Logo: University of Southern California

"She Knows Everybody's Name"

The Aerospace Corporation CEO Wanda Austin on mentors, management and girls in STEM.
By: Rosalie Murphy
July 24, 2014 —

Wanda Austin, Ph.D. ’88, joined The Aerospace Corporation as an entry-level engineer. At the time, with a master’s degree and a passion for mathematics, she was one of thousands of employees developing national security space programs at the California nonprofit. Thirty-two years later, she is president and CEO of the company, which operates a federally funded research and development center.

“I came here with the intent of being here for two or three years, and then I’d go find something else interesting to do,” Austin said. “But I found lots of interesting things to do here at Aerospace. I wouldn’t have told anybody then, but at that point they could’ve not paid me and I would have still kept showing up every day.”

Austin, a USC Trustee and 2014 Viterbi Award winner, has overseen The Aerospace Corporation during its most productive years since the Cold War. With an $868 million budget and about 3,500 employees, it is a leading architect for the nation’s national security space programs.

Some of Aerospace’s customers include the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, the National Reconnaissance Office and NASA. Austin led Aerospace’s National Systems Group, which builds space equipment for intelligence agencies, before she was named CEO in 2008.

“It’s all about the challenge,” Austin said. “It’s about the sense of satisfaction in working on hard problems and in having users who appreciate what you deliver.”

But according to Rosalind Lewis, who has worked with Austin for more than two decades, Austin is even better with people, and easily connects with them no matter their position or rank.

“She knows everybody’s name and is very interested in each person,” Lewis said. “She also has the ability to be calm in the midst of a storm. She readily discerns what’s important and thinks forward about the company, our industry and developing staff for today and in the future.”

Austin grew up in New York City and studied math at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, then earned a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh. She joined Aerospace in 1982.

While earning her Ph.D. in systems engineering from USC Viterbi, Austin worked and raised two children. But Behrokh Khoshnevis, her Ph.D. adviser, believed she could handle even more. He pushed her to write her dissertation on what he calls one of the hardest topics he’s ever given.

“It really pushed her to a lot of limits, and she demonstrated that she can expand those limits, go beyond them and solve problems and really prevail,” Khoshnevis recalled. “I saw something in her that gave me confidence.”

Austin’s dissertation, “Understanding Natural Language in the Application of System Dynamics Modeling,” became a paper she co-authored with Khoshnevis in 1989. For this dissertation, Austin won the Best Thesis of the Year award by the Society for Computer Simulation. She remains a research professor in industrial and systems engineering at USC Viterbi.

“One of the things that I enjoy about USC is they try to make sure that their students get a realistic experience,” Austin said. “It’s great to get the textbook knowledge, but then it’s another thing to sit down with entrepreneurs bringing that knowledge into the classroom.”

Austin hopes to be such an example for students at all levels. She ardently supports getting girls and students in underrepresented populations interested in science and technology fields. Despite her illustrious career, Austin doesn’t mirror the popular image of an engineer.

“I think that when I walk in the room, people see a black female. If I’m introduced or if I speak, then they say, ‘Oh, OK, now I know why you’re here,’” Austin said. “You would think that in 2014 we would not continue to have those issues, but we do.”

Austin was one of the first CEOs to commit her company to Change the Equation, a nonprofit that connects corporations to STEM education programs for students underrepresented in science and technology fields. Despite her busy schedule, she tries to meet often with students to encourage them to pursue math and science careers.

“You see these great innovative minds, and they’ve got wonderful ideas about where we can go as a society. If I can contribute to one of them being successful, just one, I will have accomplished something really great,” Austin said.

Lewis met Austin more than 20 years ago, when they were two of very few black women engineers at Aerospace. The pair bonded over their East Coast roots and relationships with their parents. Lewis has considered Austin a personal and professional mentor ever since.

“Wanda has always been an objective adviser. When I had challenges or big decisions, without judgment she made sure I considered the full impact of my approach or choice. That made it comfortable for me to talk to her, knowing I wouldn’t be judged,” Lewis said. “[My relationship with Austin] has really helped me navigate the culture of the organization.”

This fall, in accordance with Austin’s advice, Lewis will start a Ph.D. program in astrodynamics at USC Viterbi. She also aspires to her mentor’s people skills.

“I remember her telling me this: ‘We’re going to solve technical problems, but as you take on greater responsibility, it becomes more and more about the people,’” Lewis said.

Because of those relationships, the 59-year-old Austin trusts that when she decides to retire, she will find a very capable successor. She and her husband have visited about 35 states, and Austin wants to make sure they see all 50.

“You’re building up a cadre of people around you with whom you can work and interact, and who can then maybe succeed you in your role, so that you can go off and do other things,” Austin said. “In sharing knowledge, you learn a lot.”