcon 1. So let’s watch that launch.
Female Voice: Five, four, three, two, one, zero.
Female Voice 2: We at stage one.
Female Voice: We have liftoff indication. We have liftoff. SpaceX Falcon 1 launch [vehicle]. Falcon has cleared the tower. [Plus] 12.
Christopher Stromeyer: Curious. This was —
Gwynne Shotwell: Thank goodness. [Laughter]
Christopher Stromeyer: So it’s a life-or-death moment for the company, right?
Gwynne Shotwell: Elon’s a little more dramatic about that launch than I am, actually. I figured we could pull a fifth launch off, but that was it.
Christopher Stromeyer: Right.
Gwynne Shotwell: Yeah. I thought we could get to five. He thought four was it. I’m glad we didn’t have to test who was right on that one, but — [laughter] yeah, it was quite a relief.
Christopher Stromeyer: And what were the months leading up to it like? What was the —
Gwynne Shotwell: Well, this is a really — this is a — I think it’s a hilarious story. I was in Scotland, Glasgow. The IAC was having a show in Glasgow. So I was in Scotland to apologize, discuss, explain to the customers that were on the third Falcon launch that we failed, come basically do a paper about that launch. And it was the night before my talk. I was [laughs] in the hotel room with my husband — and this is not going to get inappropriate. [Laughter] My husband was sleeping. I’m in the bathroom with the shower on, typing up a proposal for the 1.6-billion-dollar NASA resupply to the International Space station. We’re literally writing the proposal, I’m on the phone with my team back in the U.S. because we had to update our pricing.
And so the — I had the shower running so that my poor husband could sleep. I’m like punching away, talking. And then it’s like, oh shoot, we’re about ready to launch, right? And so I turned away from my proposal on my laptop to the launch and was watching it as we lifted off. I ran out to the hotel room, and I didn’t care if I woke him at this point — at this stage. We lifted off, and we were climbing in altitude, and we watched us get to orbit. And then in my like yoga pants and jammie top, ran down the hall. That’s probably the most inappropriate thing I’m going to say here today — [laughter], but ran down the hall, knocked on all the doors for my team that was there, and we hugged and kissed and cried, and then kind of broke into the bar in the hotel, because it was like two in the morning [laughter].
And they let us have the champagne, but it was warm — [laughter], but it was extraordinary. It was extraordinary.
Christopher Stromeyer: I’ve always loved how emotional of a business this is, right?
Gwynne Shotwell: Oh, it is, incredibly.
Christopher Stromeyer: There are these incredible, emotional moments, right?
Gwynne Shotwell: In fact, by the way, to future entrepreneurs, I think it’s really important to have these big moments, figure out what the big moments where you can bring your teams together. It cures a lot of ills. It really helps with morale, and it’s incredible for team building. So launches are easy. It’s an easy spectacle to do that with. But I think it’s really important to find those kinds of moments in the development for your future businesses.
Christopher Stromeyer: So let’s keep — move forward a few years. Your first big kind of commercial product was the Falcon 9. It was designed in part with NASA’s needs in mind to replace the International — the Space Shuttle to go to the International Space Station. You’d done a number of launches already, including seven resupply missions, to the International Space Station with NASA, right? And the eighth one was also supposed to take critical food, supplies, medical equipment to the International Space Station, but that one didn’t go as well. Let’s watch that video. This two minutes into flight.
Male Voice: [Unintelligible] coming back, shows vehicle on course, on track.
Gwynne Shotwell: Poof!
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah. You had made it seem routine almost at this point, right?
Gwynne Shotwell: Mm.
Christopher Stromeyer: And then this happens. You’re in crisis management mode. What’s the first thing you do?
Gwynne Shotwell: Yeah. So I was actually at my ranch in Texas on this launch. It was the first launch that I was not —
Christopher Stromeyer: There.
Gwynne Shotwell: — there for. Yeah. By the way, it was also the first and only launch that I didn’t do my prelaunch little routine, which we can chat about later, but — [laughter] because I was in my slippers. And so I think the most important thing when you suffer something like that is you focus everybody on the job, the task at hand, right? We had a failure in front of us, on Elon’s birthday, by the way — it was his birthday, which is why we don’t like to launch on his birthday. It just feels like bad karma, actually. So you get to work. I had to do a press conference, doing it remotely, of course. And we started digging through data. Of course, we obviously — I flew back to Hawthorne and pulled teams together, and we figured it out. It was a weird one.
That one, and then — so this was on June 28th, 2015. And then we suffered another failure — it was not a launch failure — on September 1st, 2016, not — a little over a year later, right? And we basically blew up a satellite that was sitting on the pad as we were going through a prelaunch test. So two failures, not back to back. We’d had an extraordinary success in December of 2015, and we can come back to that as well. But this is a point that I try to make with students for sure. So I think after the Sierra 7, that first failure, that failure that you saw there, I felt very comfortable leading the team through the investigation, leading the team through the physics, and getting to the answer.
The business wasn’t really at risk. I mean, failures are incredibly impactful. I think every failure we’ve had has either cost us or delayed us about half a billion dollars. But I felt like I did a pretty good job in that timeframe. I did not do a good job after the failure when we blew up on the pad. I was much more worried about the business. This particular event was much harder to figure out what it was. And I definitely showed my — not despair — that’s probably too much — but my concern. I definitely wore it on my sleeve or, as my husband says, I have a billboard on my forehead, and I wore that badly, in fact.
