August 11, 2023

An Interview with New Board of Directors Member Sean Wilson: Communication is Key!

It is an exciting time for Higher Orbits’ leadership with the introduction of new members to the organization’s Board of Directors. Adding new members to the leadership of the organization helps to expand the working capacity and range of capabilities for the brand. Higher Orbits is an organization based in spreading awareness and inspiration for STEM to students through the wonders of science and spaceflight. This mission requires a group of diverse members in leadership to be well-informed in their fields and to work together to introduce the world of STEM careers to the future workforce.

In addition to experts in Aerospace, Engineering, and Business among other specialists that make up the standing Board, the organization is thrilled to welcome Marketing and Communications specialist Sean Wilson to the Board of Directors! Sean Wilson has worked in the aerospace industry in Communications for over 25 years. She has seized opportunities throughout her career working on GPS satellite operations in the Air Force, working for NASA refining payload delivery scheduling and working as an Astronaut Instructor alongside Higher Orbits’ CEO & Founder, Michelle Lucas, and managing marketing and media representation for multiple large aerospace companies. In an interview with Sean Wilson, she reflects on her part in the Higher Orbits Board of Directors, her personal journey with STEM and leadership, and her advice for students and future members of the STEM workplace.

What influenced you to join the Higher Orbits Board of Directors?

Sean Wilson enthusiastically recalled her relationship with Higher Orbits’ Founder saying, “I have actually known Michelle Lucas for a long time. I’ve known her since we both worked at NASA where we were Astronaut Instructors. So, it's been a long while!”

After working together, Sean Wilson and Michelle Lucas both went their own directions career-wise, but got another chance to work together later after the founding of Higher Orbits. Wilson thought of her impression of the organization sharing, “I had worked with Michelle when I was at Orbital ATK as one of our charitable organizations. I’ve always been really impressed with what she’s built with this organization and been really impressed with the mission and the focus on high school students, which is rare for a STEM organization to focus on.”

After being introduced to the mission of the organization, Sean Wilson grew a desire to be a part of the work. She said, “I was really familiar with her mission and had wanted to join for a long time, but the opportunity had never presented itself until this year.”

You have been on the board for eight months now, what are some of the things that stand out to you in Higher Orbits’ culture?

“I think dedication to the mission,” Sean Wilson stated. “I think that everyone who is affiliated to the organization is really dedicated not just to STEM but also to space exploration and the mission of going beyond.”

The mission of Higher Orbits has touched not only students but also working professionals who truly believe in the capability of space exploration and scientific advancements. This is reflected in the passion of those leaders who continuously work to ensure that students are introduced to a world of opportunities in the STEM fields. This ultimately influences the actions and attitudes of all involved with the mission.

What are you hoping to accomplish as a member of the Higher Orbits Board of Directors?

Sean Wilson considered her unique skill set and area of influence commenting, “One of the things that I bring to the table is Communications and Public Relations skills. So, ultimately, I’m hoping to be able to lend those skills to some of the programs and efforts that Higher Orbits is doing.”

Marketing can have a huge effect on a business’ success. On her future plans, Sean Wilson mentioned, “I’ve been working on promoting some of the Go For Launch! activities on my social channels and through my networks. But I would like to see how I can jump in and help with more strategic efforts, maybe more media publicity and things like that."

The Importance Of Market Research

In addition to strategic marketing, Sean Wilson discussed the importance of market research. With competitors in the same market there are opportunities to lose patron attention as a consequence of not recognizing one’s strengths and weaknesses in contrast to another. In regard to this, Sean Wilson said, “I feel like the brand is in a good spot. I know that there are some competitors that are coming onto the market, and with that growing competition there’s always a need to stay abreast of what they’re doing and making sure Higher Orbits is staying competitive.” She said that the keys to staying competitive would be, “market research and building out a long-term, 5-year plan.”

What initially inspired you to work in the STEM industries?

“So, I’ve always been very equal, right-brained and left-brained,” described Sean Wilson, on her personal strengths. “Even my SAT scores were equal in both English and Math, like, to the number. But, I’ve always leaned more towards interest in the Arts and Communications. I’m a painter. I love painting.”

She commented that her early educational decisions were influenced by a lack of external influence and financial restrictions. “I actually ended up in the Air Force,” Wilson revealed. “ I enlisted because I had applied to a bunch of colleges and got accepted, but didn’t have the financial means to go. I didn’t understand the process of applying for loans and things like that, so I enlisted.”

