This year, NASA named six new flight directors to lead mission control at the Johnson Space Center. Pooja Jesrani is among them, breaking glass ceilings as the first South Asian woman to take on this opportunity. “We're in a really exciting time for the space program in the United States," Jesrani exclaimed. “I feel very honored and humbled."
Jesrani has always been interested in space. In fact, it was her father who inspired her. “I grew up with a dad who had an affinity for space and I think it sort of rubbed off on me," she shared. Her parents who are from India originally, moved to England and then the United States when she was 10 years old. Houston not only became her new home but was also home of the Johnson Space Center. Her father motivated her to pursue a career in aerospace engineering at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) after she finished high school.
Offiicial NASA portrait of Flight Director Pooja Jesrani. Photo Date: July 9, 2018. Location: Building 8, Room 183 - Photo Studio. Photographer: Robert Markowitz
Like Jesrani, her father also aspired to be an engineer. Although a test, similar to the SAT's, determined his fate. “In India when you [get] a perfect score you can become a doctor [or] engineer," she said. “He scored really well and his family said 'now [you'll] become a doctor.'" Years after entering the medical field he is now a successful orthopedic surgeon who continues to share a passion for space with his daughter. “He's probably read more space books than me; he talks about space better than me," she admitted. “He's the one that keeps me on my toes." Her father is her avid supporter and he was the first person she called when she got the job.
Her journey began at UT Austin, “I got my first internship with a contractor at NASA," she mentioned. “I worked as an intern for a few years and once I graduated from UT Austin I came back full-time," she said. The internship opportunity opened many doors for her career and future. Jesrani worked her way up to flight director, a position that is very sought after and competitive at NASA. “There were over 500 applicants this time and this was my first time applying," she shared.
There have been less than 100 appointed flight directors since the beginning of human space flight. Out of 90 flight directors, including her class, there have only been 14 women. South Asians are still a minority, but Jesrani makes it clear she was not the only one. “There have been only two South Asians ever in the history of human spaceflight in the United States of America," she said. “Jesrani finds her role an honor and humbling experience. “It's definitely really cool being able to set the example for other people that are just like me," she said. She hopes to inspire others to apply to programs and instills the message that they can do it too.
The Johnson Space Center is the hub of the space flight program. “It's where mission control is, beginning from the early Mercury and Apollo days all the way through the space shuttle program," she explained. At the Space Center, Jesrani leads projects, oversees spaceflight missions and looks forward to using commercial providers like Boeing or SpaceX to send astronauts to the International Space Station. “What's cool about this is that in the next handful of years, we are sending astronauts back to the moon," she said with excitement.
“The International Space Station is conglomerate of a bunch of different countries that have gotten together [like] Russia, Japan, Canada, [the] European space agency; we've created this sort of football field-sized platform that now currently houses astronauts," she said. They are there 24/7 and 365 days a year. “It is a very demanding task because [I am] the final line in case an emergency happens or something [goes] wrong," she explained.
“We're in a really exciting time for the space program in the United States," Jesrani exclaimed. “I feel very honored and humbled."
Though it can be challenging sometimes, Jesrani strives to have a balanced life with her high school sweetheart and their two and a half-year-old daughter. “One of the main things that's important to me is to have balance overall," she said. To her, there is more to life than trying to always excel at work, at home or with friends. Jesrani passionately talks about her husband or daughter. “She's awesome, she's funny and it's fun to be a mom," she gushed. “But then I have this really challenging work life that requires me to travel." She enjoys both her family and working for NASA.
What is an average day like?
“Coming home, I'm sort of like every other parent making sure there's dinner on the table, hanging out with my daughter and husband before bed, and finishing up any work I didn't get the chance to finish during the day," she explained. While she is a flight director at NASA, her husband is a lawyer. Jesrani is grateful to have her family as a support system, as she and her husband have demanding jobs. “I think because of my really supportive husband, my parents, his parents and having a pretty good kid we're almost able to do it all which is unbelievable to say," she laughed.
The morning is especially important, as Jesrani spends quality time with her daughter before she goes to school. Already, her daughter is looking at her as an example of a working mother. “It's funny to see my daughter now say things like; 'Mom can you buy me a purse and I need a car too because I want to go to work just like you,'" she shared. “Having a kid was one of the most rewarding things I've ever done."
Though there has been an abundance of accomplishments in her career, there have also been times where she felt discouraged. When she was a freshman in college, intro to aerospace engineering classes challenged her academically. “[The classes] were really, really hard," she admitted. With dedication and hard work, Jesrani passed the course and at UT Austin the intro classes determined who would go on in the program.
Even now, as an Alumna, there are times when she still faces challenges. “When you're a flight controller you go through a lot of training," she began. “They put you through a lot of simulations to see how you react under pressure, with the stress of the International Space Station, problem-solving and figuring all of that out." Going through that process was a learning experience for her. “You have your entire workforce watching you under pressure in the simulations, [but] I ended up doing pretty well." she continued. At the end of the day, Jesrani became certified and is now sitting in the real Mission Control.
Jesrani advises students, whether they are in STEM, to find a mentor. “I was lucky enough to have really good mentors from the beginning of college to my entire career now," she said. “Seek out other women or even other men that are in roles that you want to get to, roles that inspire to you, roles that you think are challenging or tough but you don't know how to get it or do it." When she started out at NASA, she met her assigned mentor on day one. That mentor has helped her grow throughout her career - and still mentors her today.
