A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Jeanette "Neri" Quinlan, Director of Program Management at Maxar Technologies, former Senior Program Manager at SpaceLink, Director at Akash Systems, Managing Director at Starburst Accelerator, Thermal Engineer at OneWeb, Space Systems Loral (now Maxar), and ITT (now L3Harris)
What is your background?
I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as the daughter of a political reporter and a foreign language teacher. I always had an affinity for math and science, but considering Pittsburgh wasn’t the tech hub that it is today, I didn’t have a great network of engineers, or many role models in the field, and certainly none in aerospace. When I was little I found a book about Sally Ride in the library and was fascinated. Here was this woman with dark, curly hair like mine who was going into space! I immediately thought “I want to be an Astronaut!”, not really realizing that there were other fields in the industry. Along the way in my childhood I learned about a field called Engineering, and decided to study Mechanical Engineering in college because it seemed to be the most broad. At the college career fair my senior year I saw a booth with a picture of a satellite on the pop-up banner and I knew I had to apply. I had never considered that I could use my Mechanical Engineering degree to work in this field.
I started my career as a Thermal Engineer at ITT Space Systems (formerly Kodak’s Commercial and Government Systems, now L3Harris) in Rochester, NY. I moved to the Bay Area to join SSL (now Maxar) as a Thermal Engineer about six years later. Then space startups began to happen in the area and I was recruited as a Thermal Engineer at OneWeb in the early days. I was there for about two years before joining Starburst. It was very appealing to me to help startups in the emerging space industry. I had a very exciting time at Starburst Accelerator, then I ended up really liking the team at Akash, one of the startups that Starburst accelerated, and joined them as their Director of Space Systems. Which really means a little bit of business development, a little bit of program management, a little bit of PR, a little bit of everything; like a good startup.
A few years later I joined SpaceLink as a Senior Program Manager for their NASA and Civil Space Programs, working with many former colleagues from Maxar and OneWeb on exciting programs involving relay of data from space.
Since this interview, Jeanette has rejoined Maxar Technologies as their Director of Program Management.
Tell me about how all of these job transitions were for you.
It hasn’t necessarily been a linear route to where I am now, but it has been logical in some way. In every circumstance, apart from my transition to OneWeb, I had been looking for my next opportunity, for various reasons.
My transition from OneWeb to Starburst–I had a friend in the industry whose startup had been accelerated through Starburst. He introduced me in just a casual, networking environment and they were looking to expand and bring on someone new. I happened to be looking for a new opportunity at the time so it just worked out very well.
At Starburst, I started to realize that I wanted to do something a bit more technical. My position was mainly on the consulting and the business development side - only lightly getting into the technology - and I wanted to dive deeper into the tech. The Akash team has just raised their seed round, so they were looking to expand. I was really excited about their tech because it tied back to my Thermal Engineering, and I had been realizing that what I was doing wasn’t quite working for me and was ready for my next opportunity.
At Akash, I think I really helped build the company, but was reaching a point where I wasn’t necessarily going to move on to that next step, next challenge. So, I started reaching out to a couple of close people in my network, including someone at Spacelink and he let me know when an opportunity became available a couple of months later.
In every case, it is the network you have. It’s listening out for those opportunities. I’m not cold-applying to jobs, and part of that is that my resume is a little untraditional. It kind of takes someone knowing me, knowing my ambition, knowing my skill set, and knowing my network that helps me stand out as the company tries to grow.
How would you say you have been able to develop that network over time, to the point where you can call on people and really trust them to help navigate these career transitions?
Starting from the beginning, I always kind of had a LinkedIn but I wasn’t really updating it when I was at the larger companies. OneWeb started to be more external facing, and when you have a business meeting with someone, you just connect on LinkedIn afterwards as a formality.
At Starburst, it was really emphasized how important a network is. I think I am a bit of a natural networker. I think my network of women in this industry is very strong, and I’m constantly trying to build that and promote that and promote other women as well.
At this point in my career, the mid-level career stage, there is a reliance on each other and I make a conscious effort to stay in contact with people and meet up, on both a personal and professional level.
Let’s talk about the work you’re doing for women within aerospace.
