The Emerging Technologist Abie Award recognizes a midcareer woman in the first 10 years of her technical career, and celebrates the creative ways she confronts problems and seeks solutions, as well as the potential she has to shape the future of her field for years to come. This year’s winner is Dr. Natalya Bailey, CEO and Co-founder at Accion Systems.
Natalya is considered one of the top leaders in the emerging field of small satellite propulsion. She invented a new form of propulsion engine that made use of a liquid ion propulsion technology for small satellites that is safer to handle, cheaper to produce, and smaller in terms of mass and volume while she earned her doctorate in space propulsion at MIT in 2014. Natalya and her Co-founder then created Accion Systems the same year to develop the technology into a product solution for the satellite industry.
We spoke with Natalya about her career journey and what she is doing to help other women enter the tech field.
When did you first become interested in technology and what inspires you today?
My journey to technology started when I was a kid. I was really into aliens. I would spend nights on the trampoline out in my backyard in Oregon looking at the stars and watching the space station pass over head. I would think about things that I didn’t know at the time were stated theories, like Drake’s Equation. I felt, if there are that many stars that I can see, surely there must be other intelligent life out there. Meanwhile, in school, I had a knack for math. It was fun and it came easily to me. With the assistance of my high school guidance counselor, I was able to combine my passions for space and math through aerospace engineering, which I’ve been studying ever since.
During college, while learning about in-space propulsion, we spent most of the class talking about chemical rockets, the big ones that require lots of fire that most people think of when they think of propulsion. Then, the last two weeks of the class, we talked about electric propulsion of an ion engine. The professor described how we didn’t really understand yet how these technologies work and that there is still a lot left to be done. I thought, yes, that’s what I want to spend my life doing.
Ion engines, and specifically our technology, can push humankind’s knowledge of the universe forward through space exploration and interplanetary missions. The combination is magical for me. I am looking forward to advancements in space exploration that can be realized by applying technology from other fields, like artificial intelligence, so that we aren’t limited by the need to have humans on board.
What was your experience going from academia to industry?
Going from academia into industry was a big a change. I learned quickly that people are the hardest, most rewarding, and most important part to focus on, which is very different when you’re an individual contributor in a lab with your own project. Being a technologist, that was the part that came the least naturally to me. I am extremely introverted. I struggled with how to connect with folks I don’t know. But, I knew I had to climb that curve very quickly.
What is the most memorable project that you’ve worked on to this point?
Sending our hardware into space for the first time has been the most rewarding for me. What I learned from that experience was that it wasn’t just building that hardware and launching it that was most important. It was the work, decisions, and setting the requirements two or three years prior to the actual launch date that determined whether it would be a success.
What were some of the challenges that you encountered, or that you have encountered either in the work that you do or in your personal journey as a technologist?
I didn’t spend a lot of my early life tinkering with hardware building things. The first time I felt that was something I needed to overcome was in college, when I joined the Design/Build/Fly team. It’s an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) competition where students build an aircraft that competes in different challenges. I came in with no hands-on experience and was automatically assigned as the report writer. I saw that I could get stuck in that loop for the rest of my career and worked hard to figure out how to get over that hump and become more well-rounded. Eventually, I graduated from being the report writer.
It happened again in grad school. I still had this very theoretical toolbox and I knew I needed to continue to build more hardware experience. I decided when I was doing my doctorate that I would just dive into building my own test equipment. It basically involved me spending a lot of late nights learning how to build simple circuits so I could contribute not just the theory but also the more experimental technical work.
What kind of mentorship are you engaging in right now? What you’ve been working on in relation to developing women in tech.
I’ve spent most of my adult life working, in one way or another, on women in technology programs. Right now, I’m involved in two main programs. Youth Cities engages middle school and high school kids in after school engineering projects with a goal to provide them with entrepreneurial experiences so that when they experience problems in life, they have the tool set to be able to solve problems themselves. It’s not specifically geared towards girls, but I think that’s actually an important point. Youth Cities thinks that if we continue to have exclusivity just for girls in after school STEM programs, when those girls hit the workforce later and they’re mixing with boys, there still going to be these harsh realities to overcome. In order to empower these girls and change the status quo, it’s important to have integration at an earlier age.
Another program I am involved in is XFactor Ventures. It is a team of nine women investing partners, of which I am one, investing in women-founded businesses to hopefully start to kind of level the playing field in terms of women entrepreneurs, but also the investors that fund those companies. Youth Cities fills the funnel upstream and the founder level investment enables entrepreneurs to grow.
Do you have a personal mentoring philosophy or something that helps guide you as you work with other women and individuals in your organization?
Something that was meaningful for me to learn was that no matter my role or the stage of my career, I will not have all the answers, or all the skills needed. Figuring out how to ask the right questions to identify those holes and fill them for the team has been pivotal.
When I mentor other women or people on my team, that’s where I focus. I ask how they identify their own weak spots and ask smart questions to solve problems. I challenge them to consider how they network to find people to pull into their inner circle. I never approach mentoring as if I know the answer, here’s what you should do. But rather, I help focus people on identifying the right questions to ask and how to get them answered.
What was your experience building diversity in your business?
I was under the impression that because I was a woman it would be easy to build diversity at Accion. I thought women would flock to my company, we’d have 50% gender diversity, and I’d have an easy time with it. One day, I looked up, we’re 19 people, and I’m the only woman. I learned that it doesn’t come easy to anybody, and that if you don’t take a lot of care to put the processes in place early on, it will be harder to solve later. Now, at Accion, we are close to 50:50 gender parity.
In 2017, we introduced a diversity program for hiring consisting of targeted recruitment, community outreach, co-op and internships, and community college outreach to augment the workforce with women and minorities that have been underrepresented in the industry. Over the past 12 months, 55% of our new hires were women.
What would you like to see happen for women in the sciences or the tech community in the next 10 years?
Looking ahead for women in the sciences and technology, I’d really love to see more women in some of the higher ranks in companies or in organizations. I think there are a lot of factors at play that make that challenging for women, like their own biases or others, or the way that some benefits are set up. I think a systematic approach to addressing challenges will be needed to see more women in leadership in the future.
What possibility excites you the most in terms of the benefit of what you’re doing in this technology?
I’m most excited about this technology for two reasons. The first is that ion engines are necessary for the small satellites that the industry wants to use to connect everybody on the globe. So, there are still three billion people on earth today without internet, without access to online medical resources, education, like online courses, banks and microloans. Imagine what the world will be like when everybody is finally connected to those resources. I’m excited to be working on a technology that can help enable that.
The other reason that I’m excited to go to work every day is because this technology can also take robots and probes to the outer reaches of the solar system, the galaxy, maybe different stars and so on. I’m excited to push the boundaries of human knowledge of the universe, and our origins. There’s so much still to be discovered.
Meet Natalya at GHC 19 during our Speaker’s Corner session, Wednesday, October 2, 1—1:45 p.m., AnitaB.org booth.
See Natalya’s session “Accelerating the Future of Space Through Scalable Electric Propulsion Technology” on Wednesday, October 2, 1:45—2:45 p.m., OCCC W300.
Thank you to Robert Half Technology, sponsor of the 2019 Emerging Technologist Abie Award.