Meet Nichola Bates, Managing Partner at Aerospace Xelerated & Head of Global Accelerators and Innovation Programs at Boeing, which is the largest aerospace and defense organization in the world.
Who is Nichola Bates? Define yourself
I consider myself a champion of founders, rather than a champion of startups. In my role at Boeing, I have the luxury to be able to support founders we’re in it for the long run.
How were you as a kid?
I was independent. As an only child, independence comes out of the box. I was also a bit of a tomboy and an adrenaline junky. I had a busy social life and school got in the way of that, but fortunately, I worked well under pressure.
“In this world, no matter the speed at which startups may wish to operate, patience is key”
You hold a Bachelor of Laws at Ulster University, why did you choose that course of study?
I actually didn’t choose it. I studied genetics at Queens and then dropped out and went to work. I found myself working at the high court in Belfast, and it was from working in that environment that I went on to pursue that degree.
You joined Boeing over five years ago, following a decade-long career working with early-stage and scaling startups, where you championed the role of the SME to government, particularly in the security and resilience sector. What lessons have you learned over the years?
My biggest lessons actually lend themselves nicely to three Ps. Patience. Politics. Power.
In this world, no matter the speed at which startups may wish to operate, patience is key. Politics and diplomacy are also key lessons for startups at the beginning - and I’m referring to politics with a small p - you need to understand the environment you’re operating in, and whose feathers you may be ruffling. Finally, power. The power of influence has been a big lesson. Building a network, reputation, and connecting with those who carry influence over others, is important.
You are Managing Partner at Aerospace Xelerated & Head of Global Accelerators and Innovation Programs at Boeing. What´s the recipe for your success?
Honestly, to keep my focus on the founder. When you’re in a large organization, it’s easy to get sucked into what might be the best move for your career, instead of what might be the best for what you’re actually trying to achieve. My goal is to see founders flourish and succeed - no matter what. Integrity is a key ingredient.
Tell us more about your role in Boeing, what activities do you do?
I see my role as a very simple one, within the context of a large organization.
I love to use the phrase, “If only Boeing knew what Boeing knew”. My role is to join dots across various functions and roles across the business, looking across Boeing in a more strategic way - helping to connect opportunities that aren’t being connected - and spot opportunities where external innovators can be really transformational. This is where our work with founders and startups comes in.
“My goal is to see founders flourish and succeed - no matter what. Integrity is a key ingredient”
What are the things that make you proud to be part of Boeing?
Boeing is the largest aerospace and defense organization in the world and the fact we have created Aerospace Xelerated and that it has the freedom to support founders in the long-term, and not just looking at the short term game. There’s a real focus on growing the aerospace startup ecosystem, not just for ourselves but for everyone.
What does a normal workday look like for you?
There isn’t a lot of normal! We have a huge reach as a small team within Boeing - We’re touching the US, Middle East, China, and Europe. There’s no 9 to 5 as we’re battling multiple time zones, but one of the best things about this challenge is it gives us reach and perspective. Especially on what’s interesting and happening in each ecosystem we all have the same goal but different routes to get there. In my role, it means each day can be incredibly varied - and there is a fair amount of travel!
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking?
Tony Hsieh’s “Delivering Happiness, A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose”. He was the Founder of Zappos in the US and built a tech ecosystem in Las Vegas. A key takeaway from his book was on how you deliver joy to your teams - it's the simple things.
For us, if we can connect a startup to a particular person at Boeing - which is not a hard thing for us to do - it can have a huge impact on the founder, simply by opening a door. Tony’s ethos was that everyone works in customer service and delivering happiness needs to be kept at the forefront.
Do you have any particular philosophy that guides your career decisions?
I genuinely believe, that if you do a good job and you do good stuff, then you don't have to think about career decisions - interesting opportunities will come to you.
“If you do a good job and you do good stuff, then you don't have to think about career decisions - interesting opportunities will come to you”
What do you love most about your job? & What is the most difficult part?
I love the international aspect. Having the world as my remit and having the opportunity to look at markets’ others aren’t currently paying attention to (need is the greatest motivator), then working on that market and raising the profile of startups that wouldn’t normally get that air time. The combination of working internationally and growing awareness of each market is a huge draw.
The harder part of the work is a challenge - the sheer scale. There is so much to be done and so many markets to reach, and so much opportunity for innovators in aerospace. It’s overwhelming - how do you do that?
