Claire Leon

VP, Aerospace

Location: Los Angeles, CA

"I mentor and encourage young women to 'own their careers,' explore new opportunities, move on when they are not growing and learning, and to take the time they need to balance work and family expectations."

I was recruited by a major Aerospace company after graduating from college in engineering.  There were many ups and downs in my early years. Initially, I did not feel like I fit in. After about 11 months, I transferred to the system test department, where I was able to learn about the entire satellite and get “hands-on” experience.

Within a few months, my husband and I had an opportunity to go on a foreign assignment and be part a joint US/Canadian team building a series of communications satellites. The assignment was a huge learning experience; our very small team had to do whatever it took to move the project along. When we returned to California after one year, I was five months pregnant. I wanted to join the Systems Engineering organization, but felt it was best to wait until I returned from maternity leave before making significant changes.

When I interviewed with the project manager for what was supposed to be my next assignment, I had a very bad feeling. He came across as controlling and inflexible. I did not think I would be treated fairly. When I told him that I was pregnant, he told me how uncomfortable his secretary and been during her pregnancy. I went back to my department manager and asked for two weeks to find a different position.

Leaning in—I set off to look for a new opportunity. I interviewed with the Systems Engineering manager for a new program and shared that I was pregnant. His comment was: “You know—you did not have to tell me that.”  (His wife was a law student.) I joined the program as a junior systems engineer and felt like I had found another family. I had many mentors to learn from. I put a lot of energy into learning and using my experience from system test to contribute. My son was born on July 16th 1982. I still have the card from the program team congratulating me on the birth of my son and encouraging me to take the time I needed before coming back to work. I came back four weeks later, not because they expected me to, but because I thought I had to—to be taken seriously as an engineer. Over the next three years, I was able to expand my technical and leadership skills, becoming the first female spacecraft manager for the fifth spacecraft, at the age of 26. I have always felt indebted to the managers I worked with on this program for setting the standard for supportive management, being willing to take me on and providing me with opportunities to learn, to grow and to lead.

A lot has changed over the past 30 years. Today, I mentor and encourage young women to “own their careers,” explore new opportunities, move on when they are not growing and learning, and to take the time they need to balance work and family expectations.