Interview: the Executive Director and #HQLife
by Matteo Cappella


She has been the executive director (ED) of the Space Generation Advisory Council for the past two and a half years. Time for a talk with Clémentine Decoopman about her journey, experiences and live at SGAC Headquarters (HQ).

Clémentine, you have been working at the SGAC HQ for almost three years now, of which two and a half as Executive Director. How did you become involved with SGAC in the first place?  
It all happened pretty recently, in 2015 to be more precise. I was working for Arianespace in Washington DC, with Mr. Clayton Mowry – the Washington DC Director at that time. Clayton was very supportive toward SGAC, and made me discover the SpaceGen community. I decided to attend the SGFF and the SGx of that year and got hooked immediately: I loved the network, and wanted to get more involved.

How did you end up being the ED?
After discovering SGAC – a year later, more or less – I was looking for a job and saw that the position was open. I applied and here I am! I was very honoured to be selected: I was fairly new, and I didn’t expect the leadership to trust me this much from day one.

And how was the process?
Well, as for any SGAC vacancy, you first need to submit your application via the website. Once shortlisted, you have to undergo a tough interview with the two chairs – for me it was with Stephanie Wan and Ali Nasseri. The interview lasted about one hour, and was mostly made of scenario questions and the like. Oh, did I mention that you are doing this in person, in front of the chairs? This is probably the main difference with other SGAC positions’ selection process.

I was interviewed during the 2017 IAF Spring Meeting. I knew that the whole thing would have been very competitive, so I prepared a lot. Eventually, it was one of the best interviews I have ever had.

Are there more challenges or more rewards? Any specific one?
Well, a lot of challenging moments, but even more rewarding ones. Thinking about a specific moment, the first time I had to speak at COPUOS was very challenging for me. More in general, I’d say that making critical decisions impacting volunteers can be very hard. Sometimes you need to shake up things, or spur inactive volunteers, and the risk of misunderstandings is always high. Similarly, as well as other SGAC Executives, I find myself forced to say “No” to people, to ideas and proposals, from large initiatives to trivial details: volunteers are very enthusiastic, they want to do many things but the organisation at large can’t always agree. This means risking to lose active volunteers that have received a “no” one time too many, and that can be very hard.

Still, the work is definitely rewarding: I work hard to make SGAC more professional and to make it more visible, and positive feedback is definitely rewarding. When people start noticing the importance of SGAC’s mission, I can only be satisfied. Besides, working for SGAC is fun in general: working primarily with your friends means working hard, but playing harder!

Now I’d like to know more about the HQ Life: how’s the usual day at the office?
So, first of all, there’s no “usual” day at the office – every day is pretty different in terms of people I have to speak to, topics I have to cover and things I need to address. I try to start by answering e-mails (too many!) and short term projects (a big roadmap I keep on the wall), moving then on longer-term deadlines. I work and interact with tons of people, form different time zones and countries, implying many calls at the most bizarre hours. Eventually, the day passes pretty fast, there is always something to do, a document to improve, an update to implement, a person to follow up with. I come to work and in a eye blink it’s already 7 PM.



Sounds pretty interesting indeed. And how’s Vienna? Or even better: Why Vienna?
It’s a matter of location, and in particular the proximity with the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs. After all, SGAC was created in 1999, right here in Vienna, at UNISPACE III, and it is important that we stay close to OOSA, given our mandate and mission to represent the voice of the SpaceGen.

What about ESPI?
Well, the European Space Policy Institute hosts us. It is definitely nice to be close to another space organisation, and many synergies can come up from this proximity. As ED, I’m pretty happy to be surrounded by other space enthusiasts, they always have great inputs for my work.

And how’s the office, physically?
The office is fun! Overall, I love the fact that every ED added her/his personal touch to the room. On my desk I currently have three rockets (an Ariane 5, a Europeanized Soyuz, and a LEGO Shuttle), a mini-Mars and an astronaut. The room is full of space pictures, posters, gadgets and various awards we collected during the years. Some things here have even flown to space!

That sounds galactic. It’s fortunate that you are not the only one to get to enjoy all this stuff, then.
Indeed, thankfully SGAC has a full-time intern that works with me, here in the office. We usually recruits two interns per year. Interns work with the ED on multiple tasks, both long-term and for the day-to-day administrative stuff. Their job is vital for the ED and the organisation, as the ED is traveling a lot and can’t always follow or keep up with everything happening with 15,000 members. Interns have so far brought something different to the table, enriching SGAC from communication initiatives to policy inputs, also thanks to the diverse background they have every time (social sciences, law, policy, international relations, etc.). I’m very happy to say that this is not a coffee-making internship, but interns get to have a lot of responsibilities, working with the various teams across SGAC, learning tons of new things, creating a pretty decent network, and traveling to various conferences and SGAC events.  They get a lot of real working hours, and a lot of empowerment, too.

Not bad at all. Is there any final comment and/or advice you would like to leave us with, also for those who eventually would want to reach a position like yours?
Sure! So, this is definitely a challenging Job. I wake up every morning with 50 emails to follow up with, I can have calls at any point of the day (or the week), and overall there’s a lot of work to be done. Still, everything I do I get ten times back in rewards. It is incredibly worth it: this position allows you to work with amazing, passionate space people, to get to build a solid network, to learn how to work with volunteers and how to run a huge organisation, gaining tons of soft skills.

As for advice, first and foremost you need to learn how to prioritize, be flexible and still on point with the overall organisation’s objectives.

Secondly, you need to be humble, and you need to be so with respect to the volunteers. To care for them, respect them and show interest toward what they do and think, because you are the only paid person in an organisation entirely run by volunteers, and their work, passion and professionalism cannot and should not be taken for granted.

Third, you need to lead by example, showing enthusiasm, to be able to represent the next generation of space leaders, and to be professional, all the time. Because you are often under the spotlight as the representative of the SpaceGen, and every negative thing that might come out of you will reflect badly on the organisation.

Fourth, you need to remember that everything you do, you should do it for the organisation and not for personal interest. Otherwise the experience won’t be the same for you and for the others around you.

Finally, and most importantly, never ever ever forget to have fun. Please.