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National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Navigating Being an “Only” at Work: How NGA’s Ichesia Veal Learned to Be Her Own Best Advocate

If you'd told Ichesia Veal when she began her studies at Norfolk State University that one day she'd end up being the chief of the Commercial GEOINT Discovery Division at NGA, she wouldn't have believed you.

First, she didn't know what NGA was. If you don't either, here's a primer: the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency provides world-class geospatial intelligence to policymakers, warfighters, intelligence professionals and first responders. Its work is used in disaster response, wars, and cellphone navigation, among other things.

Second, Ichesia didn't plan on studying anything STEM related when she began her undergraduate degree. She thought she'd pick a liberal arts major until the university reached out and told her they'd give her a scholarship if she studied physics. Although Ichesia liked science and math classes in high school, did very well in them, and was even encouraged by teachers to pursue that kind of major, she didn't think it was for her.

"I didn't know anyone that had focused on STEM. I definitely didn't know any women who had pursued that path. And so it wasn't something that I ever seriously considered," says Ichesia. "It just never dawned on me, and part of that is representation. It's what you see around you, what fields you know about, what jobs you know about," she says.

Being at the historically black college and university NSU helped change the representation she was exposed to. Half of the students in her physics classes were women.

"It was a confidence boost, being in an environment where you're able to see people that look like you. I was able to focus more on physics," Ichesia says.

Surrounded by smart, determined Black men and women, Ichesia leaned into learning and signed up to do a master's in material science at NSU after finishing her undergraduate degree.

Now, decades into a career, including 10 years at NGA, that has often seen her as the only woman, the only Black person, and almost always the only Black woman in the room, Ichesia has become an example of representation in the male-dominated field of technical intelligence and imagery science.

After just a few months in her biggest leadership challenge yet — running NGA's division in charge of learning about commercial geospatial technologies and innovations with a team of 23 reporting to her — we sat down with her to reflect on her professional path and how she's grown to be her own best advocate.

Measuring opportunities in terms of impact

When Ichesia started at NGA as an imagery scientist, she leaned on her physics and materials science background. "Understanding how materials in the environment interact with different things really translates into imagery science," she says. She did that for years and enjoyed it, but came to realize that she wanted to be able to make a bigger impact.

"I'd get a question from a policymaker that I couldn't answer, not because there wasn't an answer, but because we just didn't have access to the technology for whatever reason. It started to become a little frustrating, and I started thinking about the impact I could have if I was willing to step away from doing the science to advocating for the technology and the capabilities," remembers Ichesia.

She didn't set off to become a supervisor or a manager. Instead of thinking about a specific position she wanted, she focused on the value she could bring to the agency and to her team. By prioritizing value and impact, she found herself taking on jobs that didn't even exist beforehand, and she encourages other women to do the same.

"I've been the first person in a position because it was brand new. If I waited for a path, or the idea that you have to know exactly where you're going every minute, then I wouldn't have taken those positions and I probably wouldn't be where I am right now," she says.

Ichesia's strategy for planning her professional decisions involves evaluating opportunities by assessing the likelihood of three things: being successful, making an impact, and both growing and learning new things.

She suggests that women looking for their next opportunity ask themselves the following questions:

  • What am I good at?
  • What am I not quite as good at, but need and want to get better at?
  • Where can I add some value?

Above all, Ichesia encourages women to start asking those questions early. She recommends, "not waiting until a job has gotten stale or hoping that someone notices that you might be right for the next position, but instead actually going and trying to get that position."

One way to do this at NGA, Ichesia explains, is to take advantage of the learning opportunities that are available, such as classes and conferences.

"At NGA, you're actually evaluated on your ability to develop your career and think about how to become better at what you do. I always tell my employees that it's not just about the job you're currently in. It's also about the things you want to do for the agency moving forward."

How she deals with being an "only"

"With almost every position I've ever had in any job I've had, I was either the only woman, the only Black person, or the only Black woman," says Ichesia. "I can probably more easily count the amount of times I was not in that situation than [the times] I was in that situation."

Being an "only" was hard, particularly in terms of networking within her field, she says.

"I didn't know how to navigate those kinds of activities. I felt like I was kind of standing on the outside watching it happen," says Ichesia of her first few years on the job.

She identified networking as one of the things she wanted to get better at; enlisted some help, including her husband and a male mentor, who coached her; and found a way to make it work for her.

"I learned how to get myself into that conversation and not allow myself to be an observer of it," she says.

Now, as a division leader and a conduit for connecting the organization's leadership and her workforce, Ichesia is paying it forward and actively seeking to include others.

"I'm not generally a person that likes to put themselves on the forefront, but I really do enjoy being an advocate, especially for women's issues and minority issues," she says.

Advocating for herself — with help

One of the most important things Ichesia has learned in managing her career is how to be her own best advocate.

"I am now willing to talk about my accomplishments. There's no effort to play them down. And if someone gives me a compliment about the work I've done, I own up to it," she says. "The idea that you sit back and hope that your work speaks for itself does not really work that well in large organizations, and for women and minorities in particular."

That has meant that Ichesia has learned to move beyond her introversion and be confident about her work.

"Speaking up and saying, 'Yes, I worked hard on that, and that's the kind of effort I bring to most of the things I do' is one way to advocate for your own career," she says.

