As president of Draper Laboratory, a nonprofit organization devoted to developing guidance, navigation, and control technology for space exploration and defense systems, James Shields faced both funding challenges and opportunities for growth.
“The last couple of years have been a challenging environment, with the size of the defense budget coming down and with sequestration, budgets for 90 days at a time, and government shutdowns,” says Shields, who joined Draper in 2001 as vice president of programs and retired as president and CEO in October.
Yet during his years at Draper, he increased revenue by nearly 60 percent and expanded the organization’s strategic scope to include biomedical and energy systems. He built new government-industry partnerships and led or contributed to studies on topics ranging from electronic warfare to integrating sensor-collected intelligence. He also presided over Draper celebrations honoring NASA’s moon landing, a feat supported by Draper’s navigation and guidance technologies, as well as the lab’s founding 80 years ago by MIT professor Charles Stark “Doc” Draper. The lab became independent from MIT in 1973.
Shields earned two MIT degrees in electrical engineering and began his career at TASC, the analytic research firm founded in 1966 by Arthur Gelb, ScD ’61, in Reading, Massachusetts. “I went in figuring I would stay about three years and outgrow the company,” he recalls. Instead, he stayed for 28 years and became vice president for strategic planning as TASC became a $300 million enterprise with 3,000 employees. “As the company grew, there were always new things for me to do,” he says, but “the opportunity to go to Draper to figure out how to make a national resource relevant for the 21st century was too good to pass up.”
He credits his steady management style to time spent living at—and ultimately running—Delta Tau Delta: “The fraternity environment is a really interesting leadership development situation—getting to be president of a group of 40 guys, figuring out how to run a budget, manage a house, and keep everyone from killing each other.” Shields also worked as an assistant coach to the first-year and varsity basketball teams and still plays for the MIT Club of Boston. He was chapter advisor for DTD for 25 years and a member of the Alumni Fund and the Alumni Association boards.
Shields is now a consultant, and his wife, Gayle Merling, is a retired attorney. They have two children: Michael Shields ’07 is a mechanical engineer, and Elizabeth Shields, who went to Harvard, completed her senior biomedical engineering design project in MIT’s Biomechatronics Group.