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Wisdom From The Women Leading The Space Industry, With Monica Valli of D-Orbit

The growth of private funding of space activities: more and more investments are coming from angel and venture capital funds are closed every year in space start-ups as well as established firms. This has led to an increase of global competition with new entrants bringing new ideas and fuel to the space business.

As a part of my series about “Women Leading The Space Industry”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Monica Valli.

Monica Valli is VP of Operations at D-Orbit, the global market leader in the space logistics and transportation services industry with a track record of space-proven technologies, successful missions, and customer outcomes. She holds a MsC degree in Space Engineering and a PhD in Aerospace Engineering. She has spent several years working as researcher and specialist consultant with the most important space companies in Europe, such as Arianepace, Deimos Space, Altran Italia and ELV.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in a small village not far away from Lake Como, in the northern part of Italy. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence engrained into the activities of the Community, with girls and boys of my same age before, and not too long after as an educator and animator. I think this really formed my personality and allowed me to confront myself with small and large groups of people since I was little.

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?

It is “East of Eden” of John Steinbeck. This book represents to me a call-to-action to everybody for self acceptance regardless of the limits or the parts that we like less of ourselves. There is good and there is something that needs improvement in all of us, but the most important thing is to remember that we all share this condition. We all have the power to decide for our own life and the type of person we want to be. There is no such a thing as a predetermined road. “Timshel”, as John Steinbeck reminds in his book.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“If you can be anything, be kind”. I grew up believing that “being kind” is more important than being clever, being smart, being first. I try to remember this every time I interact with others, whether they are my friends, my colleagues or simply acquaintances. Of course I am not always successful, but I put a lot of effort on that. I also think that it is very useful when doing teamwork or when leading a group. When you work in stressful situations, with a lot of work to be done and short time to do it, it is easy to just focus on tasks to be closed and forgetting the people around you. This may let you finish the work faster, but it is not a sustainable way to work long term. Creating a positive and supporting environment is fundamental for long-term success and I do believe that through kindness when dealing with others and when expressing our own opinions really does 90% of the job.

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the space industry? We’d love to hear it.

Since I was a little girl I’ve loved everything related to the planets, the stars, the universe. I spent hours just looking at those beautiful photos of the galaxies and learn everything I could on the topic. However I would not say that this was the driver for my professional choice. If this was the case probably I would have ended up studying Astrophysics or something similar. To be honest I ended up studying space engineering because my brother did and I thought that this could be a good school to learn more practical skills that could be applied to many different domains, so not only aerospace, but also mechanics, structures, materials, and many more.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

The thing that always comes into my mind when I am asked a similar question is the “D-Orbit story”. I have been following the company I now work for since the very beginning, when it was just an idea of one person. It was so inspiring seeing it growing and changing so fast in such a short amount of time: new people joining the team, new fascinating projects, new premises created in new countries.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I had just graduated from University and I was doing interviews for my first job. I finally obtained an interview with a consultancy company for a position as a consultant for one of the biggest aerospace company of the country. The interview was in a city that I didn’t know well and because the center of the town was closed to traffic, I decided to park outside and then use public transport to reach the center. My interview with the consultancy company went so well that they decided to introduce me to the final customer for a second interview that very same day. I explained that I left my car outside the center and the consultancy firm manager offered to drive me to the car so that we could go to the Customer premises autonomously. It was only after entering his car that I realized that I had no memory of where I parked my car. We spent half an hour spinning in circles and searching for my car before finding it. No surprise that I did not get the job!

Lesson learned?

Even the most stupid detail that you didn’t care about may ruin the best performance at the very last moment.

And write down the position of your car once parked. Very important. :-)

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Many people supported me along the journey. However I have to say I am really grateful to D-Orbit’s founders, Luca Rossettini and Renato Panesi, that gave me the biggest opportunity of my life bringing me into D-Orbit. Before D-Orbit, with a Master Degree in Space Engineering and a PhD in Aerospace Engineering, I was working as an engineer, mainly doing simulations and analysis. Even though I liked very much creating something and see it work, I felt that that was not enough for me. I was spending all my working hours alone on my laptop and I was lacking interaction with people. I wanted so badly to change my career path, but I didn’t know how. All the companies I contacted for an interview proposed me only very specialized activities (understandably so…) while I wanted to do something different. At D-Orbit I was given the opportunity to work in different areas than just the technical team, support to sales before and project management after. This was the real breakthrough of my professional life.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

This is a very exciting moment for my Company. We are in the middle of the industrialization phase of one of our flagship programs, ION launch services, and we are working hard to increase the number of our in-orbit transportation missions from less than five to more than ten. This will mean offering to our Customers the possibility to fly to space on a regular basis while being positioned exactly where they need in space independently from the launch vehicle chosen. It is a sort of “last mile delivery” built ad hoc on the needs requested by our customers. In addition, with the target to become a leader in-orbit logistics Company, we are working to develop all the technical assets and related process to achieve the mission. Logistics in space, in face, will be the principal milestone for sustainable and reliable in-orbit services as well as the stepping stone for space exploration (human and not human).

