Monica Lee, EMBA ’19
Monica Lee, EMBA ’19, joins Christopher Reichert, MOT ’04, to discuss her time in MIT Sloan's Executive MBA program, the importance of mentoring, and her career at NASA, where she currently serves as chief of staff at the Johnson Space Center.
Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is a conversational podcast with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Google, and Spotify.
Christopher Reichert: Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they are doing today. So, what does it mean to be a Sloanie? Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own very important one here at MIT Sloan.
Hi, I am your host, Christopher Reichert, and welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. My guest today is Monica Lee Foley, chief of staff and the third highest ranking female at NASA's Johnson Space Center, a legendary facility. Welcome, Monica.
Monica Lee: Hi, thank you so much, Chris. We're happy to be here.
Christopher Reichert: Great to have you. First, I love your Twitter name, which I hopefully got it right. @Girlphysicist?
Monica Lee: Correct.
Christopher Reichert: @girlphysicist. That's awesome. Where you describe yourself as follows: “A lover of God, a wife, daughter, sister, rocket scientist, lyric mezzo soprano,” which I want to come back to, “fashion stylist and world traveler.” I think the only thing that's missing is space traveler. You think you can add that one in?
Monica Lee Maybe 10 years ago, but probably not now.
Christopher Reichert: Oh, you can pull some strings, right? Let's see. Where to begin? Is there anything you wanted to add in there in terms of who you are?
Monica Lee: Perhaps MIT Sloanie, I am, I am. I haven't updated my Twitter in a while, and that would be probably a top three behind lover of God and wife and daughter.
Christopher Reichert: Excellent. And you've been at NASA for quite a while. How did you choose Sloan? How did Sloan come into your professional advancement?
Monica Lee: Yeah, so I have been at NASA nearly 24 years. And so I found myself, maybe 10 years ago, starting to look into MBA programs. And at that time, MIT did not have an Executive MBA program, and so I was actually considering quitting work and going full-time. Looked around at different schools, and nothing tickled my fancy, if you will. Then years later, looking up MIT's Sloan program, I visited for a preview weekend, and I fell in love. It was just absolutely the place that I felt like I fit in best. It's the only school that I applied to, and that's history.
Christopher Reichert: And so, both the extended and the remote aspects of the program, I take it that influenced your choice?
Monica Lee: So, extended, absolutely. Remote was probably not top of my list, but it worked out well. It actually worked out probably better than I would have ever imagined. It allowed me to continue working, and it just happened to be just the right flexibility I needed for my schedule.
Christopher Reichert: That's great. And so, you mentioned you've been at NASA for 20-plus years, right?
Monica Lee: Yes.
Christopher Reichert: So why now? Why Sloan now? Now being three-odd years ago, whatever it was.
Monica Lee: So, the previous six-ish years of my career, I basically focused on procurements. I negotiated Russian contracts on behalf of the U.S. government and NASA, and I worked with Russian space agencies, Roscosmos and Energia and some of their other base subcontractors. I was good at my job because I was technically competent at what I was buying, procuring and negotiating. I felt that I could be even stronger with an MBA to support that field, and I am a highly technical person. So my bachelor's is in physics, and I didn't want to go to a program where I only talked about case studies. I wanted to understand the science behind the good decisions, the science behind the poor decisions. And MIT is the only institution that offered that to me.
Christopher Reichert: So, are you fluent in Russian?
Monica Lee: I am not fluent in Russian.
Christopher Reichert: But you're fluent in the terms that you need to know for integration, right?
Monica Lee: Absolutely. And I also had a translator at all times for negotiations.
Christopher Reichert: Did you develop a taste for, I don't know, Russian vodkas as a negotiating tactic?
Monica Lee: There's plenty to go around, and it is a required necessity at the end of a business day there.
Christopher Reichert: So, NASA, and I would say that this profession, historically speaking, has been very male-centric. And so how did you break in and then persevere and flourish? Tell me about your resilience there and your inspirations. And eventually, I do want to come back to ask you about Katherine Johnson.
Monica Lee: Sure. Well, we can start with Katherine. So, I believe she became most famous after the movie, Hidden Figures. The book became public and folks caught on to scientists looking all kinds of people, not just white males right? And so that was a huge push for me to be able to go out and have conversations with little girls about STEM careers. That's one of my most loved hobbies is to go out and talk about STEM and encourage folks to academically pursue STEM...
Christopher Reichert: Hear, hear! I have three daughters. Well, my oldest has been doing Girls Who Code, which is a great program.