Jesrani is looking forward to seeing what happens in the future for women. “The fact that NASA [is] diversifying their selection and including a South Asian female in the Flight Director mix is just awesome," she said. “We've had multiple men on the moon, but we've had zero women that have ever walked on the moon, [landed] on the moon, [gone] around the moon."
There are a lot of things happening in the next 5-10 years at NASA. Jesrani is especially excited about working toward having a woman take a step on the moon. “A small step for man but a giant leap for mankind is what Neil Armstrong said when he was on the moon, and in the documentary (Mercury 13) they [said] a small step for women but a giant leap for womankind," she shared. “To be able to be a role model to other kids that are growing up in this generation and see a woman on the moon is going to be pretty amazing."
When their frustration with current fabric care options had fashionistas Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd worn out, the two entrepreneurs made it their mission to start a new niche and launch their very own at-home, eco-friendly laundry detergent line.
With a mission of turning an everyday domestic chore into a luxurious experience, these entrepreneurs not only conjured up an idea for an unconventional product line, but they successfully built their business while turning down the offer of every venture capitalist to knock on their door.
Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd co-founded The Laundress in 2004 after dealing with their own personal frustrations with limited clothing care options. Whiting, having worked at Ralph Lauren in design and Boyd having worked at Chanel in corporate sales, soon accumulated a stylish wardrobe of designer pieces as perks of their jobs in the fashion industry. However, the duo quickly realized that the maintenance required for upkeeping these items were far from adequate. Laundry products on the market at the time did not cater to delicate textures and fabrics such as tweed blazers, cable-knit cashmere and silk blouses. Taking their clothing to the dry cleaners also proved hopeless as their clothing would often come back with stains or even be ruined despite the overload of chemicals used to clean them. With nowhere left to turn, Whiting and Boyd were determined to create their own laundry solutions designed for specific fabrics.
Not only did the entrepreneurs develop the business expertise needed to finally begin their own company, but they also shared the same educational background that equipped them to pursue their unconventional business venture. Whiting and Boyd met in college as students at Cornell University majoring in Fiber Science, Textile, and Apparel Management and Design. The pair was introduced by a mutual friend and instantly knew they would become business partners. "It was inevitable that we were going to have a business together. We are both extremely entrepreneurial by nature, and it was one of the connections that we instantly shared" said Whiting. After focusing on pursuing their own individual careers for a while, Whiting and Boyd quickly discovered a void in the fabric care marketplace when their clients would continuously inquire about the upkeep of their designer pieces.
The entrepreneurial duo was committed to researching and developing their own eco-friendly laundry products and soon launched their own at-home solutions for specific fabrics like silk, wool and denim, which ultimately eliminated the need for dry cleaning for those particular items. Despite their products filling a necessary void in the market, it quickly became challenging for the founders to persuade people to shift their focus away from traditional laundry care options in order to try their products. However, Whiting and Boyd believed in their mission for the Laundress and bootstrapped from the very beginning, refusing all venture capital funding with the goal of growing organically. In order to be successful, they had to get creative in fundraising. "In the very early days, we funded business development by hosting a 'for profit' party at a New York City restaurant and inviting friends, family, co-workers, etc. to support our new venture. That was pre-Kickstarter and an inventive way to make everyone feel a big part of our decision to be entrepreneurs," said Whiting.
While turning down VC funding as new entrepreneurs seems unimaginable, it is as equally unfathomable to consider how these women gained national traction without social media, all the while hustling to fund their business. For Whiting and Boyd, who started their business before social media existed, it was imperative that they promote their brand by leveraging the resources they had available to them. The CEO's were one of the first to sell consumer goods, let alone detergent, online with the goal of reaching a national audience. Despite having limited retail distribution, they leveraged the power of their website and became featured in publications on both a national and international scale. "Before social media platforms existed, we nurtured our own Laundress community with engaging content on our website, step-by-step tutorials on our blog, and one-on-one communication through our Ask The Laundress email," Whiting explained. With technology evolving and the birth of social media platforms, the founders expanded the conversation about their products from website, blog and email to platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
As female entrepreneurs, Whiting and Boyd faced additional hardships as misconceptions about their mission ultimately proved to disappoint more than it encouraged them. As women selling luxury detergent, there existed a preconceived notion that funding would be more easily attainable based upon their gender.
"Everyone thought it was easy to access capital as female entrepreneurs, but it was actually very challenging. We had this unique and disruptive idea within a very traditional space and it was hard to get people on board at first. It's been a continuous journey to educate people in fabric care and home cleaning," said Boyd.
Reflecting on their journey as entrepreneurs, the founders express no regrets about refusing to accept venture capital throughout the process. "Over the years, we could never quantify the cost benefit of VC funding so we continued to grow organically and remain independent by funding ourselves with credit cards and loans," explained Boyd. While their decision proved fruitful, the duo expressed their consideration towards other entrepreneurs who may not be able to fully fund their business as they grow. Because funding is a situational experience, entrepreneurs must ultimately do what is best for their business as no one path is optimal for every entrepreneur or every business.
With an increasing amount of women entering entrepreneurship with their own unique set of products or services, the CEO's offer up one piece of advice on how female entrepreneurs can be successful in their endeavors.
Whiting: "Our advice to anyone looking to build their brands: Have a strong business plan and vision. If you are not disciplined to write a business plan first then you are not disciplined to start a business. Get your ideas down so you ask yourself the right questions; it helps you get organized and plan next steps."
Boyd: "Create quality products without sacrificing the ingredients—no cutting corners. What you create should be the most important piece. Stay passionate, and trust your instincts and follow your gut—something woman are awesome at!"