What is one strategy that has helped you to thrive in your professional career?
Gathering a tribe - building a network of people, who get the mission. Because it’s not linear - startups don’t always work to plan. Surrounding myself with people who just step up as and when, because they know that’s what it takes.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in the Aerospace sector? What would you suggest addressing this?
One of the biggest challenges is being heard and not being afraid to call out the things that are wrong.
I’ve always worked in male-dominated environments - and tech and aerospace are both very male-dominated. It wasn’t until I was having a conversation with someone from the UK tech community, someone who was arguing for positive discrimination, that I began to appreciate that it wasn’t enough to survive and navigate this environment. We need to stand up and say, ‘no, this is not okay.’ We have a responsibility to those coming after us.
That conversation really changed my thoughts and my whole approach. I was used to being the only woman in the room. And I had almost built a personality around that in the sense that I knew that I had to come in and be the center of attention. But I started to behave in a more authentic way.
Now I express my displeasure at the way conversations are being held or women are being treated. I’m being significantly more proactive about promoting the other women around me in aerospace. Before we would almost stay apart because you had to be the only woman in the room. You had to stand alone. Women need to stand together.
“I express my displeasure at the way conversations are being held or women are being treated. I’m being significantly more proactive about promoting the other women around me in aerospace”
Everybody has had dark moments in their lives, what have you done to get out of that phase?
The last two years taught me what to do in those moments - and it's about making space. Ordinarily, I’d bury myself in work, but actually switching off and doing nothing - like hiking - finding time to clear my head rather than allowing and tolerating the darkness.
From a hiking perspective, you're in the mountains and everything is so big, it makes you realize the things you’re worried about are small. Perspective can really help.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I do a lot of hiking, I love to look after and walk my two diva dogs, and honestly, just being at home - or in one place - away from the travel, is what I crave most in my time.
Many authors say women can and must strive to have everything – a shining career, a blossoming family life, and a perfectly balanced lifestyle all at once, others point out that – then women are placing unrealistic expectations on themselves if they believe they can have it all, I don’t know if you are married and have kids, so according to your experience, what do you think about these statements?
I have two teenage kids and when they were little, I tried to have it all. I had two small kids, worked full time and did a degree part-time - and when I tried to do it all, I lost who I was.
Coming through all of that and into my 40s now, my children are grown up and I’m facing an empty nest, and there’s a lot of time in the last few years where I’ve asked myself who I am and what I want - we always try to make everyone else happy and put them first, but never ourselves.
Take time and headspace to think about what you want. The world has changed, you can have multiple careers and lives. You're not stuck with one.
If you want to have a family, then that will be a priority vs. your career - even for a short time. Something has to give. But life has phases. You can have a big career, but it may be before and after - and as kids get older it’s easier to have both.
“I don’t try to fit into what others may want or look for. I have my own strengths and mission, and that’s it. I’m authentic”
What are your plans for the future?
To put more focus on what I want. And to really drive forward the vision of putting founders first and proving the theory that startups can be transformational in aerospace.
There is still the glass ceiling for women in the world: Fewer opportunities, jobs underpaid just for that fact of being a woman, etc. Have you experimented with the glass ceiling? If yes, what are the biggest challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them?
I have always - certainly in the corporate world - created my own opportunities. I'm a passionate startup person in one of the world's largest corporate companies. I don’t fit. But I've leaned into it and made it work. Get comfortable with not fitting - don’t try to mound yourself into something you aren’t.
What tips, can you give to young girls who want to become like you?
God love them. Don’t fall into the trap! Become financially independent in your own right, a mantra my mother always told me, and I didn’t listen to as well as I should. Whilst money isn’t everything, it makes everything possible.
I think in your position, many people may have the wrong idea of who you are, and what do you (professionally), with this idea in mind, what is being Nichola and what’s not?
Being me is about being me. I don’t try to fit into what others may want or look for. I have my own strengths and mission, and that’s it. I’m authentic. Say what I need to say. And I get the job done.
Who is the woman you admire the most and why?
Honestly, there are many women I admire and the ones that always stand out to me, are those who are authentic, are driving change and making an impact. Why single out one source of inspiration, when you can admire the collective?
Name: Nichola Bates
Designation: Head of Global Accelerators and Innovation Programs
Social media: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicholabates/