A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Khristian Jones, Associate Materials & Processes Engineer at Virgin Galactic and Co-Founder of the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship
What is your background?
I always had a fascination with space in general, but my family weren’t engineers. My dad was a professional baseball player and my mom was into HR and things like that, so I had no clue about space and engineering. But I knew two things: I had a fascination with space and I wanted to go to space.
The first career I discovered was being an astronaut, but I realized that I can't be an astronaut everyday, so what am I going to do in my day-to-day life? Then in school we started talking about different career paths and being an engineer was one of them. My teacher had said, “Khristian, you're so good at math and science, you should be an engineer” and I was like “Okay, cool!” I was that kid that took advice very seriously and so I went home and googled “I’m really good at math and science. I want to be an engineer, but I love space. What kind of engineer should I be” or something like that. Aeronautics and astronautics programs started coming up, but then aerospace became like the “combined” and I said, “That’s it!” So I started building my path to that. I didn't really know what I wanted to do in aerospace per say, but as I started talking to people, and really researching and looking into different companies, I knew for a fact that I wanted to do the building and design of rocket ships and spacecraft. I'm not really much of a satellite person, but I really, really like machinery in space.
Now, my background is in aerospace engineering, with an emphasis on testing composite materials. I’ll be working in materials and process engineering for Virgin Galactic, which is essentially the testing of materials to extract their critical properties. Right now, we’re working on spaceships, but material testing is involved in aviation as well. Aviation is getting there, but space is way ahead with composite materials right now.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
First of all, internships in general are super important. I think they’ve really taught me a lot, having achieved internships at some of the top aviation and space companies. I interned at Southwest Airlines, Airbus Americas, Mojave Air & Space Port and the Spaceship company, which is Virgin Galactic now. Those were really amazing accomplishments, which built on each other. Also, creating the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship (PGSF), hands down, is one of my greatest accomplishments. I say that in a way not like “Oh, I did it all by myself,” but as far as the impact that it made and it being really, really important to me. So I’d say those are my two biggest accomplishments, my internships and the fellowship.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
I think the most critical step was stepping out of my comfort zone. I struggled with confidence a lot, since I didn’t come from an engineering background. There were a lot of students that had been coding since like third grade and doing robotics club and stuff like that, so I would minimize myself a lot and not really put myself out there. So I think the biggest step was taking that first step to apply — apply for internships, apply for research opportunities, things like that.
My second critical step was the Brooke Owens Fellowship (BOF). Once I finally took the step out and applied to BOF, it really helped build my confidence, and that, to me, for everyone, is the key. If you have confidence and you're prepared, opportunity is going to find you. That's all it is.
After those two steps, internships are again, so, so, so important. I always say my analogy, which is that internships are like dating. You can see what you like, what you don't like, and if you really like something, it's okay to stick with it, but if you don't, you can say you did it. This is the time to really figure out what it is you want to do and test the waters. So I think as far as getting ahead, that’s super important, because contrary to popular belief, a lot of people don’t have internships. We’re taught in academia to just be good at school, but I’m a hands-on learner. I need to be in it, turning the wrench, changing the oil, etcetera. I don't wanna read the instruction manual, I need to see it happening. Also, a critical choice is taking the things that people don't want to do. A lot of times, my biggest opportunities have been when I’m like “Eh, it's not my thing, but I’ll do it,” and then you learn so much from those experiences. I think taking those tasks or leadership roles or the opportunities where people are like “Eh, maybe that's not my thing,” definitely can show you standing apart from the crowd.
