<img height="1" width="1" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=205228923362421&amp;ev=PageView &amp;noscript=1">

Woman-owned small business in space.

There are few women-owned businesses in the space industry. We speak to Shawn Linam, President, CEO and a founder of Qwaltec about leading by example.



Deep Space


After building a successful career in space systems, it took a layoff to push three founders to start a highly successful aerospace training company. CEO Shawn Linam tells her story of how she launched Arizona-based Qwaltec and what it’s like to be a role model for women in aerospace.

You can connect with Shawn on LinkedIn and learn more about Qwaltec on their website.

Remember to leave us a 5-star rating and review in your favorite podcast app. 

Miss an episode? Sign up for our weekly intelligence briefing, Signals and Space, and you’ll never miss a beat.

Audience Survey

We want to hear from you! Please complete our 4 question survey. It’ll help us get better and deliver you the most mission-critical space intel every day.

Want to hear your company in the show?

You too can reach the most influential leaders and operators in the industry. Here’s our media kit. Contact us at space@n2k.com to request more info.

Want to join us for an interview?

Please send your pitch to space-editor@n2k.com and include your name, affiliation, and topic proposal.

T-Minus is a production of N2K Networks, your source for strategic workforce intelligence. © 2023 N2K Networks, Inc. 

Look around at any space event and it's pretty obvious.

The gender gap is still a problem in the space industry.

Women represent on average only 20% of the international space industry, and women are more likely to be employed in administrative and project management roles than in operations and leadership.

Now, to be clear, there are myriad reasons behind the complex problem of underrepresentation, and today we're going to speak to one CEO about leading by example.

Welcome to T-Minus Deep Space from N2K Networks.

I'm Maria Varmasus.

Sean Linem built a successful career in space systems, but it took a layoff to push her and two co-founders to start a highly successful aerospace training company.

Sean is now the president and CEO of the company she co-founded, and she joins us today to tell her story of how she launched Arizona-based Qualtech and what it's like to be a role model for women in aerospace.

I am a founder and CEO of Qualtech, and we are a space engineering services company, predominantly in government contracting.

And I got my background and my start in the space industry at NASA at Johnson Space Center back in the 90s.

I actually majored in biomedical engineering in college and didn't really know what to do when it was time to start looking for a career.

And I did well in school and I was told I was smart, so I thought I needed to do something smart.

I also wanted to do something that helped other people.

That's always motivated me and give back.

And so I was thinking, "Oh, I'll become a doctor."

Then a couple of things made me go, "Wait, I don't really know if that's what I'd like to do," and I discovered biomedical engineering, which I gave you an engineering background, but a lot of the people majoring in that degree went on to medical school.

And I don't think I even really understood what an engineer did.

It just sounded, again, "Oh, okay, that'll be good.

I'll have an engineering degree and then go to medical school."

In college, I struggled a lot more with engineering than I anticipated.

I also didn't realize you can change your major, or it didn't occur to me that I could change my major.

They don't often tell you that.

No, I did great in the biochemistry and molecular biology and all of the biology side.

I did not do well on the engineering side.

So it reached a point where my advisor was like, "You're not going to make it to medical school with these grades."

And at that point, I lost my confidence.

And so I ended up figuring out why I wanted to change my major my senior year in college.

And in fact, my second semester, senior year.

And my father said, "Please don't change your major.

Just get the degree.

You're so close.

You don't have to be an engineer, but finish the degree."

So I did.

And then really didn't know what I was going to do after college.

Struggled to find a job.

I became a church day care worker and a cocktail waitress right out of college.

So really putting that degree to use.

And very opposite experiences, a church day care worker and a cocktail waitress.

Similar behavior though sometimes, I mean.

Yes, yes.

Good point.

I remember five year olds that I was watching.

But the cocktail waitress was actually incredible experience because I was pretty intimidated by men and, you know, had majored in a male dominated field.

Although there are more females in biomedical engineering than most, but still at that time, not very many.

So the cocktail waitress experience was actually incredible for making me realize there was nothing to be intimidated about these men.

And so I feel like, you know, that led me to my first job in fluid power.

I was at this time, a new medical school was out.

I had pursued that a little and realized I got faint very easily and didn't like people in pain and etc.

And really I didn't want to try to get over it either.

And so I was considering law school now because OK, I'll be a biotechnology patent attorney.

