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EPISODE 048 : 02/10/2022

Ashley Kosak

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Ashley Kosak is the co-founder and CEO of Green Aero, an organization dedicated to infusing sustainability into the future of space travel through producing green energy. In December 2021, Ashley published an article on Lioness sharing her story of experiencing sexual harassment while working at SpaceX. Her article went viral, prompting new conversations around sexism in STEM industries.

Host: Ashley Coates
Guest: Ashley Kosak

Topics discussed in this episode

  • SpaceX and the culture of sexual harassment
  • Confronting and changing sexism in the technology industry
  • Sustainable launch technologies, such as carbon-neutral rocket fuel
  • The future of Green Aero, a sustainable option for space travel

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Audio Transcript

Ashley Coates [00:00:00] A note to our listeners and a trigger warning. This episode of SparkPlug contains a discussion of sexual harassment in the workplace. If this topic is a trigger for you, we hope you will join us for next week’s episode. And for this week’s listeners, thank you for listening to this important conversation.



Intro
[00:00:18] Welcome to SparkPlug, where we talk to smart people working at the intersection of business and technology. Brought to you by SnowShoe your smarter loyalty leader. 

Ashley Coates [00:00:34] SparkPlug is happy to welcome Ashley Kosak to the podcast. Ashley is the co-founder and CEO of Green Aero, an organization dedicated to infusing sustainability into the future of space travel through producing green energy and creating a negative footprint in the process. In December 2021, Ashley published an article on Lioness, sharing her story of experiencing sexual harassment while working as a mission integration engineer at Space X. I’m so grateful to have Ashley with me today to share more of her story and to chat about how to create a more inclusive space for women in science and technology. Welcome to the podcast, Ashley. 

Ashley Kosak [00:01:12] Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here. 

Ashley Coates [00:01:15] Let’s start off by having you tell us a little bit more about your career, background and history. 

Ashley Kosak [00:01:21] Yeah. So I’m from originally from Buffalo, New York. I went to school up there and I went to Rochester Institute of Technology while I was there. It was honestly, going to college was a really interesting time because I never had any like resources going into it. I was sort of like first generation. I was kind of like a single parent household, and it was really tough conditions, I guess, going into it. So I didn’t know anything about engineering when I went into it and I didn’t know how to machine either. Basically, I walked in and I was like, Oh my gosh, they are machining, like, metal? And I only   thought we were working with wood. And so, yeah, basically while I was at RIT, I learned how to machine and I helped start an all female formula hybrid team. It’s the only one that’s in the entire world. It’s called RIT Hot Wheels. That first year we came in third place internationally and the next year we came in first place. And so from there, that’s when I started working at Space X and I started in 2017 and I was a build reliability engineering intern. I couldn’t, I couldn’t have been more excited. I’m sorry. I’m like emotional because, yeah, I remember being a freshman and I went to my career advisor and I said, I really want to work for this company. And she was like, You can never do that. You’re not smart enough for that, right? And I didn’t even have  reliable housing at the time. It’s so weird to talk about like this. But yeah, I started my career in aerospace. I had done an internship the year before, but it wasn’t anything like the caliber of work that I was able to do there, being able to do that type of work. It felt like I was, I was pretty much free to just, you know, put all of my energy and all my knowledge and everything that I’ve worked so hard for is something that was helping everyone else. And so, yeah, I started at SpaceX, I did that as an intern, I did that sort of like off and on for two years, and then I joined full time. I worked down at Cape Canaveral, where I was launch engineer or launch build reliability engineer. I got to help the launch crew. It was amazing. And then I moved out to California and I started working as a propulsion engineer and kept getting more authority over some of the important aspects of launching a rocket. And I just I felt like if I could have that type of authority in such a broad technical way, I thought that I could have an impact on like a climate solution and on a way to help people who understood the pain that I’ve gone through to get to that point. And then when that didn’t work, I just I decided to found Green Aero because I felt like I, at first, I thought that SpaceX was like the largest platform that I’d ever get to have, when it came to climate action or just general impact to like humanity. But the more I investigate about what Green Aero was capable of, the more that I realized that I think Green Aero can have a much more profound impact on our carbon emissions. So I founded that and we’ve been working on that for about two months now, and it’s been something really amazing. 