Monica Lee: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. And so I was able to leverage Katherine Johnson's story after the movie came out because, of course, very few folks would believe that people like her existed in her time. In comparing some of the struggles of then and now, you're right. It is a very white male-dominated agency, but we're working every day to change that. We don't need transformative leaders. They need to just be great, right? And that comes in all colors, shapes, and sizes.
Christopher Reichert: Absolutely. And so, you started out in a very technical path?
Monica Lee: Yes, I did. I started off straight out of undergrad, and I moved to Houston from Louisiana, Baton Rouge to be exact, and my first job at NASA was a flight controller for the International Space Station. So I worked in the mission control center for about 15 years. I loved it so much that even when I moved on to other roles at my center and in the agency, I maintained my flight controller cert and continued to work at space missions.
Christopher Reichert: And what does that mean, a flight controller?
Monica Lee: So, a flight controller is an engineer or scientist responsible for a specific system on board the spacecraft. The spacecraft was the International Space Station. My system was electrical power systems. During my tenure there, I earned all three certifications, and I was the first human being to do so. So that meant I was responsible for creating electrical power analysis—in short story, determining our power availability based off of generation from the solar rays and beta angles, depending on where the spacecraft was. If there was going to be a vehicle visiting, how we had to maneuver. All the way that into front control room, flight control room operations, where I was the lead in charge of the electrical power system while on my shift.
Christopher Reichert: So, you were the one who chastised the astronauts if someone snuck in a toaster oven and plugged it in and blew a fuse?
Monica Lee: Yes, absolutely. Hopefully, we haven't had that specific occurrence to happen.
Christopher Reichert: Remember, wasn't that the big challenge in Apollo 13 was some sort of electrical malfunction?
Monica Lee: Yes, you're absolutely right. And so that was on the human-rated launch space vehicle. Of course, ISS [International Space Station] is the human-occupied orbiting laboratory that we've got 16 international partners coming together to build this. So it's a 24-7 laboratory for the benefit of increasing the greatness of life for humans.
Christopher Reichert: Well, I will admit that I have an app on my phone which tells me when the Space Station is near me, and I can look up. It's hard to see in Boston, but when I was up in Maine recently, there actually are stars, you realize.
Monica Lee: It looks like a beautiful, bright star shooting through the cosmos. I love it. I love that.
Christopher Reichert: It's beautiful. Yeah, yeah. It's really quite amazing. So any scary stories or hairy stories of incidents with the…
Monica Lee: Well, the nature of that job is, and I will say it seems like hours and hours of sheer boredom because you're watching basically the craft bore through the sky. And the moment something fails or there is an anomaly, it seems like hours and hours of sheer terror and panic. Of course, sitting in that seat, it seems that way, and that's a total exaggeration if you're on the outside looking in.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah. That is definitely life and death, high-stress situations, right? When you're a couple hundred thousand miles away too, or whatever the distance is. You can't just send an Uber with a spare part, I'm sure.
Monica Lee: Yeah. There's no handy Home Depot for you.
Christopher Reichert: So, as you moved up in the hierarchy at Johnson Space Center and NASA generally, you started thinking about how business school or management training might help you. And so, you said you looked at a few different programs, and you came across the EMBA program, and you kind of talked about how there was a few different aspects that attracted you, one obviously being that it was something you could do over time. So, when you think back on your time at Sloan, is there anything that Sloan changed you, or made you think differently about, in how you approach either management or coming from a technical into a management position?
Monica Lee: Absolutely. There are so many ways. There are so many, wow, so many actions to that. So first of all, Sloan teaches you that you can run faster and run farther than you ever thought you could. And, mind you, the cohort absolutely consists of highly-accomplished folks, but Sloan even propels you forward even more so. You understand how to attack problems by very different eyes. I will say it produces different lenses and different filters for how you look at everyday problems. It's just colored differently.
So before coming to Sloan, working in government, you really get bogged down in all of its histories and traditional ways of doing business. Sloan has enlightened me in so many ways to color the problem in a different way, that I felt like when I returned to NASA, I was a new hire with 20-plus years of experience.
Christopher Reichert: That's excellent. Yeah. I mean, I guess in the work that you had been doing prior to that, the expertise came from knowing precisely the parameters of what you were doing and what was an anomaly and what was not an anomaly. And it seems to me that when you get into management, it becomes much more subjective or gray areas, where you don't have the time to know the right answer, you just have to make the best estimate you have based on the 20-plus years of experience.
Monica Lee: Yes, yes. What I've captured from Sloan, is even more so speaking with my cohort and being in the classroom setting with these guys, listening to their perspectives and how they have solved problems. It's very different from profit and nonprofit government and private entities. But to be able to be immersed in conversations, dialogues with these people for 18 months, and these relationships continue well beyond Sloan. That's the wonderful thing about how the administration puts the cohorts together. We still talk nearly daily on some type of app. It's amazing, right? But to take those ideas and transform them into what will work in my governmental nonprofit setting, it's just been amazing.
