1. Home
  2. business
  3. Innovation & Technology
  4. Mishaal Ashemimry is taking social media to the stars

Mishaal Ashemimry is taking social media to the stars

With typical profoundness, celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking once remarked that if you want to make sense of the universe, "Look up at the stars and not down at your feet."

At the tender age of six, while visiting family in Saudi Arabia, Mishaal Ashemimry stood in the Unaizah desert beneath the colossal night sky, gazing at a glittering canopy of distant planets, stars and galaxies, and discovered her calling: building rockets.

"A feeling of awe then transformed into a yearning for knowledge to feed my curiosity," remembers Ashemimry, now 40, of her early eureka moment. "This feeling set the course of my life and was the catalyst that made me decide on what I planned to do with my career."

What followed that epiphany was three-and-a-half decades of tireless dedication to aeronautics and unraveling the wonders of the cosmos – accruing knowledge through encyclopedias while being raised in the United States, challenging accepted theorems at university, battling against the odds in the workplace, and now sharing her incredible journey and insights on social media.

Ashemimry’s expansive CV includes various job titles including Systems Engineer at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, consultant at Northrop Grumman (2020–present), and Technical Advisor/consultant at the Saudi Space Agency (2022–present). So far, so impressive.

But it’s her first deployment at NASA (2006–2007), designing a nuclear thermal rocket for a Mars mission while taking a Masters in Aerospace Engineering at Florida Tech that continues to create ripples – not least because Ashemimry was the first woman of Saudi origin to work at the agency (she’s also the first female aerospace engineer in the Gulf Cooperation Council union of Arab states). There’s breaking down doors, and there’s smashing them into tiny shards.

"To be honest, I didn’t think of the impact my work would have on breaking barriers. I just had this insane hunger to learn, design and improve as much as I can. But I am not the first woman to have contributed to this," says Ashemimry, before paying homage to trailblazers Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson, whose equality struggles at NASA were eloquently portrayed in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures.

A determined spirit

Her humble deference to her forebears and photogenic smile belie a dogged determination and an underdog spirit. From the day she left her mother and closest sister to attend college prep school, a move she describes as "emotionally toll-taking", to the moment a flagging aerospace job market forced her into some fight-or-flight career decisions, Ashemimry, you feel, has always been on the back foot.

"When I left Raytheon [in 2010] it was difficult to find other jobs," she says. "I was faced with either moping around and waiting until an opening at some aerospace company became available, or start my own. I was faced with either leading or following; I chose leading."

And so Mishaal Aerospace was born – its eponymous CEO just 26 years old at the time – with a view to designing, manufacturing and launching rockets for clients needing relatively small payloads of 500 kilograms or less.

Initially, omens were good for the United States-based venture. Ashemimry found an investor willing to fund the business, solved tricky technical problems and built the rockets. Then her investor ran into financial issues, pushing Ashemimry into a two-and-a-half-year search for fresh cash injections.

"Aerospace is not an easy field to attract investors," she admits. "For those who appreciate it, they are already invested in other rocket companies. And it’s too risky for the average investor."

According to her website, all development is on hold until new benefactors are found.

"I didn’t think of the impact my work would have on breaking barriers. I just had this insane hunger to learn, design and improve as much as I can."

After 10 years of relentless, exhausting graft, it would have been easy to quit right there. Ashemimry has previously admitted that she considered it. But that ingrained fighting spirit could not be quelled; the die had already been cast all those years ago in the Unaizah desert. Besides, as her resume shows, people came knocking, keen for a piece of her tenacity – a trait Ashemimry believes has most contributed to her success.

"One of my strongest skills is the desire to learn by doing, and having the strong discipline to get things done ahead of time," she says.

"The most valuable lesson I learned at Florida Tech was not trusting the textbook," she adds. "I used to try and derive every equation and came across several erroneously written ones. Many textbooks, while a great source of knowledge, must be scrutinized because they might have mistakes, typos or flawed logic. One must truly examine every detail to fully grasp complex concepts."

The value of authenticity

Ashemimry’s latest milestone, Vice President for Diversity Initiatives at the International Astronautical Federation, sees her clearing career paths for future generations blocked by social, economic and geographic hurdles.

"When you see the statistics in the aerospace industry [according to studies, only 14 percent of engineers are female], you are moved to push and do whatever it takes to make a change," she says. "I didn’t realize this was going to be my responsibility as an engineer. I was wrong. It becomes your responsibility to make it easier for others, because it seems illogical that many are disadvantaged through no fault of their own."

Spreading the Ashemimry gospel at conferences such as MIT SciTech and fronting numerous webinars has become a vehicle for progress. "The most important thing is to be authentic. And to help the audience use their imagination through a clear portrayal or visualization of what you are talking about," she says.

And recently, the quest for recognition has switched to another battleground – social media – where Ashemimry is steadily amassing a passionate, knowledge-thirsty fan base, with a sizeable portion of her posts written in Arabic.

Last year she joined Snapchat’s pool of influential creators known as Snap Stars, and she’s using the multimedia messaging platform, which has more than 22 million monthly users in Saudi Arabia alone, to urge her followers to aim high.

"It becomes your responsibility to make it easier for others, because it seems illogical that many are disadvantaged through no fault of their own."

"The secret to meaningful engagement is interesting content, lighthearted delivery of information, and the simplification of complex ideas," she says. "The most successful posts are the ones where I share my personal struggles in my life. People tend to relate more with the human element, the pains and the authenticity of your story."

For Ashemimry, that inspirational tale is far from over. Her desire to travel into space burns strongly; in 2019, she appeared on the Dubai TV show The Astronauts – a kind of aerospace version of The Apprentice – in which Colonel Chris Hadfield conducted a real astronaut-selection process. Ashemimry made it to the last three finalists, out of 30 contestants.

"Explorations can unlock answers and fill gaps about our universe, solar system and origins," she says. "It is the curiosity to know more that appeals to me."

True to form, Mishaal Ashemimry is still shooting for the stars.

Inspiring The Business World