A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Jenn Gustetic, Director of Early Stage Innovations and Partnerships at NASA, Co-chair at the Federal Innovation Council, Mentor at Brooke Owens Fellowship.
What is your background?
Early on, I was not a great student. My grandparents were both engineers and despite that, I was not interested in math (or school, generally). Then my family moved from Ohio to Florida and I took algebra class in 8th grade in a new environment and finally something clicked and I began to understand math. I would probably attribute my changing mindset to my teacher, her methods, and a new environment that pushed me outside of my comfort zone. From that point, my trajectory in math, physics, and engineering only accelerated through graduate school. Most people say you build these STEM interests early and it sets you on a path for your life, but that wasn’t the case for me.
In college, I became very interested in the theoretical side of math and science, which required answering the tough questions. Aerospace engineering was attractive to me because it was so hard and complex. However, after a summer internship at an aerospace company, I realized I didn’t want to spend the next 20 years of my career optimizing specific engineering solutions. Further, I was in school during 9/11 and those events developed my interest in homeland security and national policy. After a stint on Capitol Hill, I became motivated to increase technical and scientific representation in policy decisions. To take a step in that direction, I ended up attending MIT for graduate school in technology policy to build system thinking skills. This program became incredibly valuable and helped me ask critical questions, connect ideas, and know when to seek guidance from experts.
After grad school, I joined the Department of Homeland Security running grant programs before spending a bit of time in the private sector. It was during my private sector days (in open government consulting) that I met Robbie Schingler and Nick Skytland at NASA. Those relationships led to my first job at NASA working on prizes and challenges. When I graduated in 2005 from the University of Florida I never really thought I’d be able to work in the space industry, so when the opportunity emerged in 2012 I was floored and excited by the chance to work in space during such an important time. I have always been interested in ways that policy, technology and collaboration drive innovation and push us forward–so working on prizes and challenges was perfectly suited for me. In 2014 NASA also permitted me to detail to the White House for two years where I focused on scaling open innovation more broadly across the government before returning to NASA to lead the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program. Today, I direct NASA’s Early Stage Innovation and Partnerships activities within the Space Technology Mission Directorate. I would never have imagined this path when in college, but I feel so grateful for the amazing opportunities I’ve had in my career.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
In reflection a lot of the things I’m most proud of have to do with community building and strategic thinking that drives impactful portfolio investments.
The first accomplishment that comes to mind was the momentum I was able to build around the citizen science community while at the White House. Working with a very active Federal Community of Practice for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science, I was able to build broad acceptance and institutionalize open innovation methods through community building and new legislation. Prior to starting in my role in 2014 there were 300 innovation prizes and challenges run by the U.S. Government, when I left in 2016 there had been over 800. Since then the use of “prizes” has become a regular method for doing business with the government thanks to strong White House, GSA and agency leadership.
Another accomplishment I’m proud of occurred while I was the NASA SBIR/STTR program executive. In this role, I put an emphasis on engaging with the investor community, learning from how they build portfolios, and ultimately concluded that we were out of balance from a portfolio approach. Recognizing these shortfalls, we were able to rethink the level of investment we made in $125k phase I and $750k phase II awards compared larger dollar opportunities after phase II with our “post Phase II” awards. I wanted us to think about “follow-on” funding in a more portfolio based way. We created substantial new funding vehicles and allocated more funding to post phase II SBIRs to address a funding gap. This work also considered small businesses’ need for mentoring, funding, technology, and line of sight to customers. We made explicit connections for matching funding and customer oversight to increase transition pull. This was a big change, we went from ~5% post phase II awards to 20% and substantially increased the total funding available. I’m really proud that we took a portfolio approach and focused on de-risking technology with greater touchpoints that connected to customers, investors and the private market.