I think the biggest thing is also preparing us as minorities, as people with disabilities, as women, that everybody’s not ready for this adjustment, so there's internal, positive self-talk you have to have, to keep you in that headspace. Because when you go to work, it's not this supportive space that you're used to. You feel like you're back at square one because you continually have to be advocating for yourself, making sure that you work twice as hard as everybody else, to be noticed, or working all this overtime and all of those things, just to get the same opportunities as your white or male counterparts. It's super important to continue to talk yourself into the fact that, you know, “I am where I’m supposed to be, that I do deserve these opportunities, that I’m not just a number.” You really have to keep reinforcing that because it's all true, but when you're surrounded by people that don’t understand or look like you, those negative thoughts can start to come through. Getting minorities into the industry is step number one, but the second thing is making sure that we don't allow the majority to minimize us again. There’s this constant cycle of when we infiltrate where the majority is like “Well, now you have to do this, and now you have to do that,” and it continues to flush people out of the industry because people have been tolerating it for years and can’t do it anymore.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
It's a controversial thought, but I feel that as far as education goes, picking some sort of extracurricular-like, non-academic class type of thing or choosing a minor in another discipline, (e.g. traveling abroad, getting an internship, leadership development) was the most impactful thing for my career. Through these activities I learned how to lead, how to follow, how to do things hands on, and how to see things first hand rather than in a book (in theory with pictures and taking tests). With minoring in something, — I was literally a class away from getting my business minor, but I wanted to graduate, so I was like “Nope, I’m getting my MBA later” — I learned a lot as far as looking at disciplines outside of engineering. This made me think outside of the way engineers think. Instead, I considered engineering from the perspective of a business woman, thinking “What does it look like and what moves would I make in this role?” So I would say being multidisciplinary was most impactful to my career today.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
I’ll start with the least. I think what I’ve enjoyed the least is in a lot of spaces being “the only one.” It makes it so hard to just do your job. A lot of times I found that I’ve been, not forced into DEI efforts, but approached with “Hey! Lead this effort for an employee resource group” or something along those lines. It makes it hard because you want to help other people get into the industry and feel comfortable and included in your company, but it's a whole other job. I have to do my engineering job on top of trying to be the advocate for black employees. And I can’t and don’t know if I can do both. It’s a lot. I would say just because of how the industry is, that’s been my hardest/least favorite part of it all. I would love to be able to do it on my own time with my own efforts or be compensated for it.
I would say my favorite part of my career so far has been the ability to really connect with a lot of different people in the industry. The industry is big, but small — big as far as the multitude of things you can do, but the community is small — so when you have the willingness to talk to people and step out of your comfort zone and say, “Hey, let’s get coffee” or “Hey, like let's have a chat,” whether that’s at a conference, at work, or on LinkedIn, you foster really great relationships. Even if the people you connect with aren’t your best friends or anything like that, people come around. I feel like it’s so important and exciting to meet so many different people from different backgrounds and experiences, so I would say that's my favorite part. I guess that’s not super engineering related, but it’s important to me. We’re all engineers, and that's great, but I also think about the people. Meeting the people and getting to know them, that's what makes me the person I am.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
That’s hard. I think for the most promising careers, it’s super important that as the space industry grows, marketing grows as well. We really need marketing people and public relations people to showcase the work that we’re doing. I also think policy is important, study policy. I don't care what level you are, what company you’re at, policy is so important because I feel like policy limits innovation. There’s a lot of times where people don't know “diddly squat” about anything and start making these policies that are keeping things from progressing. If you can go into policy, I would say especially in the next five, ten or fifteen years, that’s super promising. So as far as the most promising career opportunities, marketing and policy are my top two.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation following a similar career path?
Of course I have to plug the PGSF and BOF! Getting fellowship opportunities is really important. They’re starting to create a more inclusive aerospace industry, so that's definitely a stepping stone. As far as just general advice, confidence is key. Also, surround yourself with people who are, number one, gonna push you, but number two, are going to build you up, see that you have the potential, and push you in spaces that you don't even know you need to be in. This keeps you pushing yourself and reminds you of the fact that “I do have a lot of potential and there is a place for me.” So definitely surround yourself by, I call it my support spaceship, which comes from the support bus theory of psychology. I think it's really important to have a support bus to keep pushing you and support you through the journey of life in general, but it’s especially important to have a support bus through an aerospace career. Also, being a part of professional organizations like AIAA, NSBE, SWE and SEDS are super important for networking. Networking is the key to success, period. Nobody can debate that. It's not always what you know, but who you know, and better yet, who knows you. If somebody can vouch for you, and you may not even know that your name is being brought up, but they connect with an potential employer and there's a position out there and they say “Oh, well I know X is boss at this, this and this, you should really call them up,” and all of a sudden you have a job or an internship or a fellowship opportunity. So definitely join those professional organizations. They have student discounts and packages for memberships and whatnot. I know they can get a little pricey as far as yearly membership fees, but definitely try to be a part of just one or two.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Lauren Carethers, Space Capital 2021 intern from Patti Grace Smith Foundation: How did Patti Grace Smith Foundation come to be?
