4 key life and leadership lessons from Wanda Austin, the first black and first female CEO of The Aerospace Corporation

BY Preta Peace Namasaba November 10, 2023 8:44 AM EDT

Wanda Austin is the former president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, an American nonprofit corporation that operates a federally funded research and development center committed exclusively to the space enterprise.

Austin joined The Aerospace Corporation in 1979 as a member of the technical staff. She became general manager of the electronic systems division and general manager of the military satellite communications division, and later senior vice president of the engineering and technology group.

In 2008, she was named the first female and first African American CEO of The Aerospace Corporation. For eight years, Austin led the organization’s 3,600 employees and managed annual revenues of $950 million at seventeen offices nationwide.

An Aeronautical engineer and academic administrator, Austin was born in 1954 in New York to Helen and Murry Pompey. She graduated from The Bronx High School of Science in 1971, and received a scholarship to attend Franklin and Marshall College, where she earned her B.S. degree in mathematics in 1975. She later received her M.S. degree in systems engineering and mathematics from the University of Pittsburgh in 1977, and her Ph.D. degree in systems engineering from the University of Southern California in 1988. Austin was also the first woman and first African-American president of the University of Southern California (USC).

Here are four lessons from Wanda Austin’s journey to becoming the first female and Black CEO of the The Aerospace Corporation:

1. Stumbling blocks can become steppingstones
Austin grew up in a crime-infested neighborhood with bars on the windows. The building in which she lived was engulfed by fire with her mother and sisters trapped in. Her father had to break a window and bars from a neighboring building to make a rescue. Austin’s school was selected for racial integration when she was in the third grade. She rode three buses to get to her school in a mostly white neighborhood. She soon learnt to turn all these challenges into stepping stones.

“There are always going to be stumbling blocks in life. You are never really sure where they’re going to come from, but it’s important to take the attitude of turning those blocks into stepping stones, so that you can go ahead and achieve your goals. Sometimes people focus on the doors that close, and they miss the doors that are open. It is important to keep in mind the goals you set for yourself, the standards you set for who you are going to be, and what kind of a person you’re going to be, and then you just go for it.”

Wanda Austin in Making Space: Strategic Leadership for a Complex World

2. Let your work speak for itself
At Franklin & Marshall College, Austin was one of five African-American females on campus. She was one of only four women in the department at The Aerospace Corporation when she joined it. She was often the only woman on the team during her rise in the leadership chains. Austin focused on doing a good job and ignored those who were offended by her gender, race, and age. She was named as one of the company’s Women of the Year and honored with the Robert H. Herndon Black Image Award only a few years into her employment.

3. Learning enables effective leadership
Although Austin’s first assignments at Aerospace were based on her previous experience, she came to understand new dimensions of her work. She later transferred to the Defense Dissemination Program where she gained more exposure. These varying assignments enabled her to gain broad insight into the workings of the organization and immensely improved her decision making ability. Austin also learnt from colleagues, government customers, and all aspects of the programs she worked on. She was able to visualise where her contribution was required and lead effectively.

“By the time I joined The Aerospace Corp., I didn’t know I was going to be a CEO. But each one of the projects that I worked on, I learned something new. I learned about teams. I learned about working with people. I learned about making decisions when there are some unknowns, and how you work your way through that.”

Wanda Austin in USC

4. Building trust is key
Austin took over as president of the University of Southern California following a series of scandals at the university. The institution had mishandled reports of the gynecologist’s prolonged abuse of power. She established the Presidential Culture Commission to listen to the needs of students. Austin created the Office of Professionalism and Ethics which entrusted people to report inappropriate incidents. She also increased mental health support and built trust in the system’s ability to address concerns.