The Space Court Foundation created the Interview Series, an initiative hosted by Nivedita Raju to amplify voices of minority communities, starting with Women of Colour.
For this third episode, Deepika Jeyakodi, Contracts Officer and Bid Manager at Airbus Defence and Space Netherlands B.V. describes her involvement in the human rights-based NGO Cheers and tells more about her career in the space industry, from her time at Leiden University to her current efforts to improve outcomes for people working around her.
Hello everyone and welcome to episode three of Space Court Foundation’s Interview Series for Women of Colour in space.
I am Nivedita Raju, Director of Legal Affairs and Research at Space Court. At the Foundation we firmly believe in the benefit of outer space for all of humankind. Each episode of our series features a different speaker and highlights their experiences in the international space sector as a woman of colour. This week, we are thrilled to feature Deepika Jeyakodi, from India. Deepika is the commercial contracts and bid manager at Airbus Defense and Space in The Netherlands.
Welcome Deepika! As someone who has experience in many different types of legal work, please tell our viewers how you ended up specializing in space law.
My entry to this field was completely by accident. I was about 13 when I read about Air and Space Law in a book and that was the first moment that I decided I should pursue Law as a profession. But when I went to college, I completely forgot about that, and I was interested in a few other subjects: technology law, public international law, and IP law. It was several years after that, when someone I met during a case mentioned that I should think about pursuing Space Law at Leiden. At this point, I had no clue where this place was or what the course was about, but that suggestion sort of changed my career path.
At Leiden, I was most inspired by the many lectures and visits that we had. The lecturers were not just lawyers, they were scientists and entrepreneurs. I think that exposure made me think about Space Law more seriously, and the more I learned about the industry, I got curious about how we will apply laws and regulations to the future of technology, or the different space activities that we carry out. I would say specializing in space law is more of a continuing exercise.
Prior to working at Airbus, you founded this NGO and it focuses on the rehabilitation of trans people in Tamil Nadu, India. Could you please tell us more about this organization’s work?
It was in 2011, with a bunch of friends who were lawyers, social workers, some of them even HR professionals, we came together to contribute in whatever small way we can to our community. Since then, we have been working on raising awareness on social issues and human rights through different media. One is puppetry and we have several other things: legal and medical aid camps, summer camps, competitions, and so on. Apart from that, we work on two full-time projects for the benefit of rural children and transgender people.
The trans community in India is one of the most ostracized communities so this was the reason why we wanted to support them, to exercise their basic rights. The things that we do include registering them for voting, helping them get ID cards to access social benefits, provide shelter for those who run away from home, identify opportunities for continuing education and employment, and sometimes even helping them get back with their families. To do this, we launched a toll-free helpline through which people from the trans community could get in touch with us. The other side of this challenge is of course sensitizing the public about the stigma and discrimination that this community faces. In order to help that, we launched a five-minute music video that showcases the life of a trans person from when they were a child and it shows how the little things that we can do can help change their lives as well. That is a bit about the NGO.
There is so much work to be done in the Indian context especially. It is amazing to see you take that initiative! Now you are commercial contracts officer and bid manager at Airbus. Could you tell us what a typical day looks like at the office?
A typical day usually starts with what we call a huddle. This is when I get to meet the people in my department to do a quick check-in to talk about news that is relevant for all of us, and also talk about the biggest tasks that we will handle the day. After that, I move on to work with my project teams and these are the people who are actually building launch structures and instruments solar arrays and cool things like that. If we are preparing for proposals or bids, there is a lot of hustle and bustle.
My role is to get the team together, prepare for reviews, make sure that we have all the right inputs, help device strategies for commercial and contractual matters, prepare for negotiations and also check for illegal and regulatory compliance. My department is also a sort of pioneer in the aerospace industry, in using legal design thinking for contracts which is basically us simplifying and visualizing contracts to make them more user-friendly, because a lot of the people that we work with aren’t lawyers.
Contracts shouldn’t be something that you sign and then put in a draw and forget about it. So our job is to make it a more operational tool to manage business relationships. Apart from that, there is also a lot of emphasis on personal development at work. I get to experiment and exercise other skills and roles working with innovation and business development teams, or even support with marketing and communications. So overall, it is a very fun day and I think the fact that there is a lot to show about the Dutch culture makes it super exciting too.
