Early struggles taught valuable lessons for achieving success

The most valuable thing that Iris Fujiura Bombelyn (’83) learned during her time at Washington State University was how to overcome mistakes.

“I learned how to fail here and I learned I wasn’t the best in the class,” she said. “It humbled me – a lot.”

Iris Fujiura Bombelyn, keynote speaker at the recent Joint Center for Aerospace Technology and Innovation’s annual symposium held in Spokane.

Bombelyn, currently the vice president of protected communications at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, was the keynote speaker at the recent Joint Center for Aerospace Technology and Innovation’s annual symposium held in Spokane.

Growing up in Longview, Washington, as the daughter of a longshoremen and a seamstress, she was a top student in high school and followed her older brother to WSU. During her freshman year she considered studying engineering or journalism. She was good at math and also liked to write.

“Well, kid, engineers eat,” her father said.

Inspired by her father’s simple and practical advice that engineers make a good living, Bombelyn chose it as her major shortly thereafter. The engineering classes she took provided her with the fundamentals in power engineering design, communications theory, and control systems that gave Bombelyn a strong foundation for her career.

She also found herself in a challenging and unfamiliar environment – and one of only a handful of women on campus who were studying engineering at the time.

Bombelyn was used to being in a culture that rewarded young women for following the rules, being quiet and well behaved, and for sitting on the sidelines. The young men in her classes, on the other hand, had often been rewarded for pushing the envelope, getting out there, and doing things – just the sort of skills that are needed in engineering.

“So when you enter into an engineering degree because you’re smart enough to do it, and you don’t have a lot of the other skills…that you need to become an engineer,” she said. “I struggled.”

And for the first time in her life, she also had to work hard.

“This was the first time that I had been immersed in an environment where everyone was the smartest in the class,” she said. “I had to work, and I didn’t have the skills to do that.”

Bombelyn managed to get through those challenges and was lucky to get a good position in the aerospace industry soon after graduation. She began her career as an instrumentation engineer at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. She later became a payload operations launch conductor and progressed through increasingly responsible positions, including launch operations manager at International Launch Services, Inc., and program director at Orbital Sciences Corporation.

She later earned an MBA in leadership and global innovation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Fellows program before returning to Lockheed Martin as director of test systems.

She has received numerous honors for her work, including the Silicon Valley YWCA Tribute to Women in Industry award and the Asian American Executive of the Year. In 2012, she received WSU’s Alumni Achievement Award, the Alumni Association’s highest honor, where she was recognized for her leadership in global business and her accomplishments in the aerospace industry.

Today, Bombelyn likes to mentor young people starting their careers, particularly in her position on the board of the Harold Frank Engineering Entrepreneurship Institute.

Iris Fujiura Bombelyn mentoring students. Image courtesy Lockheed Martin Corporation.

Students often want to know how she became a vice-president at Lockheed. She tells them that there is no perfect path to execute. There is plenty of room for missteps and direction changes, and each person’s journey is their own. Getting the engineering degree is the first priority, followed by getting a job that can pay the bills.

“With that degree, you have the foundation,” she says. “The degree provides you with a suite of opportunities until you find the right fit. The hardest thing in the world is to figure out what you want to do, actually. Along the way, it’s ok to make course corrections.”

“The punch line is, ‘try it,’” she says. “If you don’t like it, try something else. Life is long.”

And, sounding like a true aerospace engineer, she adds, “You can re-vector.”

While women often think of the disadvantages to being a woman in the field, Bombelyn also likes to point out at least one big advantage: you stand out.

“There’s an advantage to being the only person who looks like you – if you take it,” she said. “If you take your seat at the table, people will remember who you are and what you said.”

A lesson that Bombelyn learned early on during her studies at WSU remains with her today. The line between people who succeed and those who don’t is not based on how smart, talented or good looking they are.

“It’s their perseverance,” she says. “It’s never giving up. That’s the measure of success.”


Rocket launch and classroom photos courtesy Lockheed Martin Corporation.