A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Amelia Mae Wolf, Deputy Director, Current Operations, U.S. Space Force, Wharton MBA Candidate, and Truman National Security Fellow.
What is your background?
I've had a lifelong interest in space. Growing up, pursuing a career in space had a single trajectory, at least as I knew it--becoming an astronaut. I spent my childhood assuming that my relationship with space would be limited to what I read in books.
A few pivotal moments in my career altered my trajectory and produced the oddball background I have compared to most individuals in the space sector.
After graduating with a masters in international law and human rights, I started off my professional journey at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), aiming to pursue a career in conflict prevention. The fellow I ended up working with at CFR, Micah Zenko, focused heavily on the defense and intelligence communities, which illuminated a career path I hadn’t previously considered. He also occasionally dabbled in space policy, which made me appreciate there may be other paths into the space sector.
We hosted an event on the use of geospatial technologies for conflict prevention, which shocked me because I was exposed to the meaningful work taking place in the private sector to prevent conflict and human rights abuses. I had the opportunity to meet one of the speakers Tony Frazier, who was with DigitalGlobe at the time, and he told me that companies like DigitalGlobe could use more people like me from the think tank world who understand the context of what is happening on the ground where satellite images are taken.
A few years later, Tony became a mentor of mine when I joined his satellite imagery and geospatial intelligence company Radiant Solutions, now-Maxar Technologies. Maxar gave me the opportunity to lean into the space sector, hone my intelligence analysis skills, and find my footing as a leader.
I thought the next logical step should increase my exposure to space hardware; I took an opportunity with Capella Space, a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite start-up. Unfortunately, like many individuals in the space sector over the past year, I was affected by layoffs. The bright side is that it reopened a door that I thought had closed almost a decade prior; a government career. In July 2023, I joined the U.S. Space Force as a civilian and have loved every second of it.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
My greatest accomplishment is getting into the Wharton School. It marks a turning point in my career where I started to believe in myself and recognize the value of my accomplishments. At the start of my MBA application journey many years ago, I assumed Wharton was a pipe dream. During my long application process (delayed by having a baby), my assumptions and expectations evolved as I dove into my personal story and supportive people around me recognized my unique value better than I did.
As any intelligence analyst will tell you, having your work included in the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) is a milestone. A project I led was featured in the PDB, as well as briefed to Congress and Directors of multiple intelligence agencies.
As I transitioned to management, accomplishments become more amorphous but nonetheless valuable. While at Maxar, I took over a contract shortly before it ended and abruptly found out we did not win the follow-on contract. This left me and my manager scrambling to find new internal roles for over 20 people. We found new internal roles for everyone who wanted to stay. We also managed to rebuild a team that was reeling from the unraveling while having to continue to work in the same customer space. In retrospect, successfully jumping into action felt like the culmination of many years of personal and professional leadership growth—and made me realize my diligent work was beginning to set me apart from the crowd.
Most recently, landing a civilian job at the US space force has felt like one of my greatest accomplishments to date. I had given up on a government career many years ago because I found there was often an assumption that a resume should have very specific experiences to qualify for a certain role, which my varied background never fit. Before applying to the Space Force I knew they were actively developing a culture that would attract diverse talent. It turns out that is very much the case. They saw the value I could bring to the table with a unique perspective from the private sector and my experience with space policy and ethics.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
First, following good leadership. A manager and mentor who recognized my potential and helped me grow. Sometimes the people you work with are more important than the work itself. For me, that person was Mitch Sims at Maxar. There was a moment where we lost a contract and I could have moved internally, but I recognized the value of working with a manager who felt genuinely invested in my professional growth and whom I learned from every day.
