Today is International Women's Day (IWD). First observed in 1909, IWD celebrates the achievements of women throughout history. The day is also meant to serve as a catalyst for greater gender equality. In observance of IWD, we spoke with two female technology CEOs whose visions go beyond the standard business landscape. In fact, they go beyond our planet.
In recent years, the aerospace industry has captured the hearts of both the general public and investors. According to the US Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration (ITA), the US aerospace industry contributed $147 billion in export sales to the US economy. SpaceX, which recently launched a Tesla Roadster into the Solar System, has been valued as high as $21 billion. While launching cars into space is certainly very cool, there have been many other important business developments growing in aerospace over the past few years. Claudia Kessler and Naomi Kuruhara, the two CEOs with whom we spoke, are doing work that is crucial for advancing the aerospace field. They also shared with us some of their thoughts on what's happening with gender equality in the tech world.
Staffing for the Final Frontier
Kessler is the CEO of HE Space Operations GmbH, a German company that specializes in personnel recruitment and services for space agencies and other positions in the aerospace industry. HE Space Operations has been ranked best supplier to the European Space Agency (ESA) across many fields—from components engineering to environmental testing. The company currently has more than 200 employees and more than half of them are women.
Kessler and her team have worked tirelessly toward improving representation of women in tech. She helped launch Women in AeroSpace-Europe (WIA-Europe), a group that is dedicated to expanding women's opportunities for involvement and leadership in the aerospace community. "Our goal is to make women more visible," said Kessler. "We want to help them with leadership training, mentorship programs, and to support each other in their career path."
As part of its work, WIA-Europe offers professional development series, networking events, and other programs to help women in the aerospace field advance in their careers. In addition to her work at WIA-Europe, Kessler has also launched Die Astronautin, a program that aims to send the first two female German astronauts to space. So far, two candidates have been selected, and they plan to take flight in 2020.
In Kessler's view, having more gender equality in tech will still take some time. "In the near term, it won't change quickly. These processes take time and we need to inspire more young women and girls to train in science and technology," said Kessler. "There's a lot of work to be done in terms of driving that inspiration."
With that in mind, Kessler urged companies on the importance of better female representation. "I see a big need in the technological field for representation of women," she said. "As our world becomes more digitized, that bleeds into all areas of life, and it's just not right for men to be the only voice there.
"In the case of space travel, women have been proven to be better at fostering teamwork when in leadership positions," she continued. "Humans want to go to Mars one day and those are the qualities you'll need on long-term flights." Kessler's work, both in HE Space Operations and outside of it, are helping women get closer to the stars.
If the leaders in aerospace have any say, then venturing and living beyond Earth is in our future. When the day comes that we begin living on other planets, how are we going to communicate with those back on Earth? A Tokyo-based startup named Infostellar has been working toward solving that very challenge. Kuruhara founded Infostellar in 2016 and is starting that communications journey by building the infrastructure for deep space internet. In preparation for their long-term vision, Infostellar has developed StellarStation, its flagship product, which can best be thought of as Airbnb for satellite providers.
The general idea of StellarStation is that a single ground station antenna only has a 40-minute communication window with a Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite each day. Operators who want to get into more communications windows will need to make heavy investments in more antennas in different sites. With StellarStation, satellite operators can share antennas, which allows companies to share unused inventory when it's lying idle. The implications of how much more capable satellites can now be has gotten the attention of investors. The company has received over $8 million in funding so far.
For Kuruhara, the work she and her team at InfoSteller are doing is important for the future of space flight. "I thought we really needed to provide the infrastructure for space," she said. "As you know, Elon Musk is saying that he wants to send a human to Mars and Jeff Bezos is working in that space as well. People think that might be coming in maybe 20 or 30 years rather than 100. So, society is slowly changing. If this is going to happen, we need communication between the Earth, and the moon, and even beyond to places like Mars. We feel that is something that should be done by industry, not government."
When it comes to the underrepresentation of women in tech, Kuruhara is quite familiar with the challenges in the field. "Before Infostellar, I was an electrical engineer and only 5 percent of the staff were women. There's definitely a bias in our society where people think boys can do engineering and math better than girls," said Kuruhara . "I think we need to remove that bias, although I'm not quite sure how.
"I see many women in the tech industry who get married, have a child, and they have to stop working for a few months," she continued. "I think the problem is that, after that, there are many pressures on them to stay home and take care of the baby. Actually, I had a son of my own a year ago, just as I had started my own company, so I definitely felt that pressure in my own life."
With that in mind, Kuruhara recalled an interesting anecdote from her education. "When I was in university, there weren't many women in my program. But the ones who were there were often the ones managing the student projects. I thought that was very interesting [laughs]."