Well, then that sounded incredibly boring because it involved a lot of reading, which I also didn't want to do.

So I accepted this job training pneumatics and programmable controls.

Pneumatics, electrical pneumatics and programmable controls.

This was also a very male dominated field.

In fact, I was the first woman the company ever hired in a technical position.


And even at the time thought, OK, this is very archaic.

I was going to say, how does it feel when they tell you that, right?

You're like, you're the first.

Well, at one hand I was excited because I thought, you know, I'm going to make a difference and I'm going to show all these men that, you know, a woman can do anything a man can do.

And it didn't take long to realize I don't want to show them.

I don't care to change their opinions because they were so archaic.

Not everyone, but a large percentage.

The sexual harassment was strong then.

I think the president of our company had eight sexual harassment lawsuits going on at the time.

Yes, it was quite an interesting industry.

So knew I wanted out.

And I often say I stumbled into space because I was in my best friend's wedding.

I was a maid of honor and her best man worked at NASA and he trained astronauts.

And he said, you already know how to do training and you have an engineering degree.

That's that's what gets hired at NASA.

And I went, oh, that sounds cool.

Never had considered NASA.

I still had an image of again, men, white men and white coats with pocket protectors.

Didn't didn't visualize myself that way.

Quickly learned it was not that way at all.

And in fact did get hired, got hired initially to work in mission operations directorate, but on the crew health care system and the training division.

So my biomedical engineering degree did come in handy and I didn't I didn't have to design anything.

So that was wonderful.

I just had to understand how it worked.

So that was right up my alley.

But NASA was a completely different experience.

And back then it's still, you know, it can tell stories that still would say, you know, today would not be acceptable.

But there were so many women engineers there.

And so really found my place not only in a passion for space, but with other women engineers for support and, you know, but tribe as they say.

So that was really incredible experience.

Left NASA to work.

I was young and ambitious and impatient that the space station wasn't flying soon enough.

And I was working for a bureaucracy.

It was an amazing bureaucracy.

But, you know, when you're wanting to move up and conquer the world, I guess I wasn't patient.

And so left to work on the first large count constellation of satellites.

I was going to join the commercial world.

And at the end of the day, I already went bankrupt and the space station started assembling.

So maybe my decision making wasn't the best there, but also led me to start call tech with two co-founders.

So the three of us all were working for a company that we got laid off.

Never thought that would happen to me because I thought I was very specialized.

And so no time like starting your own business, but then when you're unemployed.

So that was the beginning of call tech.

You have a fascinating story.

We talked about this previously, but it's amazing how in some ways we had a very similar college parallels.

That's kind of incredible.

I haven't met many people who also went, I really don't want to do this.

And when people kind of like, it's too late to change, which is just, I feel like we could talk for probably hours on that alone.

Because it just seems like so much to say someone who's so young, like you can't change your path now.

It just seems crazy that we do that to kids.

Anyway, that's what the benefit of time.

You co-founded a company at a time, which is, you know, when people get laid off, I've been laid off in the past.

It's not a fun feeling.

You're trying to figure out who you are, what does this mean?

What is my next step?

It can be a very vulnerable time, very scary time, but you turned that into an opportunity.

I mean, tell me about Qualtech.

Like, what do you do?

So I'll just back up a little.

Another thing I didn't mention is I also had a newborn at the time.

Another level of difficulty on top of that.


I had a two-year-old and a two-month-old.

I literally got laid off the day I went back from maternity leave.

So I learned that you can't lay somebody off while they're on maternity leave, which is why it happened when I got back.

So, yes, wasn't feeling super marketable.

You feel very vulnerable after you've had a baby or I did.

Yeah, I did too.

And didn't, you know, started applying for jobs, started considering things, but also, you know, had these two little ones at home.

The advantage I had is my spouse.

He also, we worked together.

We met at NASA and then so we started the business together along with a third partner.

So that helped in having the partnership and having something, you know, working together in the long run.

It may not have been great because we're no longer married, but it was really ideal at the time for us starting our own.

For us starting our business.

So, and Qualtech is so we, the three of us that started the business all had worked at NASA together in mission operations directorate.

So training, doing crew training for a space shuttle, working on early development for space station.

And then at Iridium, we had done similar work training the initial cadre of operators doing simulations and rehearsals, preparing ops products, et cetera, to, you know, operate the spacecraft.

And so when we started the company, it was really doing similar type work.

