25 Jun 2014
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A Man on a Mission

Retired NASA administrator Julian Earls is happiest
when he's helping others onto the launch pad of life.
by Robert S. Benchley

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"My wife says I flunked retirement," says Julian Earls (PMD 37, 1979) with a laugh.

Maybe so, but he clearly has never flunked anything else. The holder of 10 university degrees, including six honorary doctorates, the recipient of government service awards from two US presidents, and the finisher of 27 marathons, including the Boston Marathon (twice), Earls has proven that he can accomplish just about anything he sets his mind to.

When Earls officially retired at the end of 2005, he was director of NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. He had been with the space agency for nearly 40 years, and was managing more than 3,300 employees and an annual budget of $773 million. Early training in physics launched his scientific career, but Earls credits what he learned at HBS with giving him the right stuff to soar in the executive ranks. He's 71 now, and his "failed" retirement is filled with educational endeavors, most of which involve getting kids of all ages excited about STEM subjects and entrepreneurship.

Earls has led an unlikely, if inspiring, life considering his roots. He grew up in the Virginia Tidewater area, the ninth of 11 children born to a railroad worker and a domestic worker who had completed fourth and eighth grades, respectively. "They were not uneducated; they were self-educated," he says today.

Influenced by the father of a friend and by teachers in school, Earls thought at various times of becoming a carpenter, an English teacher, a math teacher and—inspired by a guest speaker, an electrical engineer who said he made $300 a week, a distant dream to a boy in his circumstances—an electrical engineer. But given his family's financial limitations, college was not a realistic hope for this youngest of five sons.

"All of my brothers had gone into the military, so I figured I would too," says Earls. "But they decided as a group that someone had to start the family on the college path, and that I was the one to do it. They provided the financial support that made it possible."

Earls entered Norfolk State University, where he majored in physics. "A professor told me that physicists can work as engineers, but that engineers can never work as physicists," he recalls. That single conversation was the spark for a career at NASA. Earls' undergraduate work was followed by a master's in radiation biology at the University of Rochester, a stint at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and in 1968, his entry to NASA, which early on sent him to the University of Michigan for a doctorate in radiation physics.

Even as he rose through the ranks at the space agency, Earls' scientific training was an important foundation for his career.

"The beauty of NASA is that even though you become a manager or supervisor, you don't lose touch with the technical world," he says. "Early on, my work was still 80 percent science and 20 percent administrative. At the division chief level, you start to become more administrative. By the time I became center director, I was not involved in research day-to-day, but I was bringing in funding to support it."

Partway up the ladder, however, Earls realized he was missing something. "I was in my first management-level position at NASA, and I realized that I needed to augment my technical abilities with management skills," he says.

"When I arrived at HBS, I had never taken a business course in my life," says Earls. "I did have some experience in certain areas, such as human resources, but at HBS it all came together. I picked up new skills, like understanding budgets and balance sheets. I had not yet had to deal with financial matters, but later on the federal government and NASA administrators decided that managers should have total budget responsibility.

"It was very important that I had gone to HBS, because I already had the skills, so the degree gave me the ability to continue being promoted. I'm sure that career opportunities came up, and that I was selected, based on what I learned there."

For 30 years, Earls also found the time to teach at community colleges in Cleveland.

"I felt such an obligation to those teachers who had helped me, and one way I could pay them back would be to do what they had done for me," he says. "I taught a math or physics course a couple evenings a week. But I also used my teaching as a recruiting vehicle for NASA, to inspire bright students out of high school to go into our apprenticeship program."

He continues to find ways to change lives through educational service. Since his retirement, Earls has been an executive in residence at Cleveland State University's Monte Ahuja College of Business, where he lectures on ethical issues and recruits promising students for NASA. He also headed a task force that launched the Campus International School, a K–12 program at CSU. To prepare them early for today's global career environment, the school begins teaching students Mandarin in kindergarten.

Earls led another project that brought high school juniors and seniors interested in STEM subjects to study at CSU. They share facilities with older students and get an early immersion in the college setting. And last November, he helped another organization, Entrepreneurial Engagement Ohio, gain a $5 million grant to enable high school students to attend lectures and compete for scholarships to state colleges in Ohio.

"The hope is that they will combine entrepreneurship and STEM subjects in a major at college," says Earls. "It's an opportunity to marry technical disciplines with entrepreneurial spirit. The future of this nation will require technical skills and the thinking of entrepreneurs."

His wife is clearly correct: Earls has flunked retirement. But he is doing what makes him happiest: helping others onto the launch pad of life.

"If I'm doing anything to change the world," he says, "it is using any power and influence I have to lift up other people."

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