Read SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell’s speech to 2021 graduates, urging US educational reforms

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SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell
Jay Westcott / NASA

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell returned to her alma mater on Monday and delivered Northwestern University’s commencement address to the class of 2021.

Speaking virtually, Shotwell gave Northwestern’s students an overview of her career, especially focusing on the nearly two decades that she’s worked for Elon Musk‘s SpaceX. As one of the company’s first employees, she has been with SpaceX from its early startup days to now, a space company with nearly 10,000 employees and worth $74 billion.

“The one accomplishment that we have that I am most proud of is helping to get our country flying astronauts again on American-made rockets and spaceships,” Shotwell said.

She gave advice to graduates and also declared that she is “worried about our nation’s children,” saying the U.S. education system is “not preparing our children for their future.”

“We are not giving all of our children an education that will shape them into resourceful and productive people that our country needs to remain relevant. Every child is a resource to better our future and our future will be driven by technology,” Shotwell said during her address.

SpaceX’s Starship rocket production facility in Boca Chica, Texas, as CEO Elon Musk (third from the right) and President Gwynne Shotwell (third from the left) tour.
Steve Jurvetson on flickr

Shotwell received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1986 and 1988, respectively, from Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, and currently serves on the university’s board of trustees.

Northwestern also awarded Shotwell with an honorary degree.

Read Shotwell’s full address:

“Hey, Class of 2021, I’m incredibly proud to be your commencement speaker.

Thank you, Morty [Schapiro] for inviting me, and thanks to the board and Lanny Martin, its chairman, for allowing me to speak, even though you guys know me for my six years of service on this board, and that this invitation is a tiny bit risky.

But it is an honor to follow in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s steps. Last year she brought gravitas to this event, while she honored George Floyd and implored graduates to participate in our democracy.

This is a special year to do the Northwestern University commencement. This is my 35th anniversary of my Northwestern University undergraduate commencement, and most importantly, Stephen Colbert, who also graduated from NU – or almost did – in 1986, did this speech exactly 10 years ago, and he predicted that the speaker for 2021 would be, and I quote, ‘a zoo parrot with a mortar board that has been trained to say congratulations.’ So here I am, Gwynne Shotwell, your zoo parrot, for the class of ’21; congratulations to you.

Class of ’21, you have achieved something important. All graduations deserve a celebration but you, this class of 2021, have an even greater achievement: You not only survived but succeeded throughout the insanity of 2020 and into this year. You were able to focus and invest in your future during a period of immense suffering.

But many of the issues that we face going forward will be different. I think highly dynamic social, political and economic situations are the new normal, and you are now better prepared to succeed in them. You have lived it and not just survived, but succeeded. Feel good about that and carry that new skill with you; I think you will use it.

Okay, before I share a few jewels of my life lessons learned, there are a few things you should know about me to help put my remarks in context. I am a mother, a wife, a mechanical engineer, and nerd. We aren’t all nerds, but I’m proud to be one. I’m a longtime SpaceX employee and leader, an active listener, a rancher, of course a wildcat, and an aspiring winemaker. I love my country, even though it is flawed and I’m committed to helping resolve its social injustices. And I am desperate to be a grandmother, but my children aren’t cooperating in my vision, at least yet.

My road to Northwestern started in Libertyville, Illinois, which is a small town north of the university – that’s where I grew up. I did very well in elementary and high school academics, and I also worked incredibly hard at having a full social life. I decided to be a mechanical engineer, after my mother took me to a Society of Women Engineers event when I was only 15 or 16. I applied only to Northwestern University School of Engineering. But it wasn’t because it was the best engineering school – I applied because of Northwestern’s richness in other fields. It was ranked among the top, or was the top at that time. This was important to me because as a teenage girl in the late ’70s – yep, I’m that old – I was terrified as being tagged as a nerd. Now I’m super proud to be one.

I was accepted by Northwestern – I’m not sure I would be today, so I think I timed that properly – and I completed two degrees from this fine institution, a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in applied math. Though I criticize my engineering education as too theoretical. I think the best engineers are those that can put the theoretical to practice, and I got almost no practice as an undergrad. Northwestern highlighted the criticality of broad-based thinking. Just being good in math and science will not drive success. It’s whole-brain thinking brought to practice that does. I’m thankful that Dean Ottino has brought a strong focus of this concept and applied it so well here to Northwestern engineering.

As I was building my own foundation in engineering, I also found time to build a family. I gave birth to and raised two extraordinary children who are better people than I, and could be president of the universe, rather than just being president of SpaceX. One is a double alum in mechanical engineering from Northwestern and one will be a double alum from Stanford, both in mechanical engineering and business. As a mother giving advice to potential future parents: Never tell your children what they should be when they grow up – they will in fact do the opposite. But you can be a good role model, or show them good role models, as my mother did for me – she was an artist.

For the last nearly 19 years I have worked for one of, if not the, finest physicist and engineer, Elon Musk. He gave me the opportunity to help him grow SpaceX from 10 people to nearly 10,000 people, and from zero revenue to billions annually. I have helped bring the commercial launch business back to this country, along with the tens of thousands of jobs that come with it. The one accomplishment that we have that I am most proud of is helping to get our country flying astronauts again on American-made rockets and spaceships. We are now positioned to fly astronauts from all over the world on our Dragon spaceship and later this year we will fly the first all-civilian mission, where regular everyday people will travel to space on a multi-day journey around Earth. And this is just the beginning.

