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The Art of the Possible
Nicole Funk, Senior Vice President, Booz Allen Hamilton

December 2011

Nicole Funk, SVP, Booz Allen Hamilton

You notice the hair first. You can’t help it. The shocking platinum bob in contrast to her stark black suit belies her age but portends the wisdom she is about to share.

“The world is wide open,” she says with a smile. “You may not be able to control what life throws at you, but you can control how you respond to it. Stretch yourself. Surround yourself with good people. And make your place in the world.”

Don’t be fooled by the Opraesque platitudes. As a senior vice president for the giant management and technology consulting firm, Booz Allen Hamilton, Nicole Funk can credit her successful career to her attitude toward life and work as much as her intelligence and credentials. She has followed her own advice and in the process found a home at a company whose core values align with her own.

“I think that’s why I like it here,” Funk explains. “The company’s core values are my core values,” she adds, looking up at a framed reminder that hangs on her office wall. Booz Allen outlines 10 core values that employees are expected to work and live by, including trust, respect, integrity and excellence. “They are not just words that get a head nod,” she confirms. “They are something we strive to achieve in our daily work and are part of our annual review process.”

Funk has worked for Booz Allen for 19 years, leaving for a brief time to explore other opportunities, including a position at Northrop Grumman and teaching. She currently leads the team that supports Booz Allen’s military and defense contractors. “Our goal is to help our clients succeed. Whether it is a government or military agency, a commercial entity or a financial company, we have the experts that will assist them in solving their most complex problems.”

Booz Allen Hamilton, named after three of its founding partners, maintains offices in two buildings at the Water’s Edge complex in Belcamp in Harford County. The company employs over 370 people locally and over 26,000 globally. They’ve been in business for nearly 100 years and are consistently ranked as a top company for working mothers, veteran-owned small businesses, military personnel, and innovation and IT. When Funk joined Booz Allen in 1993, she was one of only three staffers who opened the office after Booz Allen won an Army contract that required an office nearby.

“When I started here in the mid-90s, there were only three of us. I was a junior member and a part of team that supported clients. I had the pre-requisite science background, but learned the business skills along the way.”

Women earned 82.8 percent of the median weekly wage of men in the second quarter of 2010, up from 76.1 percent for the same period a decade ago and the highest ever recorded. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)On January 1, 2012, if no women stepped down before this article went to print, there will be a record making 18 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies at the same time.
The Department of Defense is the nation’s largest employer of women. Currently, there are 195,639 women on active duty and 257,946 women in civilian positions. Source: (Department of Defense)

Funk graduated from Frostburg State University with a degree in biology and secondary education. She credits a high school AP biology teacher with igniting the spark that turned a geeky fascination into a career possibility. “I could really feel the energy she had for science when she stood in front of class,” Funk says. “She made you want to know more and understand why. That was exciting to me.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Funk obtained her teaching certificate and taught in the public school system to satisfy a residual desire to inspire others with science. “Even though I didn’t make teaching my career, learning how to teach has helped me be very effective in my position here at Booz Allen,” she states. “I remember to consider different learning styles and to hold an audience’s attention while I’m making presentations. I facilitate to get the group to succeed individually while working toward a common a goal. Getting my teaching certificate made me a better leader.

“Like any young person, I started college with one career in mind then changed it along the way. First it was physical therapy. Then I wanted to be a science teacher. Then biology specifically. But my interest was always in the sciences. I even earned my master’s in biotechnology at Johns Hopkins. I just never pictured myself as a businesswoman,” she readily admits.

To help her navigate her transformation from a biology graduate to a businesswoman, Funk actively sought out mentors. She believes that mentoring was as important to her career as her education. As the beneficiary of mentoring, she also seeks out others to mentor – and sometimes they find her.

“I’ve had mentors at every turn in my career. When I got a promotion. When I was looking for work/life balance. When I was going through a transition. I took advantage of the wisdom of others. I’ve also had people who wanted to mentor me, seeing potential or talent that they wanted to cultivate.”

She admits to being surprised the first time someone asked her to be a mentor. “I had a friend whose daughter was getting ready to go to college,” she remembers. “He asked me to meet with her and give her a businesswoman’s perspective so that she knew she had op-tions on where her life could lead. I was honored. I never had a businesswoman as a role model in my own youth, so I gladly accepted. The young woman and I remained in contact throughout her college years, and she is now a mother of three and a successful employee here at Booz Allen. That’s very rewarding.”

A high-ranking partner at Booz Allen, Funk also wears the hats of a working mother of two young children, a spouse and community volunteer. Facing what many working women face today in terms of busy schedules and multiple priorities, Funk seems to take it all in stride.

“I face those challenges like most women I know. There’s no magic formula. It’s not going to be divided up equally. It’s what’s important at that moment. If my children need me, I’m there. If my clients need me, I’m there. I try to be fully engaged in what needs my attention. I try to be the best leader, the best wife. I’m not saying it’s perfect, just that I’m always doing my best.”

