Alumni & Donors

Eyes on the Skies

Alumnus helps lead SpaceX’s innovative charge into the final frontier

For Ken Venner ’84, an innocent day of “catch up’’ with a former colleague led to a chance to change the world.  The man wanted to show off his new employer to Venner, so the two agreed to meet at the buddy’s new work site, SpaceX, the innovative, private company sending crafts into orbit for NASA and private communications firms.

"The CFO at SpaceX and I are colleagues from our Broadcom days, and he invited me to tour the site one day,’’ said Venner, who majored in mechanical engineering while at Stevens. Immediately, Venner was attracted to the business model at SpaceX. 

“When I took the tour here, I realized that 85 percent of the materials here turn into rockets—the steel, the spools of wire. I said to myself, ‘I have to work here.’ The business model is the opposite of everything a typical business school tells you, and it intrigued me,’’ he said.

Today, Venner is Chief Information Officer for SpaceX, responsible for overseeing the design, development and implementation of the company’s state-of-the-art computing and information sharing infrastructure. As CIO, his job touches everything, from rocket launch scheduling to the shop floor to the manufacturing component. "Basically, it's all the parts of the rocket to the launch ignition team,'' he said.

The Hawthorne, California-based company was founded in 2002 by CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk, the successful entrepreneur who co-founded PayPal and current CEO and Chief Product Architect of Tesla Motors, with the goal of enabling people to live on other planets. At the time, no private firms had sent satellites or spacecraft into space. In 2012, Venner jumped at the chance to work in this cutting-edge industry.

He’s proud that the company manufactures within the United States. ‘Too many companies are outsourcing their manufacturing overseas. We’re losing that connection and it bums me out,’’ he said.

"It's really a sense of hands on, a sense of impact,'' he said. “Every member at SpaceX gets to see their work in production, to see how we can change the world. It's empowering.''

What’s also empowering is the ability to make history — something SpaceX has been doing lately. In January 2014, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and successfully put a broadcasting satellite in a high-altitude orbit for a Thai communications operator. A month prior, SpaceX tallied its first launch into geostationary transfer orbit, an orbit favored by communications satellite companies seeking to deploy spacecraft in orbits over the Equator synchronized with the Earth’s rotation.

In May 2012, its Dragon spacecraft attached to the International Space Station (ISS), exchanging cargo payloads before returning safely to Earth, an act previously accomplished only by governments. The company has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to fly numerous cargo missions to the ISS, and SpaceX has nearly 50 launches on its manifest, representing almost $5 billion in contracts, which include commercial satellite launches as well as NASA missions. 

And as CIO and a part of the SpaceX leadership team, Venner sits in a critical position to ensure that the company’s goals are met.

A world of wonder

Venner has spent a career in industry, working as CIO of Broadcom, Rockwell Electronic Commerce, and Lucent Technologies/AT&T. The engineer in him is still in wonder of what goes on at SpaceX.

“We are transforming mankind in this little area of Los Angeles,’’ he said, using U.S. talent to make reliable, cost-effective rockets. “It's never been done before and I get to be a part of it,’’ he said.

Mechanical engineering and manufacturing are two things he knows very well. His dad, Ed Venner '56, is the president and owner of Ven-Tel Plastics Corp., an injection molding company in Largo, Fla., a company he's owned for more than 25 years. And his late sister, Susan, belonged to the Class of 1985.

Did he feel pressure to come to Castle Point?

"Not really. I looked at several options and I felt that Stevens offered the best engineering education for me because it was such a well-rounded school,'' Venner said.

The Stevens advantage

"Stevens prepared me because it taught me problem solving. With an engineering background, I was able to study a problem, decompose it and then solve it. I really learned a lot in my oral lab read out class—you had to present your information within the allotted time. It taught a valuable lesson for me about business—be respectful of the time you have been assigned and get to the point. Don’t waste time.''

"The group assignments were really helpful. You succeeded or failed as a team, you learned how to select team members and how to divide the work. These are skills that have direct application in the working world,'' he said.

During his undergraduate days, Venner made an impression on at least one Stevens faculty member. Dick Magee '63, a former longtime professor in the mechanical engineering department, remembered Venner immediately.

"In almost 20 years of teaching, Ken Venner is one of the two students whom I remember for their quickness in class. He was quick in absorbing the material and quick in anticipating where we were headed. He always asked the most difficult questions, which kept me, as a teacher, on my toes. I appreciated that,'' Magee said.

Likewise, Venner recalled Magee. "Dick was one of the professors who shaped me most professionally. He encouraged me to go and get my master's degree. And, yes, we did spar in class, but I think of it fondly, as he motivated me to be better.''

Globe-trotting, with a mission

Venner’s career and education have taken him around the world. He's lived in several states along the East Coast, earning his master’s in engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and his MBA at New Hampshire College before moving to California. He and his wife, Debra, have been married for 22 years.

So what does he miss about life on Castle Point?

"I miss seeing Manhattan from my dorm room. I had that view for four years, and it was so cool. And I miss walking to the PATH and being in Manhattan in 15 minutes. It was great to be a part of New York, but not live in the middle of it,'' he said.