Out of the two million employees in the Federal Government, Hispanics represent only an 8.5% of the federal workforce, according to a report published by the Office of Personnel Management for fiscal year 2015. Despite the staggering numbers, there are Hispanics and Puerto Ricans in particular, who have become the epitome of federal service and excellence. Such is the case of Ileana Pérez Nieves, an UPRAA member and an alumna of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), Mayaguez Campus.
Ileana Pérez Nieves works for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), an intelligence agency under the United States Department of Defense. She serves as a program manager for the International Solutions Office, the office responsible for delivering systems connecting the National System for Geospatial-Intelligence and International Partners; which in turn facilitates collaborative support for national, defense and civil customers. Ileana has an impressive academic background: In addition to her Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from the UPR, she holds an Interdisciplinary Master of Science (MSE/MS) with specialization in Engineering Management and Leadership from Purdue University and the Thunderbird School of Management, respectively; and a Certificate in Global Management from the Thunderbird School of Management. Even more impressive is the fact that she completed all her graduate studies while being a single mother and working full-time. She is charismatic, intelligent and passionate about life and family.
Most recently, Ileana was highlighted by NGA during Hispanic Heritage Month for her outstanding compromise and contributions. Here is a glimpse into her profession, values and aspirations:
1. As a Hispanic and a woman, what is it like to work for NGA or the federal government in general?
It is definitely challenging, but at the same time it has its benefits. As a Hispanic and woman I feel that I have to constantly prove myself and my technical abilities, which at times can be challenging. However, being one of the very few Hispanic women, people notice you. For example, sometimes I am talking in the elevator at work and someone recognizes my voice (accent!) from the conferences calls. My agency is huge, therefore being noticed is a great benefit. Also, by knowing another language, I have been able to help my Agency with several translations which have provided me exposure to different organizations.
2. What has been your biggest accomplishment and your biggest challenge at NGA?
As most Hispanics the “language barrier” has definitely been my biggest challenge. Even though I am fluent in English, it took time to feel comfortable with the language. In order to compensate for that, since I moved to the United States, I started asking my co-workers to correct me when I am saying or writing something incorrectly.
I recently earned an award for “Making Information Technology (IT) Happen”. As a Hispanic woman in the IT business, this was a major accomplishment not only for me, but hopefully for other Hispanic women in the talent pipeline.
3. In your current job, what are you passionate about or what makes you thrive?
I am extremely passionate about working with our International Partners. I love traveling and experiencing new cultures, and in this job I feel I can do that without leaving the building. Also I really like and thrive working in high-pace environments. This job is full of emergencies and surprises, which is something I truly enjoy.
4. What are your short term and long term goals?
My short-term career goals include supporting one of the international sites for a couple of years. I believe that the knowledge gained from working side-by-side with users and customers will be invaluable for both my career and for the Agency. As far as long term goals, I see myself leading an IT department of one of the major Intelligence Agencies or as an Small Business Owner for an IT company.
5. You were recently highlighted in NGA during Hispanic Heritage Month, could you tell me about that experience and what it means to you?
It was such an amazing privilege that meant so much to me. I always try to make sure I represent my heritage the best way I possibly can, and make way for other Hispanics to thrive in the workplace as well. I’m aware of how my actions can positively or negatively impact people’s perspective of other Hispanics. Therefore, being recognized in this manner was a clear indication that all that hard work is paying off, and that my performance will not only open opportunities in my career but also in the careers of other Hispanics.
6. What work opportunities or internships were instrumental in your professional development?
The opportunity that was the instrumental in my professional development was being selected for the Operations Management Leadership Program (OMLP) for General Electric (GE). GE is a great company, and this was an elite program, which was very hard to get into at the time. It was a two-year rotational program in which you had to move every 6 months to different manufacturing sites and to new roles that required different skills. Simultaneously, you had to be taking numerous leadership and management trainings and certifications in order to successfully complete the program. This job was not only extremely challenging, but also it was my first opportunity out of college. Being able to succeed at that job was a great confidence builder for all of my future jobs. Throughout this program I learned not to be scared when new opportunities came my way and taught me to be aggressive and take more risks on new roles.
7. Who is your role model?
My mother. She has always been a source of inspiration and support to me. I always saw her as such a strong, intelligent, and independent woman and I wanted to be someday like her. Having such a strong woman raising me was a true blessing and I hope to always make her proud.
8. What advice would you give to recent graduates interested in following a career path similar to yours?
Believe in yourself or no one else will. In college, as a Mechanical engineering student, I was one of the only women in the classroom and at work in most meetings and projects I am one of the only women (and Hispanic!) in the room. With time I taught myself to believe that I belong in every room and I encourage all young female students and professionals to do the same. You have to teach yourself to be confident in any room you walk in. You are not in that room by coincidence; you are there because of your dedication and hard work. Always know that you belong there just as much as anybody else and understand that the only thing holding you back is you. This was an advice from a woman I admire a lot, that I will never forget.
9. Any final thoughts or advice about life or values?
My best advice in regards to life is very simple…“Just do it!”
Thinking about doing a Master’s Degree? Just do it!
Thinking about taking a trip (that you can afford)? Just do it!
Thinking about taking a new job outside of your comfort zone? Just do it!
Make educated decisions, but never overthink a decision because of how hard it will be. There will never be a right time for these types of decisions, the right time is NOW.
Thank you Ileana for inspiring us and for representing the Puerto Rican diaspora with exemplary work and leadership!