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Tim Kopra ’13, Partner at Blue Bear Capital, LLC. and former astronaut at NASA, speaks to his personal values and how they help inform his business decisions.
By Samantha Marshall
“Integrity, transparency, perseverance…”
These qualities, together with a sense of humility and perspective, are the basis upon which Tim Kopra ’13, Partner at Blue Bear Capital, makes most of his decisions as a former Army Colonel, NASA astronaut, and now, business leader.
“These are things that are really at my core.”
Kopra was the guest of honor for the Bernstein Center’s 2 nd annual Leadership and Ethics: Military in Business Speaker Series held this past spring. The speaker series, co-sponsored by the Military in Business Student Association, seeks to highlight the intersection of military service and business by hosting distinguished business leaders who are current or veteran members of the armed forces, to reflect on how their service has impacted their leadership style, the organizations they serve, and society at large.
Kopra shared stories about his impressive career in conversation with former Vice Dean and fellow West Point Alum, Peter Morrissey, who have remained friends since graduation. Their familiarity helped the conversation truly highlight how each of Kopra’s roles helped prepare him to be the team-player and empathetic business leader he is today. As a VC investor supporting companies that apply data-driven technologies to the energy supply chain – including cutting-edge renewable energy solutions -- he’s leveraged multiple experiences from his 25-year career as an Army aviator. Deployed to Operations Desert Shield and Storm, he later commanded an AH-64 attack helicopter company out of Germany, all this before challenging himself to become a test pilot surviving the grueling U.S. Navy Test Pilot School training.
“It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my career, because it was the first time I had an aspirational goal – that first huge step towards becoming an astronaut.”
That led to a role as Developmental Test Director for the Army’s Comanche Program until he was later assigned to NASA, where he served as Flight Engineer and Commander of the International Space Station, some 250 miles up in orbit. It was at NASA, both in space, on the ground and under the sea, where he led the development of numerous technologies, overseeing deployment programs, Space Shuttle launch operations, Space Station hardware and communications systems, and spacewalk interface and verification testing.
These experiences taught Kopra plenty that he can apply to the private sector as both a leader and an investor.
“I was looking for an area where I would have the same kind of interest and passion I had when I worked at NASA. I became enthralled, naively, with venture capital and private equity, because to me it seemed like the perfect intersection of what I’d done in the past and how it applies to business -- taking complex technology, making sure it’s well implemented on the operations side, and finding excellent teams to make that happen.”
In many ways, Kopra’s leadership skillset as a commander, engineer, spacewalker and innovator has dovetailed perfectly with his mission and sense of purpose today in the private sector.
“Being able to find and develop these amazing teams that are so energized to have their product and capabilities launched into the marketplace has been incredibly rewarding,” he says.
But it’s the softer skills of leadership that are arguably the most important legacy of his military training. Leading other soldiers made him realize that respect goes both ways. Many of the men and women under his command had more knowledge and experience of a particular assignment, so it behooved him to come to a new leadership post armed with humility and a willingness to learn:
Of course, the window for a learning curve soon closes:
“You need to come up to speed quickly. You probably have about a six-month honeymoon period in which to gain their respect, so take advantage of that time by cultivating close relationships with people on your team you can trust and learn from.”
Those great teams don’t just occur in a vacuum. An effective leader needs to build a solid organizational culture from the bottom up, with a vision that’s clearly communicated so that everyone can get on board. Again, that’s where the perspective and a degree of emotional intelligence come in.
“One of the most important qualities a leader can have is empathy,” notes Kopra. “Not to be confused with sympathy or being emotional, it’s being able to understand where someone is coming from and putting yourself in their shoes. That information allows you to make better decisions and communicate more effectively.”
At a macro level, that can include cultural sensitivity. For example, Kopra spent a lot of time in Russia, where he trained for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aquarius underwater laboratory as part of NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations. He also spent time at other international partner training sites, including Japan, Germany and Canada. Kopra lived in close quarters with astronauts of vastly different cultural backgrounds as the crew tested space suit design concepts, communication protocols, construction techniques and the use of robotic devices that would be used on the international space station – cross-cultural collaboration at its most intense.
“I’ve developed a strong understanding of cultures that I wouldn’t have otherwise had, and it informs much of my decision-making. Again, it all ties back to empathy, to having that deep connection with individuals and groups.”