Stephanie Kossen Koster ’80 has been through a lot of interviews in her 30-year business career. The most difficult, hands down, was with Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, when he was looking for a director of finance and business operations for his commercial space-flight company, Blue Origin.
“It was at six o’clock one Saturday morning,” Koster said. “Just hours earlier I had flown in from India. I went in expecting he’d ask technical finance questions. Instead he said, ‘Give me an example of a judgment call you had to make.’ I took several stabs at an answer before finally succeeding with,‘Everything I do every day for Boeing’s international customers involves a judgment call.’”
As early as 1985, working as the controller for an international manufacturing firm in Seattle, Koster learned that besides a mastery of the relevant skills and knowledge, sound values and sound judgment are essential to business success.
“The owner of that company was rock-solid honest,” she said.“He taught me a lot about business and became like a second father to me.”
Her first father, “an incredibly tough, but fun and value-driven executive,” bucked the argument from other members of the family that a true Christian couldn’t be a businessperson. “He showed me it was possible to be a Christian in business,” Koster said.Her mother, sisters, husband, children, that early boss, Calvin’s first female business professor Shirley Roels—all of them, she added, “are, in a sense, doing my job now. I’m a conglomerate of all of them.”
Lured away from Boeing where, among other assignments, she created and directed a new model for international business development, Koster now oversees all non-engineering-related operations at Blue Origin.
“At Boeing, I used to think, ‘What, on the face of the earth, could be a bigger and more interesting challenge for my skill set than international development?’” she said. “It seems maybe only something above the earth.”
Blue Origin is one of a handful of private companies hoping to take over the role of launching humans into space—including researchers, crews of the international space station and space tourists—now that NASA has retired its space shuttle fleet. With the help of monetary awards from NASA, the company has developed and tested several launch vehicles, some successfully, some not. A successful “short-hop mission” in May was followed by the malfunction and subsequent destruction of one of its unmanned propulsion vehicles in late August.
“It’s not the outcome we hoped for,” Koster said, “but we learned some interesting things. Jeff’s (Bezos) attitude is, ‘We signed up for this to be hard. We’ll mourn quickly and move on.’ This is a long journey and we won’t stop. And we won’t fall for the unreasonable hope that the path will get easier. Hence Blue’s motto: Gradatim Ferociter. Step-by-step, ferociously.”
In a company that describes itself as extremely competitive and having few rules, Koster uses as her guide the model of servant leadership. “That’s what all the formative people in my life—including people at Calvin—have modeled for me,” she said. “So though I didn’t go looking for this job, I’m sure that God has a reason for me to be here. It may simply be to practice servant leadership.”