Latina Leaders: Former intelligence officer in the Air Force pays it forward

Sandra Tibbs (Photo/Kelsey Borlan Lee)

Sandra Tibbs (Photo/Kelsey Borlan Lee)

At 34, Sandra Tibbs already served in the U.S. Air Force for 10 years, and now she is using her experience leading a crew of 1,200 as an officer in military intelligence to empower others.

Three years ago, Tibbs founded Neverest Solutions, a consultancy firm that trains corporate, government, and small business executives to be better leaders. Based in San Antonio, Tibbs travels the country giving workshops and leadership development training sessions which teach conflict resolution, strategic thinking, male-female dynamics, and how women can become influential leaders.

Where are you from originally?
I’m originally from Peru. I was born in Lima. I came to the states when I was 17 to live the American Dream. My dream was to join the U.S Air Force, because the opportunities in Peru in the military aren’t the same as here. I just had a little money my mom gave me, and I stayed with one of my mom’s friends for six months in Austin until I found my own place. My first job was Taco Bell. I worked there while I studied English in order to take the test to enter the Air Force. I joined the Air Force when I was 18.

What was your best experience being in the military?
I didn’t really believe in myself or my capabilities. For me, the Air Force was such a blessing, because it helped me find what I was capable of and people that believed in me. When I was enlisted, I was approached by one of my supervisors, and they thought I should apply for ROTC and become an officer. The military does a great job in investing in the development of their leaders in every level. I was taken out of my comfort zone. I was always afraid of speaking in front of people because of my accent, but part of my job as an officer was to speak a lot to other leaders. It pushed me so I could achieve and grow and have an impact. I realized leaders are not born, they’re made. And I began to think, “How can I help others?”

What were the skills you learned that helped you in your business today?
I was in charge of collecting important information needed for decision makers to make the right decision. You have to think a lot at the strategic level. A lot of pieces come into play to give the right recommendations. We never have all the facts so we have to gather what we have and make an objective, informed decision.

What did you study?
When I was in the Air Force for about a year, I started going to college. I got a bachelor’s in biology, because I was thinking I was going to be a doctor, but intelligence sounded like a lot of fun, so I followed that and got a master’s in organizational leadership. Now., I’m in my third year of PhD studies in organizational leadership.

What is the most important piece of advice you give to your clients?
One of the biggest things is we have to be aware of who we are and what we stand for, what our values are, and what we want for ourselves. Be aware of what we are willing to compromise and what we are not. As we move up in an organization, we’re going to have to make decisions that are difficult. Everyone should have an idea of their ideal leader. When you have that idea of who your ideal leader is, you have to ask yourself what would my ideal leader do in a difficult situation?

What is the most important piece of advice ever given to you?
We are the only ones who can limit ourselves. It doesn’t matter what others say. People are going to doubt you, because they don’t know what you are capable of, but you have to believe in yourself and your purpose. You are going to attract the things that go with you. When you try to be something for everyone and please everyone, you are going to be attracting people that will not be of service to you. If everybody likes you, you’re doing something wrong.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
Seeing people grow as leaders and have them have a positive impact on their organization. I just finished a group training program, and it was priceless to see how engaged those people were. For me to see that, and how they’re implementing the tools they learned, that’s amazing. The things you see in successful leader – they are always learning and growing. They are always thinking, “What can I do to be a more effective leader?”

Thoughts this Veteran’s Day?
I was blessed with the people I got to work with. I learned so much from the airmen, senior officers, everybody I became in contact with in my Air Force career. That is the reason I’m the leader I am today. I admire the people that are still serving. They are the heroes. They make so many sacrifices for us. I just want to honor them – those there right now and those that will come after us. Without them, we wouldn’t have the freedom to pursue our dreams and live the lives we life.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

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Latina Leaders: U.S. Army Colonel’s mission is to help others succeed

Colonel Irene Zoppi (Courtesy U.S. Army)

Colonel Irene Zoppi (Courtesy U.S. Army)

Many of us have high ambitions, but very few aspire to be a U.S. Army general.

That is a goal Colonel Irene Zoppi is striving for next. Currently, she’s one of only 15 Latinas in the U.S. Army Reserve who holds the rank of colonel. She also happens to be a full-time professor at Strayer University in Maryland, a wife and mother of three, and a Gulf War veteran who holds a doctorate in education policy, planning and administration and a masters in business.

“I think that I’ve taken every opportunity given to me,” says the 47-year-old who moved to the U.S. mainland from Canóvanas, Puerto Rico 26 years ago, barely speaking any English. “Often, as immigrants, we don’t get every opportunity so we start looking for them. Once we find them, we continue working at them so we can get ahead.”

As a girl in Puerto Rico, she says she used to wander around the naval station where both of her parents were stationed, admiring the uniforms and the discipline around her. She ended up joining the Army at 19, while continuing her studies at the University of Puerto Rico, because it “had more opportunities for women” than the Navy.

By 21, she got commissioned as an officer and had a bachelors degree in foreign languages – which she calls her gift. She eventually learned five languages and earned the nickname, “the Visa card,” among her fellow servicemen, because she often served as the translator for them.

Zoppi says moving up the military ladder and learning to acculturate to American culture — especially as a Latina — was not easy.

“A lot of time I was put down,” says the tough but light-spirited coronel who admits to having had trouble deciphering English for a long time when it was spoken too fast. That, however, was the impetus for her to work harder.

“The diversity wasn’t there at that time — so it was difficult and a lot of work. I was battling everybody — I didn’t go partying like everybody else so I could do better.”

Zoppi has seen her share of tough situations as she has advanced in the Army, but she clearly believes in her mission.

 ”One of the most impacting moments in my life was being in combat,” says Zoppi who has earned countless metals for her service, including the Bronze Star. “Although I believe in peace and diplomacy, sometimes the ultimate price we pay for democracy and freedom and national defense is war.”

The military first began accepting women into its ranks in the early 20th century. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Defense, as of 2011, approximately 13 percent of active duty military are women.

Today, as a professor and colonel, Zoppi is very motherly and even hugs her soldiers. She says she really cares for them and often gives them advice.

“In order to become successful, you have to know yourself by going to school, taking advantage of career centers, taking personality tests, and then develop a plan — long term and short term,” she advises. Zoppi already planned her life to age 100. “I have created a map of things I want to do, but also remember to be flexible and adaptable and don’t forget to be spiritual and give back.”

The Puerto Rican colonel advises to continue seeking opportunities throughout one’s life.

“Don‘t just do what feels good, but contribute to the good of our Earth,” says Zoppi. “We have to consider each other.”

In order to do her part in giving back, Zoppi often offers her time as a keynote speaker, motivating women around the world. She says she enjoys helping other women, especially Latinas, to get ahead.

“I want to help other women see they can do it.”

Dr. Irene Zoppi being promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1987. (Courtesy Irene Zoppi)

Dr. Irene Zoppi being promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1987. (Courtesy Irene Zoppi)

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.