Jane Poynter, NAFE Entrepreneur of the Year
Tipping the hat to novelist P.D. James, how’s this for a traditionally “Unsuitable Job for a Woman?” Jane Poynter, a 2009 NAFE Women of Excellence winner, co-founded and serves as president of Paragon Space Development Corporation in Tucson, an aerospace engineering and technology development company specializing in life support in extreme environments. One particular expertise involves thermal control for orbiting and re-entering spacecraft. Maybe it’s me, but I don’t know a lot of women who do that.
But I guess after two years (1991-3) as a guinea pig enclosed in Biosphere 2—the mammoth science experiment that simulated life on earth—you’re ready for such work. She and seven others grew their own food and were hungry most of the time (1600-1800 calories per day), dealt with insufficient oxygen, wrestled excess CO2 (and learned how the consequent drop in PH of their “ocean” killed essential organisms), and labored—somewhat unsuccessfully—to get along with each other. She later did marry one of them with whom she hatched the concept for Paragon, now an $8M+ enterprise of 65 people who fashion environments where living things can survive full fathom five deep or eight mile high in earth orbit and beyond.
Right now, Paragon is building spacesuits and space shuttle radiator systems to keep people cool and breathing. But what’s the wackiest they’ve done? Poynter thinks it’s a project that never saw the light of day that they started to design for Marlon Brando to capture car exhaust by sucking it into the road, powered by the energy of the cars passing over. “We worked only at the air purification side of that idea, taking exhaust and using the microbes in soil to clean it. We should get back on that.”
Poynter co-founded Queen of Green Properties LLC, which remodels buildings for sustainability, and The Local Trust, a community-based carbon offset nonprofit organization. She serves as president of the Global Sports Alliance USA that brings sports and the environment together; and she co-chaired The Four Corners Summit on Sustainable Cities.
Also an author, she has penned two books, The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2 and the soon-to-be-released Champions for Change: Athletes Making a Difference, speaking out on climate change and sustainability. In it, she tells some scary stories about our planet. “One skier said the snow was so bad at the Canadian World Championship that they had only a thin stripe of white on a green meadow.” Even worse: “One hyper-endurance swimmer, to promote awareness, swam across the North Pole. You’re not supposed to be able do that.”
Proudest accomplishment: “Building stuff for the space shuttle.”
Biggest obstacle: “Credibility; I was young and often the only women in aerospace; but that’s also great, too, because they remember you.”
Advice: “Build relationships inside and outside your company. You get around the female credibility thing through relationships.”
Secret: “I wanted to be an astronaut.”