Shefali Sharma: The UK space industry NEEDS young people

Shefali Sharma

Shefali Sharma is a Senior Commercial Strategist at Oxford Space Systems and cold-called her way into an amazing job in the heart of the UK new space industry. Have you thought about a career that aims for the stars?

The future of the UK’s space sector is bright and it is at the heart of the Government’s modern Industrial Strategy. We’re entering a new era of space engineering, with jobs that further humanity’s dreams of space and beyond. Big risk, big potential.
Shefali Sharma shares her story:

I became a senior commercial strategist… so I could learn the ‘dark art’ of the business world by being a part of the aggressively developing ‘new space’ industry.

New space entrants such as OneWeb and SpaceX plan to launch large groups of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. OneWeb, for example, is developing a constellation of initially 648 satellites in LEO to provide broadband communications services globally. This trend is set to take advantage of the work done on satellite miniaturisation, digitisation of communications and a production line approach of spacecraft building by companies such as Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) and Airbus.

The space industry is moving into the ‘new space’ era and is characterised by smaller, commercially-focused and aggressively-paced companies with an appetite for risk.

The satellites that this industry is focused on are a lot smaller and of significantly lower cost, allowing for failure to be an option.

Failure is actually expected as part of the test and validation process. This use of low-cost satellites was unheard of a decade ago and it’s exciting to be a part of this rapidly changing landscape.

A new breed of privately backed space companies, like Oxford Space Systems, is pushing open a new window of opportunity.

I’m really glad to be at the heart of the UK new space industry.

What was your career journey like?

I completed my schooling in India and came to the UK in pursuit of higher education in engineering. Upon successful completion of my apprenticeship and degree in Aircraft Engineering in Scotland, I joined Cranfield University, Bedford, to pursue a Masters in Space Engineering and Astronautics.

After my Masters, for almost a year I tried to push open a closed door to enter the space industry, but to no avail, due to visa and security restrictions.

I was presented with an opportunity to work with a small mobile phone company called DOGFI.SH Mobile. Like a lot of graduates, I took an offer of employment as a means to an end. I worked alongside the CEO as a market analyst and quickly became interested in the ‘dark art’ of the business world.

I refused to give up on my space career and changed my approach towards job-hunting.

Initially, I only applied for jobs with large space organisations.

I soon realised a ‘new generation’ in the space industry was emerging globally, known as ‘new space’. Companies such as SpaceX, Oxford Space Systems (OSS), Planet Labs were being founded to change the industry’s landscape and challenge its risk-averse approach to developing technology.

I was inspired to become a part of this industry with the advent of new space.

I cold-called the CEO of Oxford Space Systems to find out whether there was an opportunity for me – and the rest is history!

What qualifications do you need? Do you need a degree?

Yes, having a degree in engineering helps. That said, it’s not mandatory (needed) to have an engineering degree to work in a space company.

The new space industry also welcomes applicants from different backgrounds (finance, legal, HR and the like).

Were there any ways in which you think you/your CV stood out from the crowd to get the role?

I never shied away from emailing/cold-calling potential employers. I attended various industry events and successfully raised my profile in the space community. I’ve always been a strong believer of the fact that business is done between people and, as such, I treated job hunting as essentially a sales job.

What does a typical working day look like when you’re Senior Commercial Strategist at Oxford Space Systems? Start with breakfast!

I’m early riser and usually get to work by 7:30am, after my gym session at 6am. OSS offers a very flexible working environment.

As consistent with other SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises], I take on a variety of roles and responsibilities at OSS. My day-to-day activities cover business development, strategy, bid writing, media management, company promotion, networking and customer engagement.

I am also spearheading the company’s expansion and growth into Asia.

In addition, I’m heavily invested in promoting STEM activities. I am often invited to speak at events to inspire and encourage the next generation of engineers.

As you might imagine, working in a growing early stage technology means things can change very quickly and what I had planned for the day can be disrupted! It’s not unusual to be called on with zero notice to support things like handling urgent new enquiries, hosting an unexpected visitor, and sometimes even covering for the CEO!

Looking at the bigger picture, why is your role important?

I work directly with the CEO to help define our strategy for growth. In addition, I am a core part of the sales team and our key responsibility is to ensure we win contracts and help OSS achieve its sales targets, as agreed with our investors.

Why should young people think about getting into the new space industry?

Things are getting really exciting; there’s a real growth taking place in the UK space industry.

Genuine disruption in space sector has begun, despite its notorious risk-aversion. This is mainly driven by the emergence of smaller satellites to replace part of the functionality provided today by large, expensive satellites.

These small satellites continue to bring about a revolution in size and cost, cutting down the costs of some satellite capabilities from tens of millions of pounds to tens of thousands of pounds.

This in turn has enabled startup companies like OSS to launch niche, disruptive technologies (tech that threatens the status quo) for the space industry. The technology is underpinned via a breed of entrepreneurs, some from non-space backgrounds, entering the industry. This is then attracting private investment money, so we’re now seeing well-funded entrepreneurs with a high-risk appetite chasing real commercial opportunities.

How important is diversity in the space industry? E.g. young people and women?

It’s worth noting that there’re a significant number of both men and women between the ages of 48 and 58 who are employed in the space sector right now. The industry is well aware that this could prove to be problematic, once this major age group retires.

Change needs to happen at home and at school-entry level now to ensure we bring young talent into space engineering.

Part of this drive is to encourage the mindset that ‘new talent must have women at its core’. There is a really substantial number of people required to pick up the baton from the retiring population in the industry, plus support arising from the UK Government’s desire to grow direct employment in the sector from around 38,000 to 100,000 by 2030.

What would you say to young jobseekers who want to work in the space industry?

My advice for anyone who are looking to work in the space industry is: Don’t give up!

  • If you don’t hear back from someone, follow up.
  • If you don’t get a job, ask why not and keep applying.

I can’t even imagine my life had I not been ‘ferocious’ in my approach to job-hunting. The space industry is very insular – we’re great at talking to ourselves, less so with the outside world.

Finally – want to start your own business? Consider starting your own space company if you have an innovative idea.

There’s an unparalleled level of support in the UK for entrepreneurs from Government agencies such as Innovate UK, the UK Space Agency, the Royal Academy of Engineering, plus multiple opportunities to secure mentoring. The UK space start up scene is currently the envy of the world. In a nutshell, if something has caught your attention or you have developed a passion for something then you must give it a shot.

Find an industry champion who you can talk to about it. For those who are considering a career change, don’t think space is only for engineers and scientists. The rapidly growing space sector needs commercially aware people in roles such as business strategy, marketing, HR, legal, finance, project management etc.

See more: Modern Industrial Strategy – Future of Mobility

Dr Shefali Sharma

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