Second, pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. Though I lacked confidence early in my career, my dad once told me to say yes to any career opportunity that presented itself. Early on, despite a lack of confidence, that meant I dabbled as a professor in a master’s program, helped launch then lead the DC Chapter of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs’ young professionals’ program, and served as a corporate mentor for a business school program. These experiences helped me gain confidence. Now, though I only take on opportunities more geared toward my experience and interests, I continue to push myself out of my comfort zone because it consistently provides new opportunities, constant learning and skill development, and exposure to other professionals.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
It’s only my second semester at Wharton but I can comfortably say that it has already had the most impact on my career. The professors at Wharton are unlike anything I've ever experienced, in terms of the effort they make to learn about their students and the enthusiasm they bring to the classroom. Of course, the caliber of classmates that I'm surrounded by motivates me every day.
Prior to Wharton, while at NYU, I gained insight into how I learn best. My graduate program with the Center for Global Affairs had a curriculum that was a blend of academic and practitioner based, meaning we put the theory to work in the real world. I attended a field intensive in Bosnia-Herzgovina and Serbia to study international justice, and it showed me that I learned best by being hands-on and learning from others.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
There are two things I enjoy the most. The people and the opportunity to constantly learn. I lean toward introversion, but one of the things I love most about my recent positions are the people I get to work with. I love the opportunity to learn from other people, to help them work on their own professional growth, and to watch them make progress and gain confidence and clarity to pursue their own ambitions.
I'm the type of person who needs to have the opportunity to constantly learn otherwise boredom sets in. The Current Operations Division at the Space Force is a perfect fit for me because it’s dynamic and the situation is always changing, and at large the Space Force is still young and evolving. Looking at the future of the space sector, I’m convinced that we're only at the beginning. There are untold technologies and innovative policies that will be required to govern them. The space sector holds endless opportunities for me to learn and stay engaged.
Finally, though being a woman in a male-dominated field can sometimes be empowering, it’s also part of the job I’ve enjoyed the least. I am often the only woman in the room. Most of the time, that’s empowering because I’ve elbowed my way into a career path despite regularly encountering folks who were either dismissive or outright hostile. Of course, with that comes some of the moments I’ve enjoyed the least. I‘ve been victim to conscious and unconscious bias, overt sexism, and even sexual harassment. I suspect that like other women in this field, despite these challenges, I feel a powerful obligation to pave the way for future generations of women by altering the culture of this sector so that diverse voices are actively sought out and welcomed.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
This is such a difficult question to answer! If you’re someone who is comfortable with risk and wants to potentially be a part of a leap in space technology, then a space start up offers a promising future. Venture capital in the space sector is growing rapidly, and I think offers a really unique way for someone without an engineering background to break into the sector.
There are an increasing number of atypical pathways into space now—consulting companies developing space-specific programs, think-tanks with space policy or space law centers, or companies focused entirely on space sustainability. The behemoth aerospace companies are also increasingly leaning into space tech, going after acquisitions, and getting more innovative to compete with startups. Collectively, I think these offer some of the most unique opportunities because it opens the sector to people with atypical backgrounds, like myself.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
A mentor once told me I should always have two mentors. One significantly more senior and one closer to my level. Ideally with varying backgrounds, genders, and/or race. This does two things. It gives me feedback from varied perspectives and ensures that I have a mentor if one of them leaves.
Not only have I followed that advice but I've expanded on it. I recommend a third mentor, one who's younger than yourself. When I was at Maxar, I worked with multiple teammates who were younger than me with no experience in the intelligence community. Not only were they willing to think outside the box, but there were moments where they pushed me to take action based on advice I had given them. There’s enormous value in a younger mentor who may also be your mentee.
When you doubt yourself, imagine the most undeservedly confident person you’ve crossed in your career, put yourself in their shoes, and envision how they would approach the situation.
Finally, when life throws your career a curveball, envision a scenario 5-10 years down the road where you’ve come out the other end. For instance, I once had a manager tell me that my ambitions outpaced my skillset. After briefly questioning my capabilities, I chose instead to let it empower me. I envisioned 5 years later that I would out earn and out rank him. And guess what? 5 years later I did.