Thank you for sharing that! I think it is very helpful to learn exactly what these professions and what your job description actually entails. That leads me to ask: is there any advice that you have particularly for students and young professionals who are interested in a commercial space law career?
I would start by saying: there is more to space law than just the international treaties especially. As a commercial space lawyer, you need to have some understanding of the technologies that are subjects of these laws and regulations. Space law is not a solitary field of law, so it helps to have a sound basis in other fields of law as well. It doesn’t matter what: it could be intellectual property law, trade and investment law, insurance law, or even human rights for that matter.
Another thing that is important to know is that you don’t have to be a space geek, you just have to have a growth mindset and be willing to learn from people in the other disciplines too. As lawyers, we can be too rigid sometimes and part of our job is to support the dreams of these entrepreneurs and engineers while reminding them about the boundaries and why we have these boundaries. Sometimes, if necessary also challenge those boundaries.
That is beautiful! Very well articulated and it is great advice! I am sure your guidance will help students and young professionals who are looking for these opportunities.
On the subject of work culture, it is a known fact that our sector is also severely gendered and male dominated, so what are your thoughts on work culture in the aerospace industry?
I think just like in other industries, there is a lot to be done to become diverse and inclusive, not just as an industry but as a society. Even so in the past few years, there is a conscious effort to highlight what is left wanting. You have the UN Space4Women, IAF’s events that promote diversity and inclusion and even this SCF Interview Series! These are great examples of positive actions that are happening around us.
That makes sense! Clearly we have to be more intentional about increasing representation in our sector.
How can we build a more supportive work environment?
When I started at Airbus, I was this young foreigner who had no prior experience in the industry and that was intimidated, even though I had a few years of experience behind me. It was strong women mentors who helped creating such a supportive environment. For me, Professor Tanja [Masson-Zwaan] from Leiden University is an example. She is a gladiator of sorts for women. She encouraged me to promote myself and the work that I do, she champions her students for opportunities that are otherwise quite hard to come by as a newcomer. These are the things that also inspire me to do the same for those who come after me.
At Airbus, there are a lot of communities who have regular exchanges in across site communities, to work towards supporting gender diversity and in The Netherlands in particular, I had the support of managers and colleagues, both men and women, and there were so many small things that they said and did. That made a big difference! And some of them increased my awareness about unconscious bias and the harmful norms that are so common in our workplaces.
They helped provide a safe space to have open conversations, so this could be anything. It could be a regular checking with a mentor, making sure that any feedback that you give, or any discussion you have on such topics is a two-way discussion, and that somebody takes the action that is needed to support someone at the right time. There were a few others who recognized what I am good at, even before I knew it myself, so they would provide opportunities to showcase it. In the beginning, it could be something as simple as someone saying at a meeting: “Hey, I want to know what you’re thinking about!”
This is something that we commonly do as a woman, we don’t speak up unless we are asked by a colleague. Doing that can really help you put yourself out there, to show the work that you do and I think in general, when you have conferences and events, there have been colleagues who insist that panel discussions that take place are made diverse and inclusive to showcase different perspectives, opinions and also give enough space to new people, so you don’t hear the same voices and things over and over again. I think that there are a lot of things you can do to make your workplace a better place.
The key question you need to ask yourself is: “Am I being a decent person?” Whether it’s a man or a woman or whatever gender you are.
I really appreciate your point about learning how to be assertive and engaging in dialogue. Space Court aims to increase accessibility to space law and policy, which are complicated subjects. You have studied law in three different universities, both in India and The Netherlands. What was the difficulty that you faced and what is the difficulty faced by most students of space law from an educational perspective?
Accessibility is the challenge. I remember that Ruvimbo also mentioned this. Study materials are often too expensive, industry insights and expert opinions are not very easily available for students. Today, there are of course a lot more open: open access journals, podcasts, news items, reports and so on. That function as good resources to begin with. I hope it continues in that trend, that it becomes more accessible for students. A wealth of exchanges was opened up just in the last one year that were until then a space community exclusive. I think trends in that direction would really help students. Another challenge to accessibility is the manner in which we communicate about space law and policy. These subjects are important for students who are also pursuing other space disciplines and it is in our interest, as lawyers, that we engage and empower them to learn more about these subjects. In general, if the future of humanity is in space, it is only obvious that we need to start understanding the rules of play sooner rather than later. In that case, the discourse on space law and policy should become more common.
Those are wonderful points, Deepika. Thank you for speaking with us today and for sharing your experience with our audience.