So my lesson there is you certainly don’t want to be disingenuous with your team and with your customers, but it’s not really helpful to show your anxiety when you’re suffering because your employees are suffering worse than you are. So it’s really better to keep people focused on the business, keep focused on doing great things. And they had demonstrated that they could do great work up until then, too. So yeah, so that’s a nice little nugget.
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah. Thanks for sharing that.
Gwynne Shotwell: Mm-hmm.
Christopher Stromeyer: So one of the things particularly after this first failure that I find incredible is you had six months [before] launches, which I’m sure you had a bunch scheduled that were delayed, right? But six months later, you are launching a rocket again. But instead of simply focusing on getting that rocket and the customer’s payload up into space successfully, you take a huge risk as well and try to land the booster, right?
Gwynne Shotwell: Do you have that video?
Christopher Stromeyer: And I have that video.
Gwynne Shotwell: Yay.
Christopher Stromeyer: And I know it’s your favorite.
Gwynne Shotwell: Yes.
Gwynne Shotwell: It was a mash pit out there. It was so fun.
Christopher Stromeyer: Why was this so exciting?
Gwynne Shotwell: Okay. So what’s key about that is the last launch — or the launch just prior to that one, we failed. And it’s disappointing for the employees. It’s disappointing for the company. But we failed our customer. This launch — so we stood down. We discovered what the problem was. We redesigned the rocket to be able to land because the previous rockets really couldn’t land in that way. So we complete — we did a complete upgrade on the system while figuring out what we did to fail. And then like in complete view of the public, you go out there and you show, are you meant for greatness, or you need go back to the drawing board a little bit.
So that was a great — a great day. It was a great night. We had a lot of champagne at my house that night, probably more than I’ve ever drunk ever [laughter]. I did not feel great the next day, but I did go to work. I went to work. Yeah, so that was an extraordinary moment for the company —
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah.
Gwynne Shotwell: — just —
Christopher Stromeyer: Share with us a little bit why it’s so important to the whole business model.
Gwynne Shotwell: Oh, yeah, sorry. Well, first of all, no one had ever landed a rocket —
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah.
Gwynne Shotwell: — before, right? That was the start and the key piece of the technology necessary to reuse rockets. So some — I know there are some space nerds out there, but there are many of you that are not. By the way, if you are a space nerd, you should wear that proudly. I certainly do. But rockets before SpaceX, and to some extent the shuttle did it, but there was — there’s no fully reusable launch system. Rockets launch, and then they either disintegrate in the atmosphere, the second stage goes, or they just get dumped into the ocean right now. And so imagine what air travel would be like if you took an airplane from San Francisco to New York, and you had to toss the aircraft after that flight. Like life and society and the world would be so different if you couldn’t reuse your aircraft.
And so we take that same approach with space travel, that you have to be able to reuse your rockets in order to facilitate human access to space, which I think is incredibly important. So that was the start. And we had tried many times before. We tried parachutes, but they rip off as it’s speeding through the atmosphere. So that was just an extraordinary piece of technology — guidance, navigation, and control, hyper-retroactive propulsion — crazy, hypersonic retroactive propulsion — it was just amazing. So it was great. And it started out ability to re-fly rockets. We didn’t re-fly that one. That one is sitting outside the front of our building in Hawthorne, California. You can drive by it and see it, in fact. It’s kind of a neat monument.
But we have — I don’t want to say perfected because we have not perfected — but we have operationalized the ability to land rockets, refurbish them, and re-fly them. Our goal is to be able to do that like an airplane. Like I was saying the backroom, they said something — someone asked something about rocket efficiency, and we’re not very efficient. We actually aspire to be as efficient as the airline industry. And that’s probably horrifying to many of you in the audience because you probably don’t think that the airline industry is particularly efficient. But it’s way better than we are. So it’s still a nice model to use.
Christopher Stromeyer: Okay.
Gwynne Shotwell: Yeah.
Christopher Stromeyer: So after this in 2015, this really became routine.
Gwynne Shotwell: Yes.
Christopher Stromeyer: SpaceX was —
Gwynne Shotwell: Yes.
Christopher Stromeyer: — launching dozens and dozens of trips into space every year. In May 2020, the beginning of the pandemic, you took another huge leap, and it involved humans, right? You launched two astronauts to the International Space Station, the first astronauts to launch on a private vehicle and the first to do so from American soil on any vehicle in nine years, right? We were doing it with the Russians. How do you carry that responsibility, and how do you prepare the team for it?
Gwynne Shotwell: So first of all, keep your head high. Don’t show your anxiety, but I honestly hate crew launch days. I just don’t like them. It’s nerve wracking. It’s one thing to have a failure when you’ve got a satellite, even a billion-dollar, three-billion-dollar satellite on top. You can’t put a price tag on the two to four people that are sitting on top of that rocket and it’s hurtling through the atmosphere. So it’s quite anxiety producing. It’s always a huge relief to get dragged into orbit, get dragged into the International Space Station, and then say, okay, NASA, they’re yours now until we have to bring them back downhill six months later.