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The space industry, as it is today, is such an exciting arena. What are the 3 things that most excite you about the space industry? Can you explain?

  1. The growth of private funding of space activities: more and more investments are coming from angel and venture capital funds are closed every year in space start-ups as well as established firms. This has led to an increase of global competition with new entrants bringing new ideas and fuel to the space business.
  2. Since the beginning of the space exploration, and more and more today, space industry improves the quality of our lives. This is not only true because most of the technology we use on Earth today was developed for Space applications before, but also because satellites, space-related infrastructure and the knowledge that derives from that helps us to make better and more informed decisions every day (about the state of the Earth, as an example).
  3. And.. more in general, space is cool, right?

What are the 3 things that concern you about the space industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

  1. With the increase of the number of satellites that will be launched in the next decade (i.e., more than 12,000 satellites are expected to be launched in the next 10 years compared with the 6,000+ satellites launched up to date) there is the strong need for adequate regulatory framework preventing space to become (as already mentioned by many colleagues in the space business) a “lawless wild west”. We need to avoid the issue of overcrowded orbits and guarantee the sustainability of the space environment, threatened by the growing amount of space debris. Clear regulations will play a fundamental role to address this threat. I will also add that Companies should be responsive and responsible to the cause.
  2. As mentioned before, it is of fundamental importance for private companies to have access to adequate investments. “Adequate investments” means to me “enough money at the right time” and “patience investments”. First, in fact, Space business is an expensive business, especially at the beginning where a lot of investments need to be done to boost the technology. In addition, the development of the space sector is not as fast as for other industries and investments need to be adequate to sustain and fuel all the steps of the “go-to-market phase”.
  3. The concern that all the innovative technologies that may accelerate the growth of the space business would not be able to reach the market due to the lack of proper in-orbit demonstration opportunities. Whenever the development of a technology for space is concerned, in fact, it is not enough to test it in a laboratory or in similar environment to the operative one. A proof of performance is required in the actual operative environment, which is indeed space. We need to increment the number of opportunities to perform in-orbit validation of innovative technologies and solutions. If we do not do so, we risk investing a lot of money in innovation, but then not being able to exploit the benefit of that.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I think that the situation is improving but, as all major changes, it is a slow process and a lot of work still needs to be done. In my world, which is space industry, women do have success: we have astronauts, we have engineers, we have scientists. When women arrive at certain levels, they are great, clever and outstanding. Of course they are! The resilience, the motivation and the skills required to overcome the difficulties along the path without giving up calls for great minds. However I really do think that if we want to promote STEM among girls, we do need to stop asking girls for excellence. The STEM world is full of average men with average skills doing their job. And this is fine! Not all of us need to be geniuses! But the same rule should be applied to women. Not all the women have to become an engineer, but all of them that want to become one must know that they can make it.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in the space industry that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Being a minority — in general — is never easy. The pressure that women feel to demonstrate their worth and the fact that they do deserve to have a seat at the table (especially when we talk about positions that involve a certain amount of responsibility) is something that few men probably ever experienced in their life. I really do believe in mentorship and inclusion. Men and women that already cover position of power should facilitate and help to remove the barriers for other women to entry.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech, or the space industry. Can you explain what you mean?

I would like to dispel the cliché of women that cannot work as a team. As per my experience, anytime I showed my trust to other women and gave them the possibility to team with me, I always found people ready to collaborate and to put themselves one step behind the needs of the group.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  • Advocate for yourself. If you do not speak up stating clearly what you want, nobody will do that for you.
  • Accept failure as part of the learning process and do not compare yourself with others. You do not really know anything about the effort that others put into their work to reach success and the difficulties they had to overcome too.
  • Humility is the most important key to improvement and ultimately to success. Do not be afraid to admit your weaknesses, this will give you the opportunity to learn and grow.
  • Do not try to mimic men’s behavior. Instead study what people you admire did to reach their goals and use them as an inspiration.
  • Enjoy the journey and do not only focus on results. 😊

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire 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. :-)

Exercise of visioning to young boys and girls. We live in the era of “here and now”. Our needs are often imposed by the outside instead of coming from the inside. And with fewer and fewer decisions we can take, we are losing the capability to desire, to imagine, to create and hope for something different, for something new. I see that doing visioning exercises is more difficult for my generation than for the generation of my parents. And it is even more difficult for people younger than me.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

Julie Sweet. She is a big inspiration to me.

In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Tyler Gallagher

Tyler Gallagher

CEO and Founder of Regal Assets

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