It helps that Booz Allen has policies in place that allow for flexibility as well as providing employees with the tools that make working remotely possible. It was ranked again in 2011 as a Top 100 Best Company to work for by “Working Mother” magazine.

2nd placeposition on’s 2012 list of Top 25 Technology Consulting Firms• 9th placein Consulting Magazine’s list of Best Firms to Work For (6th in Strategy/8th in Career Development/9th in Compensation Satisfaction)• One of Working Mother Magazine’s 100 Best Companiesfor 2011

• On the Business Committee for the Arts (BCA) list of the Ten Best Companies  Supporting the Arts in America for 2011

• One of 100 companies recognizedby Military Training Technology magazine that “lead the industry in advancement” of technologies that enhance military training.

• Named as one of the 10 Best Corporationsfor Veteran-Owned Small Businesses for seven consecutive years.

• Ranks second on Computerworld’s annual list of 100 Best Places to Work in IT, and first in training. The firm has made the list for nine consecutive years.

• Ranked first on the list of 2011 Top Military-Friendly Employers by G.I. Jobs.

“Booz Allen takes diversity and work-life issues seriously,” she explains. “We have these wonderful company sponsored forums where employees get together and discuss issues that affect us and resolutions that would improve the situation.” FlexWork Forum, Parents’ Forum and Women’s Forum are just three of the 14 diversity forums that give employees a voice at Booz Allen. The first forum organized over 20 years ago and, as the employee population changed, more forums were added to represent different groups. The forums can work independently, but they also connect staff to senior leaders who can provide needed support and insight.

“Helping my colleagues be as successful as they can – that’s my job as a leader. To make sure they have all the tools in their tool box to do their job well. Whether that’s training, materials or time, I have to get it for them so that they can succeed. But, I also tell people, that ultimately your future depends on you. You have to challenge yourself. Yes, some things may seem hard and the days are never long enough. But, if you’ve been given the tools and you choose not to use them, then you can be sure the path will end at your feet.”
While some women in the working world may have had difficulties being taken seriously or getting ahead in male-dominated fields, Funk’s experience has been very different. “I never felt that I didn’t have the same opportunities or resources as men did. In fact, I think in many situations, being a woman has helped me. When you are only one of a handful of women in a meeting or at a conference, you tend to be noticed. Not only will people seek you out for a different perspective, but they also tend to remember you and your name after the event is over. That comes in handy. Plus, there’s never a line for the ladies’ room,” she adds with a chuckle.

Continuing, she says, “I heard a speech by Ben Carson (Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital) once. What he overcame in terms of limited resources to become the person he is today – that’s just amazing. But, he never shied away from a challenge and never stopped being curious. When I mentor people, I tell them to think about what’s next. Are there skills you could develop to take you farther? Do you need an advanced degree to progress in your job? Or maybe, it’s volunteering somewhere to give you a different perspective. I really believe that at some point in your life, you own it and how it moves forward depends on you.”

When Funk started with Booz Allen, there were only two other female partners. Now nearly 22 percent of executive leadership at Booz Allen is female, including senior vice presidents that oversee the divisions that handle the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps business and the Army’s business.
“I used to feel an obligation to be successful. Mainly because I don’t want ‘not succeeding’ to be blamed on being a woman. But, with so many women as leaders now, some of the weight has been lifted.

“Recently, I was in a restaurant with my family, and I was approached by a young woman who recognized me – I’m sure from the community activities I participate in for Booz Allen,” she says assuredly. “She politely introduced herself and asked if Booz Allen offered internships to college students. I explained that we do and gave her my card. She followed up immediately with a well-written note and was later offered an internship by the company. She has been invited back and the company is anxiously waiting for her to graduate in hopes of continuing the relationship. Her poise and presentation impressed me before I even knew if she was qualified – which she was.

“My advice to young women today would be to hone your written and verbal communications skills. That girl in the restaurant stood out – for her courage, her confidence and her poise. In a crowded pool of applicants, that will help you distinguish yourself. I would also advise any young person to cultivate their passions and indulge their curiosities. Do the research. Talk to as many people as you can. Experience as much as you can. Do the extra credit. Take the harder assignment. You never know where it may lead.”

She also urges women to pursue what interests them. “I’ve very fortunate. My passion – science – is in my work. My kids suffer though, because my husband is also a scientist, a fisheries biologist. So, with two biology scientists as parents, a trip to the zoo can take several hours,” she says laughing. “But it’s that kind of exposure and experience that can awaken something in someone to the art of the possible.

“I just think the world is wide open. I’m not saying that luck doesn’t come into play. But, when those moments come to you, be ready to take advantage of them. Work hard enough. Reach out. And keep your mind open to the possibilities.” I95