So keep people focused on the work for sure. Don’t let them show your anxi — don’t let them see my anxiety, even though I’ve talked about this enough they all know I’m like scared to death during launch days on this. Follow your routine. Be keenly aware. Make sure you’ve got employees that feel very comfortable talking about, hey, I might have screwed this up; can we go back and look at the data and make sure that I didn’t screw this up on the rocket or the spaceship. So yeah. Keep them focused on the business. Don’t show how nervous you are. And pray.
Christopher Stromeyer: Even this has become routine now. I think you’ve launched four trips to the International Space Station, something like that?
Gwynne Shotwell: So we did Bob and Doug, and then we just flew [Sirius] 4, and then we also flew Axiom. And then we did Jarred and his team.
Christopher Stromeyer: That’s true.
Gwynne Shotwell: Yeah.
Christopher Stromeyer: Okay, so —
Gwynne Shotwell: So seven.
Christopher Stromeyer: So let’s talk about the future then because, you know —
Gwynne Shotwell: Okay.
Christopher Stromeyer: And let’s talk about Starship, which is the big bet you have —
Gwynne Shotwell: Yeah.
Christopher Stromeyer: — [of] the future. Or is it — this rocket was previously called the Big Falcon Rocket.
Gwynne Shotwell: BFR.
Christopher Stromeyer: BFR. [Laughter] Who chose to rename it?
Gwynne Shotwell: Well, Elon named it the first time — [laughter], and Elon named it the second time.
Christopher Stromeyer: Got it.
Gwynne Shotwell: There was one in between, too — ITS, I think.
Christopher Stromeyer: Interstellar or something like that?
Gwynne Shotwell: Yeah.
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah, exactly.
Gwynne Shotwell: Yeah. Starship is better.
Christopher Stromeyer: So what’s so different about this [bet], and what does it mean for humanity?
Gwynne Shotwell: So the difference here, for those of you that are not space geeks, this first stage goes up. It delivers the second stage to carry on its way to orbit. Comes back. So we reuse the first stage. But the second stage is now reusable. It goes to orbit. It drops off the payload, takes people around the moon, takes people to Mars, whatever it is. And then it comes back and lands. Our second stage right now is not reusable on the Falcon program. Our third stage, if you look at Dragon, is reusable. Not very operationally, right? It lands in the ocean, get helicopters and ships to go get it out of the water, take it back, clean off the saltwater, refurbish it, and re-fly it. But a Dragon takes currently like 90 days. We’re trying to get it down to 45 and then even faster. But that’s not very operationally efficient.
Starship is meant to launch, land on the pad — on the pad. The arms come and pick up another starship, pick it up, put it back on the pad, and launch within an hour. So like an airplane. That’s the plan. [Laughter]
Christopher Stromeyer: And it’s supposed to take us either to Shanghai or to Mars, right?
Gwynne Shotwell: That’s correct. Right. But hopefully some version of this would take us to another star system —
Christopher Stromeyer: Right.
Gwynne Shotwell: — which would be so great.
Christopher Stromeyer: So I want to talk about the development of this because it’s something remarkable about that. As you mentioned, it’s supposed to be fully reusable. I saw many estimates online, but each one of these costs somewhere around 20 million dollars to build; that might be a wild guess. But your product development strategy seems to be to blow one of these up every few months, right? So let’s take a look at — [laughter] — Starship Number 9.
Male Voice: We’re preparing to restart two engines, flip the vehicle vertical, then transition to one engine for the landing burn.
Christopher Stromeyer: So that seems expensive, completely different to how traditional rocket technology where it’s like they make the whole rocket as perfect as possible. They [wind]-test it, and they say once it’s perfect, we try to flight test it. These are prototypes that you just keep going. What’s behind that way of thinking about rocket technology?
Gwynne Shotwell: So — and this isn’t very well understood publicly. I’m a little surprised we don’t talk more about it. We are much more focused for the Starship program on production, building the system that will build the system, than we are on the rocket technology itself. I didn’t touch anything.
Christopher Stromeyer: No, you didn’t. [Laughter]
Gwynne Shotwell: All right. I break hardware by walking by, so this makes me nervous. So we know how to get rockets to orbit. We know how to do that. This is a completely different one, but we are very confident in our ability to figure out how to do that. We were much more focused on, can we produce rocket that can get to orbit, like really produce? Falcon, we produce between 7 and 11 Falcon first stages per year. We’re producing a second stage every week right now. But what we want to be able to do is produce a rocket a day, or come much closer to automotive, because if you are going to take people to Mars, you’re going to go in a flotilla or a swarm. I don’t even know yet what the right term is for a group of starships to head to Mars.
You’re going to need a bunch of them. And producing five a year isn’t going to get you there. You really want to launch hundreds on that [synodic] period with Mars when you’re taking people there. So we need to have a production system to build rockets, much like a production system to build cars, maybe not quite so many — I don’t think we need a million a year, but we need more than a couple of hundred.
Christopher Stromeyer: So talk about the production system.
Gwynne Shotwell: Yeah. So we will get this to orbit. I’m not saying that it’s easy, because it’s very different. You’ll see the way — well, not the orbital part, but the landing part is very different. You know, we bellyflop to dissipate the heat and then come vertical right at the last second. It’s different from the way we do it on Falcon. But we — I mean, we — and we did it. We stuck a landing, bringing —
Christopher Stromeyer: You did. I know.