Another achievement I am really proud of is the Fellows in Innovation program which channeled the energy of numerous government fellows, most of whom are there for 2-3 year stints following graduation. These Fellows often get buried at agencies and thus may not fully utilize their talents during their fellowships. With some other OSTP staff, I created a matching mechanism to pair fellows with high priority projects at the White House to help support government-wide priorities. This approach became a way to quickly scale talent and energy to support high priority needs. I saw first hand how many of the Fellows transformed in their roles and accelerated their paths to build a career in the government. I really wish the program was still ongoing, it was very gratifying to see others develop in their roles and develop the next generation of innovative program leaders.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
Growing up, I had my eyes set on going to undergraduate at Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech. However, as out of state schools they were expensive choices. I am very grateful that I went to the University of Florida and didn’t take on the significant amount of debt I may have incurred elsewhere. In grad school, I chose to do a research program (at MIT), which can be easier to get tuition paid for as a research assistant. These two decisions ensured my career choices were open and flexible upon graduation, because I wasn't encumbered by significant debt. And I received an excellent education with valuable extracurricular experiences and lifelong friendships. As a result of these choices, I was able to go to work for the U.S. Government and take the job that I thought was the most interesting right out of the gate, not a job I had to take to repay student loans.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
I would have to say my technology policy degree at MIT. This program teaches engineers about policy. Engineers already have a deeply ingrained training in the logic process of problem solving. This program provides a curriculum in economics, systems thinking, and political science–it rounds out problem solving skills to be a true system thinker. One class, Nicholas Ashford’s Law, Technology and Public Policy, was a crash course similar to a first year in law school covering all of the critical cases for technology regulation. It taught me when something is a legal question and when to engage a lawyer (a critical skill set!). Now I see lawyers as a strategic partner to help balance legal factors when developing a solution or making a critical decision. That insight has been a powerful tool to navigate the government and create new programs and partnerships. It's given me the knowledge and authority to push forward with confidence to get things done.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
Even things you don’t enjoy can be really important to learning. It is important to recognize opportunities along the way that are momentum building and to stick with a job (even if it's sometimes unglamourous) and build something for multiple years. Experience with failures as well as successes is required to drive innovation, lead, and support a team to grow. As I have grown in my career my job is not to solve problems anymore (even though it’s tempting to do so!), it's to empower a team and ask the right questions.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
The world is becoming increasingly interconnected. Interdisciplinary approaches are required to address the challenges of our time. Further, with industries and ways of working changing, the job you may have in 10 years very likely doesn’t exist today.
For example, my graduate thesis was about public-private partnerships and all the different models to partner for emergency preparedness and response. I came up with a continuum of partnership models to deliver public goods. While I was studying this topic, prizes were not a tool that was widely used, but there had been a resurgence in pockets (i.e. X-Prize and NASA Centennial program), so it wasn’t in my thesis. Fast forward 10 years and I’m working in a job called “Prizes and Challenges Program Executive.” That job didn't exist at NASA before 2012. Sometimes you have to look for emergent opportunities or create your own opportunity.
Increasingly, you have to be comfortable with ambiguity, be willing to be the guinea pig, and get your hands dirty to take on cutting-edge roles.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
Prior to my current job, I had never formally interviewed for a job. I’ve always treated my current job like it’s a job interview for my next job. Your work can speak for itself especially when coupled with networking and community building. I’ve always been curious, involved, and built trusted relationships that opened the door for my next steps. Working hard, delivering on objectives, and building authentic relationships have been critical to my career. On that last point, a willingness to develop relationships with mutual benefit is the key to building authentic relationships. There are too many transactional relationships in DC. Strive to be authentic. Work and life is more fun and fulfilling that way. And do what you say you are going to do. Show up and be reliable.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I would encourage anyone reading this to embrace opportunities when they come up–and to create your own opportunities. It is ok to say no when you don’t have time or it doesn’t feel healthy, but keeping a cycle or a momentum that feels right for your life rhythm is critical. Rebuilding momentum can be hard when you stop so it’s important to find balance so you don’t burn yourself out. When you feel it coming, take vacation or decompress in the ways you need to in order to build up energy to continue the work. Don’t deplete your tank. Figure out what works for you to recharge and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Innovation work specifically is hard so you’ll need to develop tools and relationships to keep yourself healthy and supported.