Christopher Reichert: Is there a class that you distinctly remember, or how about a class that you wish you had taken?
Monica Lee: So, I distinctly remember DMD with Georgia [Perakis] just because she's number one, a profound professor. She believes what she's teaching. She's very knowledgeable, and she gives you real-life practical application. And I like the math. I need the numbers. I need the data to speak to me. And she has taught how to interpret the data in a way to give you the most beneficial outcome. So yes, that's probably one of my favorite classes.
Christopher Reichert: And have you always been good at math or drawn to math?
Monica Lee: I've always been drawn to math. Yeah. I love the labs.
Christopher Reichert: Bunsen burner?
Monica Lee: I probably would have become a scientist in my former life, yeah, so I could experiment, change things, but I stuck with physics.
Christopher Reichert: That's great. Because, I mean, it's not that you're Katherine Powers' age, Katherine Johnson's age rather, but I mean, it's still probably not the norm when you were in elementary and middle school, right?
Monica Lee: It absolutely was not, right? And so I remember actually making science experiments in my mom and dad's home. I would make alarms. So I would tie things together so bells would ring if a door opened or if this happened.
Christopher Reichert: That's awesome.
Monica Lee: But they allowed me to be my organic self. And so I have always believed that I am my own competition, right? I can do whatever I put my mind to. And MIT has just expanded that.
Christopher Reichert: Well, I just learned that I shouldn't be mixing baking soda and vinegar, even though it has a great fizz to it. I love it.
Monica Lee: If you want to help a kid with a volcano project, I think you could use that. That'd be great.
Christopher Reichert: Okay. As long as I'm not producing the noxious fumes! So now that you're in a position of authority and seniority, how do you leverage that for inspiring other girls, or women, whatever age, to pursue STEM or be inspired with what you have accomplished?
Monica Lee: So, I will say, first and foremost, I start by acknowledging the women that I work with. There are women that have, of course, come well before me, and they just need a thank you. They just need know that I acknowledge their tenure and how that's helped me in many ways, whether it be mentorship closeup or from afar off, right? Watching these females navigate the system. Last year, actually this year in March right before COVID, I initiated our first International Women's Day celebration at my center to do just that, acknowledge the women in my workforce.
And I have also mentioned that I love to mentor young girls. So I'm pretty active in several nonprofits here in the Houston area where we develop mentor relationships. They do summer camps on STEM, as well as total well-being. And I go out and speak to elementary, middle, and high school kids every opportunity that I can.
Christopher Reichert: That's awesome.
Monica Lee: It's hard to become what you can't imagine, right? So I've got to put my face out there.
Christopher Reichert: Absolutely. Yeah. I think that's great. So back to NASA, how does Blue Origin and SpaceX, where do those kinds of initiatives fit into the planning or the execution side? Historically, it's always been NASA who's put the rockets up in the air and et cetera, et cetera, and we're shifting to what I guess I would call a hybrid approach. And what's kind of your take on that in terms of how that's going to change how we approach space travel, exploration, discovery?
Monica Lee: So, commercialization partnerships are a necessary requirement so that we can explore farther and faster. I say partnerships because I want to clarify. I speak to people and they often say, "What do you think of Elon and SpaceX as your competitors?" They're not competitors. The government is funding the contracts, right? So I don't know any person that pays their competitors to be successful, right? So let's clarify that.
Now, it is commercialization partnerships with private entities, right? Because we have the expertise and the knowledge and the experience that we can share to benefit American companies to go beyond, right? It's going to take everyone's expertise and ability to get us to Mars, right? To get the woman on the moon in 2024. It is a necessary requirement. And when we spoke earlier about transformational leadership, that is just that.
Christopher Reichert: I was trying to think of what that Netflix show is. Is it Out There? The one recently with, oh, I can't remember who the star is at the moment, where they go to Mars.
Monica Lee: I haven't seen that one. And I will tell you, with my experience, it's kind of difficult to watch some of the movies that come out about space because I'm judging them and it's not always the way. So, my husband, first of all, he refuses to go to those movies with me. I'm like, "Okay, great, spending a lot of time solving an easy problem the hard way. I don't want to watch this."
Christopher Reichert: You just have to view it as entertainment, right?
Monica Lee: Absolutely. But they serve their purpose, right? Because it's helping to create and build the interest in space. And space, it does have a purpose, right?
