The Founder of #NatSecGirlSquad Wants More Women in National Security
November 22, 2019 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
When Maggie Feldman-Piltch graduated from college and began working in national security, she was surrounded by former generals who were at least 40 years her senior and (surprise!) all male. She loved working in this field, but she was dismayed by how few women leaders she saw at the top. Maggie decided to change that, and while in grad school at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, she began building #NatSecGirlSquad, a social impact consulting company and professional development organization that builds diversity in national security in defense. Below, we chatted with her about her unorthodox upbringing, her signature purple hair, and her “personal board of advisors.”
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NO ONE CAN BELIEVE THIS, BUT IT’S 100% TRUE: There are 10 children in my family. My two oldest brothers were adopted (though they’re biologically related to each other), and they joined our family first. Then, over time, my parents just had a habit of finding children in need. My sister and I are the biological children of my parents, and we share our dad with a half-brother. Everyone else was adopted at various points along the way. Like, two are the children of my dad’s close friend who passed away. And then, over the course of my life, three of my closest friends from middle school—and one from college—lived with us and now view my dad as their dad. So we’re an eclectic bunch. We’re all different races, genders, and ethnicities; we have very different skill sets and personalities. Basically, it’s chaos!
I HAVE THIS JOKE THAT children of divorce all end up in national security and diplomacy. Stakeholder engagement and coalition building come very naturally to me, because that’s my role in my family. There are so many of us, and there’s been so much transition over the years. If you can navigate a family like mine, you can navigate anything.
I’VE ALWAYS MARCHED TO THE BEAT OF MY OWN DRUM, and I’m the same exact person now as I was when I was four years old, which is a strange phenomenon. A lot of my earliest memories are connected to music, and now I’m an opera singer in my spare time. I remember watching Legally Blonde when it came out, and I was like, “That’s what I’m going to do,” having no idea what that meant. I’ve always oscillated between that performative element of my personality and “Regular Maggie,” who is a bit more introverted and lost in her own thoughts. It’s always been a balance of those two selves.
MY SENIOR YEAR OF COLLEGE, I suffered a cheerleading injury and got a significant concussion. I had intended to apply to MBA programs, because I had this plan of working in corporate social responsibility for PepsiCo or something. But because of the concussion, my advisor was like, “Applying to business school is a terrible idea right now.” I had to cut back on a lot of activities that year, and I binge-watched The West Wing. So of course, when graduation rolled around, I was like, “I want to move to Washington,” and I got an internship at the American Security Project.
I HAD NO GOVERNMENT OR POLITICAL EXPERIENCE; I was just like, “Well, I’m here!” Like all Washington interns, I wrote a bunch of blog posts (that no one read). But then I noticed that the CEO didn’t have an assistant, and I pitched him: “I can keep writing blog posts, or I can be your assistant.” I stayed on in that role, and I learned so much. I was severely overworked and underpaid, but I got the opportunity to do cool stuff that most people don’t ever get to do—let alone when they’re 22 or 23. I had a podcast, I launched a fellowship, and I had great mentors—but they were all men who were 40 years older than I was (or more) and were retired military officers.
I STARTED LOOKING FOR A FEMALE MENTOR in the world of national security, and I wasn’t able to find one. I did, however, meet a lot of other young women who were looking for the same thing! That’s one of the reasons I started #NatSecGirlSquad and one of the reasons I decided to go to graduate school. I wanted to build both my expertise and my network.
INSTEAD OF JUST ONE MENTOR, I NOW HAVE A “PERSONAL BOARD OF ADVISORS.” I think it’s important to surround yourself with different people: some who are going through the exact same thing as you, some who are going through the exact opposite as you, some who have succeeded at what you’re trying to do, some who have attempted but failed at what you’re trying to do. Those perspectives are all valuable. But mostly, you need people to get you out of your own head.
TO ME, MENTORSHIP IS REALLY JUST A SPECIAL LEVEL OF FRIENDSHIP. It’s a bilateral relationship. A mentor or sponsor is someone you can be completely yourself with. You can count on them for honest feedback, and then you can do the same for them. You help each other, and this takes different forms: they can cheer you on, they can push you forward, they can vouch for you, they can open professional doors, they can give you a hug when you need it, or they can kick you in the butt when you need that. It’s all good.
AT #NATSECGIRLSQUAD, WE FOCUS on three places where women need support in the fields of national security and defense. The first is building expertise. The second is building confidence—because women are less likely to recognize themselves as experts and to be recognized as experts. And the third is working towards institutional and systemic shifts: What works? What doesn’t? What should we burn down? What should we keep? Where are the leverage points to create change?
I AM SOMEONE WHO MAKES MY OWN LUCK, and I sort of willed #NatSecGirlSquad into being—but I had a lot of help. We’ve worked hard for four years, and it’s just now really coming together. I’m so happy and it’s so rewarding, but it hasn’t been easy. When it comes to women in national security and defense, the default assumption is that you’re a nonprofit. There are some great nonprofits in this space, but we’re not one of them. So when people are like, “Oh, can’t you just get a grant?” I have to explain, “We’re a for-profit entity, honey. There’s no grant money for that. It’s called venture capital funding, and it’s hard to make that happen.”
I’M KNOWN FOR MY PURPLE HAIR. No one in D.C. looks like this, and people ask me, “How do you get away with that?!” I say, “I’m not getting away with anything. This is just who I am.” There was definitely a point a few years ago when my dad would say to me: “You’re going to have to get rid of that hair if you want to be taken seriously. That’s just how Washington works.” But when I was profiled by NPR—with a photo from a conference where I had pink-and-purple hair and was sitting next to General Joe Dunford, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—that was a major inflection point. My dad was finally like, “Well, damn.”
WHEN IT COMES TO NATIONAL SECURITY, my work is about making sure the right people have the right knowledge and are in the right roles. Diversity and inclusion are a natural part of that. I think if you’re soft on diversity, then you’re soft on national security and defense. Diversity is not window dressing; it’s not a warm fuzzy. The world is scary and dangerous right now, and the same systems, people, and thinking that got us here can’t get us out. Women must be part of this conversation. Our current lack of diversity is the most significant national security challenge of our time. It’s a mistake to think otherwise.
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Photos by Matthew Priestley.
Styling by Sam Michel.