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Olga Stelmakh

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Olga Stelmakh-Drescher, Director of Business Development and International Affairs

10 January, 2018
Olga Stelmakh-Drescher

Dr. Olga Stelmakh-Drescher

Through a highly successful 14-year career in the space industry, Dr. Olga Stelmakh-Drescher has lived and worked on multiple continents. Olga is impressively fluent in 5 languages, with experience in Europe at the European Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center, before relocating to North America, living and working in Montreal, Canada. She has most recently been based in Washington DC, USA as the Director of Business Development and International Affairs at the International Institute of Space Commerce.

Olga talks to Rocket Women about her path as an aerospace lawyer, why she is inspired by space entrepreneurs and how her family is a perfect model of the international space community.

From growing up in Ukraine, to now being based in Washington DC – how have your international experiences helped to shape your career and personal life?

During my school years I spent summer and most of my winter holidays in France with my French family. These people actually have been the ones who shaped my French identity and paved the way to my international professional future. As I was fluent in French and English I easily managed to enter the French business school and in parallel to my law degree in Ukraine over five years pursued business degree learning from the best. At that time, I already started working in the space sector providing legal support to the international space projects that also implied a significant international exposure strengthening thereof my cosmopolitan integrity.

My life is spread over the continents; that implies lots of travels and high flexibility.

Upon my graduation I had been offered to join an international law firm but decided to first get an advanced space and telecommunications law degree in Paris for which I was granted a scholarship of excellence by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The strong professional touch of that program further opened me the doors to the European Space Agency, German Aerospace Center and later on helped me with relocation to North America making me competitive for the job positions in Montreal, Canada (Institute of Air and Space Law, McGill University) and in Washington DC, USA (GWU Space Policy Institute and currently the International Institute of Space Commerce).

My life is spread over the continents; that implies lots of travels and high flexibility. I believe that my international experience, including the network I have created, actually played a decisive role in many opportunities I have been given throughout my professional career. In addition to the job opportunities mentioned above, the latter included invitations to speak at different fora, nominations and elections to high profile professional associations, selection to leadership programs, recognitions and awards etc.

My husband, a German aerospace diplomat, and I, an aerospace lawyer with mix of Ukrainian and Armenian bloods, residing in Washington D.C. and communicating with each other in three languages, are a perfect family model of an internationalized space community.

This has also influenced my personal life. My husband, a German aerospace diplomat, and I, an aerospace lawyer with mix of Ukrainian and Armenian bloods, residing in Washington D.C. and communicating with each other in three languages, are a perfect family model of an internationalised space community.

Olga at a conference in the UAE

Olga at a conference in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Describe a typical day at work for you.

It is hard to describe a typical day for me as every day brings something new, especially keeping in mind that I am very often on foreign travels.

My day can be described as: Dream. Visualize. Rationalize. Implement.

Not going into much detail my day can be described as: Dream. Visualize. Rationalize. Implement.

This is supported by the following common elements without which the day would not be complete: reading news (political, economical and of course space ones) and books (mainly business or innovation related), drafting, checking emails, having telecons and meetings, networking at space events.

I value the opportunities that enable looking at what I normally do through a different prism, encountering people whom I would more likely not met otherwise.

Last but not least, when shaping my agenda, I make sure that it allows for personal “upgrading”, recharging and expanding of my horizons. I value the opportunities that enable looking at what I normally do through a different prism, encountering people whom I would more likely not met otherwise.

Who were your role models when you were growing up?

In general, I think it is wrong to consider someone as a role model in its entirety. I would rather say that someone’s qualities, behaviors and accomplishments can serve as an inspiration for personal and professional growth. And to be honest in my case these are not “famous” people, but simply strong personalities with charisma and driving energy who are not afraid to take an action and be accountable for it. In one word (ok, four;) – I am “smart” addicted!

When looking at the space sector the most inspirational to me are space entrepreneurs, I admire them for their powerful belief in their somewhat “out of this world” dreams and all the risks they take.

My husband inspires me by his strength, power of generating great ideas, making impossible possible, strategic and comprehensive thinking, networking and presenting skills.