Christopher Reichert: Yeah. I think that, I mean, to your point about it's not a competition, but it's really collaboration. It seems to me it's a classic case of build or buy, right? And historically, it's been build, and that's been necessary, I think, in the early stages of this new industry, this new outreach. But now it makes sense, in a very complex economy that we have with a lot of expertise that's distributed, to partner and buy some things. So it shouldn't be too much of a shock, right?
Monica Lee: It shouldn't.
Christopher Reichert: So, where does the mezzo soprano fit in?
Monica Lee: So, in college, well, all of my life, I've sang. My entire family is musical. My sister is a jazz and classical pianist. My mom's a lyric soprano as well. And my little six-year-old niece, I'm trying to train her, but her range is still alto. I keep singing these high tones, and she looks at me strangely and walks off. I don't think I'm going to win that. I've loved operas and classical music for as long as I can remember. Jazz, gospel. My house was very musical. And so I picked up the traits of imitating my mom around the house and formed it as a minor in my undergraduate. And that's history.
Christopher Reichert: I guess music does have a very strong mathematical component to it as well.
Monica Lee: It does. There have been studies linked with people's mathematical ability and their appreciation for jazz.
Christopher Reichert: Yes. Right. That makes sense.
Monica Lee: It does, yes.
Christopher Reichert: It's a very intellectual music style, thinking about it, how it's being broken down, how it's speeding up and how it's being sliced and diced.
Monica Lee: Absolutely. I think your appreciation grows the more that you understand what you're listening to.
Christopher Reichert: And I think one thing that I find frustrating, and I imagine you might share this, is how men, when they describe themselves, whether it's sort of a Twitter bio, the way you've done it, or historically, it's been less rounded. My feeling is that in the early part of sort of liberation, women had to kind of follow that less-rounded presentation of themselves. What I am enjoying, I guess, is that I am seeing that you can show all facets of your personality, and it's a strength, not a distraction. I don't know if you're finding that for you as well professionally.
Monica Lee: I think it's important that I represent my authentic self. That's the best version of me. And I am not only a physicist. I am not only a female. I am not only a minority female. I am all of these wonderful things, and I have all of this to offer the world. So if there is, at any point, anything I say or do that helps me to relate to another human being, I need to represent that facet of myself.
Christopher Reichert: I agree. I think it's a move in the right direction, in my opinion. So do you have a favorite Sloan memory?
Monica Lee: Ah, a favorite? There are so many. I would get excited, so excited, on Thursdays when I boarded the plane just to go to Boston. There's something about that ecosystem that transforms the way you think about life and the way that you value others. So my favorite memory is getting on board to go to that very special place. Always a good time. Always.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah. It's a lot to pack in on, what is it, a four-day weekend? You come on a Thursday and leave on a late Sunday type of thing?
Monica Lee: You leave on a Sunday. I'd leave on a Sunday.
Christopher Reichert: And somehow you have to pack in classes and drinks and socializing and studying, right?
Monica Lee: Classes and studying and fun times with my classmates. Yes, absolutely that.
Christopher Reichert: That's great. Did you have any favorite professors that you either keep in touch with or keep up with?
Monica Lee: Actually, I keep in touch with Georgia [Perakis] on social media mostly, but I do feel like I still have access to my professors. If I have a question or I have an idea, I know that they are available. That's just the nature of Sloan, right? We grow together, and we continue to stick together in the future.
Christopher Reichert: That's great. And you also mentioned, by the way, the fashion stylist. I wanted to come back to that. That's another facet of your personality. And how do you bring that to the office?
Monica Lee: Oh my gosh. Yes! Working in this male-dominated society, what I say on my winning, right? But no. So, I dibbled and dabbled a little bit with a couple of gospel artists, dressing those guys for either award ceremonies or normal performances. I don't have so much time for that anymore because it required a lot of shopping and understanding a person's style, but I do enjoy fashion. I love a nice pump.
Christopher Reichert: How is it going with COVID and the work environment now? I mean, I think everyone has kind of their Zoom outfit, right? Which is very different than what you would have in a normal work environment. But beyond that, how has your role changed, and how remote are you all?
Monica Lee: We have what we deem “mission critical” and “mission central personnel,” the folks that are working, for example, in a mission control center, making sure our crew remain safe on board the International Space Station. Also, we have visiting vehicles. So we'll have to bring more folks in onsite to support those launches and dockings and landings. We have folks that are working on the Artemis program, making sure that those milestones can continue.
