Behind the Brand - Meet Suzi McBride, Chief Operations Officer for Iridium

April 25th, 2024

With the recent success of our Women Who Rebelle Empowered by Iridium session this month, we thought it would be the perfect time to highlight Iridium as our latest Behind the Brand feature. And as luck would have it, we got the chance to sit down with Iridium COO and 3x Rebelle Suzi McBride to delve into her fascinating journey from coding in Cobol to spearheading operations at a major satellite communications company. Suzi shares insights on her pivot into a space career, her passion for mentoring in STEM, and the profound impact of Iridium’s technology in extreme conditions.

Discover how Suzi’s leadership at Iridium and her experiences in the Rebelle Rally exemplify the spirit of innovation and resilience. Read the full interview here – you don’t want to miss this one!

You’re the Chief Operations Officer for Iridium. How did you get started in your career?

When I first graduated college, I actually started in Management Consulting and coding in Cobol (which apparently is now a highly sought after skill as many banking systems are still on mainframes believe it or not). I recognized early it was not the long-term career path I wanted so I needed to figure out how to pivot. So I applied to a Leadership Master’s Program and was fortunate to get sponsored by Motorola. I got lucky and sort of fell into a space career. I had always had a passion for space since I was young watching the first shuttles get built and then launch in 1981, but the luck came when Motorola assigned me to the original Iridium program as a manufacturing engineer in the Leadership program. We were given the challenge to figure out how to make a satellite a week and launch in three countries on a very short schedule, which had never been done before. That is where I found my place and people who also love to work on satellites, launch and complex telecommunication systems and help make sure people can stay connected to the things they love anywhere on earth.

You’re also a mentor for young women in the field of STEM. Can you tell us more about how long you’ve been involved and what/why you began the role of mentor?

To be honest I wasn’t a great supporter of women only programs when I was younger. I just worked hard and wanted to be treated fairly. However, in the last 20-30 years I recognize how many young girls and women fall out of STEM early without a good support system to help them truly explore whether or not STEM is for them first. Now I love to mentor young individuals whether women or men who might be interested in exploring space or telecommunications as it’s been an incredible career with hard problems to solve that are unique but also brings cool experiences, travel and events you get to be a part of as your ‘job’. I have been an official mentor in the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship and then the Brooke Owens Fellowship programs for several years now. I stay connected with the women and get to watch their careers progress in many different directions. As a mentor my role is to help ask questions and then listen to help replay to them what they are saying.  It’s not about what I want for them, but what they already know deep down but haven’t been able to articulate or tap into fully. At this stage in their careers, I try to help them get clarity on what they like, what they don’t like, and most importantly why.   I keep doing it because it is rewarding to help people get into the right roles for their skills, super powers, and interests. And….I hope in a small way I am helping young girls out there explore STEM and think about a career in space.

Best part about working for Iridium?

Easy – What we do and the people. Iridium is truly a family of great people who chose to work here because we believe in the mission and what we do. Once you’ve worked here, it’s in your blood for life.   We just had our 25th anniversary of providing service with many alumni coming to visit who worked with me in the 90’s, and still today they reflect fondly on what we accomplished. At Iridium, we understand that people rely on us 24×7 whether for safety of life, to call home when out at sea, or to track Rebelles who took a wrong turn on Emily and Jimmy’s wicked routes. It’s the stories on how Iridium was the reason someone is alive today and rescued, how it’s used to track and help endangered species, or providing critical communications so FEMA can help others after a natural disaster. That gets us up each day to come to work and do our best.

Is there one Iridium product you’re most excited about…and any future ones you can fill us in on?

There are two really, and they’re both safety of life services. One supports anyone on a ship at sea and the other, anyone on a commercial/passenger aircraft. They are both used today, but are going to be upgraded based on our state-of-the-art Iridium Certus service, which the Rebelle actually uses to help with the scoring system, ensuring no matter the weather, competitors get their points. The service for ships, yachts, boats and ferries is called the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System or GMDSS. It’s essentially the big red SOS button you press if something is wrong. Iridium ended a decades-long monopoly when we began providing that service, while at the same time adding new features, making it more affordable for sailors and expanding it to cover 100% of the planet for the first time. The upgraded version is going to really be a gamechanger for the maritime industry as a whole in terms of price, performance and capability. For aviation, anyone who flies on a commercial airline today, especially overseas, doesn’t know it, but Iridium is likely helping them get from point A to point B. While many satcom providers are in the cabin to connect you to the internet, Iridium is on the flightdeck helping pilots communicate with air traffic control and ensure a safe and coordinated airspace. We have a new version of this capability based on Iridium Certus that is getting close to starting the required regulatory approval process, which we’re very excited about.

