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Space Foundation CEO Tom Zelibor: “Why the space community is positioned to lead the economic recovery following the pandemic & help transition careers, operations and our livelihoods in a positive and proactive way”

Written by: Dr. Ely Weinschneider, Psy.D.

This article was originally published on Medium.com.

a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Zelibor.

Tom is the CEO for Space Foundation, a 501(c)(3) global space advocate. Headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Zelibor manages a national staff with a worldwide impact across the business, government, education and local communities. Before joining Space Foundation in April 2017, Zelibor served as chairman and chief executive officer for Lightwave Logic Inc., among other executive roles in commercial enterprises. Prior to his leadership tenure in the private sector, Zelibor had a distinguished 30-year career in the United States Navy, retiring as a Rear Admiral in 2006.


Thank you for joining us Tom! Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

areer pathways are pretty fascinating because they never go quite where you anticipate — I know mine didn’t. I’ve crossed the public and private sectors and am now the CEO of a non-profit devoted to space (not what I had envisioned as a kid).

I spent 30 years in the Navy in a number of different capacities. This was a formative experience on so many levels, but it is really where I recognized that people will always be the force that drives change; technology, however, can be a very powerful tool to facilitate that change.

I developed an affinity for emerging technology, and preparing people to use new tools to make better decisions may be one of the most impactful things I accomplished during my tenure as Department of the Navy Deputy CIO/Navy CIO. For example, applying analytics and advanced tools to the Navy’s missions enabled people in remote places do their jobs better and get back home safely.

This realization ultimately led me to space. Nowhere can you garner more data and information about an environment than through space and all of the assets that support access to it. As commander, Naval Space Command, I gained a deep understanding and respect for space capabilities, learning how connected space is to everything we touch and experience.

I saw an opportunity to be a change agent in space technology innovation by helping entrepreneurs bring their space capabilities to market. I had the chance to run an aerospace business incubator that supported 13 startup companies, several of which transitioned from the idea phase to become highly successful commercial space enterprises. It was rewarding to witness the potential for space technology to create more access and opportunity to serve not just the military but civilian and commercial sectors as well.

Space is a capacity builder for everyone, in every industry, and every community. At Space Foundation, I now lead a team of people charged with uniting and facilitating collaboration across the entire spectrum of stakeholders from the global space community — business, government, education and local communities. Our Center for Innovation and Education then brings these constituencies together in partnership, sponsorship, fundraising, grants and corporate membership to make even more capacity happen for the entire life cycle of the space workforce — students, young leaders, entrepreneurs and professionals.

My current role at Space Foundation is the perfect example of how career pathways can deviate from what you anticipate. I am now looking at an enormous opportunity to bring workforce development and economic opportunities in the space economy to all people. Just as it was with me, a career in space might not be what today’s workers had envisioned, but I can tell you it is thrilling and provides the capacity to improve our world.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

A number of books have resonated with me, but if I have to pick a favorite, I‘ll go with Ken Follett’s “The Pillars of the Earth.”

It centers around the building of a large cathedral in a fictional English town in medieval times. For the people involved with designing and building these structures, this was more than a full-time job; it was a calling.

Today, we have it easy in building any massive structure — we simply apply some heavy machinery, power tools, and skilled workers. Refined architectural plans help to define each step. For the people in Follett’s book, however, such structures couldn’t possibly be finished in their lifetime. And the workers had to endure obstacles such as wars, plagues, political and religious conflicts, etc. — not exactly an ideal environment. Nevertheless, the builders accepted the risks and focused their lives and skills to fulfill the visions of their dreams.

The lessons are just as applicable today. No one will ever operate in a perfect environment, but even in the worst of conditions, we should be prepared to do everything we can to fulfill our dreams and aspirations. Regardless of who we are or what we do in our life’s work, we all have to expend every effort to be successful.

It requires more than hard work and sacrifice; it also means working with others who are different from you, expanding your perspective, and weathering the storms that you will inevitably encounter. But like in Follett’s book, if you do this, what you build can become transformational and fulfilling not just for you but others as well.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear and loneliness. From your perspective, can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons to Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Space has always — and will always — hold hope for the global community, whether pursuing dreams of exploring the universe, driving technological innovations that improve life on Earth, or creating opportunities for the current and future workforce.

I believe the space community has the capacity and is positioned to lead not just the economic recovery following the pandemic but also help transition careers, operations and our livelihoods in a positive and proactive way. Here are five ways to see the light at the end of the tunnel, based on the core disciplines of our Center for Innovation and Education as we provide a useful workforce development roadmap for building today’s workforce and the next-generation workforce for the space economy.

Awareness

Many people don’t realize that space is a critical infrastructure that connects every community and continent. Everything we do, touch and engage in is linked to the assets that orbit us or technologies that come from the space arena — from the food we eat, the devices we buy and produce, the transportation we take, and more.