So we also all had security clearances, which we had gotten through the company.

And so one of our first jobs was with Lockheed Martin.

And it was actually developing training for some classified satellite system that it was ideal at the time because, you know, they needed the people with the right clearances, which are often hard to find a lot of the training that we did morphed into online training, which we had discovered.

I don't even think it was called online training then, you know, computer based training or everything was starting to be online.

But, you know, one of the things we had discovered with Iridium, you know, had operate, you had a backup control center in Arizona, and you had the primary control center in Virginia.

And the initial launches all happened out of Arizona.

So you've got, you know, crews operating out of two locations.

You've got the development happening in one state and operations happening in another state.

And so we spent a lot of time traveling.

And so we got very interested in how do you deliver training to shift workers and, you know, people where your information is, you know, spread across the country.

So we were able to take that into Qualtech.

And so one of our first jobs was doing some classroom training, but also developing online training for some analysts and operators.

So that was really the start of the company.

When you're working in satellite operations, unlike the human space flight, you don't have as big of a team that can specialize in all of the ops products, etc.

So a lot of times we get ready to do the training and the ops products weren't ready.

Then we started writing the ops products to support the training.

So so eventually our business became really specialized in mission readiness and how to operate spacecraft.

So not only training the teams, but all of the ops products.

And now we've even we've migrated to the ground system development as well.

So we we have even started developing some of our own products for mission operations in particular for CubeSats and SmallSats.

And so long term we see this really integrated approach to operate and training in the most efficient way possible.

We'll be right back after this quick break.

That's really incredible.

Congratulations on all your success, by the way.

This is that's just an amazing you've told me so much about some not so great experiences followed by like you figuring out how to turn that into something that works for you, which is not easy to do.

Given your your experience and given what you do now, I mean, you must think a lot about sort of human condition is the phrase that's coming to mind when I'm thinking about when we talk about workforce issues, bringing more women into the the space workforce.

We've sort of had this conversation offline too, like we can't help but think about this being women in this world.

But I am just curious, again, given all the work you do around training, especially the non technical side of that, what are we still missing?

I mean, there's so much that we're still missing, but a lot of women don't want to be in this world for some obvious and not so obvious reasons, or maybe they do, but they don't think it's for them.

Like, how do we reach out?

How do we make things better?

I think it's such a complex question because there are so many aspects to it and probably different answers for for every woman.

You know, I just know from my experience, when I was coming up, I thought, okay, the way I'm going to be successful is to be one of the guys to be really easy to get along with, you know, to prove that I'm as smart as they are.

Or that I'm as capable as they are.

Some of it wasn't even conscious.

But I thought that I needed to act like a man.

Like in high school, I was very creative.

I needle did needle point.

I took art in school.

I even learned to knit from my grandmother, you know, so many things.

And I was a musician.

I played piano.

And when I went to college in major and engineering, it's like I turned that side of my brain off, which is not actually, you know, now what we see is technical people are so creative and so many of them pursue both, but I did not.

And, you know, I really think I shut down part of myself thinking that was going to make me successful.

And so tried to, you know, only focus on the half of half of my brain that was logical and unemotional and all the things.

And I won't say that I was fake, you know, it was still myself, but it wasn't all of me, you know, I shut down a piece.

And so NASA actually started to help that transition.

I met women there who were, you know, unapologetically female.

And I still remember some of my, a bunch of us threw a New Year's Eve party one time and they wanted to make bows.

And I'm like, I can't let anyone see me making a bow.

Are you kidding?

You know, and so, but, you know, that, that was the mindset that I had.

And, you know, I reached a point in my career that I did start feeling fake.

Like I didn't feel like I was bringing, you know, the language was new at the time to, you know, start talking about being authentic, et cetera.

But yeah, when I started to learn about that, I went, yeah, I don't feel authentic.

I'm like, it's okay to be a woman in this environment and it's okay to be emotional and it's okay to manage differently than a man and have different priorities.

And not only is it okay, but hey, a lot of the employees actually like working for our company better because we're not non-emotional.

And I'm not saying that all men are unemotional, but you know, just that stereotype.

Yeah, yeah, even if you are a stoic woman, you're still told either implicitly or not, you know, that that is a thing you must repress.

The other thing that I did was think that, and again, not consciously, but I remember thinking, I don't need to draw attention to my gender.