I could spend the whole interview on this topic! After a couple of years in the industry, I realized that there is a special type of bond with women in this industry. Being one of a few or sometimes being the only woman in the room.
There was a point in roughly 2015, where I would meet a lot of women from different groups like NASA, government, and commercial. I would meet with them, get drinks, get coffee and I thought about how there are a lot of these different groups, and really no way to tie them. So, one day I just reserved the common room in my condo building, and sent out an email to ten women and said sometime like, “Hey, come bring a bottle of wine, bring a dish to share, and we will just hangout and meet each other”. A lot of them forwarded the email on to some of their connections, and we ended up having about 15 people at this event.
Eventually the meetings started to have speakers. The first was with the Head of HR at Planet and another expert to discuss negotiations. This event was very powerful and very well attended, and I knew we had to continue with programming. Post-pandemic, we have hosted two events, with our third coming up soon. We featured women talking about their careers, and women in leadership. We had an astronaut, and even held a female founders panel.
Coming here, I am inspired by this community enabling each other to not feel alone and actually stay in this industry. We have a network of women who can answer your questions about how to ask for a promotion, or give a little tip on negotiation. I’ve seen connections that lead to business deals, advising students on the best courses, and making career moves. The community even has a Slack channel to keep everyone connected.
From all of these different experiences, what are some key takeaways or “lessons learned” that you want to communicate to women looking to aerospace?
I’d say more of my lessons are for people who want to be allies, and don’t necessarily know how to. There are things that people who want to be allies are doing that are a little misguided. Something as simple as the job description. Do you have unnecessary requirements in there that might make women less inclined to apply if she doesn’t meet all of the requirements? Men are typically a little more confident with that, so being careful about having too many requirements that aren’t actually necessary for the position. Sometimes using words like ‘Wizard’ or ‘Ninja’ can be very masculine words that people put into job descriptions. Going into leadership, there can be implicit biases when looking at promotions. Women typically need to prove that they can do something, whereas men ‘show potential’. These are all generalizations, but those hold women back.
Takeaways for Women Seeking Jobs:
Takeaways for Allies:
What accomplishments in your career are you most proud of?
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
I have been very lucky to get some of these opportunities. I have worked hard to get those, but some opportunities have fallen into place with really good timing.
Keeping up with the network, and being intentional about building it.
Showing my potential to do other things and be willing to accept feedback and learn new skills.
Listening when you recognize that an opportunity is not the right one for you anymore. That can be a hard realization, and then I’ve always taken my time to find the right opportunity when this has happened. I think it is important to ask for what you want. I don’t take that lightly. I usually try to work with management on what is keeping me from being fulfilled and if I feel like those needs cannot be met, I start to look at what that next opportunity might be.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
It’s funny, I always say that in my Heat Transfer class we spent about half a class on radiative heat transfer and the professor said, “we have to cover this, but we’re not going to spend much time on it because you’ll never use it”. Then I went on to do precisely that for 11 years!
More broadly, the mentors and people that I had earlier in my career, who taught me all of those skills that you never learn in college. They were pivotal to my success. This continued through to Starburst, where I learned those networking skills and investing skills. This all came through mentorship.
At my private high school, I was on a full need-based scholarship and was on reduced lunch, which teaches you to go back and forth between the world I grew up in and that kind of environment where the parents were doctors, lawyers, and in business. I had been brought up very differently, and it taught me to navigate both worlds. It taught me that you need to talk to the CEO and the janitor with the same respect.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
I’m most passionate about advancing new technologies in space, whether that is building the new technology, like at Maxar and Akash, or enabling others, like at SpaceLink.
The least, is probably the reason I am motivated to work with women in aerospace, which is because I have seen so many issues that need to be addressed.
What are some of the most promising opportunities you’ve seen in the near future?
There is so much happening in this industry that you can sort of pick where you want to go. There are limitless possibilities and opportunities.
What are some final pieces of advice or resources that you can share?
I would emphasize networking and being willing to take feedback. Also advocating for yourself in an appropriate way.
Some groups to plug into would be SSPI Women Network and Women in Aerospace. If there isn’t something in your area, start your own!