Gwynne Shotwell: — Starship back. Now it wasn’t from orbit. It was just from altitude. It was not from orbit.
Christopher Stromeyer: So you’re trying to do really hard things. And I want to talk about that a little bit, right? SpaceX has the most ambitious goals on the tightest of timelines. And actually, a quick question — what’s our latest timeline on getting to Mars?
Gwynne Shotwell: Getting to Mars? Oh, I think we’ll put people down within the decade.
Christopher Stromeyer: Right. So you’re in charge of —
Gwynne Shotwell: I know — I’m crazy. [Laughter]
Christopher Stromeyer: You’re in charge of executing on that goal to get human beings to Mars within a decade, right?
Gwynne Shotwell: That’s more Elon than me. But I’m here to help.
Christopher Stromeyer: Right. [Laughter] But how do you balance those ambitious goals, right, which like maybe Elon comes out and says, and getting the team comfortable that it’s possible?
Gwynne Shotwell: So there’re a couple of strategies to do that. First of all, you always aim high. We have achieved everything we have wanted to, never in the timeline. We fail on timeline, but that feels like the right fail to make as opposed to not achieving what you’re trying to achieve technically. So you demonstrate that you’ve been able to do these crazy, insane, absurdly ambitious things in the past. You can continue to pump people up to do it again. And you try to pull apart this seemingly impossible situation and how are we going to design and develop this, and you pull it into smaller pieces. You build a prototype. You test it. You put prototypes — you know, subsystems together and you test that. And you kind of use a building-block approach to reach your goals.
Christopher Stromeyer: And the team —
Gwynne Shotwell: They’re very enthusiastic about it, like —
Christopher Stromeyer: It’s the biggest of goals.
Gwynne Shotwell: It’s — yeah. Rockets are supercool.
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah. [Laughter] So you’ve been at SpaceX for over 20 years now.
Gwynne Shotwell: This year, yeah.
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah. And now you lead a team basically of 12,000 people. What have you learned about your leadership style over the years? What do you wish you knew now that — you knew then that you know now?
Gwynne Shotwell: Well, let me answer the other stuff first.
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah.
Gwynne Shotwell: I’m not a regretter, so it’s really hard for me to kind of go back and say, oh, I wish I did this thing. I’m a very collaborative leader. Actually, I’ve got some employees here. You can tell me if I’m a BS artist here or not. [Laughter] I like to get — to solicit people’s opinions, but I’m not afraid to make a decision. I need more data than Elon does to make a decision, in fact. And I don’t know whether that’s experience or risk-taking. I don’t know what it is, but I like a little bit more data. But I definitely like making decisions. I like to hear the conversation until you’re done and you have to make a decision.
And it’s rare that you get people to agree on any topic, right? So you collect the best data that you can. You listen as hard as you can. You ask questions. You bring more data back, and then you’ve got to go.
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah. So totally different question. Your job is to run the business, right? Sometimes things come up in the organization that are core to the culture, that are core to who you are as an organization. The sexual misconduct allegations against Elon last week are just maybe one example of that. I’m wondering how you think about those moments, those moments of truth and how you think about responding to different stakeholders.
Gwynne Shotwell: So I think leaders in any business face adversity and really hard challenges. And I — what’s most important is that, first of all, you think hard about what happened, what the response is going to be. And I think you just have to be really honest with yourself about what the right approach is. I did send a letter. It came out last night. Very exciting for this particular discussion here. I did send a letter to employees. They were screaming to hear from me.
Christopher Stromeyer: Right.
Gwynne Shotwell: And I was advised to not send that letter, not by legal but by my press team. And I said, you know what, first of all, I have to speak to the people. I have to speak to my employees. They’re the reason why SpaceX is what it is, and I care deeply about them. But I knew I would — no matter which way I played that, someone was going to be unhappy with me. But I had to say it. I have worked for Elon for 20 years. I don’t believe he could have done what was — what he was accused of. But he is imperfect, right? He’s imperfect, I’m imperfect. And I thought being honest about that was the right approach, regardless of what my team told me to write or not.
What was left out of that letter, by the way, is the end where I basically say we are — SpaceX is who we are because of you. And if you ever feel uncomfortable at work, please call me, right? So that part’s always left off, right? At any rate, so you face adversity. And I think the only way to get through it is to make sure you understand the situation to the greatest extent you can, and then be honest with yourself and pick a path and do it. And don’t be afraid to say you made a mistake if you make a mistake.
Christopher Stromeyer: Right.
Gwynne Shotwell: Yeah. I’m Irish. That’s very Irish, by the way, to admit you were a dummy. [Laughter] And I’m not admitting that in this case, by the way. [Laughter] I’m saying one should be willing to do that.
Christopher Stromeyer: So speaking of mistakes, I’ve heard that SpaceX has a culture of feedback. That’s something we take very seriously here at the GSB as well. We have a whole class where we learn how to give feedback. Feedback is a gift is a continuous motto of the school almost. I’m wondering how SpaceX operationalizes that in the day-to-day.