I don't, you know, let's, let's try to be, you know, gender, no one notice.

And, and then also I didn't think it was important for me to necessarily help other women because I figured it out and I did it.

They can do it too.

And in fact, I almost, and that it wasn't like a not wanting to help them.

It was almost like a insecurity issue that if I can do it, anyone else certainly can.

So, you know, they don't need my help.

It was more from that perspective.

Initially, I was not the CEO of the company.

I became the CEO a little over 10 years ago and I eventually bought both of my partners out.

So now I'm the sole owner of the company.

And so that was a completely different, it feels like a new company still because of the difference in dynamics.

But as I started to get asked to speak in universities and get started to be asked to speak to women's groups and, and I was the, the STEM director for a girls charity for a bit.

I realized how much women and young women are just looking for that, not just the role model, but the example of what they can be.

And so then my whole mindset shifted to, and my daughter told me, mom, you need to tell your story.

I also didn't make good grades in engineering.

I was so ashamed of that.

So I just left that part out.

And when her, when she, her friends were in college and some of them weren't doing well, she said, they need to know that you didn't do well and look how successful you've been.

So that said, that doesn't necessarily answer your question.

It's an impossible question to answer, I think, honestly.

And you said that yourself, which I feel like I set you up for failure.

I'm sorry about that.

It is, I mean, I don't know how I would even answer that question to be honest.

But I just, I, as you've spoken a lot to a lot of women, young girls and women who are looking to you as a woman CEO in an industry that is very male centric.

I mean, your experiences are very unique.

And you are that living example of, I mean, I grew up in the 90s.

I didn't know many women CEO.

I mean, I will admit being on the C, the C track was not and is not my path.

But at the same time, if it had been, I don't know who I would have looked to.

It's just not, it's just not a thing that was available to me as far as I knew.

You said something about the bad grades.

I remember having that same feeling because I left engineering, as you know, I left engineering school after two years into it because my grades were just not great.

And I was not enjoying it.

It wasn't, it wasn't just like I didn't, my grades were bad.

And so I left in shame.

It was, I was really miserable.

And that's why my grades were bad.

And I remember I married an engineer and he told me, oh, everyone's grades were bad.

Didn't you know that?

Everybody got C's.

What were you worried?

This was like 10 years into marriage and my husband just springs it on me.

He's like, well, you guys didn't all just weren't, wasn't everybody an academic probation?

I'm just thinking, I thought it was just me.

And I felt like, oh, I remember my, I had a physics professor who I was a freshman, I think it was freshman physics.

And he, I went to him for help and I was doing so poorly and I asked him, I was asking him for help.

And he said, you should change your major to physics.

And I said, are you kidding?

I have a C in your class.

And I said, and I'm like barely a C, you know, like a gentleman C, right?


And he said, oh, well, you have the second highest grade in the class.

And I still didn't understand the physics.

I'm going to be honest.

I don't know how I had that grade, but, but yeah, to your point, you know, a lot of people didn't do well.

But I think again, I can't speak for, for men, but, you know, we hear that women think they have to do things perfectly.

Whereas a man is like, no, I don't have to be able to do it perfectly.

And, and, and I, and, and being a CEO, CEO, you can't possibly have all of the experience necessary to be a CEO unless perhaps you've been one previously.

The first time certainly can't.

And so, so yeah, I think that that is an important message for women.

You don't, you don't have to be perfect and you don't have to be able to do it all.

You just have to be able to figure it out.

That's such a great attitude.

And I love hearing that you've spoken to a lot of women and young, and young girls about there was a lot in what you said that I was like, wow, that's so important.

I think it's a very, I don't know if it's a phase as much as like it's a very common thing that a lot of women think about ourselves.

It's very hard to get out of that mindset.

I have a podcast now called in her in her orbit.

I think it's a very common thing that a lot of women think about ourselves.

It's very hard to get out of that mindset.

I have a podcast now called in her in her orbit.

And the whole idea is to profile women in the space industry so that more women can see and men too.

So men can, you know, maybe understand the nuances that women deal with in the space industry.

But I asked a woman to be my guest recently and she said, oh, I don't do girly things.

And I thought at first I thought, well, I don't, I don't do girly things.

And I thought at first I thought, well, I don't know what that means.

And then when I, when I asked, it was the same, the same, like I don't want to be like pointing out that I'm a woman.

I just want to be seen as a good engineer and I 100% get that.

