CEO Series: Shawn Linam and how she conquered STEM
When Shawn Linam was a little girl, she was told that she could not be good at both piano and math.
“That was the message that was coming in to me,” Linam recalls. “But my father said, ‘No, you can do this,’ and insisted I could excel at math. When he put me in algebra, I struggled and the spent nights tutoring me and something in those tutoring sessions finally clicked. I got over the hurdle and did well in math throughout the rest of school.”
Now, Linam is co-founder and CEO of Qwaltec, a Tempe-based aerospace company. Az Business sat down with one of the few female CEOs in the aerospace sector to talk technology.
Az Business: How did you get into the aerospace industry?
Shawn Liman: I stumbled into it. After college, I had to figure out what to do with my biological engineering degree. I originally wanted to go to med school, but realized I didn’t have the stomach for it. So I looked at law school, getting my MBA, typical stuff when you’re trying to figure out what to do with your life. I took a job doing technical training and loved it. I was the first woman that company had ever hired in a technical position. I loved learning the technical information and then training someone else. I started looking around for another job and happened to meet someone at a wedding who worked at NASA training astronauts. He said, “You have an engineering degree and have training experience. Would you be interested working for NASA?” I originally got hired to work on the Space Station and developed training for astronauts, flight controllers and mission controllers. I switched to the Space Shuttle so I could deliver training instead of just developing it.
AB: Why did you pick Arizona as home to your company?
SL: The three of us who started the company came to Phoenix to work Iridium. Motorola had it and we were training the operators and doing engineering for the program. Iridium went bankrupt and the company we were working for closed its Phoenix office. We were either naive enough or entrepreneurial enough to say, “No time like the present to make a go of it on our own.” We had grown fond of Phoenix and the weather and the desert, so we started Qwaltec as a necessity to be employed.
AB: What do you do now at Qwaltec?
SL: Unmanned space systems are what pays the bills. We specialize in mission readiness and technical training for predominantly satellites, but we can do any space systems. We also do systems engineering. We really focus on the ground systems and the operations teams that are operating a satellite system. We have done work with commercial space flight companies who want to put tourists into space. The three of us that founded the company all worked at NASA, so human space flight is still a first love for us.
AB: How far are we from space tourism?
SL: The companies that are vying to put someone into space are saying 2017 or 2018, but I think realistically we are five years away.
AB: You trained astronauts. Any interest in traveling to space yourself?
SL: I do, but I’m not quite as brave as the astronauts who have gone into space. The Space Shuttle might not have been too bad. Now, our astronauts are going up in Soyuz, which is a very small capsule and a very confined environment. I don’t want to go up in that. I’m waiting for the Richard Branson Virgin Galactic, where it’s more comfortable.