A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Natalya Bailey,Co-Founder and CTO of Accion Systems
What is your background?
Thanks to dual interests in math and aliens growing up, I pursued a BS, MS, and PhD in aerospace engineering with a focus on space propulsion. Having been only really technically trained, all of my business and leadership experience has come from learning on the job with a leadership coach and lots of books and YouTube videos. I interned at Hamilton Sundstrand, wrote software for an orthopedic clinic, and spent time at Aurora Flight Sciences prior to starting Accion Systems.
What have been your top three career accomplishments so far?
It's hard to top launching things into space! Accion has had two launches of our propulsion systems in the past (with varying degrees of success…) and we have 5 more manifested for the next year with new partners that we hope to work closely with going forward.
Related to that, and more personal to me, is building a company with the capability to build and deliver said propulsion systems that our customers launch on their satellites, which has involved a lot of fundraising, hiring, selling, fundraising, fundraising, hiring. Working with a team of incredibly talented, smart, dedicated folks has kept me going when things get hard. Hiring people that I could see myself working for in a different situation has been one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of my job.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
Perhaps the term is overused but having a growth mindset. For me, that has meant being comfortable with finding a coach, sending myself to leadership development training or signing up for online courses, recruiting peers as sounding boards, putting my foot in my mouth and recovering quickly when I made a bad decision, and generally admitting I didn't know it all and could avoid reinventing every wheel by asking for help sometimes. It's hard to learn at the pace required as an entrepreneur without this mindset, and a good amount of humility.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
Rather than which degree or period in time, the biggest impact on my career has come from the common thread of signing up for activities during my education above and beyond required coursework and research. To name some examples, I started my college's chapter of Sigma Gamma Tau and chaired it, I joined AIAA's Design Build Fly competition, I volunteered with youth STEM programs throughout my education, I held internships and co-ops, I traveled to speak at conferences. Each of these experiences afforded me opportunities to spend one-on-one time with more experienced leaders in the field, develop key professional skills, and more. Even when volunteering, I usually met other volunteers who would go on to write me a reference letter or offer me an internship down the line. All of that said, at the current stage of my career I'm practicing being more judicious with my time and focusing on fewer activities, but I think the principle still generally holds.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
It has been thrilling to get to work at the intersection of a cool technology (an ion engine) and the potential to further space exploration. That overlap, cutting edge tech and pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, is a really powerful place and gets me out of bed each morning, even on very hard days.
The hardest part has been when things go wrong, having a team of people I care about that has to suffer the consequences, like launch failures or having to sustain understaffed programs because some money didn't come through.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
Of course ML/AI work in space is growing and is here to stay in areas like automation, design and manufacturing, and robotic/AI exploration. I'm also following hypersonic research
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation following a similar career path?
To stay as close to first principles as possible in your education, to work towards a vision or technology you care deeply about so that you still feel drawn by a higher purpose on the hard days, and to learn how to be a compassionate and empathetic colleague, manager, and leader because at the end of the day everything comes down to the people.
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.