Diverse backgrounds and non-traditional skillsets needed says Zenith Fellowship space panel

Zenith Fellowship panel. Credit: Zenith Fellowship.

“No-one in company history has ever been pregnant!” Julia Gibson’s remark on employee diversity was one of the highlights of the panel on the Zenith Canada Pathways Fellowship.

The Panel took place on September 28th, and was live streamed on YouTube.

Zenith provides promising new talent with a way to get experience and potential employment in the Canadian space sector by arranging for fellowships with host companies. Host companies for the fellowship include Sinclair Interplanetary (now part of Rocket Lab), Wyvern, Mission Control Space Services, GHGSat, Stardust Technologies, and Space Simulation Services of Canada.

Zenith assembled the panel as a way to reach out to potential candidates, and a way to let the Canadian space community know about how the fellowship was proceeding. Attendees included Hira Nadeem, Co-founder and Co-director of Zenith; Angelique Ahlstrom Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Flash Forest; Kurtis Broda, VP Product and Co-founder of Wyvern Space; and Julia Gibson, engineer at Sinclair Interplanetary. GHGSat’s Team Lead for Satellite Operations and Service Delivery, Bryn Orth-Lashley, moderated the panel.

The panelists spoke on their experiences with the fellowship and with talent scouting in the Canadian space sector. Two key themes emerged: the need for diversity and the need for non-traditional skill sets.  

Zenith Fellowship Panel – September 28, 2021.

Orth-Laskey addressed the question of diversity and inclusion directly. He pointed out the need to include people from marginalized communities that may have difficulty getting their foot in the door. Nadeem said that, as a woman of color, she’d personally benefited from mentorship from people from other marginalized groups.  Gibson said that “if someone has the potential to do the work, their physical attributes should have nothing to do with whether they should do that work,” and that she feels a personal responsibility to ensure that diverse team members have a welcoming and friendly experience when they come on board. They are, she said, “very good for the industry on a number of empirical grounds.”

Gibson added that this often involved diverse needs, as well as perspectives. Gibson’s anecdote about pregnancy was one example: because their company hadn’t had any pregnant workers, they didn’t consider the effects that hazardous materials like lead could have on fetal development. Sinclair needed to carefully rethink some of their processes to accommodate these needs.

They also spoke at length on Canadian space companies’ need for diverse skill sets. Gibson said that kids are taught about astronauts, but “basically no one becomes an astronaut,” so it’s important to teach graduates that there are a lot of different ways that people could become part of the space industry. Nadeem said that she had originally thought that there would be no place for her, even though she is an engineer, simply because she was educated as an electrical engineer instead of an aerospace engineer, only to be told by someone at Sinclair that electrical engineers are in high demand. Ahlstrom added that “a lot of people simply don’t know where to look for resources” in the growing industry, and that programs like Zenith Pathways can help with that.  

They made it clear that there are a multitude of opportunities for non-engineers as well. Ahlstrom said that “people with non-conventional educational backgrounds are going to be valuablel,” saying that people like business developers and project managers have their roles to play too. Gibson said that she’d observed that the “background and skillset breadth of our interns has increased” thanks to interns from diverse backgrounds, and Nadeem said that “no matter what your background, there is a pathway.”

Orth-Laskey said that “no matter what your educational background is, consider applying for the program,” and Ahlstrom added that “there are a lot of limitations and rules about what people think they can do, [but that] we need fearless innovation to get to the next tier in space.” 

Several panelists had personal experience related to this point: Orth-Lashley said that he used to work in musical theatre, and Nadeem said that she used to be a slam poet.

In an email exchange with SpaceQ, Broda agreed and elaborated. He said that Wyvern’s Chief Growth Officer, Meghan Dear, originally comes from an agricultural background and led the ATB-X accelerator; their sales and product manager, Ian Splinter, comes from a non-technical background; and they just hired an operations manager from an accounting background. He added that “all three have learned quickly and are becoming space experts,” and that “lots of business functions are non-engineering and vital to our growth.” 

The session closed with Nadeem answering some questions about the program and the application process. She said that the term “underrepresented groups,” for Zenith, can also refer to people from low-income communities and people who are “geographically marginalized.”  She also said that, after applications close this month, application review and phone interview stages will take place in the fall. Zenith will begin to connect potential fellows with companies over December and January, with announcements of the class fellows in January or February of 2022. 

Zenith Fellowship Applications are open until October 22nd. For those interested there is an applicants community on Discord.

About Craig Bamford

Craig started writing for SpaceQ in 2017 as their space culture reporter, shifting to Canadian business and startup reporting in 2019. He is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and has a Master's Degree in International Security from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He lives in Toronto.

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