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the ladder

Sara Spangelo applied to Canada’s astronaut program 'in 2017 and got to experience testing and training through boot camp sessions, making it to the top 32.'Courtesy of manufacturer

Sara Spangelo, 33, is the chief executive officer and co-founder of Swarm Technologies Inc. in Mountain View, Calif. Born in Winnipeg, she went to Montreal’s Cosmodôme space camp in Grade 8, which led to her interest in aerospace and being a lead systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

Where did your spark for science start?

I was surrounded by engineering growing up. Both my parents are civil engineers and I have the same University of Manitoba BSc mechanical engineering degree my grandpa got maybe 50 years before – that’s cool. Growing up, we did woodworking, fixed things around the house. My sisters [are both] in medicine for a different side of the science spectrum.

Was getting the NASA job your career goal?

Yeah, my dream job was to work there and live in California, so I built relationships there when I did my masters and PhD at University of Michigan in aerospace engineering, working on small satellites and autonomous aircraft. I was exposed to what it would be like with collaborative work in my lab, interning there the summer before. While getting the job wasn’t a shock, it definitely was a huge moment of excitement and success. It was such a positive experience.

When did you feel that wasn’t what you wanted?

I recognized a lot of missions and projects take many years. I wanted to work on products to impact the world day to day, versus exploration to Mars or beyond – part of the reason I then moved to Google X for a year working on delivery drones. Now, I feel that with Swarm going back to space (which I love, am passionate about and have so much experience in), I can help solve global problems.

You thought like an entrepreneur?

I don’t like to articulate goals I don’t think I can achieve. I’m a perfectionist. I was always working on side projects and, deep down, excited about something entrepreneurial. At Google, I reconnected with a colleague, now [Swarm] co-founder, Ben Longmier. He was at Apple because his first startup got acquired. We saw the ecosystem around connectivity. No one was really solving [the problem around] global affordable connectivity. We had a prototype that evolved into getting investment. Late 2016, we’re [saying], this could be a real thing, deploying the world’s smallest communication satellites; one can fit in your hand. We’re launching a fleet of 150, providing connectivity to every single point on Earth bringing back data from devices.

Didn’t you join Canada’s astronaut program?

I did. I applied in 2017 and got to experience testing and training through boot camp sessions, making it to the top 32. It was a crazy cool experience. While working at JPL in Pasadena, I got my pilot’s licence in 2015. It was something fun and different from the academics I’d done.

Do you make false starts, then change paths?

All the time. As an entrepreneur, it’s important to make quick decisions so the team can commit to a path. It’s critical you don’t have a huge fear of failure. I’m very science focused; I like analytical results. If it doesn’t work, don’t be scared to switch directions. At a big organization, once resources are allocated, it’s difficult to switch directions. Whether recruiting, mentoring or how I run board meetings, I’m constantly testing different ways to do things. I’m not afraid to say I screwed up, let’s try Path B, learn from our lessons. I think people respect you more when you say that.

Are there skills you wish you developed earlier?

Everything. Finance, investor relations, even public speaking. The biggest technical skill is a stronger background in computer science, software engineering, networking, algorithms. Some of my PhD was in computer science, but getting a masters in computer science isn’t a good use of my time now. I hire great people I trust to make the right decisions.

Best advice?

My parents [said], "Work hard and things will work out.” My first few classes in grad school, I had the worst imposter syndrome. [I felt like the] the stupidest person. I had no idea what was going on. I couldn’t keep up. I worked so hard that by the end I had more papers, presentations and job offers than anyone. Even then, I had imposter syndrome.

In mentoring, what’s your main message?

Don’t be stressed about “right” decisions. I talk to high-achievers figuring out whether to study electrical, mechanical or aerospace engineering. They’re stressed about making a “wrong” decision. I’ve felt similar fears. Whatever you choose will lead to success and you can always change directions. You’ll learn from everything you do.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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