Ashley Coates [00:05:26] I’m really excited to ask you about Green Aero. Maybe we can start by talking about your Lioness article. I’m curious how you decided to publish this article and what factors you considered before sharing your story. 

Ashley Kosak [00:05:41] I published it because I felt like I needed to be understood. I felt like I wasn’t being to. But I also saw the ways that this was impacting like, so many other women that I knew, and when you’re working that hard environment like you do, if you’re a good team member, like you do sincerely care about the health and well-being of other people. And when I saw with that was being sacrificed at the beginning, I just thought, oh, this is only happening, you know, like what if this is only happening to me and like this select couple of people? But the more I thought about it, the more vulnerable groups such as interns, people, people who basically don’t have a strong standing voice within the organization I realize that a lot of us had gone through really severe coping as a result of this harassment, I didn’t fully realize the extent of it really until after I published it. I just like the amount of women who told me about the weight loss and the loss of sleep, and I personally had like hair like my hair fallout from this, like, it’s crazy. How you physically cope from this, and what I after I went through that was when I was like, OK, I’m going to I’m going to write something, but I’m going to put my name on it too, because initially I just I just thought I was going to write like a small paragraph and then like a larger essay with other women who were talking to Lioness because they can’t just depend on one story they need to corroborate it too. If me and so many other women are willing to disclose that type of information and like talk about that like why? Why can’t we expect, the people who are supposed to be advocating for us. Why can’t we expect them to want to protect that as part of your team? Why can’t we expect them to want to protect your employees from people who are directly causing harm to them? That’s why I decided to publish it. 

Ashley Coates [00:07:50] We’ll link to your article when we publish this episode, but it’s a story of getting unwelcome advances from higher-ups, male coworkers and especially in a male-dominated industry, and how that must be such an isolating experience. I know that in the article, one of the things you mentioned was that rather than speaking directly to the people who were actually doing the harassment, they one of the solutions they proposed was having a company-wide training program. And I’m just curious to hear your thoughts on when companies don’t approach an individual, but instead talk in general to the entire staff. How what are your thoughts on that approach? 

Ashley Kosak [00:08:46] Well, actually, the training programs are mandatory. That’s like a California thing, is that like legally, I believe companies are required to put on this training. I’m still a pretty big supporter of like people going to training. I think that leadership needs to also be going to these types of trainings. The things that teach you to expand your understanding of how you approach your coworkers, but I don’t know if, I guess I’m just not sure how much training can solve when you fundamentally aren’t respecting someone but who is expected to respect you. You know, like if if you’re making advances on a coworker who’s uncomfortable, they’re still at the end of the day professionally expected to respect you. And especially when you’re a woman, the stakes are kind of high in that regard. Right? Not only do I have to set aside like how pissed I am about the waste that I have to deal with this new dynamic that’s been added to my day to day life but, I also need to depend on you and respect your word when it comes to the science, when it comes to the technical aspects. So, I don’t know if there’s a training that’s going to teach people that type of respect. But I have found that, you know, the deep listening, the truly caring about the way that you are influencing the people around you and like bringing the best of their characteristics to light. But that’s what teaches you to be a better human being to your fellow teammates. And that’s core to, I think like what made me a good engineer is that I was always so involved in, you know, working with technicians and working with the people who got their hands on the hardware. Because there’s like this old saying in mechanical engineering or like welding, I think there’s like all these sort of like, we don’t like the engineering welding community. There’s like sort of this dynamic where it’s like the welders always know more than the engineers as well, because like the welders of the people, it’s like their hands on the tools, right? They see like how the problems play out and they have to go in and fix them. And so I feel like I got really attuned to just like I was like, Oh, I need hear everyone out because they know what they’re doing and everyone else who’s got their hands on the hardware they are, they’re the ones who are going to like, teach me really the right direction that I need to be going in. But I think that practice ultimately allowed me to do the same thing with my coworkers. I was like, Oh my god, all my female coworkers are going through the same thing that I am. And that’s just from deep listening. And I think like the male coworkers who I still have really great friendships with, they’re the ones who were willing to listen when I expressed, like someone else did something to me that I didn’t like. And this is how that’s affected me. They were able to actually listen to that and digest it and understand like your friend has been hurt. And so I’m not going to hurt my friends, either. But. People, people who, I guess managed to ignore that for the sake of making these advances, they yeah. I don’t know if they’re capable of that type of listening, and I hope they would be. 

