When Ellen Stofan made a deliberate decision to step back from her management-level career in aerospace to spend more time with her kids, she knew she may have derailed her career forever. She was okay with that.
Today, Dr. Stofan leads the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM), one of the most prestigious jobs in the world, as well as in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and the first woman in history to hold that position (her official title is the John and Adrienne Mars Director).
Prior to assuming this role, Stofan served as Chief Scientist at NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. She was offered that job after staying home with her young kids and working only part-time for 12 years (sometimes working as little as 10 hours per week).
Here are career insights and lessons from Dr. Stofan’s journey, from my extensive interview with her recently at the museum’s Udvar-Hazy location at Dulles Airport:
- Explore various STEM jobs and careers: You do not need to be an engineer, scientist or mathematician to work in STEM fields. There are many other jobs that need to be done in these organizations, from accounting to communications, and from finance to human resources, and you can a place that fits you by exploring the options. One example Stofan gave me was that there are people who design the space suits.
- Stay involved, even part-time: When Dr. Stofan stayed home with her children for 12 years, she still continued to work part-time in research and related work that she could do on her own That was the critical piece that kept her in the game. It kept her skills sharp, her relationships engaged and her industry knowledge up-to-date, which in turn collectively enabled her to be considered and qualified for the NASA Chief Scientist job when it came up.
- Remember that doors stay open: When Stofan’s children were little, she “made a conscious decision to step back” for 12 years to be home with them, aware that she was probably closing the door to high-level management jobs forever. Instead, she learned that “doors never completely close” when she was recruited for high-level management roles again, including those like the one she’s in today.
- Embrace what you think you cannot do: Stofan grew her career by taking risks. When she was offered her first management job, she did not think she had the skills to do it. But she tried it anyway and discovered that she did.
- Entertain new opportunities: Stofan said that a key to her growth was that she explored every opportunity Stofan said that a key to her growth was that she explored every opportunity that came on to her radar screen, and weighed it carefully, and that has been key to her career growth. “I always advise people to try something new.”
- Remember you always have Plan B: There is always something else you can do if your stretch assignment does not work out. When she was offered her first management role and did not think she could do it, she figured that if she failed, she could always go back to doing research.
- Trust your decision-making process: She reminded all of us who wonder “what if…?” that we make our decisions based on the best information we have at that moment. Hindsight brings new insights, but we don’t have those when we have to choose.
- Get up and try again: “It’s that grit, it’s that perseverance…It’s that dream and going after it….and asking for help…I actually got C’s in math…and I’m not going to let the fact that I struggle at math stop me” Stofan explained. It’s comforting to know she got C’s in math and still achieved such great success in STEM!
- Be visible: Attend conferences and events, speak at them when you can (you can always raise your hand to ask a question), write blogs, and join committees, like Stofan did.
- “Think about who you’re going to be and what you’re going to contribute”: She explained that your career is a path, and that “you need to think about the decisions you make as part of the path” on the way to evolving as a person and as a professional.
There are two specific ways that Stofan is supporting the advancement of women in STEM, aviation and aerospace at the museum: One is, she is intentionally making sure that, as the museum goes through its transformational nearly $1 billion renovation, the new and redesigned exhibits showcase as many women achievers as possible.
Second, Stofan is actively mentoring the next generations of female STEM talent through their ”She Can STEM” summer camp for girls, which was launched this August with an inaugural class of 60 Washington, DC area middle school girls from underrepresented communities. These young women experience piloting and skydiving, solve engineering challenges, explore different aviation careers and develop teamwork and confidence, while also opening their eyes to new career possibilities.
She said, “I want to inspire the first girl on Mars. I want her to say, I went to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and I saw a story about Bessie Coleman. I saw a story about Mae Jamieson and that’s what inspired me to want to be the first girl on Mars.”