She didn't learn how to do this alone. A year or so ago, when Ichesia was up for the big promotion into her current role, she found herself stuck in a competitive and challenging process and wondering if she deserved the promotion. A friend of Ichesia talked it through with her and walked her through all she'd done to deserve it. A grateful Ichesia named that friend her "confidence champion."

"The further you progress, the more competitive things may become, and when you're having those moments of self-doubt of whether or not you really can do something or whether you really deserve that promotion or award, [a confidence champion] can help you take that step back and say 'of course you do,'" says Ichesia, who's now appointed herself as a confidence champion for her friend, too.

Having that peer support is key, but so are mentors, says Ichesia, who didn't have any early on in her career, but counts several as her key advisors now.

"I learned that you can have mentors for different needs and purposes," she says, highlighting that she has one mentor that provides technical guidance and another she goes to for politically-savvy advice.

As Ichesia continues to grow her career, she's looking forward to continuing to be a mentor and confidence champion for others, including the "passionate civil servants" she works with.

"The people who work at NGA care about this country. They care about our mission, and they want to do a good job," she says. "We're all in it to do the best we can, together, for our country."

If you're interested in learning more about NGA, you can sign up to follow their job postings here or reach out to Ichesia in the comments below!

Approved for public release, 20-588


How These Companies Are Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

According to a recent study, anti-Asian hate crimes have risen 150% since the pandemic started. But these acts of violence are not new — they are part of a much larger history of anti-Asian racism and violence in the U.S.

That makes celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (which was named a month-long celebration in May by Congress in 1992 "to coincide with two important milestones in Asian/Pacific American history: the arrival in the United States of the first Japanese immigrants on May 7, 1843 and contributions of Chinese workers to the building of the transcontinental railroad, completed May 10, 1869") this year all the more important.


The Secrets to Balancing Work and Family Life

3 Pieces of Advice from Working Moms at Pluralsight

Being fully committed to work and family is a challenge that many working parents have to take on. It can be exhausting and thankless pursuing a fulfilling full-time career, while taking an active role as a parent. Achieving a healthy balance can help keep you motivated and productive at work, while allowing you to be fully present when you're home.

We recently chatted with working moms at technology skills platform, Pluralsight, about their best advice for striking that elusive work-life balance. Here were their key points:


How to Make the Most of Being on a Growing Team: 3 Tips from Plex’s Adriana Bosinceanu

When the startup Adriana Bosinceanu was working for got acquired, things changed fast.

She went from being one of eight engineers on a small team building a streaming service to joining a company that was five times larger and had a much bigger scope.

That company was Plex, where Adriana has been working remotely as a software engineer for the last four and a half years.

As her team grew from two people to ten, Adriana decided to lean into the opportunity to grow; along the way, she found herself deepening her technical skills, her self-confidence, and her relationships. We sat down with Adriana to learn exactly how she did that, and to hear the tips she has for other engineers experiencing growth opportunities on their team.

Career and Interview Tips

10 Tips to Stand Out at a Virtual Job Fair

Your guide to preparing for virtual career fairs and making a great impression with recruiters

According to a LinkedIn survey, up to 85% of jobs are filled via networking. For job seekers, virtual job fairs make networking with recruiters more convenient. You can interact with potential employers from all over the world, ask them questions, and apply for jobs. Every event is different, but they most often include video conferencing features, chat rooms, and Q&A sessions.

Dilyara Timerbulatova, Virtual Job Fair Coordinator at PowerToFly explains that, "virtual job fairs have many benefits, namely connecting top talent and recruiters that would otherwise never cross paths. These events are a tool to help companies build well-rounded, diverse teams that align with the company culture and business vision."


Pride At Work: Learn more about Our Partners, Sponsors & Speakers

Learn more about our amazing speakers and sponsors at our June 2021 virtual summit Diversity Reboot: Pride At Work, three days of conversations and panels plus an interactive virtual career fair.

Our Pride At Work summit certainly made us proud! PowerToFly was thrilled to present talks by members of the LGBTQIA+ community alongside some amazing allies. Our conversations ranged from leaders at the highest levels of government positions to visionaries in the worlds of business & tech to artists from the music and entertainment industry. If you tuned in, and celebrated our speakers, thank you! And if you missed the summit or would like to re-watch any of the talks, those conversations will all be available to watch for free on PowerToFly.

We want to extend a HUGE thanks to our amazing sponsors American Express, NGA, Smartsheet, S&P Global, Raytheon Technologies, PwC and Esri plus our media partner MMCA.

If you can, please consider donating to some of the amazing organizations we highlighted at the summit including GLITS, fighting for the health and rights of transgender sex workers; Garden State Equality, the largest LGBTQIA+ advocacy organization in New Jersey, with over 150,000 members; National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, including people living with HIV/AIDS; and NYC Anti-Violence Project, empowering lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and HIV-affected communities and allies to end all forms of violence through organizing and education, and supports survivors through counseling and advocacy.

Plus, don't forget to visit our Merch Store and grab yourself some PowerToFly apparel. 100% of the proceeds from our sales will be going to TransTech Social, supporting transgender and non-binary people in tech.

Finally, registration for our July 12th - 15th virtual summit Diversity Reboot: Tech For Social Impact is now open! Join us to learn about founders from mission-driven organizations and their social impact. Register for free here
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