During the “Top Gun” era at Embry-Riddle, Janet Grondin (’89) was emphatically not the type to perform wild motorcycle antics on the streets near the Prescott Campus. When she could get a break from her aeronautical engineering studies, she preferred hiking around Willow Lake and camping with friends in remote parts of Arizona.
All that time spent navigating her way around the high desert paid off. As part of her 26-year career in the Air Force, Grondin helped overhaul the GPS ground system and the early stages of the Delta IV rocket program. Janet’s career is now in full flight as CEO of Stellar Solutions, a woman-owned engineering firm specializing in space vehicles and launch systems.
We interviewed Janet for the March 2022 episode of the Talon Talks podcast. Edited highlights from that interview are below. Listen to the full interview at alumni.erau.edu/podcast, or search for Talon Talks in your favorite podcast app.
Q: During your 26-year career in the Air Force, you worked on several critical projects, ranging from GPS to rockets. Do you have a favorite?
A: My favorite had to be GPS. I was a lieutenant colonel, so getting to be about 20 years into my career, and I was assigned to be the program manager for the ground system. At that point I had the experience and the skillset — and the technical underpinnings from my undergraduate and graduate degrees —to actually do the job.
The real brains of GPS is in the ground system. GPS had been around for quite some time, and the ground system needed to be replaced. Our three-star [general described it as], ‘kind of like replacing the engine of the car when you’re driving 60 miles an hour down the road.’
Our metric for changing over to a new ground system was that we didn’t want any of our users to be impacted. It took us about a year and a half to get it all the way through the transition and into operations, but it was a resounding success — because nothing negative happened. It was a real career-defining moment. It’s where I learned … when your heart’s in it, you can go the extra mile, you can get amazing things done.
Q: What was it like transitioning from the military to working as CEO at a private company like Stellar Solutions?
A: One of the differences [between the military and private workplaces] is how you empower people. I found Stellar had a culture that I liked, in the way it empowered people. To a large degree, it takes me back to my Embry-Riddle roots, where I remember standing in the structures lab and thinking, are they really going to let me run all this equipment without a professor here to look over my shoulder? We were empowered and encouraged to go work in the lab, stress test our specimens, hook up the wind tunnel. I think having that experience early, before I even had a job, was foundational for me, and I’m really happy to have had that start. And I’m really happy to be in a company where that’s part of our culture. As CEO, I’m very protective of that culture, because it’s part of what inspires our employees to come to work every day.
Q: On a more personal note, what was that one experience that got your heart hooked on aerospace?
A: Flying with my dad. My dad was a private pilot, and he built his own airplane from scratch — using plans, not from a kit. It took him 17 years. He started in our basement and finished it up in a shop that he built specifically to finish that airplane. In between, he would take me up in his Cessna.
I shared that love. Every airplane I see in the air is still a beauty to behold in my opinion. If I hear a plane, I can’t not look up. It’s just what you do.