Maj. Gen. Donna Shipton (Master of Space Systems, 2005) pauses for a photo during the KC-46 acceptance ceremony.
By Michele Ruff, Air Force Materiel Command / Published March 31, 2021
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Maj. Gen. Donna Shipton (Master of Space Systems, 2005) admits she took a ‘crooked path’ to success.
Each position in her varied career was a stretch for her, but being out of her comfort zone was a motivating force. From the very beginning, she was offered opportunities that made her hesitate, but she decided to charge ahead anyway.
“I tell today’s young Airmen to be open in their hearts and mind to dare. Do different things, innovate, take initiative, work outside that comfort zone and dream,” she said.
Shipton, the Air Force Materiel Command Director of Strategic Plans, Programs, Requirements and Analyses, decided to join the Air Force for two major reasons. First, she admired her father for his military service and was inspired to follow in his footsteps; but foremost, she also wanted to go to college and needed a way to finance that dream. The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps let her do both, and she became the first in her family to attend a four-year college.
“My father was my inspiration to serve, but my mother gave me the motivation to succeed,” she said.
When asked about challenges she faced in the male-dominated engineering field, Shipton said that she did not face any obstacles different from her male counterparts. She chose engineering because the Air Force needed engineers, and she coveted that ROTC scholarship.
“I was good at math and science, so why not?” she said. “Perhaps I was just fortunate, but my supervisors were supportive as long as I did my job well and put out 110%.”
She recalls her early days as a senior captain and satellite engineer at Buckley Air Force Base as her most rewarding and favorite assignment. Not only did she love the mission, she met lifelong friends and her future husband there as well.
“I loved that job with all of its hiccups,” she said. “When a satellite went out of orbit, it was my responsibility to bring the team in to get it back into operation.”
Shipton and her husband both served on active duty and agreed that as young officers, they were often inspired, not by the general officers, but by those who held the colonel rank and served as program directors.
“That colonel I worked with every day was who I aspired to be,” she said.
Like many Airmen who aim for leadership roles, supporting two demanding work schedules and a young family, Shipton realized early on the importance of reaching out for help. While her husband pursued work in industry, she decided to continue on her military journey. This period in her life makes her especially empathetic to the challenges of other women.
“I think we all have to do what it takes to get the job done,” she said. “And sometimes that means reaching out to find programs and people to help.”
Though Shipton started her career in space acquisition, it did not follow a linear path. Time spent in satellite operations further broadened her skill set. She went back and forth from ‘black space,’ as the National Reconnaissance Office was known, to Air Force ‘white space’ missions.
Not typical for an engineer, Shipton also did a stint as a speech writer. She credits that opportunity to the tremendous amount of reading she did in her own time which increased her competence in communications and provided balance for her engineering expertise. She recognized that both hard and soft skills were crucial for the leader she sought to become.
“I advise Airmen to take every opportunity to learn that they can,” she said. “You never know what you will be asked to do in the future and where that little morsel of knowledge might be beneficial to the mission.”
The shift from acquisition to operations continued when Shipton was tasked to manage the F-35 program. The position was a huge learning curve for her and another amazing learning experience. Her success there led to an even more challenging assignment, the program executive officer for the tankers program.
“Serving as a PEO is the best job in the Air Force as it’s the closest an officer can be to the program and to the people who serve under them,” she said.
Shipton’s multi-dimensional career made her recognize that she couldn’t possibly know all the answers, so she has always looked to others for their expertise.
“I surround myself with smart folks who have experience, and I seek advice and opinions from others with diverse backgrounds and thoughts,” she said.
Shipton credits her success to “becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable,” and she encourages male and female Airmen and Guardians to “approach life with intellectual humility.”
“Focus on the job at hand and be the best you can be,” she recommended. “Be open to opportunities and take every chance to better yourself.”
Shipton said she has never given a thought to leaving the Air Force as she loves the mission and the people.
“I’m still having fun. It’s hard work, but I enjoy seeing how the Air Force, and now the Space Force, continue to grow and change.”