MBA Students are Barnstorming the Space Industry

By Seb Murray | Find MBA | August 24, 2021

Fast-growing startups need management expertise as rocket science blasts its way onto the MBA syllabus and professors stake out territory

Many children grow up looking at the stars and dreaming of being an astronaut. In the business world, Barret Schlegelmilch has come about as close as you can get to reaching the cosmos. The MBA has a coveted job at Blue Origin, the commercial space exploration company setup by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. In July, the world’s richest man fulfilled his own boyhood dream and completed a space flight.

A month earlier, another billionaire touched the edge of space: Richard Branson, the Virgin founder. The missions are a milestone for the commercial space industry, which is captivating the imagination of MBA students and blasting its way onto the business school syllabus. “There has been a sustained surge of interest in the space industry within the student body,” says Schlegelmilch.

He earned his MBA at MIT Sloan in 2018, alongside a Masters in Aeronautics and Astronautics. After a brief stint at NASA, the former nuclear submarine officer joined Blue Origin, where he works on nuclear thermal propulsion in a program management role, which combines business and engineering.

“We’re starting to see the ‘barnstorming effect’ happening now with the start of sub-orbital tourism and science from Blue Origin’s New Shepard and Virgin Galactic [spacecraft],” Schlegelmilch says, referencing how World War I pilots captivated audiences with stunts and lay the foundation for today’s $700 billion global commercial aviation industry.

The “Astropreneurship” and Space Industry Club at Sloan, founded in 2017, has grown to over 300 members. Meanwhile, Harvard Business School has written a number of case studies on space, all, it says, with the goal of training the next generation of commercial space leaders.

“As the private space sector grows and exerts increasing influence over the path of human activity in space, charting strategy will become just as critical to success as engineering and technical prowess,” says Matt Weinzierl, a professor at Harvard who conducts research focused on the commercialization of the space sector and its economic implications.

Is there room for MBAs in space?

The space industry is taking notice. Blue Origin recently launched a rotational leadership development program that offers opportunities across the business to new MBA grads in the areas of operations, strategy and sales. “As these companies grow, there is a huge demand for skillsets that compliment engineering, including finance, strategy and even supply chain as these companies carve out a brand new market, and scale,” says Schlegelmilch.

He insists an engineering background, which has long been a plus, is no longer a pre-requisite to work in space. “Non-engineering roles are in even higher demand right now as companies scale and shift into an ‘operational’ phase and begin to close their business cases,” he says.

The most important thing is a passion for the industry. “The mission of space exploration and development is inherently difficult, but rewarding,” Schlegelmilch adds. “Believing in a future for humanity among the stars, and understanding the benefits that future can give for those of us here on Earth, will help you get through the difficult days.”

Research and teaching on the economics and business of space has been quite limited, though important work has been done on innovation and public policy. These gaps have surprised some business schools, given the central role of space in many of the critical technologies upon which the world economy relies.

“As more people go to space and the set of activities pursued in space expands, I would expect a surge of interest among social scientists and scholars of business to follow, producing the intellectual content that can then be used effectively in teaching,” says Harvard’s Weinzierl.

Increasingly, he reckons demonstrated ability in the complex tasks of general management and leadership, and specific skills in business development, government relations and strategy, are sufficient to get the attention of space companies.

“Talented, driven MBA students can still get in on the ground floor of an industry poised for dramatic growth when they join the space sector,” says Weinzierl. “Add to that the power of the space sector to address many of the biggest problems facing society — from climate change to geopolitical rivalries to poverty — and it’s easy to see why more MBA students express an interest in space every year.”

STARs is an MBA club that was launched in 2017 at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business by former students Mike Provenzano and Anna Lawrence, who wanted to introduce students to career opportunities in the growing space industry.

They launched a Space Innovation Challenge that sees students pitch innovative solutions to space-themed problems. The event attracted participation from corporate sponsors such as Boeing’s HorizonX venture fund, Planetary Resources, LightSpeed Innovations, and Bessemer Venture Partners.

The STARs club has also been on career treks across the US to visit the likes of Blue Origin in Seattle and Boeing’s satellite system facility in Los Angeles. “For some years now, MBA students with an aerospace background have been looking at new applications [for their skills],” says Sridhar Tayur, professor of operations management at the Tepper School.

“Recently, Stanford MBAs contacted me. CMU Tepper alums at Tesla are also active in attracting new MBAs to the industry. Engineering is helpful, but they need complementary skills in product and business management,” he adds.

Are there jobs in space?

Kristen Fitzpatrick, Harvard Business School’s managing director of MBA career and professional development, says there are career opportunities with some of the larger, more established players such as Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin — especially in their “skunkworks” divisions spinning up innovative new products.

Some students are aiming for positions at Blue Origin and SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space company, while others are using their knowledge of the industry in newer organizations like First Mode and Anduril, she says.

“There’s lots of growth in drones and autonomous flight too, with opportunities at Skydio, Elroy Air and Velocopter,” adds Fitzpatrick. “Students tend to take positions in business development, product management and mission operations.”

Back at Blue Origin, Schlegelmilch says MBAs can bring their backgrounds to bear in areas like operations, sales, strategy, research and development. “There’s every single job category you might expect to find in any other industry, but in one that is rapidly growing and may be in line with a future you want to contribute to.”

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