For Boingo's Rebecca Gray, seeing women in leadership roles traditionally dominated by men has been one of the highlights of her career.
In this mentor spotlight, Gray recounts how having the opportunity to work with female pilots during her internship at a helicopter squadron in the Air Force Academy left a lasting impression and inspired her career trajectory.
"There was something to be said of looking at, seeing, other women as pilots, getting in that aircraft and flying with them," Gray told Light Reading. "Their day-to-day job was really impactful for me and showed me some opportunities that I would have never considered … It really opened my eyes to some different opportunities."
Gray recently joined Boingo Wireless as senior vice president and general manager of the military team that works closely with the Department of Defense and more than 75 Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and Homeland Security Training Center locations worldwide to provide wireless services for the military. She previously worked with Comcast NBCUniversal and is serving in the reserves as the Vice Wing Commander, 111th Attack Wing at Biddle Air National Guard based in Horsham, Pennsylvania. Gray is also on the State Diversity Council for the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.
Light Reading recently caught up with Gray to discuss how she has applied learnings from her military and athletic background to leadership roles in the telecom industry. Gray explains how mentors have played a role in buoying her corporate success and why she's excited about opportunities in tech for the next generation of women in the workforce. (Note: This interview has been edited for space.)
Women in Comms: Tell me about your military career and which skills have kind of transferred over to your career in tech and telecom.
Rebecca Gray: I was a recruited athlete to the United States Air Force Academy – I was a springboard diver for 15 years. Being in the Air Force, which is such a high-tech branch of the service, really put me around a lot of incredible leading edge technology. I got a Bachelor of Science degree and learned electrical, mechanical, civil and aeronautical engineering.
When we're bringing young people into the military, we really look for their level of innovation and you have to be agile in the military. You have to be innovative, and you have to find a way when there is no way because you're put in so many different situations, whether in training or in the real world, where you have to be creative and create the way out of nowhere. To be successful in telecom, you have to break the status quo and go into unchartered territory.
WiC: That's a really interesting mindset. It sounds like critical thinking and being able to troubleshoot on the fly were beneficial things from your military experience that helped in telecom as well.
RG: You learn that in spades in the military. You're really faced with having to be innovative. So many times, you're faced with uncertain circumstances that you wouldn't have expected [to find] yourself in.
The military has provided me with exposure to so many different people that I wouldn't have otherwise come across. Diversity is really critical. In the military, we understand the value of that, but it's not that it's been perfect and not that it doesn't have further to go. But the military has really led the way in diversity and inclusion.
At Boingo, diversity is a cornerstone of our success, which is one of the reasons why I felt that I can make a home at Boingo. It's both a personal and professional commitment of mine, and I think diversity leads to success. Boingo has different groups like Boingo Unity, which serves BIPOC and LGBTQ, and our team members who have disabilities. We have Boingo Veterans, which is obviously near and dear to my heart, as is Boingo Women.
In the military, the landscape is always changing from guerrilla warfare to urban warfare to what's going on right now around the world. In tech and telecom, the landscape is always changing. Teams are driving that change; you need to drive that change, and you have to have a mindset of being agile.
I've been in the military for 30 years, and it continues to keep my mind very agile.
WiC: How do you work with folks that are maybe more resistant to change, or don't have that agile mindset? How do you get them to think outside the box?
RG: As a leader you have to be able to do that and then bring your team along – and expose them to a different mindset if they're not as agile. You have to connect with them, and there has to be an element of trust. It's also about putting them on different specific projects so that they can develop those skill sets and giving them some stretch goals.
WiC: How can organizations can do a better job of attracting and retaining female employees? How do you create a diverse workforce as well?
RG: If you're going to do it and do it well, you want quality and to bring people who will be an asset to your company. A lot of times, companies have to reach down and develop that talent. Boingo supports Girls Who Code and the Center for Excellence in Engineering and Diversity to show younger women different opportunities and role models.
Even my daughters have been exposed to robotics at a young age in some programs. In college, internships and co-ops are just critical. At the Air Force Academy, I did an internship to get different exposure of opportunities.
I did my internship at a helicopter squadron, which I would have never considered in a million years. There was something to be said of looking at, seeing, other women as pilots, getting in that aircraft and flying with them. Their day-to-day job was really impactful for me and showed me some opportunities that I would have never considered … It really opened my eyes to some different opportunities.
The same can apply to women in tech. Women are such an asset, not a liability. Over my career, I've had a lot of men, both from my corporate life and also in my military career, who have been very strategic about giving me different roles and opportunities and encouraging me to go to different schools. Without that voice, I would never be where I am today.
Stay tuned for part two of this series, where Gray expands on the role both male and female mentors have had on her career trajectory, and the best career advice she has received.
— Kelsey Kusterer Ziser, Senior Editor, Light Reading