Gwynne Shotwell: So critically important. 360 feedback, and immediate — the sooner you get feedback, the better off you are. That’s a golden nugget of data on how you are impacting your coworkers, your company, the project. So that feedback is so critical. So give feedback as quickly as you can. And we always try to tell people to do it. Our review system, we require that you get reviewed 360 feedback from at least three. Sometimes if you’ve got employees that have — that are really great in some areas and really not great in other areas, you try to solicit more feedback to figure out what’s going on in those areas and try to work with them to figure out how you can get people to this place where it’s all contribution all the time.
So it’s in our review system. We talk about it at the first day of work, please give feedback. But engineers and — well, and it’s not really human nature to be willing to look someone in the eye and say, “Hey, that was not helpful, not super helpful. Could you do it this way?” Be objective. Try to not personalize it. In almost every case — and feedback could be technical. It doesn’t have to be like, “Hey, you were a total jerk to me, and I’m really made about it.” But in almost every case, the person — at least in my experience, the person is not mal intent — not intending to do bad things. They either made a mistake. They were unaware.
So I think approaching it as not per — taking it not personally but just talk about how this situation impacted you or how this person’s work caused your work to not be great, you couldn’t finish your project or whatever, it’s just really important.
Christopher Stromeyer: That’s exactly what we [preach] here as well.
Gwynne Shotwell: Yup.
Christopher Stromeyer: Before we go to Q&A — and I know there are a lot of great questions in the audience — I have to two questions again about the future. First, and you already made reference to this, what comes after Mars?
Gwynne Shotwell: Yeah. So we are not working on a ship that yet has the propulsion technology to take us to other star systems. But I certainly hope that Mars is that example that shows that humans can live beyond planet Earth, and that we will focus on propulsion technologies or some way of getting to a place that would otherwise take 4,000 or 5,000 years. So I’m very excited about that. It will not happen in my lifetime. But I hope that some of the work that we’re doing will kick off the aspiration to go do that. Like the shows that you watch, you know, we can’t — and they’re always about war, by the way — Star Wars. Like what is that?
Christopher Stromeyer: Right.
Gwynne Shotwell: I don’t — Star Trek is not necessarily about war, but it’s still military. I don’t know why it is that way. But hopefully we can go there in a civilian way and meet other sentient beings. And that would be great.
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah, that would be quite something. So for — [laughter] — for the second question, I actually want to bring us back to Earth, to this auditorium, because many of us are thinking about our very immediate futures. I checked this morning — I graduate in two and a half weeks, as do many of my classmates here. You’re our last [from the top] speaker of the year. You have the stage. What advice would you have for us as we embark on the next chapter of our lives?
Gwynne Shotwell: So it’s a very simple statement, and I’ll follow it up with a couple of examples. You want to take risks in your career. You absolutely want to take risks. Maybe in your life, too, although you have to balance, right — you’ve got to balance it. I almost said no to Elan when he asked me to join SpaceX. It would have been — so I would look back — I’m not a regretter. That is the one thing that I would go back and regret. I almost said no when Elon asked me to be President because I really loved my job. My colleagues, my brother and sister VPs were great compatriots, and I thought it might be weird to be the boss. So I almost said no. And I’m so glad that I didn’t. But it felt like a risk to say yes there.
And then this is a more personal risk. So when I first met my current husband — husband number two, sorry — we had our first date, and I thought he was roughly my age, roughly my age. And then he said something about the Gulf War and wanting to have been a pilot. I was like, Gulf War. Like how —? And we were in the car and I looked over at him, like, “How old are you?” [Laughter] And he was about eight years younger than me, and I was like pfft, not interested. Why would I go out with this infant? No way. [Laughter] And luckily, luckily, I didn’t take that little voice in my head, and I took the risk and dated a much younger man, and happily married. So it’s not really silly but a little personal.
But I almost said I am not going to date someone that’s eight years younger than me. That is weird. Anyhow, took the risk, paid off.
Christopher Stromeyer: What a great note to end on. So with that — [laughter] —
Christopher Stromeyer: Thanks for sharing so much about your journey with SpaceX. And let’s go to audience Q&A. Let’s go right over here.
[Ulsmithum]: Thank you for spending time with us today. My name is Ulsmithum, in my first year here at the GSB. This is likely an unsurprising question, given the media fascination. But can you talk a bit about working for Elon and how you’re able to carve out autonomy under such a particular leader?
Gwynne Shotwell: That’s actually a really good question. I do love working for Elon. I like his in-person self better than his Twitter self. [Laughter] In fact, they feel like two different people to me many of the times. He is fair to a fault. He’s funny. He drives people to do great work. He does create uncomfortable situations for sure in the office, but people respond — tend to respond by stepping up, doing really hard things, and thinking harder about how they can actually get something done as opposed to saying, “Oh, I can’t do that.” Like the answer we can’t do that / I can’t do that is not in the lexicon of SpaceX.
Yeah, so we have a very distinct line between what he does and what I do. I focus on the operational — by the way, he gets to lean in whenever he wants, of course; he’s my boss. But I run the day-to-day, he drives the technology. And it’s kind of a nice split. I am not a technology developer. Actually, I feel like I’m a technology facilitator. I’m an advocate for employees. I help the team figure out how to go do these crazy things. But he really is the visionary, and he drives to the technology end. And then when it gets boring, then I get it — [laughter] — and I get to run it, which is pretty great.
Christopher Stromeyer: Here you go.