Ashley Coates [00:12:27] Also in the article, you ask the question Why did I continue working at a company like this? And you say that rocket science is not something you can learn overnight. You had invested a lot of time in this. It brought you joy and you said we were promised we can change the world. And every time we met a goal, it felt like all this pain, distrust and sacrifice was worth it. Wondering if you can elaborate on that a little bit?

Ashley Kosak [00:12:53] When you’re able to, like, work on a problem and come up with the solution, be able to present that solution and then ultimately say, we’re OK to fly this thing this way. There’s like a feeling of pride in like having that extreme ownership that I think is what feels a lot of us. And I think that’s what feels like most people, most sort of like high achieving individuals, right? Is that like you put in all this hard work and so on, the cognitive dissonance of like, can you put in all this hard work is that you want to get a really, really big return, that’s like the body, that’s what the body’s sort of like craving from from any sort of like process that can be sort of painful. Like you go in to get your PhD and your super, super satisfied by the time you’re leaving, even though it’s so difficult. But that’s because you put in all that work. So it’s the same thing, you know, it’s like like, we put in all this work, but what we were doing was so cool. It was amazing and like, we were changing history. They still are. I mean, like, they’re killing it, like the engineers, they’re kick ass. And so, you know, that’s worth it. It just feels so good to do something good and do it right and do it well. So. 

Ashley Coates [00:14:11] Absolutely. You and I chatted a couple of weeks ago and we were talking about this difference between what companies say and their written policies and then what they do in terms of enforcement. Can you talk a little bit about the contradictions that you experience between those two things at SpaceX? 

Ashley Kosak [00:14:31] Yeah, I actually I think the issue is more that, while they were willing to speak with these people and I’m not sure how frequently these discussions had with people who were quote unquote “accused”, which seems like a very strong word for what we’re talking about like. I don’t know how those conversations had were being had, but really what you saw was that there was just like, these people kept excelling and they kept moving up in like even though they were, HR would have a conversation with them like HR wasn’t willing to prevent them from attaining power over other engineers. Policy is not working if things are just slipping through like this, that’s what it comes down to. It comes to requirements, is that whatever document, if it’s not working, it’s not working. You need to fix it. You need to update it and you need to update your process you need to look at it. Like that’s that’s how process engineering works, is that the process is broken and so you need to fix it. So I guess I just don’t necessarily understand why it’s necessary to point to a policy that’s clearly not working when we’re clearly holding a lot of tolerance. And so what I was really what I pushed for a lot was that we needed to start creating some type of criteria like we need to create a way where it’s not scary for you to ask for ask for accountability for low severity issues like inappropriate language, like being super rude. Second tier, I would probably say, is pushing other people. Or touching them, you know, and at that point, that’s where I’m like, should you really be working around other people, they shouldn’t be working around coworkers if you don’t know how to keep your hands to yourself. But I think by lowering the bar, I was like, “We have no tolerance. We’re going to fire everyone.” You then make it scary for people to come forward if you lower the bar and you say, OK, well, there are some cases where we obviously know things just slip through the cracks and maybe you need to learn how to like, watch what you’re saying or like, send less, you know, something emails like I I don’t really know what all of those criteria look like. I’m obviously not an expert, but I do know that by making it easier for the activation energy of someone who’s come forward, they want to talk about something small. You build that trust and confidence into the larger issues where people are doing this perpetually and they’re doing it more severely and they’re doing it in a much, much more harmful way. So I don’t know that. Yeah, but I think written policy is important, but it’s important that you also look back at it if you know it’s not working. 