In terms of how PGSF came to be, basically what happened was that I was really involved in the BOF and was super passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and making sure that we’re hitting intersectionality.The Brooke Owens Fellowship was really good at infiltrating the industry as far as female and nonbinary people go, but as far as race, religion, and ethnicity, we weren’t killing the game like we could have been, so that was something we worked really, really hard on as fellows and alumni. But then when the assassination of George Floyd happened, it was a bigger call on a lot of people to do more. So the Brooke Owens Fellowship asked “What do we need to do and what can we do,” like a lot of other companies and industry folks were doing at the time. And Will [Will Pomerantz, VP of Special Projects at Virgin Orbit, co-founder of BOF and PGSF] with his big heart just felt like there was more that we could be doing and that it’s asking too much of the BOF to try to do all of these things. He thought we needed to do something separate to be able to completely focus on African American students and African American people in the aerospace industry. So he came to me (as one of the students elected to the BOF executive team) and said “You’re an amazing leader, I have this idea and I really want to do this with you.” He talked about the idea of having a fellowship specifically for African American and Black students that would be essentially the same format as BOF — as far as providing an internship, mentorship, and a summit — but with its own purpose, it’s own flavor. However, we didn’t have an idea of what we wanted to call it and the identity of it. We soon realized that Brooke Owens and Patti Grace Smith were really great friends — Patti was Brooke’s mentor — and so when Patti unfortunately passed away not too long after Brooke passed away, it was really impactful on the BOF family. So Will had said “Hey, I don't think anybody in the industry is doing enough to really honor her and all the impact that’s she made on the commercial space industry. Why don’t we name the fellowship after her in her honor, and use that to pass on the torch, her work, and all the amazing things she’s done?”
So that’s how the identity of what PGSF is now came to be, but it was very, very important to the team to make sure that we were not just copying and pasting for this fellowship and that we we’re meeting this demographic where it needs to be, as far as why aren’t black and African Americans students in the aerospace industry right now. I made a list of all these things that could help and could have made me, a student at the time, be right there with my white, male counterparts. Whether it be the cash grants or other means, we wanted to make sure that the PGSF fellows had additional support as well as making sure that it’s their first opportunity to work in industry. We have this amazing opportunity where the PGSF has freshmen and sophomores in the program and it's only dedicated for that age group, ensuring that they’re ahead of the game when it comes time for those opportunities in industry. That’s long-winded, but that’s the start to what the PGSF is now. I knew that it was going to be great because I knew that great talent was out there. What blows my hair back every time is the fact that my program and this program created it and showcased the amazing talent that was already there.
Lauren: Blue Origin’s charitable arm, the Club for the Future, recently announced that the PGSF and BOF would collectively be one of 19 recipients to receive a $1 million dollar grant. How did receiving this grant make the executive team feel and what do you think that we should do with that?
I 1000% felt like it was a surprise, but I felt like it was one of those things that you deserve. Not in a cocky way, but we really are making an impact and there’s a lot of people that we can help with that money. So, it was exciting to be on that list with organizations that have been around for awhile, while, you know, the BOF is like 5 years old, and the PGSF is just a year old at this point. So just to be able to sit side-by-side with those organizations that have been around longer was really impressive. I was super happy and very grateful for that.
As far as what to do with the money, I think that that’s always TBD because the BOF and PGSF are in this together. From my own perspective, I do think that it’s important to be very intentional with what is done with the money because we do have two separate audiences. Yes there’s some intersectionality between them, but they’re two specific demographics we’re trying to hit. So I think it’s very important to have combined efforts, but to also have separate efforts that make it very intentional to say “Hey, this is how we reach more women” or “Hey, this is how we reach more black students” because a lot of times with black students as a whole, regardless of gender, the issue is a lack of experience and a lack of access as opposed to being specifically female where the issue’s not necessarily lack of access, but of discrimination, of “Oh, well you can’t do as well.” There’s that additional layer as a black student especially if you’re black and female or black and nonbinary. So, I think that’s really important, but we really, really, really, care about the fellows’ ideas and the things that they bring to the table because we’re only eight or nine people. And yes, we’re really great and there’s a lot of accomplishment between the two executive teams, but it’s really important that we hear from the fellows because they are the next generation and they are the best people to tell us what they need and what could be done. So that’s really, really important to us before we move on anything, before we spend a penny. We want to make sure that we get all of the fellow’s input so we can sift through it and see what’s doable and make things happen.
The Space Talent Spotlight is our blog series focused on the leaders and builders at the intersection of space and tech.The Space Talent Spotlight is our blog series focused on the leaders and builders at the intersection of space and tech.