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Sometimes, future federal employees have to take a step back and realize exactly where their talents are most needed.
On this episode of Women of Washington, Gigi Schumm welcomed Karinda Washington, chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) office of partnership and engagement. In her position, Washington works effectively to build relationships with key internal and external stakeholder groups.
Washington was an advocate and early supporter for two programs within her office designed to help employees make better use of their time and talents. The first, the Loaned Executive Program, brings in executives from the private sector to help coach DHS officials in areas where training is needed. The executives serve a maximum of one year as unpaid employees. Washington said there are currently about 22 participants.
The second, Exemplar program, is a pilot program focused on training DHS employees in all things science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The idea is to provide the public sector with the knowledge and ideas already existing within private industry practices.
“I took it upon myself to figure out a way to send employees out specifically in the STEM fields,” Washington said. “[For Example], looking at cybersecurity and how the private sector does cybersecurity, how they do physical security, what best practices can our employees learn and bring those best practices back into the department. So that’s how we got started.”
New programs and initiatives always come with a learning curve. Washington said the department started the program without having a specific plan in mind for the executives. She said sometimes they had the executives work a full day for no reason.
“We learned very early on that it would be beneficial for us to put the work in on the front end to make sure when those executives land that we have a plan and an end goal from when they leave on the exemplar side,” she said.
In 2018, it has become even more apparent that it’s difficult to keep employees in the government long enough for them to mature in the cyber, or STEM, fields. She said as soon as they are seasoned and able to leverage their talents, industry is picking them up.
Washington said the programs are dedicated to helping make DHS more sustainable. It was because of this the dedication to growth and sustainment that she won the DHS Innovator of the Year award in 2015.
Program creation is stressful, but that’s not all she does within her office. She is responsible for making sure the employees are on track as well as fulfilling the needs of the Secretary. Washington said being chief of staff is a chameleon of a position.
Agencies in general go through a lot of change — and this takes a tole on leadership. But Washington said she focuses on implementing processes that praise employees openly and publicly.
“I’m really invested in our employees having more training opportunities than ever before,” she said. “That is the environment that I said I would always want to set if I ever got an opportunity to be in charge somewhere, because I felt the opposite end of that, and I never wanted to be a leader of a toxic organization.”
She has even created a program within DHS that sets aside time – about 15 minutes —for employees to come in her office and just talk.
According to her LinkedIn page, Washington is also passionate about community relations and corporate social responsibility in urban centers. Outside of her work at DHS, she serves as a public relations support liaison for an organization in her hometown of Detroit, Michigan. The group is dedicated to the revival of the city’s northeast side.
She said she received her entrepreneurial spirit from her father, and her caring spirit from her mother. Her mother directs a nonprofit in Michigan, and her dedication to fundraising and sacrificing for others gave her the courage to pursue different things.
“Both of them always say don’t stop trying new things … always create and be innovative and stand out,” she said. “So I definitely say the foundation for my household influenced who I am. And along the way, the bosses I’ve had have always opened up the floodgates.”
In her career, she’s almost felt like a firefighter of sorts, consistently putting out fires across the office and supporting her staff. But she said if she could do one thing, if there were no obstacles , she would promote the creation of an office dedicated to the workings of public-private partnership. Washington is a big supporter of the programs in Canada.
Public policy wasn’t always Washington’s career path. In fact, she started out wanting to go into the field of medicine. But one rotation within an OB-GYN’s office, and her plans changed. She couldn’t stand the realization that there would be babies that didn’t survive.
“I said, I can’t do this. It struck a chord in me that I care about people, and i do want to take care of people… But I want to take care of people who are alive,” she said. “So that changed the course in me.”
Her father really pushed her to decide what she wanted to do. To decide what job she would be happy with even if she weren’t getting paid. That is where she found her place, and eventually found her career with DHS.
What advice would she give to those who want to go into the private sector or public policy? Brace yourself for rejection.
“You’re not going to get every opportunity successfully. Opportunities will come [that] you’ll apply for and you don’t get it. You gotta be able to pick yourself up and move on,” she said. “I’ve encouraged our interns to give yourself a deadline [for grief]. Give yourself 24 hours, but then on hour 25, we’ve got to move on. It’s been very rewarding to see that play out today.”
Gigi Schumm welcomes Washington's most ambitious and influential female executives to share their secrets to success. Contact Gigi at email@example.com. Subscribe to Women of Washington’s audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.