Ashley Coates [00:17:26] So and I know that you and I also talked about encouraging leaders to be comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. Can you talk more about how companies can be better, especially in terms of leaders being able to have those uncomfortable conversations? 

Ashley Kosak [00:17:49] So there’s this one book I read a couple of years back, it was called A Flinch. I think I read it because I saw it on some YouTube video and I was going through like a self-help phase. But what it taught me was basically when you approach a situation and the example that they gave was, OK, take a mug and like, hold it out in front of you and just drop it. And like if you go to actually drop the mug, you’re going to feel like this pullback feeling, this flinch feeling that keeps you from doing it. But what they were saying was, you just let it go anyways, because at the end of the day, you’re still there, you’re health is still there, so everything’s still OK, your reality has not changed at all. And so that’s sort of back then when I read that I was I was an RA and I was in the dorm for the engineering school. And at the time, I needed to have so many uncomfortable conversations like I was having the most uncomfortable conversations with, like the craziest kids on campus. They were like the engineering house. They I mean, they’re they’re just wonderful, like they’re bright and a little bit wild. But I had some really uncomfortable conversations because that’s the role that you take on when we do that. And that’s just for an RA, a role that’s not even for like, you’re leading a company or you’re like, you’re leading a team. And so I think like especially in this case where you have this type of authority, it’s like, yeah, you’re going to feel a flinching moment if you have to, like, have a difficult conversation about these types of things. Or maybe if you’re someone who needs to talk about this stuff and you’re not sure if you should come forward and you’re going to have like a flinch feeling, where you kind of want to hold back, but sometimes you just need to, you need to take a breath through it. And just think about like like what are what is the literal worst thing that can happen here is I’m still going to have my health, I’m still going to be OK and I’m like by having these difficult conversations. No one’s asking you to jump to the nuclear option or anything. I’m not saying like, walk in and tell them you’re fired. But I do think it’s important that you walk in with compassion and you’re willing to be vulnerable in that space and have that. That’s where the discomfort comes from is like allowing people to share this type of information so that you can do right by your team. So, yeah, yeah. But I think that’s like the best way that you can approach, like being comfortable with the uncomfortable. 

Ashley Coates [00:20:28] Well, I know that environmental sustainability is really important to you. In fact, in your article, you mention that you created a plan that would bring Space X to full carbon neutrality by 2030. And it sounds like it wasn’t taken up at Space X. 

Ashley Kosak [00:20:46] No, it was not. 

Ashley Coates [00:20:48] But you did go ahead and start your own organization called the Green Aero. Can you share a little bit about how you founded the organization and your mission and what you do? 

Ashley Kosak [00:21:01] Yeah, so Green Aero is a biofuel hub where we will be processing hemp into rocket fuel. It started because I was kind of I just I needed to find a way that I could do anything related to sustainability. I think the issue’s become very apparent, but we need to start working on climate solutions and we should have started a very long time ago. But we don’t we don’t have time to stop, we just have time to keep working on them. And so I just I couldn’t stop talking about it to all my friends and then a friend from M.I.T., they recommended that I go to a panel and that got me introduce my co-founder Dan. And so when I met Dan Hawk, the he’s the he well, he’s my co-founder and he’s our chief of engineering. But Dan originally founded the United First Nations Planetary Defense Group. So just really, really lucky that I happened to be in this panel with him. So I started talking to him, I was trying to figure out like, What do you do with Scope one emissions from a rocket? Because right now, all rockets are solely based on petroleum like you know, it’s rocket fuel, it’s any other fuel that you would use. And he said, No, I’ve got a way that we can use hemp for this. So, we’ve been developing this for a couple of months now. The company is still quite new, but we’re running faster than I can even keep up with if I’m being frank. We’re going to testing this week and yeah, what we intend to do is basically create a carbon neutral approach to rocket rocket launches to launch vehicles. We’re going to sequester carbon from the atmosphere instead of cracking it from the ground. We’re going to convert that into methane propane. We’re going to convert it into all the fuels that you need for the Artemus program for Lunar Landers, we want to work with colleges, we want to do advocacy, we want to do land restoration, we can do that all with this plan and our technology that we’re developing. 