 The Rebelle Rally is the ultimate proving ground for products, and we utilize not only Iridium during the rally but also several Iridium-connected products all year – from ICOM Push-To-Talk satellite radios, Roadpost’s Iridium satellite Phones, YB Tracking, InReach, Zoleo. Can you enlighten our readers why these products (brands) have withstood everything the Rebelle throws at them over the years? (Windstorms and all)

We have amazing partners who build these products off embedded Iridium Connected technologies. Our partners understand the user community and the intense conditions, and develop solutions. When your brand is based on reliability and providing a safety of life service, the products have to work. They have to be ruggedized and withstand elements and environments that would make your smartphone run away scared. They are very purposefully built for customers like the Rebelles who will be in dusty, rainy, windy, cold, hot and sandy conditions. Therefore, our partners need to start with thinking of the customer use case and design and test a product to ensure it works in all situations. Iridium and Iridium Connected products are a sign that you don’t mess around with safety, and our customers expect that they can drop their satellite phone on a jagged rock and not worry about if it’s going to work.

You have been a multi-time competitor.  What brings you back?

I have done three Rebelle Rallies now and last year Iridium sponsored two employee teams which was super cool to cheer them on their adventure. The Rebelle Rally is HARD but it teaches you about yourself, and pushes you to learn new things and realize you can dig deeper than you believe you can. I come back because the women who compete and the staff are incredible. Some of the coolest and most impressive people I have ever met. But what is special is that although this is a hard-core competition, there is a spirit of helping each other too. My first year, Maria and I were stuck in the sand dunes thanks to my rookie move on Day 7. The team in first place, Kaleigh and Teralin, with teams right behind, stopped and helped us. They didn’t have to stop but chose to stop. That’s the spirit of the Rebelles across all the teams. You compete hard, you dig deep, you want to win …but you also are a community and it’s about making sure everyone is safe and gets across the finish line.

Tell us one fun fact about you that may surprise people.

Normally I’d tell people I did the Rebelle as I was not and still don’t consider myself an off-roader, so that usually surprises people. One fun fact is I have figured out how to master sugar cookies…still working on the mastering of the decorating. Back in 2021, we had an 80’s themed holiday party with the most incredible and beautiful Pac-Man sugar cookies. I was determined to figure out how they get them all the same size and so yummy. So 2022 was the year of the sugar cookie. Now it’s my relaxing hobby to make them for different holidays or for my son’s sporting events. I have a Jeep cookie cutter but have yet to try to decorate it yet. Rebelle 2024!!!!

Lastly, any words of wisdom for life or career? Words of wisdom to new Rebelles?

Chase and find the jobs that interest you, where you know you can add value and then do your best.  Don’t chase the money or a title. Life is way too short, and you will spend a lot of your life at work so make sure it’s motivating and you are surrounded by a good team. And if you find yourself at a place in time that isn’t working for you, you can always pivot. Similar to being out on the Rebelle course and you are never as lost as you think you are – go back to a known point. In your career or life get back to finding out what you really want to do and why, and then plot a new course.

For the new Rebelles – enjoy the journey of discovery of yourself and the amazing new places you will see. You need to train hard and make sure you are well prepared, but there are so many Rebelles and resources willing to help you get there and be successful. My friend and Rebelle partner for two years, Heidi, and I had three goals when we competed :  (1) Don’t die  (2) Remain friends and (3) Finish. In that order.  It was never about winning at any cost but about competing and doing our best. You will learn how to be humble, how to forgive, how to let go of bad decisions or get back on track, how to laugh when things are hard, how to be there for others, and that it will be harder and more incredible than you can imagine.  It’s so worth the journey!