By Lynn Brown
The sky is quite literally the limit for Sharon Rossmark.
“After all these years, I continue to be fascinated by the potential of flying robots, which is exactly what drones are,” she says. “Aerial robot technology and its applications are impacting so many industries.”
After discovering a passion for drone technology, Rossmark pursued sky exploration without hesitation. She set about founding Women and Drones in 2017, an organization that advocates for female participation in a male-dominated industry.
Rossmark’s mission was straightforward: Ensure other women like herself could reach for the clouds.
Discovering a new passion
Rossmark’s interest in drones occurred by chance. In 2014, she served on an executive board at Illinois State University College of Business, which would invite students to present their business ideas for feedback. One group’s concept covered agricultural applications of drone technology. Rossmark thought they did a good job on their presentation, but when they pulled out a drone and demonstrated it live, the technology gripped her.
“I felt like a cartoon character with stars circling around my head. I kept thinking, This is so cool,” she says. “Coming from the legacy industry of insurance and financial services, I thought it would be a great opportunity to jump into a field I know nothing about and use my executive experience in this blue-sky arena.”
At first, Rossmark just wanted to educate herself. She began regularly attending conferences to learn about aviation, drone technology and its host of applications from industry experts. But she soon made an observation that she couldn’t ignore: There were few, if any, female speakers.
“From my previous career experience, I knew the value of women being able to collaborate and connect,” she says.
Rossmark decided to create a website to help women connect at conferences. Within the year, her idea had morphed into Women and Drones, a platform where women could connect with other women interested in drones and aviation—whether they were licensed pilots, marketing professionals or hobbyists. Together, members formed a diverse network, acting as industry guides, sharing stories and offering career advice.
Despite Women and Drones’ quick success, Rossmark didn’t expect to gain the attention of women around the world.
“At first, I thought it would be a great platform to connect women in the United States,” Rossmark explains. “However, it quickly grew to reach international markets. I started hearing from women around the globe.”
Today, the organization operates under seven brands, which include drone flight services and an e-zine. It partners with corporations in support of their inclusion efforts, offers educational programs for kids and adults, and hosts community events.
Following the data
All sectors of the aviation industry are still overwhelmingly male. Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t track the race of people who hold their commercial flight certificate for drones, but it does track gender. While the numbers are still very low, progress is being made: When the FAA made remote pilot certification available in 2016, 793 women completed the requirements; Rossmark was one of them.
“When you’re learning to fly, it is so invigorating, especially when you understand what the tool is capable of,” she says. With a remote pilot certification, Rossmark better understands the applications and implications of the technology. Plus, “it’s thrilling,” she says.
We have a saying here at my company: If you can see me, you can be me. And so we try and put more women out there, more individuals of color out there, so that kids can see.
—Sharon Rossmark, founder and CEO, Women and Drones
By 2021, the number of women who held remote pilot certifications had grown to over 19,000, or 7% of the total number of remote pilots. Rossmark is quick to point out that this number doesn’t reflect the increase in women participating elsewhere in the industry. “We don’t have the numbers we need, but they’re going up,” she says.
Seeing an issue represented in data is one thing; finding ways to address that issue is a different story. Women and Drones has developed a series of annual industry awards to recognize players and organizations that prioritize diversity, support women’s career development and excel in innovation. They also launched the first-ever diversity, equity and inclusion study in the aviation sector.
For Rossmark and her colleagues, visibility is key. “We have a saying here at my company: If you can see me, you can be me. And so we try and put more women out there, more individuals of color out there, so that kids can see.”
Beyond the horizon
Rossmark, who is a valued member of DWEN (Dell’s Women Entrepreneur Network), has taken her passion for flying robots and immortalized it on paper, creating a series of three children’s books. While the first two are fiction books, they’re based on Rossmark’s goddaughter and her co-author’s daughter. In them, two young girls learn about and fall in love with drones and aviation. The third book is a puzzle workbook that teaches young readers about drones at large.
Every one of Rossmark’s initiatives harkens back to the sense of wonder she felt when viewing that student presentation years ago. Today, she only wants to spark that excitement for aviation and STEM.
“Jump in with both feet,” Rossmark advises anyone interested in a career in aviation—and working with drones is a great place to start. “You can’t be afraid to make a mistake. You can’t be afraid of what you don’t know.”
Lead photo of Sharon Rossmark courtesy of Sharon Rossmark/Women and Drones