From NASA to “Money Muse”, Stephanie Xenos is Retired at 32
You read that title right, Stephanie Xenos is 32 and doesn’t have to worry about money ever again. If she wanted to, she could lay back and stare at the ceiling for the rest of her days.
Stephanie is a self-made woman, the only child of a single mother, who from a young age, took the idea of financial freedom very seriously. She’s also a badass physicist who got her first job at NASA at 21 and worked at SpaceX until last year, where she was the head of many firsts, including the launch of the first SpaceX satellite and the first private mission that sent live mice to space.
This year, her life took a huge turn. After deciding to retire, she had enough free time and resources to honestly ask herself what her heart wanted next. The answer? Money Muse, a financial coaching service that helps women achieve their money goals. Pretty amazing, right?
How does one go from NASA to retiring at 32, to Money Muse? Stephanie answered all of those questions in our interview. Read on to get the full scoop.
Why do you care about women and money?
When I was growing up my mom and I were really poor, although at the time I didn’t know it because I always felt very loved. When I got older, she met an attractive guy who had money, and we ended up moving in with him. I never really liked him, he was so abusive to us that at one point the police got involved and we had to move out. But the money my mom made by herself wasn’t enough and we had to move back in. At that moment I just felt my whole world crumble. I decided that when I grew up, I was going to be super rich and entirely independent. I got a job, started making money at 15, opened a savings account, and got myself out of the house and into UCLA.
Why physics? How was that experience as a woman?
I chose physics because I thought it was the hardest thing out there, so I was bound to make money with it (laughs). Also, I was always great at math.
From the beginning of the major, women are maybe 10% of the students, and I don’t remember ever having any female professors. By the third year, I was one of three women in a group of 50 people. I definitely experienced adversity, but there was no way I was going to let that stop me. I studied really hard and powered through.
How did you get to the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab?
Towards the end of college, I applied to a summer internship at Caltech, which was considered the best school in LA. Caltech and NASA are affiliated, so I met a lot of people working at NASA. I have this funny memory of me working out at the gym and a guy randomly saying “would you want a job at JPL?” I was like, “What? Hell yes!”. Of course, he called my bosses at Caltech and got excellent references, but that’s how I got my feet into NASA.
“I learned about investing and saving because of fear and the trauma I lived as a child, but I want women to learn about this in a way that's positive and empowering, not scary.”
What exactly was your role there?
I worked on a ground-based telescope in Chile, testing hardware for it in a lab, and then going to Chile to integrate the hardware and take data. It was a fantastic job with a lot of responsibility for a 21-year-old.
Why did you leave?
As awesome as my job was at NASA, my boss didn’t have my development in mind. I remember he told me that I “lacked initiative,” which haunted me until I was 28. So I was always open, looking for a new role. In 2007, I met some people from SpaceX at a party and thought to myself “these people are crazy, I like them.” There was a position open, so I went in for an interview.
How was the experience at SpaceX?
I initially got a job as a manufacturing engineer, it was okay, but it wasn’t the best match, so, later on, I changed to mission management. There, I served as the interface between NASA and SpaceX when they bought spaceships from us. I was a “mission mother,” my role was to take care of spacecrafts the whole way from purchase to end of mission. I was responsible for the first private mission that put live mice in space, and the first test mission of the contract that will put people in space. After a while, I moved on to the Satellite program in Seattle and worked on the launch of the first two SpaceX satellites. In total, I was there for 8 years.
My final time at SpaceX was very different from the beginning. There was less of a start-up vibe, and it was a much more corporate experience, so I never really felt at home. Early SpaceX had the typical tech-bro atmosphere, and I obviously didn’t enjoy that.
Can you tell us more about the “bro-culture” in the tech world?
The typical tech bro atmosphere is very casual, everyone dates everyone, and the lines of professionalism aren’t really there. There was never a time in my career when I felt like I wasn’t being harassed by somebody. I have friends with daughters who are going into engineering, and I’m like "good god, brace for impact." When you’re in a meeting with twenty people, and you’re the only woman, you really see the manly culture, it’s aggressive, there’s a lot of fighting at work, and it’s exhausting. I was just done.
Let’s talk about your decision to retire. How did that happen?
When I quit SpaceX, I was definitely terrified because I had no clue what I would do next, but I also knew I had to do it. At first, I got a consulting job and thought that it would be a good transition, but I quickly realized my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. That’s when I decided to retire, I went back, ran the numbers and realized that if I reduced my spending and moved into a smaller place, I could be financially independent indefinitely.
Though I was super excited about the prospect of never having to take a job again, I thought “well what do I actually do with my life?” Having a job keeps your mind busy, and that's a question you never really have to ask yourself until you don’t have one.
Is that when the idea of Money Muse came to mind?
Yes! I started writing down everything I love and realized I wanted to help women with money since it’s something I’ve always been so good at. Before I never thought of it as an option, but right there it clicked.
Women are behind on money issues, but it’s not something we talk about. It's important not just because it allows you to buy shit, but because wealth gives you the ability to chase your inspirations, which I think is fundamental to being human. I learned about investing and saving, because of fear and the trauma I lived as a child, but I want women to learn about this in a way that's positive and empowering, not scary.
I want to help women get to the point where they feel comfortable making decisions about money, and can take advantage of the power that money gives, that’s what I hope to do with Money Muse.
Check out Stephanie’s website for one-on-one appointments, workshops, and wonderful blog posts on women and money!
*This interview has been edited & condensed for clarity.