Personally, I come from a highly-educated family and therefore I was blessed to have my family members as role models to me. They have achieved a lot, each of them in their specific field. My mother, who is a medical doctor, by her example, taught me to be fully dedicated to what I do; my father, who is a nuclear physicist, taught me to set the bar super high and always strive for better; my sister, a smart engineer and mother of three, – how to make the right choices and set priorities in life.

My husband inspires me by his strength, power of generating great ideas, making impossible possible, strategic and comprehensive thinking, networking and presenting skills.

In moments of self-doubt or adversity, how do you build yourself back up? 

Self-doubts and adversity are part of existentialism; without them we would not 1) become more self-confident and mature, 2) duly appreciate our achievements and 3) enjoy taking the risks, making new steps and going further. The “perfect” world is utopia and consequently the “perfect” people who seem not having such moments are the most fake ones.

I am convinced that the turbulent times are the most promising ones, this is “where and when” we can most grow and evolve.

We learn much more out of critical and stressful situations, this is where we see our real limits and strength. I am convinced that the turbulent times are the most promising ones, this is “where and when” we can most grow and evolve.

Olga speaking on an expert space panel

Olga speaking on an expert space panel

How do you think the space industry has changed for women over the years? Has it become more inclusive?

The space industry remains dominated by men, however I am very pleased to see more and more women in leadership positions, especially if they manage to become influencers. However, the level of inclusiveness still highly depends on cultural differences and domestic “in-house” traditions. Not naming specific countries, it is evident that in some of them space industry is the men’s world, i.e. “space patriarchate”, where women are given mainly the support functions.

What are the biggest legal gaps and future challenges that the space industry is facing? 

Nowadays the space industry is facing numerous legal challenges, many of which occur as a result of a very fast pace of space technologies development and failing of a legal system to adjust accordingly to these NewSpace calls.

What we observe today is that a space law capacity-building is following the developments of technologies, not playing a proactive role and therefore not ensuring the needed legal certainty (or even jeopardizing it, as the entrepreneurs will not wait for a legal framework to be shaped but instead will set precedents acting experimentally, making their own “wake-up” calls for an adequate legal enterprise).

An appropriate legal enterprise should be established in parallel to (if not anticipating) major technological advancements, not allowing them to evolve detached paving their way in legal limbo.

Olga in the UAE

Dr. Olga Stelmakh-Drescher

What would you recommend to someone looking at a career in space law to focus on?

To someone looking at a career in space law I would recommend to first of all acquire a solid international and business law background combined with interdisciplinary space related studies (e.g. Space Studies Program of the International Space University).

Ideally, theoretical knowledge should be combined with legal practice, some academic work and strong emotional intelligence that is needed when dealing with various actors.

Ideally, theoretical knowledge should be combined with legal practice, some academic work and strong emotional intelligence that is needed when dealing with various actors. Very importantly, the successful space lawyer should not be skeptical, but rather has to foresee all possible scenarios with associated risks and opportunities and diligently guide towards the most appropriate way ahead.

I always advocate for global thinking that provides for transforming numerous puzzles into one holistic picture.

I always advocate for global thinking that provides for transforming numerous puzzles into one holistic picture. Similar to the data that can be acquired by means of remote sensing, a lawyer can much easier comprehend the problem if thinking big and not in the dimensions of a concrete case.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be? Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

Honestly, I do not like to think how something would have been if … Perhaps if I would have done something differently, I would have been a different person and honestly I am happy with current myself. Projecting and visualizing the future, especially successful implementation of my ideas and plans, this is what I prefer. Past is something that did happen to us but the future is what excites me more as we can influence it.

As a piece of advice to all 10-year-old kids I would say: dream, demonstrate more curiosity, be passionate about what you like doing, be open and hungry for new knowledge, be a personality and do not be afraid to be different / think differently.

As a piece of advice to all 10-year-old kids I would say: dream, demonstrate more curiosity, be passionate about what you like doing, be open and hungry for new knowledge, be a personality and do not be afraid to be different / think differently, be creative, challenge yourself, strive to become an educated person and not a nerd, do not anticipate time and do not look for a universal algorithm of success, instead create your own story, read more and learn more languages as it is a constituent part of culture and mentality and therefore an enormous facilitator for your future.