Space innovation has been particularly significant during the COVID-19 pandemic. Handheld thermometers, air and water filtration systems, body sensors, imagery tests and even mylar blankets used in mobile hospital units all originated with space missions. The tools and technologies that enabled us to “go out there in space” are vital “back here on Earth.”

We’ve watched many of Space Foundation’s global space partners pivot to deliver products and services to the front line: Look at what companies like Virgin Orbit have done — creating new types of ventilators; Blue Origin in tracking pandemic cases; Cobham with new circuitry uses for healthcare; and other leading space community members stepping up to help our frontline healthcare providers and our global neighbors.

There is every reason to be hopeful when we become aware of the impact of ongoing space innovation and the intensity of technological advancement underway in the $415 billion space economy that can help solve some of the greatest challenges of our times and better life on Earth.

Access

Most people mistakenly believe the space industry is only for a selective group of rocket scientists and mission control. Not true. There is room for everyone, including disenfranchised groups.

With 80 nations operating in space and 80% of business opportunities residing in public and commercial companies, collaborations between space advocacies are committed to helping people, entrepreneurs and small businesses “find their place in space.” The space community is well-positioned to remove traditional roadblocks and embrace a truly diverse workforce to make novel solutions possible. We have a rare opportunity to use these new vehicles to invite a variety of perspectives to the table, which will in turn expand the capacity for invention.

This value proposition resonates strongly in the current environment, as Space Foundation’s Center for Innovation and Education is in prime position to assist those most affected by COVID-19 — underserved groups such as minorities, women and veterans as well as entrepreneurs, small business owners and employees — by providing knowledge and training programs that lead to new opportunities.

The pandemic has demonstrated that remote work can open doors for women, minorities, vets and retirees of all skill levels, enabling them to tap into our workforce pool and other critical infrastructures. Through a grant with the Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency, our Center for Innovation and Education has seen promising results in its space commerce entrepreneurship program. We have reached 275+ small businesses and entrepreneurs to date, helping them navigate the space industry, identify space commerce opportunities, connect with space professionals, and pursue new business ventures.

Training

While the pandemic has required shelter-in-place and work-from-home mandates, it has also enabled people of all ages to ramp up quickly and rely on remote learning and online interactions. This has broadened our capacity to learn, train and communicate in new ways, and now is an exciting time to invest in one’s personal and professional growth through online learning opportunities.

For students and the next-generation workforce, remote learning opens up access to acquire knowledge from the world at large. Our Discovery Center has extended its teacher, parent and student training to an online platform, providing daily webinars, podcasts and downloadable lesson plans to engage students through space-inspired curriculum.

For today’s workforce, virtual learning capabilities will play a significant role in the upskilling and reskilling of all workers, not just those furloughed or laid off as a result of the pandemic but skill-building throughout the course of our careers. Small businesses and entrepreneurs have turned to our on-demand webinars and a speaker video series through the Space Commerce Entrepreneurship Program to bolster business strategies and learn how to conduct business in space commerce.

The space community is creating, expanding and nurturing a culture of lifelong learning for students and professionals of every age, and online training will be an essential complement to live training in workforce growth and sustainability of the global economy.

Connecting

Space innovation has gifted us with the advances in telecommunications and satellite technology to stay connected throughout the pandemic. As we have seen worldwide, solidarity and global collaboration are the key drivers in the war against coronavirus. Connectedness is essential to sustaining hope for humanity.

As we emerge from the pandemic, the future of the space economy will be partnership. No longer reliant on only government initiatives as its sole source of funding and development, the Center for Innovation and Education is forging collaborations between public private commercial enterprises, educational institutions, and local communities to drive workforce initiatives and the commercialization of space innovation.

Partnerships with Lockheed Martin, NASA and Junior Achievement supported our first pilot Junior Space Entrepreneur Program for 50 high school students through an intensive week of business planning, prototype development, and investor presentations. At the professional level, our Space Symposium hosts 15,000 space professionals and enthusiasts annually, and one of our space scholars, a small business supplier that participated in our Space Commerce Entrepreneurship Program, recently signed deals totaling more than $500 million thanks to connections made through our workshops and symposium.

Mentoring

The importance of mentorship cannot be understated, especially in an industry like space that lacks widespread understanding. I believe that mentorship gives people and organizations hope — not only in what is possible but also in taking the first step, seeing the future, and then supporting throughout the journey.

The space community is fortunate to have a number of experienced role models rising up to play vital roles in guiding and grooming our community of small businesses, underserved groups, entrepreneurs, young leaders, and students, much like my mentor helped me. Doing our part, Space Foundation’s New Generation Leaders, young professionals under 35 years of age, are already forging career-defining relationships with high school students. Our Senior Space Mentors “pay it forward,” opening doors, making introductions, and investing time and energy to help cultivate a new generation of space leaders, entrepreneurs and small businesses.

From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

The five reasons I just detailed can certainly help navigate your path forward, but let me share the direction that I’ve given teams under my leadership and is what I tell the Space Foundation team as we open each of our annual Space Symposiums.

