The president of SpaceX opened our conference with a lively, punchy keynote that reminded us how to empower ourselves and others. Here’s what we learned from her.

By Lorraine Sanders (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)

When SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell took the stage on the morning of the first day of last week’s Women 2.0 conference in San Francisco clad in a black pant suit with her blond hair worn loose, she looked every bit the part of the poised, seasoned female executive that she is – but there was something else. Almost from the get go, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be just any ‘ole average talk. You know the kind: polished C-level power player carefully wades through presentation given many times before, imparts knowledge to a crowd that looks on quietly, respectfully…and maybe even occasionally yawns.

That was not the case with Shotwell, who joined Elon Musk’s space transport company as employee number seven and has since watched it grow into a game-changer with over 3,000 employees.

For example, this piece of advice, which came early on:

“Probably the best thing to know as an entrepreneur about your detractors: screw ’em.”

It not only elicited laughs of approval from the crowd made up of female founders and entrepreneurs, but also perfectly sums up Shotwell’s tone to those in the audience: bold, confident and not afraid to take a risk.

What followed was a refreshingly candid conversation with the audience about SpaceX and its rise to become a force for innovation in an industry sorely in need of it, as well as advice for entrepreneurs and general bits of life wisdom Shotwell’s picked up on her path from high school basketball player to pioneering CEO.

A few highlights:

Know Your Strengths

“I’m an engineer. I’m a sales person. I consider myself a people engineer, and I can tell when something’s going to fall through the cracks.”

The take away? Knowing your strengths and what you can personally add to an organization is, perhaps, the most important controllable factor at your fingertips as you progress along an entrepreneurial or professional path. Pay attention, and let them guide you in the right direction.

Find a Great Boss

“Without saying that much, at least to me, he makes me do extraordinary work,” Shotwell said of Elon Musk, her boss and founder of not only SpaceX, but also Tesla and Paypal before it.

During her brief mention of Musk, two things were clear: Shotwell trusts and respects her boss, but also has the freedom to do the job she was hired to do – and who wouldn’t envy that combination?

On Being a Woman in a Male-Dominated Field

“I rarely felt disrespected or felt like the rest of the folks didn’t trust me to execute.”

To hear Shotwell tell it, discrimination isn’t part of her world – except for one time, back in college, when she applied for an internship with an HVAC company, got accepted only to be rejected when the supervisor conducted a phone interview and discovered she was not, after all, a boy named Gwynne (duh).

In her day-to-day life as a powerful female executive at SpaceX, Shotwell doesn’t deny that some people may react to her differently from time to time than they might a man. She just doesn’t let it get in her way.

“You just prove them wrong,” she said.

More Female Engineers

When asked about female engineering talent, Shotwell candidly admitted that “there’s a huge gap in the amount of female engineering talent,” including at SpaceX, where only 14% of the engineers are female.

Changing that is part of her personal mission, Shotwell said.

Get Physical

“I think physically you need to feel good to go out and conquer the world.”

A former high school basketball player, Shotwell is a huge proponent of youth athletics and its ability to teach leadership skills and teamwork while keeping kids healthy – and especially for teens.

Advice for Entrepreneurs

Wrapping up her talk, Shotwell left the audience with three key pieces of advice for founders and entrepreneurs.

  1. You will have detractors. Don’t pay attention to it.
  2. You can’t control whether you are the smartest person in the room, but you can certainly control whether you are the most prepared.
  3. Don’t be content with the status quo. Instead, strive to get better every year. As Shotwell put it, “If you aren’t getting better every year, you’re probably getting worse, because things don’t tend to stay static.”

For more on Shotwell, check out our recent interview with her on keeping startup culture alive and well at SpaceX.

Gwynne Shotwell from Women 2.0 on Vimeo.

Photo by Ayesha Rizvi.

Conference attendees: What did you learn from Gwynne?

lorraine headshotAbout the blogger: Lorraine Sanders is a journalist, blogger and media consultant. She is the author of the San Francisco Chronicle Style Bytes column and writes regularly for and others. She is founder of the blog Digital Style Digest and an inhabitant of the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Connect with her on Twitter @digitalstyledig or @lorrainesanders.