Drake [Nguyen]: Hi. Thank you so much. My name is Drake Nguyen, MBA, too, here. So historically, space exploration has been used as a political trophy if you look at the Cold War. And I can still remember growing up in Houston in elementary school getting handed little American flags whenever there was a launch. So curious if you see a role for SpaceX in particularly American patriotism and how SpaceX fits in order to that century-long narrative.
Gwynne Shotwell: So I’m not sure I understand your question fully, so let me start and then you can poke me in the eye if I’m not addressing it. So like we don’t want to be political, right? We do not want to be a political company. In fact, our coming out — but that doesn’t mean that we do not love our country and want our country to be great and get better and be greater kind of thing. So to me, that’s what being a patriot is. I know it’s a kind of a crisis word for some people, too, so I have to be careful with that. But when we came out with the Ukraine situation, that was very unusual for SpaceX to do that. Like we will tout what we do and cheerlead for ourselves and really be excited about our achievements publicly. But we don’t generally — we’re not generally politically as a company very political. But we came out very strong in support of Ukraine.
Conflicts are rarely black and white. Like if you look at almost every war, it’s really — there’s always some kernel of something that caused something. The Ukrainian situation was so black and white to us. And I can tell you that our providing the Star Link terminals there were incredibly helpful to the Ukrainians fighting their fight. And I’m really proud of the fact that we could do that. It changed the perspective on that war. Otherwise, there would have been propaganda that said that Russia was winning when it was pretty clear, because we could get data out, that Ukraine was winning, or holding tight, which gave a morale boost to the Ukrainians. And I think it was hard on the Russian soldiers.
Christopher Stromeyer: Great. Next question over here.
Brian: Hey, Gwynne. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. My name is Brian. And I’m currently an engineering student. Also a huge space geek. So my question for you is, Starship’s mission to make humans an interplanetary species and enable settlement of Mars is inevitably going to require ISRU on the Martian surface. So how is SpaceX thinking about this problem for Starship? Like what types of ISRU solutions do you think will work best for a Starship-enabled Mars economy? And for example, would something like mobility and autonomous resource extraction be something of interest? Thank you.
Gwynne Shotwell: Yeah, that was a lot, right? [Laughter] So we’re going to have to unpack that a little bit. And I’m almost 60, so I can’t remember anything these days. [Laughter] So ISRU, for those of you that are not space geeks, In-Situ Resource Utilization, how do you dig stuff out of the regolith and use it producing oxygen or frankly methane, building methane from the Martian regolith. So building propellent is one of the things that we think is incredibly important. In fact, that was one of the reasons we moved from the Falcon-based propulsion system which used — which uses RP, rocket propellant. Rocket propellant is a higher refined grade of a light jet fuel. It is fundamentally ancient dinosaur juice that we suck out of the ground and process.
It’s not renewable, and it’s dirtier than the [meth lock] system that we’re using on Starship. So that was one reason. It’s a much cleaner system. The other reason is you can actually build methane. You can produce methane on the surface of Mars with the constituents there in the regolith. So that’s one. You’re going to obviously have to find water, find and utilize the water. I think you’re going to end up building an atmosphere by using that technology as well. So that’s the ISRU insource [resus], whatever, blah-blah-blah. That piece.
And then there was something else after that. But you’re going to have to redo if you — there was another —
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah, there was definitely another piece.
Gwynne Shotwell: Yeah.
Christopher Stromeyer: Here you go.
Brian: Yeah, so I was kind of like thinking about what types of ISRU solutions make the most sense for Starship. So for example, would something like an autonomous system for resource extraction be of interest?
Gwynne Shotwell: Mm, yes, autonomous to start. But then when there’re people on the surface, the people can either guide the bots or — and maybe do the work themselves. I think for sure there will have to be robotic systems put on the surface first to prepare for when people land. But we think people are very effective. It’s a lot easier to get stuff done with hands than robots. Robots are hard to build, actually. Actually, quite hard to build. So did — I think we got there. Did we get there?
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah.
Gwynne Shotwell: All right.
Christopher Stromeyer: Over here?
[Jah Wen]: Thank you, Gwynne, for being here. My name is Jah Wen, and I’m an MBA 1 student. My question is about your advice on taking risks. So you gave a couple of examples where the risks have clearly plaid out well for you. And I’m curious if there were other risks that you’ve taken in between those three examples of SpaceX, accepting the President position, your personal life with your husband, that didn’t work out. And how did you have the courage to come back and continue to take risks?
Gwynne Shotwell: So that’s really a good question. Have I taken a risk and failed? I mean, there’s plenty of failure, right? I don’t know if it — if I can tie one to a risk that I took where we failed. Actually, I apologize, I can’t think of one. But this is not because it isn’t there. I’m sure it’s there; I just can’t think of one at this particular moment. So is there another thing that I can answer? Is there some — [laughter] — other question I can answer to be helpful for you?
Christopher Stromeyer: Let me ask a follow-up to that, because we talked about risk taking. We talked about kind of your leadership story as well. Were there moments in this 28-year career, or even before that, that you [experienced] real growth as a leader?
Gwynne Shotwell: Actually, I think working through making SpaceX a place and a culture that is very inclusive. We are — sorry, a fly.
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah, there’s a fly here.