Number one: Be flexible. No plan survives first contact with the enemy. Regardless of the amount of planning you do, you have to think through contingency planning when things don’t go the way you want. This includes multiple scenarios because if you only consider one outcome, you will not be prepared to adjust to the real environment when it changes and where you have to operate.

Flexibility allows you to move, adapt and overcome, rather than be anchored to an untenable position. If you’re going to anchor to only one point, you better be prepared to sink.

Number two: Be kind. In times of stress, people will take out their angst on others around them, which is counterproductive to alleviating anyone’s anxiousness. That type of behavior only makes things worse. When times are at their most stressful, take a deep breath and make every effort to be more patient and kinder than you might otherwise be. By bringing the temperature down, listening to what people are saying that is of concern will clearly help them and yourself get to the solution you both want.

And number three: Watch each other’s six. Teams that look out for each other will always have a higher success rate than those that don’t. Everyone is human and capable of making mistakes or missing something that might be obvious to others. It happens. But if you have people watching your back, and you’re watching out for others, you create a circle of trust that takes care of everyone and addresses problems before they become bigger issues.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

The best resources are the people around you — colleagues, peers, mentors, or friends and family. Social distancing can feel extremely isolating, which elevates anxiety, so communication in whatever form it takes is key to making it through with your sanity. We’ve never been through anything like this as a society, so we must lean on each other a bit.

Your family or significant other may be who you are “locked up with,” but they play an important role. Sometimes, their ability to listen and offer candor provides that “truth to power” moment when you really need it. They can make sure you approach situations with eyes wide open and a full, honest understanding of what’s going on around you.

The same should be said about your work support group. Whether they’re fellow executives or admins, you should be able to lean on them for feedback and understanding of what is happening at all levels of the organization. One of the things I learned very quickly is that it can be lonely at the top. People often assume you inherently know the best path forward, or worse, they are afraid to come to you with suggestions or worries. To offset these issues, it’s essential to create an environment of trust that encourages your subordinates to feel comfortable opening up to you as well as their colleagues.

Additionally, it can be helpful to reach out to your mentor. He or she is another resource for counsel and feedback. These are unprecedented times, so receiving advice from someone you respect can be comforting and relieve anxiety.

The bottom line is that going it alone leaves you just that — alone! And this is a time when we really need to focus on banding together (from a distance, of course).

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

It’s not as much a quote as it is a long form poem that I’ve used at various change of command ceremonies I’ve had in my Navy career as well as in various other speeches I’ve delivered. It was written by William Hersey Davis, who was a university professor, pastor and writer in the early 20th century. I’ve made it a practice of sharing these particular words of his because what they say is the essence of how I have tried to lead any of the organizations I have had the privilege of serving. There has never been a time I’ve shared them that they did not resonate with me or the audience. They are in every sense of the word, “timeless.”

“Reputation & Character” by William Hersey Davis

The circumstances amid which you live determines your reputation;
the truth you believe determines your character.

Reputation is what you are supposed to be;
character is what you are.

Reputation is the photograph;
character is the face.

Reputation comes over one from without;
character grows up from within.

Reputation is what you have when you come to a new community;
character is what you have when you go away.

Your reputation is learned in an hour;
your character does not come to light for a year.

Reputation is made in a moment;
character is built in a lifetime.

Reputation grows like a mushroom;
character grows like the oak.

A single newspaper report gives you your reputation;
a life of toil gives you your character.

Reputation makes you rich or makes you poor;
character makes you happy or makes you miserable.

Reputation is what men say about you on your tombstone;
character is what angels say about you before the throne of God.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This is actually how Center for Innovation and Education came about, so my movement has officially started. Our team recognized all of the different ways people are tied to space and thought, “How can we use these connections for the greater good? How do we maximize our impact across all age groups and demographics all over the world?”

There is tremendous economic opportunity right now with space careers to be sure; there is room for everyone to advance in an industry that will cross the trillion-dollar mark within the next 20 years. But what’s so exciting is that this room provides the space community not only the chance to offer lucrative opportunities to workers displaced by COVID-19 but also to welcome new faces that historically have been missing from the space economy and industry at large — and this is only part of the movement.

It is also vital that we engage people at every stage of life — whether this means getting students excited about space-related careers at a young age or upskilling and reskilling the existing workforce, or establishing relationships between senior professionals and up-and-comers. By inviting a whole spectrum of people into the space community, we can ensure that innovation continues well into the future.

I would love nothing more than to see a whole connected web of people engaged in space and, by their acts of engagement, satisfying core economic needs while still making the world a better place through collaboration. That’s my vision for a movement that benefits millions of people worldwide.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

I focus my social media energies on LinkedIn as I enjoy the professionalism and diversity in content and ideas that it showcases. Business has no single flavor or recipe for success so seeing how ideas are shared and the speed in which everyone is offering them, I find extremely valuable.

Space Foundation’s website (www.spacefoundation.org) is always an excellent destination to find out what we are doing to drive workforce development and economic opportunity for the global space community. Our social channels are as follows:


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