Ashley Coates [00:23:23] That’s incredible. And I believe you founded this organization in response to what you were seeing in the industry and in terms of being sustainable. Can you share your perspective on where the industry is now and how the industry can do better? 

Ashley Kosak [00:23:40] Yeah, so if you look at the science based targets for this is like a global system and I can send you a link for it, but if you look at science based targets, there’s actually no aerospace companies in North America who are committed to sustainable climate solutions that work towards a goal of 2.5 degrees of climate change. Right. This is important because that means that the industry isn’t considering it that much. And while it’s disappointing and I wish they would, but does open a very wonderful opportunity for us because what we’re saying is basically that like, yes, we want to be a fuel company, like we want to be a company that’s able to create these fuels. But at the end of the day, the carbon that’s being used for these fuels is coming from the atmosphere, not from underground. And at the same time, we’re doing this in ways that we know we can develop aerospace, I guess, hubs of information within the native lands that we’re working on. So that’s kind of what Green Aero is doing basically is we partner with Indigenous Nations. We use Indigenous pros practices. We do this no-till, we don’t use pesticides we don’t use for fertilizers and we don’t waste anything that we produce. So we’re doing this in a fully closed system and we’re bringing that economy back into Indigenous lands. We’re bringing that knowledge of rocketry into Indigenous lands. We’re bringing up their economy. We’re making them less dependent on oil. Green Aero is really it’s a manifestation of what I think is important in a company like especially from like I used to, I used to clean toilets like I don’t come from alot, so when I think about what does the CEO need to do to make people happy and to make them feel fulfilled and to give these opportunities, this is what I see in it. And so I’m not basing it on the models that I’ve seen or anything like that, like building it up from scratch and we’re  engineering this in a way where we’re doing right by our stakeholders and by the people who are working for us. 

Ashley Coates [00:25:56] I believe you saw the Netflix movie Don’t Look Up? 

Ashley Kosak [00:26:00] I actually watched it twice. 

Ashley Coates [00:26:02] Yeah. Well, I’m very curious to hear what you thought. 

Ashley Kosak [00:26:06] OK, first of all, I think it’s a little bit uncomfortable because I did identify myself heavily with the main character/Jennifer Lawrence. Also, I was a huge Hunger Games fan back in 2013, so it’s really exciting to see her take on a role where she’s now the climate like protagonist instead of just like the feminism protagonist. Always a wonderful thing to see the do that. As far as don’t Don’t Look Up goes. Yeah, I I just love that there’s a type of media out there where I felt like like, what we are going through is so crazy right now when it comes to climate change, the amount of people who refuse to acknowledge it, it is so surprising. But I I love comedy and I love joking around, and I think that joking around is kind of like what builds that community. And so when you’re able to sort of poke fun at it but still educate other people like, I think you’re doing a good job, I think you’ve captured people’s attention and you start the conversation rolling. And I mean, who doesn’t love to laugh? So I don’t know if, like I know, Hollywood has like a lot of responsibility to hold when it comes to the messages that they put out and they put out a good message. They put out a message that says this is an emergency and we need to work on it. And they made just so some of the funniest jokes that I’ve seen in a comedy movie in a while. So props to them. Yeah. 

Ashley Coates [00:27:45] Well, and I know Green Aero is only two months old now, although it sounds like it’s a very exciting time and you’ve already done so much. What can we expect to see from Green Aero in the next year and in the next five years? What are your hopes? 

