Ponziani equipped herself with the tools she uses to drive growth at the European Space Agency by pursuing her Executive MBA.

How the HEC Executive MBA Helped a Rocket Scientist’s Career Blast Off

Reaching for the stars is all in a day’s work for Italian rocket scientist Donatella Ponziani, but it took a rocket-fuel injection in the form of an Executive MBA from HEC Paris to launch her career into the stratosphere.

When the gargantuan Ariane 5 rocket last blasted majestically into space from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) launchpad in French Guyana, Donatella Ponziani’s fingerprints were all over it.

Not in the literal sense, of course; when not in the control room in Kourou, she was monitoring the launch from her desk in the nondescript Parisian building that serves as the headquarters of the ESA. The Italian transplant spent nearly 8 years as the System and Flight Data Project Engineer for the Ariane 5 Program; more recently, she  guided the development of a solid rocket motor for Europe’s future space launch and delivery vehicles as Lead System Engineer.

For many, having the fruits of one’s labors blasting off so conspicuously into low orbit would quite rightly qualify as the pinnacle of one’s career. Not so for Donatella. Fittingly, the arc of her subsequent career trajectory likely changed the moment she took over at what would otherwise be a dream job for any rocket scientist.

“I started managing projects in the launcher field,” she recalls of her 2007 switch to a project-management role at the ESA. “It was the first time outside of a purely technical field for me and I ended up working in many roles. For the first time in my career, I was curious to move to other things.”


Despite wading into challenging professional waters for the first time in her life, you wouldn’t have bet against Donatella to, well, blast off. Her natural curiosity, which served her so well during her prodigious academic journey (she has a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, two master’s degrees in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Mechanical Engineering) would again play a key role in her decision to pursue an EMBA at HEC Paris.

Donatella Ponziani, PhD and HEC Paris Executive MBA

Dr. Ponziani’s capstone project served as inspiration for real organizational change at the European Space Agency.

A chance discussion with the father of one of her daughter’s friends served to solidify her interest in the program.

“He is a professor at HEC,” she says. “He also experienced a fundamental switch in his career after doing an MBA. I shared my career experience, what was blocking me, and so did he, and he explained what the MBA helped him to change.”

That father-cum-ambassador helped solidify the appeal of HEC for Donatella, which she would go on to experience in person some time afterward.

“The HEC Paris EMBA looked like a natural choice for who I was at the time and the level of experience I had. I did not do my EMBA at young age, but it impressed me that everyone else was in a similar position.”

Of course, rubbing shoulders with the highly accomplished was hardly new for Donatella. As she would discover during her EMBA, however, it’s not only being accomplished that separates you from the pack; it’s also understanding how to get the best out of everyone around you.

“The real game-changer of the program is the attitude you gain with respect to the external world. I’ve worked with a lot of highly qualified people who think they are doing many beautiful things – and they are. But I learned to change the way I considered people’s opinions from outside my professional domain, and I learned how to adapt to them.”

Donatella parlayed those lessons learned into a wildly successful capstone project. The crowning achievement of any EMBA at HEC Paris, the capstone project injects added value by applying the lessons learned in the classroom and in the field to real-world company scenarios. Her project, a model for an ambitious institutional reshuffle to help streamline the ESA for a more investment-friendly future, was such an impressive achievement that it won the EMBA Prize for Best Capstone Project.

Heartened, “that’s when I started daring,” she chuckles, ever the proud HEC alumna. “I went to see the Director General of the ESA, who I didn’t know before, and I presented my work.”

As it happens, he had been mulling a large-scale revamp anyway. She got the green light to the tune of carte blanche from the higher-ups.

“That was huge,” she says.

“The real game-changer of the program is the attitude you gain with respect to the external world.”

Echoing her time in the EMBA program in which she was surrounded by, in her words, “non-space people,” she has modeled the team responsible for executing her vision for a quicker, more dynamic ESA after that truly transversal learning environment. “I built the team entirely from outside the space sector. Because the ESA is such a large organization, it is difficult for smaller entities like startups to deal with the huge bureaucracy. Hopefully when I am done, we will be able to go faster, to become more agile, and be easier to interact with.”

Now, nearly two years into her role as Downstream Gateway Officer, she’s putting the lessons learned at HEC to the test every day.

“I loved it,” she reflects of her time as an Executive MBA student at HEC. “But if you go for an experience like the EMBA, you have to make the most of it. I devoted a year and a half to myself, to inspire myself, and to feed my curiosity. I think you have to be ready to do that in order to succeed at the EMBA.”

More CEOs of Fortune Global 500 companies have graduated from HEC Paris than any other university in Europe, and nearly 4,000 graduates are currently CEOs, CFOs, or have founded their own companies. According to the Financial Times, the HEC Paris Executive MBA is ranked #1 in Europe and #3 in the world; click here to learn more about this world-class program.