She was determined to find a career in a different direction and considered her options from the Air Force, dental hygiene or space operations. Sean Wilson reflected, “Space operations just really appealed to me. Growing up in Houston with NASA in the backyard, I had always had a little bit of an influence from space. Space has always kind of been in the forefront of my life. So, when I got that opportunity, I didn’t know what it meant, I didn’t know what it was, I only knew where it would be based, and that sounded cool to me. I sort of fell into it by accident, but it really fit me well.”

“I was really invested in the mission as a GPS operations satellite operator,” she said of her position on a space operations team. “I got to learn everything about GPS to get that job. I learned orbital mechanics, and I could probably build a GPS satellite if you asked me to with the materials! The training is very intense, and I got very invested in space which had an overview effect on my life. There was much more than what’s here on Earth. There is a vast universe out there and we really need to be paying attention.”

“I went to NASA afterwards and just continued to build on that, but I did not go the STEM path in my school,” Wilson explained. “I started out as an Aerospace Engineer and went through about two years of that process. I was at an interesting place with NASA where I saw they had an excellent mission but I did not see a lot of strategy in their Communication processes. I realized I had a knack for explaining highly complicated, technical processes to audiences in the job I was doing, and I could translate that into a career. Early in my junior year I changed my major to Communications. I really felt pulled to that career, to be able to talk about STEM, talk about science and what it all means to us on Earth and to the future.”

When you made that switch in your major, did you find immediate gratification in your decision or was it a gradual process?

“It was almost immediate!” Wilson exclaimed. “I actually left Johnson Space Center and went to work for a law firm for a year doing marketing. While that field wasn’t right for me, I dug my heels in and learned the ins and outs of marketing, writing press releases, and all those things.”

 After shifting her focus and seeing results from her hard work and trust in her skills, Sean Wilson had become a marketing and communication specialist. “When the Columbia incident happened I felt truly drawn back to the agency,” Sean Wilson explained on her return to NASA’s workforce. “I did everything I could to get back into that community and environment, and I went back and was the Education Outreach Specialist for the space and life sciences. It was comfortable to me and I felt that was where I belonged.”

After working as an Education Outreach Specialist Wilson moved to a new position with NASA as an Astronaut Instructor and, later, as a Communications Analyst for the Space Shuttle program and various marketing projects.

What has been the best part of joining the Higher Orbits Board of Directors?

On her experience in the Board of Directors, Wilson commented, “I’ve gotten to meet a lot of new people. The Board is very diverse in terms of backgrounds and expertise and who they are as people, so I really respect that. It’s really fun to be a part of that group. I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity there.”

With such a diverse group of professionals making up the Board, what is it like for you coming from a Communications background?

“I’m used to being the communicator in the room of engineers and development teams,” explained Sean Wilson. “I have experience being that person in the room, but what I’ve learned is that I bring my own expertise. I’m not an engineer, I’ll never be one. That’s what they do and is their expertise. So, I feed on their energy and their information.” Communication is essential when it comes to the Board of Directors for any organization. Wilson recognizes this and enthusiastically offers her expertise in the subject to help spread the mission to get the inspiration and research in STEM to new heights.

You have had a successful career in Communications in the Aerospace industry and have held numerous positions. Which of your skills have contributed the most to your success?

Sean Wilson considered the myriad of skills needed to be a successful Communications worker and answered, “I feel like it’s been flexibility. The ability to be flexible is so important especially in the space business.”

“It’s a very dynamic environment,” she expanded on the reality of the scheduling and planning processes in the space industry. “Requirements are always changing, business direction tends to change a lot, budgets are altered on an annual basis, and it all feeds into what the Communications departments are meant to do.

So flexibility is key.”

How has your background in Marketing and Strategic Communications influenced your approach on introducing STEM to the younger generation?

When asked this, Wilson remarked, “One of the things that I find very influential is being able to communicate those complex concepts to audiences.” She recalled working as an Education Outreach Specialist at NASA and described breaking down complicated subjects, such as three-dimensional cellular growth in microgravity, to young students and the realization of the power in communication of ideas. She remarked, “Being able to explain that to kids and show them, ‘Look! There’s no gravity here, so the tissue will grow as if it was growing in a body.’ is really really cool.”

You have had incredible experiences working with teams in different settings across many highly technical fields.

What are some qualities that you would encourage students to focus on so they can develop into effective workers in the future?