Ashley Kosak [00:27:59] So Green Aero is going to be building a fuel processing facility over the next several months. We’re going to be working on scaling up our fueling operations, so that’s in partnership with several tribes that I can’t really disclose that information now, but we’ve started to form these partnerships with local Indigenous Nations. We’re also interested in partnering with us because they see the value in this message and they see the opportunities it has for their people too, for them and for their infrastructure and for their economy. So over the next few months, we’re going to be working on building up that program, building up our planting operations. And then in the next year, what you can see is we will be firing a rocket engine in our fuel. So and we’ll be doing a full engine test, qualifying it for spaceflight, using using a real rocket engine. So again, I can’t say much about what we’re doing there, but just know that that’s definitely coming down the pipeline for the next year. 

Ashley Coates [00:29:02] Well, we cannot wait to see that. That sounds absolutely incredible. Yeah, well done. That’s that’s incredible. 

Ashley Kosak [00:29:10] Thank you. 

Ashley Coates [00:29:12] Ashley, if I could ask you to sum up how the space industry can be better, how companies in STEM can be better, both in terms of creating a safe space for women in the workplace and thinking sustainably. What would you say? 

Ashley Kosak [00:29:30] I would say that there’s such a wealth of information out there, especially in the in the community, that you’re probably and I feel like if if I I guess if you’ve read maybe you might say anything or heard any of these stories about women, like if that doesn’t like and maybe, maybe I should answer it this way. But if you can have empathy for that and really just investigate that? I don’t know. I don’t know how else to explain this to like someone who’s sitting like the head of a table, the head of a board or like, I have no idea what their lives are even like. So all I can speak to is probably the reaction that they have when they see what I wrote about my experience or when they hear about, like what other women have gone through. That’s the only thing that I can really understand about about the high ranking individuals that I don’t think I was able to change the minds of, is just encourage you to think about your reaction. And just if you hear what some of these have gone through and that doesn’t invoke in you a sense that something really needs to change. I really, really need you to investigate that and investigate that heart, especially when you oversee, you know, maybe you oversee thousands of people. How do you not? How do you not address that? 

Ashley Coates [00:31:05] Well, Ashley, thank you so much for chatting with me today. I do have one last question for you, which is what do you hope will be your legacy and what do you want to be remembered for? 

Ashley Kosak [00:31:18] I think my legacy is just, you know, I’m trying to like not just make like a straight up joke right now. Right. And maybe that’s the thing. 

Ashley Coates [00:31:31] You can make a joke! 

Ashley Kosak [00:31:34] With me is that this probably isn’t the right time to be telling a joke, but I would really love to tell one any ways, and I’m going to do that and I’m going to do that in a very technical way. So it’s just like, Yeah, I hope my legacy is is in at least the way that I lead my team. You know, like let’s let’s joke around, let’s have a good time and like, let’s care about other people. And, you know, like if you look at sort of if you look at the legacy of, I guess, some of this like toxic workplace that you see right now. The behavior of your leader is what influences the behavior of the people who are working for you. So I just hope my legacy sort of served as a correct course on some of the more, I don’t want to just say toxic, because, you know, like the term, toxic masculinity can be sort of like inflammatory, but yeah, I just I hope the way that I lead my team at least reverses course on some of these papers. And it just it sets the example for fun. For how to care for your neighbor and care for your team and care for the people that you work with. So, yeah, I’m hoping remember all that, and I hope I’m remembered for this company and everything. I really don’t know what’s going to happen, but I hope it works out so we’ll see. 

Ashley Coates [00:33:13] Well we can’t wait to see what happens with Green Aero and congratulations. That is so exciting and just wishing you all the best in the coming months. Can’t wait to see what you did. 

Ashley Kosak [00:33:23] Thank you so much. I can’t wait. Thank you for having me, I really appreciate it. 

Ashley Coates [00:33:29] Absolutely, thank you so much for being here Ashley. 

Closing [00:33:30]  SparkPlug is a wholly-owned property of SnowShoe. All content is copyright 2021 SparkPlug Media.