Gwynne Shotwell: We are v we’re making progress. But I actually don’t know any company that has graded it yet. But if you — like technology is easy. People are hard —
Christopher Stromeyer: Mm-hmm.
Gwynne Shotwell: — right? But you can’t have technology without people. So I think probably my greatest area for growth is to kind of get to the fundamentals and the basic why do people feel uncomfortable at work. Like what are the behaviors? And it’s not that easy, right? In fact, I was just chatting with Swarm, a little company up here in Palo Alto that we bought last year. And it’s a little company. It’s not a company of 11,000 people. So it’s easier; everybody knows everybody else. And so the communication is very good and very strong, and it’s really easy to get to root cause of issues.
But really one of the greatest issues at SpaceX is women getting asked out on dates. There’s a lot more men than women. Right now, the numbers don’t play well. And I said once, “Well, let’s have a guideline: no one dates at SpaceX.” Just eliminate that entirely. And there was uproar. [Laughter] Like — and then I thought, okay, so how can we get through this if it’s uncomfortable for women to receive requests for dates? And I don’t think it’s the one. It’s the many, because SpaceX people are at work a lot, and their social life is at work, right? And so it ends up being kind of their dating life, too.
So then I gave the lesson of one and done. Like okay — and this was like six years ago — if you won’t let me say zero dates, let’s say you get to ask once. You ask once, and if the answer is not an immediate and obvious yes, then you are done. [Laughter] Do not go back to that well. Don’t ask again. The answer is no. So don’t pretend like it was just a bad day. [Laughter] It was not a bad day. The answer is no. So don’t go back. And that worked for a while. But even now — but if — like even now, that is not enough. But again, I get back to this it’s not ill intentioned; it’s just kind of ignorance.
And so actually I think probably most leaders today, this is the growth area for them. It’s not technology development. It’s how to figure out how to make the best possible workplace. Best possible. And that’s really hard. It’s harder than rockets.
Christopher Stromeyer: A friend told me who works at SpaceX, “We always [reason] by first principles, right? We let physics be the guide.” But with people, that’s not how it works.
Gwynne Shotwell: That’s right.
Christopher Stromeyer: Yeah. So we have time for two more questions. Over there, yeah?
Female Voice: I thank you so much for being here. So this is actually a good segue into my question because I wanted to double click a little bit more on the letter that you sent yesterday in response to the 2018 allegation and subsequent settlement of sexual misconduct. I was curious if you can talk a little bit more around — you know, you mentioned there was pushback from your team around potentially sending the letter. Can you talk a little bit more around what that pushback was and what actually ultimately propelled you to send it, and also how you’re thinking today about creating a culture of openness around this topic when it comes to reporting, especially alongside some of the views that you may have around particular people and what they are or are not capable of when it comes to sexual misconduct?
Gwynne Shotwell: Okay. So there was a lot again there, too. And so I’ll try to make sure I hit them, but you might have to coach me a little bit. I was advised not to give my thoughts on Elon in the letter. That was the piece that they said don’t do. And so I wrote a letter that didn’t have that in it, and it did not feel right. You know, I can’t talk about the existence or nonexistence of any of that, of the lawsuit or not a lawsuit. I just can’t get into that. But I felt that the letter really had a gaping hole in it. So I wanted to say my piece on that. Yeah. And I would say the vast majority of the response I’ve gotten was positive.
Even if people don’t agree, sending out a letter — communicating with people starts the dialogue, right? This is not the end of the issue; it’s the start of more conversation. And I think that’s why I felt like we’ve got to talk about this. Yeah, one of the issues — well, one of the huge issues with sexual harassment is you have to protect the victims. You can’t — privacy requires that you don’t talk about specifics. And so it’s really hard — it’s really hard to resolve issues because of privacy of, you know, of the person who’s complaining. It’s a very difficult situation, by the way. You will all face it as leaders. You will. And hopefully we can figure out, as I said earlier, how to make workplaces great places, comfortable places for every employee.
You know, I have obviously the most experience with kind of gender-based issues. But — and our numbers are SpaceX aren’t great as far as percentages. We’re, I think, around 14 percent women. Twenty-four percent of our senior leadership is women, though, which I’m quite proud of. Our intern class we bring in, it’s like 25 to 30 percent is women. So we’re doing better there. We are definite — and we’re not great, but we’re getting better. I really am concerned about underrepresented minorities, frankly, because their numbers are much less. And I think that problem is very difficult as well. And I am not an underrepresented minority, so I don’t have the same — necessarily the same insight. So that’s an equally hard or harder focus area as well. Yeah.
Not easy. But we will figure it out.
Christopher Stromeyer: Great.
Male Voice: First-year student. Orbital launch date, when we are expecting that? When are we expecting to finish the Tower in Florida? And is the bar on the [High Bay] opening for the public anytime soon? [Laughter]
Gwynne Shotwell: How do you know about that? [Laughter] Okay, all right. So liftoff — I think we’re going to be ready to lift off within the next four or so weeks. We still have regulatory hurdles to get through. They seem to be unending. Talking about technology is easy. People are hard. Regulatory is people. So we’re still working through that, making sure we address all the concerns. It will be the summer — argh, will be the summer, yeah, yeah. And June counts as summer, by the way, as part of — yeah. And then your second question —
Male Voice: Florida Tower.