We have a significantly reduced body count onsite physically, but the work continues. And so folks are working from home. I feel like I am busier than ever at home. I think folks get into a more relaxed frame of mind, and so calls happen whenever, emails are constantly coming, and you've got to just very quickly prioritize your day, not even the week. It's your day, what has to happen, and we continue. We're trying to bring some folks back on as early as the 19th [of October]. We're continuing to study the COVID activity in our area though. And so we'll remain cautious. And if we cannot go on the 19th or if we go and we've got to back out of it, then we will.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah. I guess it's a wait-and-see, right? Take it day-by-day.
So, one of the challenges that people talk about when they go away or do an advanced degree, at Sloan or other places, is when they go back to work, their head has been expanded, their thought process has been expanded, and they have new models and new approaches. And then other people haven't, right? It's kind of like you've traveled the world and you've seen Tibet, and people come back and say, "Sorry, I didn't do it so I don't know what you're talking about." How do you bridge that with your colleagues? Although I suspect that maybe NASA and Johnson Space Center is probably more out there in that thinking than other places. But how do you kind of bridge that without people thinking, "Oh boy, here she has come back from that hoity-toity program?"
Monica Lee: For, I didn't go back to the exact same position. I left Russian contract negotiations. I actually interviewed for my chief of staff job while I was at Sloan on a school day. I stepped out of class and had my interview. So, I moved up, so didn't go back to the exact same position. But my boss, who was the center director of the Johnson Space Center, he is a transformational leader. He welcomes the new insight. He wants to do business differently.
His vision is dare, unite, explore. That's his theme for our center, where we're going to explore new frontiers, and we dare to do work in a different way. We need to be more productive. He understands that we can't become the next Radio Shack or Kodak. We can't. You cannot become an institution that doesn't keep up with the technology. If you're using today's technology to solve tomorrow's technology, you're already behind. And so he has a very strong vision for our center and the role that we will play within the agency. And it was very welcomed.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah. I mean, I guess when I think of NASA, I do think of a culture of innovation and just born, it's in its DNA from the early days. So that's a great benefit.
Monica Lee: Yes, absolutely.
Christopher Reichert: What's your definition of success?
Monica Lee: My definition of success is leading a life that inspires people to be the best version of themselves, that gives them hope that we can always do better, and we can always be better. And NASA and MIT fit perfectly in my box of happiness, right? MIT academically prepares you for the greatest challenge, which is transforming a culture. NASA inspires the world to believe in the power of exploration. So it's the perfect scenario.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah. NASA's mission is the definition of a big, hairy, audacious goal, right?
Monica Lee: So is MIT!
Christopher Reichert: Yes, exactly. So do you have any advice or thoughts for prospective students at Sloan?
Monica Lee: So, if you're considering, I say, if you accept the opportunity presented to you, give it everything you've got. Take advantage of all that Sloan has to offer. There is tremendous networking within your cohorts. You guys are placed together for a reason. It's very well thought out by the Sloan staff. Build relationships with your cohorts. Make great use of your time with your professors. Ask the hard questions. They will answer. It may not be the answer you expect or the answer that you like, but they will answer, and they will dialogue with you. So I just say, if you're going for it, go for it all the way.
Christopher Reichert: That's great. And here's a question I ask everyone I speak to, and I'm kind of scared of what you're going to say here, but what's the last thing you geeked out about?
Monica Lee: Oh, the last thing? Let's see. I think, in my work, yeah, if it's something from work, it's when the administrator announced that we were going to put the first woman on the moon in my tenure. It's 2024. I'll still be working. I won't be retired by then. So I will have my hands in putting the first woman on the moon in my lifetime. And the next man, right? How phenomenal is that? That's a story to tell little girls. No matter where they're from, no matter where we meet, that resonates with everyone.
Christopher Reichert: That's amazing. I hope you're keeping a journal.
Monica Lee: That's a good idea.
Christopher Reichert: My father is 95, and he just wrote a 100-page kind of memoir of his life, from fighting in World War II to becoming an architect and raising a family and all that. So, yeah, and it's amazing. The fact that he did it on the typewriter or the word processor is a whole other story, but anyway.
Well, I want to thank Monica Lee Foley, chief of staff at NASA's Johnson Space Center, for joining us today on Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. It's been a pleasure.
Monica Lee: Awesome. Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
Christopher Reichert: Thank you. Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is produced by the office of external relations at MIT Sloan School of Management. You can subscribe to this podcast by visiting our website, mitsloan.mit.edu/alumni, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Support for this podcast comes in part from the Sloan Annual Fund, which provides essential, flexible funding to ensure that our community can pursue excellence. Make your gift today by visiting giving.mit.edu/sloan. To support this show or if you have an idea for a topic or a guest you think we should feature, drop us a note at email@example.com.