I hope that I have helped create a path that allows humans to live on Earth, the moon or Mars, whichever their choice. I hope for a future where people can live even further out, amongst other star systems and galaxies. I often joke about wanting to meet other people and see otherworldly fashion. I know I won’t see that in my lifetime, but I hope that my work serves as a foundation or a small beginning to achieve that.

Okay, so now that you know more about me, it’s time to share some advice. I’ll name three and then I’ll go back and talk about them. Set and try to achieve absolutely absurd goals, and don’t be afraid of failing, if you can’t achieve them. Work hard, really hard, and be helpful. Be kind, but at minimum, be respectful. Don’t be afraid to admit that if you fail, you were wrong and take a different path – or better yet, don’t even consider trying something and not getting the outcome that you want as failure. Consider it growth.

When I was considering joining SpaceX back in 2002 I was struggling with a decision and drawing it out for weeks. It seemed so risky for me personally to join this little start-up, in an industry where none had ever succeeded. At the time I was a part-time single mother, and this was just too far out of my comfort zone. I was driving on the freeway here in L.A. when it finally hit me: I was being a total idiot. Who cares if I tried this job and either I failed or the company failed? What I recognized at that moment was that it was the trying part that was the most important. Try that risky thing, be a part of something exciting. I don’t want to imagine what my life and career would be like had I said no. I’m sure I would have been fine but I would not have been a part of this amazing company, working alongside such extraordinary people. Not taking that job would have been the fail.

On a business level, SpaceX took massive reputational risks, mastering the technology and operations associated with landing a rocket. In fact we were continually criticized by our competitors and the media for these failures. I looked on these failures as a source of pride. Our very first attempt to land the rocket on a drone ship, we hit it. We didn’t land on it, but we hit the drone ship – that tiny target was hundreds of miles away from the launch site in a vast ocean. After about a dozen attempts we finally succeeded in landing that rocket and landing rockets has become almost routine for us. Still tricky, but it’s almost routine. And that technology has been enormously helpful to our business and is critical to establishing a settlement on Mars. If you can’t land the rocket, you can’t get people to the surface.

Working hard and being helpful. I was hired as vice president of business development – that means head of sales. Well I did my job and we got customers, but then their missions needed to be managed and we needed an accounting and finance function because we actually were bringing in money, we needed to work closely with the launch ranges and get permission to be able to launch from them, so I took that on as well. And, as we demonstrated success, we needed a government affairs function to play defense for us in D.C., as our competitor started fighting us. I remember even vacuuming the carpets before a big customer event. In 2008, when we won our biggest contract to date – a nearly $2 billion effort from NASA to take science experiments and cargo to-and-from the International Space Station – Elon needed a partner, and he asked me to do it. I think it was in large part because I had kept growing my scope, being helpful in other areas to the company, all trying to do a great job.

Being kind, but at minimum, you must be respectful. Note that almost everyone that you interact with every day is battling some demon or trying to get through some issue. Please consider this as you battle your way to work on the subway, as you’re hurrying through the lines at the grocery store, or as you get frustrated with someone in a meeting at work.

At SpaceX we have a ‘no a——‘ policy. These kinds of people – a—— – interrupt others, they shut down or co-opt conversation, and they create a hostile environment where no one wants to contribute. This is not a way to promote sharing good, innovative, and even outrageous ideas that are required to solve hard problems. In short, the best way to find solutions to hard problems is to listen harder, not talk louder. Embrace the ideas of your fellow workers, especially when they differ greatly from yours.

Stuff that I’m not sharing lessons on but that I think are really important, especially to talk about in a commencement speech in 2021. I’m worried about a lot of things, but I’m not knowledgeable enough in these things to have any useful advice for you, at least not yet. However, I cannot in a commencement speech in 2021 fail to mention the things that I worry about knowing, that many are problems I want to help tackle in the future.

I’m worried about our nation’s children. We are not giving all of our children an education that will shape them into resourceful and productive people that our country needs to remain relevant. Every child is a resource to better our future, and our future will be driven by technology. That is why I am so concerned about the science and math test scores that we have in this country. China scores first. Ireland – I just bring this up because it’s what my heritage is, my ancestors are from Ireland – scores 12th, and the United States ranks 25th.

Worse than that, if there is a worse than scoring 25th in math and science as well as reading, is that the gap between our lowest scoring students and our highest scoring students is widening. We are not preparing our children for their future.

I love this country and I’m worried about the widening, economic, social and racial divide which was amplified during the pandemic. Not addressing education for our youth is not helping that. We are not treating our neighbors with the respect that they deserve. We are not listening hard to each other and respectfully working on the really important issues that we face as a country and as a human race.

I haven’t helped our country work on these issues yet – I whine a lot about it – and it’s time, probably in the very near term, for me to commit and help fix them. Maybe we can work on these things together.

So I’ve given you some actual experience that taught me that more can be accomplished when crazy ideas are respected, listened to and evaluated. That being helpful and hardworking pays off; it did for me. And that wasting resources, especially human capital, is a moral and ethical sin. And that a small group of people, like those of us here at SpaceX, can change an industry, and by extension can help change the world.

Growing up and even early in my career, my friends, colleagues and I focused on getting ahead with an aside or maybe even an afterthought that maybe we should do something good for the world. But as I accumulate more life’s lessons, it’s clear that a far richer life results from switching that up, finding a career where your pursuit of a better world leads to your getting ahead. And all of you have in you right now all that you need to start your pursuit of a better world. Congratulations, and Godspeed.”

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