Gwynne Shotwell: Florida Tower I think will be done the end of this year, I think, roughly the end of this year. And the bar on the top of the Integration Space at Star Base, it’s a cool space. It’s a supercool space. It’s still very construction-y though. The construction elevator is not conducive to taking people up to a bar. So we’ve got to work on the elevator a bit. I don’t know, I hope — I don’t know, hopefully soon. Regardless, it’s a cool place to go up to. By the way, we’re building this giant Integration Tower. It’s almost like the VAB at Cape Kennedy. And we made the whole top floor kind of windows. So it’s this really neat space to look out of.
You know, you can see the — you can see the water. You can see all the tide pools. You can see kind of the whole geography, and it’s a beautiful —. If you’ve not been down to Boca Chica area, it is a beautiful area. Actually, do you mind — go ahead.
Christopher Stromeyer: No, go ahead.
Gwynne Shotwell: I want to say — you know, one thing didn’t come up, and I meant to say this early on, that some of what we do is criticized because people say, “Well, why are you — why did you give up on Earth? Why are you so focused on leaving the planet?” And it’s just — that’s not the motivation, is like screw Earth, man, we’re at Mars. [Laughter] It’s not that. I think pushing technology and moving people to other locations not only is a nice risk management for the human race, but I think you learn so much more about people and what it takes to survive and how you’re really screwing up a planet by doing that kind of thing.
Like I think you learn a lot about the earth by going camping, right? You’re going to a new place. You’re not living in your normal home, commuting back and forth to work. You go learn a new thing about nature and the planet. And I think you can learn the same kinds of things by going to other planets. So it’s not at all the trade, Earth versus Mars. It is not that. I think — well, frankly, I — if we don’t go anywhere else, like that feels very non-inspiring. Like I want to go meet other — I can’t say people. My husband always — it’s like, “They’re not people. You don’t know if they’re people.” Sentient beings. Like what fashion do they have? Like wouldn’t that be fascinating, see what aliens where? I want to see what aliens where. [Laughter]
Christopher Stromeyer: You have me convinced. It’s a big argument I have with my wife all the time about whether I’m allowed to go to Mars if eventually we can do that. [Laughter] But before we closed — and we are almost out of time — wanted to do a traditional view-from-the-top lightning round.
Gwynne Shotwell: Oh, okay.
Christopher Stromeyer: Ready?
Gwynne Shotwell: I’m terrible at these.
Christopher Stromeyer: Okay. Would you rather live in the universe or the metaverse?
Gwynne Shotwell: I’m not sure what the metaverse is, by the way. But I think I’m all universe, all the time.
Christopher Stromeyer: There’s a lot of students here who know what the metaverse is. I don’t.
Gwynne Shotwell: Yeah.
Christopher Stromeyer: What are your favorite prelaunch rituals, which you mentioned before?
Gwynne Shotwell: Oh, I put the inside of my shoes with sticky notes that say “Scotland” on them. So I am in Scotland for every launch because we got to orbit for the first time when I was in Scotland. Yup. And the only gross thing about that is there — if I don’t take them out right away, you’re like stepping on paper and it kind of disintegrates, and then you get like feet paper — [laughter] — all over the place. And you really have to vacuum it up. It’s pretty gross.
Christopher Stromeyer: Postlaunch rituals?
Gwynne Shotwell: I don’t have a postlaunch ritual actually.
Christopher Stromeyer: [Any] celebration?
Gwynne Shotwell: Champagne.
Christopher Stromeyer: Every time?
Gwynne Shotwell: No.
Christopher Stromeyer: Every launch?
Gwynne Shotwell: No. We’re launching a lot. [Laughter] Maybe not every time. Maybe not every time [laughs]. Certainly not during the day at work. That’s an at-home thing.
Christopher Stromeyer: Favorite space movie?
Gwynne Shotwell: Oh, Firefly. And that’s a show, but there also was a movie, Firefly. Hands down.
Christopher Stromeyer: You have a Starship at your disposal. It’s yours. You can go anywhere on earth or into space. Where would you take it?
Gwynne Shotwell: I’d go to the moon.
Christopher Stromeyer: Orbit or land?
Gwynne Shotwell: I would like to land. [Laughter] Successfully. [Laughter] Yeah, I love the moon.
Christopher Stromeyer: And why the moon and not Mars?
Gwynne Shotwell: Mars is six months. It’s farther. I don’t like to camp, so — [laughter] — you’re traveling for six months to really camp in the most extreme way humans have ever camped, whereas camping on the moon, it feels like, ah, if you hate it, you just come —
Christopher Stromeyer: Hop back in.
Gwynne Shotwell: — home. [Laughter] Or you can — you can put up with it for a couple of days, and then you just get home. Mars, you’re kind of stuck for two years.
Christopher Stromeyer: Right. Please [join me] in thanking Gwynne Shotwell.
[Applause and cheers]
Christopher Stromeyer: You’ve been listening to View From The Top, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This interview was conducted by myself, Christopher Stromeyer, of the MBA Class of 2022. Lily Sloane composed our theme music. Michael Reilly and Jenny Luna produced this episode. You can find more episodes of this podcast at our website www.gsb.stanford.edu/. Follow us on social media @stanfordgsb
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