Sean Wilson excused her personal bias and insisted, “I find that Communications is really important. I have been in engineering and scientific environments for the majority of my career, almost 30 years at this point, and I have seen it evolve, and engineers and scientists are no longer plugging away in back rooms and labs. They work with diverse teams from across the world in very diverse environments. They need to be able to convey their research and the benefits of the work they do to their leadership and public audiences. It’s more than just the brain power to do the work, but being able to talk about the work that you do is so vital not just in your own career but for the sake of conveying the importance of the work. I think that the ability to communicate effectively is such a big piece.”

Are there any elements that are often overlooked that you feel can change the game for someone entering the workplace?

Wilson advised, “For new people entering the workforce, you have to understand that just because college is done you never stop learning. Much like space and engineering and the STEM fields, the field of Communications is a rapidly changing field.”

She gave an example from her own work experience, explaining, “I worked at NASA before they started doing social media, and when I went to the public affairs department, I had to learn Twitter just like everyone else. So being able to learn to use a very new tool and apply that to promote the mission of the agency was a really cool opportunity that also had a real learning curve which has only grown exponentially since then.”

She continued with an example from the current perspective on change in the workplace saying, “With AI and a lot of new things that are on the market, you have to learn how to implement these tools in your day-to-day or at least understand how they affect the future of Communications. Never stop learning, and always take those opportunities to learn more. Take the training classes, take the free LinkedIn Learning classes that your company provides for you, and just keep learning beyond your graduation date.”

What are some keys to your personal leadership style that you would highlight and have worked for you?

She considered her leadership style and highlighted, “I think one of the big keys to my leadership is trust. I think people are hired for a reason, they’re hired because of their expertise and to do their job. And unless proven otherwise, they should be able to fulfill their jobs. So trust is one of the big things I bring. I trust my team to do what they need to do and my job is to remove any barriers and anything that’s preventing them from doing their jobs. I make sure that they are set up for success.”

How has that (the element of trust in leadership) affected the response that you get from your peers and subordinates?

“I’ve had a mix of subordinates,” elaborated Wilson. “Some need a little more attention and some just love the opportunity to just do what they do and come back and report on status. I’ve had some other employees who have really appreciated extra guidance on how to do certain things.”

 Understanding the style of each team member helped her to create a stronger team. By being willing to meet others where they were at, they were able to grow and meet their potential. “That really takes me back to flexibility,” Wilson pointed out. “I have to have flexibility in leadership too. I may prefer to be more hands-off but not everyone who works for me wants that. I notice a lot of my peers are similar in their leadership style and I think that’s because in the space business we are so busy and we’re asked to be so many things to so many people. So we do need teams that can be trusted to do good work for us, carry the water and do what they need to do.”

What encouragement would you give to students who are interested in STEM but unsure of how to pursue their interests professionally?

Wilson advised, “I would say in the STEM fields, internships are abundant. Everyone is offering internships in this field. Definitely investigate opportunities for internships.” Internships can be a great way of expanding your professional skills. There are so many fantastic skills and experiences that come with internships which offer insight into the working world. 

Completing an internship also increases the chances of getting a job after beginning the search.

“The main reason is because of networking,” she further explained. “Networking is imperative to getting a job these days. It really is a combination of what you know and who you know, and the more you build your network the more people know how great you are at what you do and what potential you have.”

She continued, “My advice is to never turn down an interview. Apply to every job for anything you might be interested in even if it is a little bit outside your reach. You may get that interview, you may meet somebody who will remember you and can give you an opportunity later down the road. That’s happened to me a couple times in my career and I’m very thankful for those people who remembered me and considered me for other opportunities.”

The world of STEM offers diverse opportunities in a variety of fields. Sean Wilson stands as an advocate for directing her passion together with her natural talents. She has had incredible experience influencing Communications and its applications in the aerospace and STEM worlds. As a member of the Board of Directors she will be a great asset for Marketing and Communications who will help embolden the message of Higher Orbits. The mission of Higher Orbits is to inspire students through the wonders of STEM and spaceflight, and Sean Wilson is ready to contribute to further spreading that inspiration and communicating it to students across the country.

About the author

Jodie is a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University pursuing an undergraduate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. She has always been fascinated by space and STEM, and has been fuelled by the strong aerospace community at Embry-Riddle. This interest in STEM and a love for writing have pushed Jodie to apply these passions as a Communications Intern at Higher Orbits in 2023.

Jodie Cory

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