Yeah, you want to be seen as a great engineer, not as a woman who's a good engineer.

A woman engineer, you know, right?


Yeah, I get that.

But, but that said, you know, I did feel the same at one point, but I don't feel that way now.

I, I, the more that, you know, the conversation about diversity and inclusivity, et cetera.

I know some people have a negative connotation about that.

But what I love about it is really opening up that dialogue and helping, you know, even a woman like me in the industry realize all the nuances that I had taken for granted or, you know, had a mindset that was not as inclusive because, you know, if you don't, if you're not exposed to all of those different opinions and skills, you don't always value them.

And so I am, I love now the conversation of including people not like me because we have such better problem solving and creativity when we have all the differing opinions.

So now I do think it's important for women.

I mean, that's, that's what I am.

So I had had someone once say, well, why do you only support STEM for women?

So, well, I don't only support STEM for women, but I am a woman.

And so that's, you know, who I relate to the most.

And that's who I'm trying to inspire of it.

I'd be happy to inspire young men too, if that, if that so happens.

But, you know, I do think it's important for other women to see that, hey, I struggled and I, I didn't make great grades and I didn't know what I was doing in most of my jobs and all the things.

And look, it still turned out pretty well.

A good mentor in the right place can really change your life.

But also just some of that sort of shared knowledge that many people have that when you're on the outside of that, you just don't know like that moment that lightning bolt for me when my husband was like, oh yeah, we all got that grades.

And I'm going, you did because myself and all my fellow female engineer friends, I remember us studying pretty much every night and all was panicked.

We just thought it was just us.

I remember thinking like, and I still know all of those friends that I went to engineering school with and most of us are moms now.

All of us are working in some part of science, technology, engineering in some way.

Some of them are in the C suite.

Some of them are more the tactical level of things of doing the engineering work.

And then there's me doing the columns.

We all stayed in that world and, you know, it's, you know, a C in physics, although actually I really loved physics.

I'll go on the record.

I was really good at physics.

It's one of my shining stars.

But, you know, it's, they're always like the classes where you got that gentleman's scene, you're thinking it's over.

I will be, I'm a fraud.

I will never make it.

And then ends up actually, you can do just fine.

But it's very hard when you're in school.


And I think you made an important point and I didn't realize this at the time is I wasn't not doing well because I wasn't capable or wasn't smart enough, which is what I believed at the time.

Oh, I, if I was smarter or more capable, I could do this.

I didn't like it.

And so the things that I liked, I did wonderfully in.

And, but no one, I didn't have that guidance to say, Hey, do you actually, you know, enjoy this?

Maybe, maybe that's your problem.

That is part of the whole STEM conversation that I feel is really missing.

And I'm sure you have also had this conversation with men, women, folks of all genders who are just like, you know, I was told I need to go into STEM because it makes a lot of money.

But I hated it, but my parents told me I had to do it anyway.

And I graduated and I hate my life.

I've had that conversation countless times with people and I'm going, that's not how life should be.

That's really not.

And I think that's also an important point.

We don't want women in STEM just because they're smart and just to be in STEM.

We want them doing what they're passionate about.

And, but we don't want them staying away from STEM because they don't have the confidence or the thought that they can do it.

I think both of those messages are important.

And I have two daughters.

They're both in their twenties now.

And so my oldest daughter is getting her PhD in molecular engineering, studying immunotherapy and brilliant.

My younger daughter also brilliant, majored in film and television.

And she's so creative and she's an amazing writer.

And, you know, they're both incredibly smart, but, you know, one liked STEM and one didn't.

But that doesn't mean, but she still, you know, works in and around a STEM field, which is also also an opportunity.

That's it for T-Minus Deep Space for April 27th, 2024.

We'd love to know what you think of this podcast.

You can email us at space@ntuk.com or submit the survey in the show notes.

Your feedback ensures that we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in this rapidly changing space industry.

This episode was produced by Alice Carruth, mixing by Elliot Peltzman and Trey Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliot Peltzman.

Our associate producer is Liz Stokes.

Our executive producer is Jen Iben.

Our VP is Brandon Karp, and I'm Maria Varmazes.

Thanks for listening.

We'll see you next time.

[Music] (gentle music)

Similar posts

Stay in the loop on new releases. 

Subscribe below to receive information about new blog posts, podcasts, newsletters, and product information.