Paying it forward: Club Ambassador Erika Wagner helps today’s youth to dream big
Two trips to Space Camp – one in fifth grade; one in high school – changed Dr. Erika Wagner’s life trajectory. Her “quirky passion” for space was embraced and her dreams validated. She was at home. With an expanded vision of what’s possible in the space industry, the experience fueled the confidence and grit needed to obtain degrees from Vanderbilt, Harvard and MIT. And today? She lives out her dream as Payload Sales Director at Blue Origin where she has a front-row seat in building the road to space.
She traces it all back to those formative years when she was given permission to dream BIG. As such, she is committed to keeping that momentum flowing. She makes it a regular priority to connect with today’s students, give them the same gift of validation, and hopefully inspire a whole new group of future space explorers. Club for the Future’s Josef Reinke spoke with Erika about her dedication to space, education, and the next generation.
Erika, you always have the grace to coach others around you and bring every student on this planet along with you. What drives your passion to always want to do better?
It's all about paying it forward. I had so many folks who were kind and thoughtful to open doors and serve as mentors. I feel incumbent to do the same. If we don't leave more students following in our footsteps than when we started, we're doing something wrong.
Why is education such a large part of your journey?
I love working with students. They give me hope … energy. Doing this kind of work fulfills me. I know that it has ripples in the pond of life, that it'll reach far beyond my time here.
You said, “doing this type of work”, but you do several types of work. How do you prioritize that? How do you constantly weave education into your job, as well as other aspects of your life?
There's a lot of people that want to work with you. How do you how do you weigh those opportunities?
Early in my career, it was mostly about working one-on-one with individuals – mentoring a student, volunteering at events, and serving on a committee. As I got more experienced, I started looking for higher-leverage opportunities, thinking, “How do I lift an organization? How do I help make connections that serve many students instead of just one?” My heart and soul get filled by working with individual students. I keep some mentees around me all the time. That individual piece of why we do outreach is about impacting lives.
What qualities do all the people on your journey share? How have you adopted those?
I look at Wally Funk and the way she carried her dream (to go into space) forever. She never gave up on it, putting it front and center and keeping at it every single day, until at 82 years old, she finally got a chance to live it out. I adore that kind of persistence and optimism. There are students I've worked with that know exactly what they want out of life. But other students I've worked with, they don't know. They know what feels good ... what makes them smile.
When I was in fourth grade, I visited the U.S. Space and Rocket Center for the first time. And in fifth grade, I went to Space Camp. I got a chance to go back in high school. I realized I had this quirky passion for space, and I wasn't surrounded by people who thought that was normal. But when I got to Space Camp, it wasn’t just normal, it was celebrated! This community gives students that sense that your dreams are totally valid. And as a woman in STEM, I take that as a particular responsibility. We’re a representation of what's possible. I've seen people become things that they've never seen before. But it's a whole lot harder. I step out into communities, particularly of young girls and say, “Hey, this is my journey. If that's something that looks like really exciting for you, come follow along! There's a trail that we're placing here, and we'll walk and run down it.”
Space Camp was obviously a defining influence for you. Were there other major ones along the way that really helped narrow your focus?
I don't know that my focus ever narrowed. It got wider and wider. I knew when I was younger that being an astronaut would be the coolest thing I could ever do. As I got older, that expanded to working with astronauts, especially around health care, and microgravity research, and art and education. My focus has only gotten bigger. That’s the thing I love most about being at Blue is this idea that we when we talk about millions of people living and working in space, it’s opening that aperture. That's what I hope the footprint is: to make sure we’re continually engaging new communities, doing business in new ways, and offering new opportunities on our platforms.
What do you enjoy about volunteering for Club for the Future?
I love that in its own finite way, the Postcards to Space program brings space exploration right to kids. When it becomes part of your life, then it becomes part of your dreams and your view of what's possible. I absolutely love doing postcards with classrooms, scout troops, and other groups that we work with because you see it in their eyes. It’s that moment when they realize, “Wait. Not only can I touch something that went to space, but you're sending my thing to space for me? Wow! I'm important and my vision of the future is important, too. If that's possible, what else is possible?”
It's been amazing to watch Club's impact grow from hundreds of students to hundreds of thousands in such a short time. The $19M in donations from our New Shepard auction has been an incredible catalyst for space nonprofits that support students, teachers, young professionals, and space enthusiasts worldwide.
You mentioned that you got to be part of building organizations that give young professionals a voice. What are some of the words that you hope they say?
“Welcome … join us … the door is open.” It's about making the next day more inclusive and powerful than today. If each of those folks brings in three friends, and they bring three friends, then that grows exponentially and has impacts far beyond what one person can do alone.
Keep an eye on Club for the Future’s website and social media for more profiles and interviews with Club for the Future Ambassadors.