Becky Nolan: Making her mark on the IT community

Becky Nolan joined AFCEA International 31 years ago as director of the association’s Building Service Corporation. Although her background was in teaching and retail — she opened the first Bloomingdale’s store in the Washington area — she oversaw the design and construction of AFCEA’s first headquarters building in Burke Centre and, more recently, the current facility in Fair Lakes, Va.

After that initial challenge, she rose up through the ranks and helped AFCEA grow into a 40,000-member association that bills itself as an ethical forum for advancing professional knowledge and relationships in the fields of communications, IT, intelligence and global security — a focus far beyond its origins in the defense community. Now as executive vice president, she is responsible for the organization’s growth and development, and her purview includes marketing, media relations and public affairs.

Nolan, a former marathoner who still runs an hour every morning, plans to retire Sept. 28 and open a clothing store. She recently talked with contributing writer Colleen O’Hara about her most important accomplishments and the lessons she’s learned during her decades-long career at AFCEA.

FCW: What would you say your biggest accomplishments have been?

Nolan: Well, I built the building. I would also like to think that I have helped pave the way for women in this industry. I would like to think I have set an example [for] how women can contribute to this community. In the end, I guess I want you to say I left a mark on it.

I want to be remembered for having tried things. I certainly failed at things. But when I failed, I failed in a big way. If you don’t try, then you’re never going to make any change. I think I have helped effect change in this organization. If you’re going to spend time doing something, you want to believe it’s going to be better when you leave.

My biggest takeaway from AFCEA is the friendships I have forged along the way. I think that if you are able to do that when you are working, what more could you want?

FCW: How has the market changed over the years since you have been at AFCEA?

Nolan: One of the biggest changes, at least in the way I live, is that your work is 24/7. I think right now, the biggest change is the ethics guidelines, the government view of conferences, of government interaction with industry.

It’s absolutely essential that the dialogue go on, particularly in times when budgets are constrained. AFCEA prides itself on always maintaining a very ethical forum. We are not going to put our government and industry customers in any jeopardy. The General Services Administration issue [regarding conference spending] hasn’t helped the climate, particularly at a time when the Office of Management and Budget is looking at cutting budgets.

We need to understand who is going to events or conferences and why they are going there and what purpose it is serving. Certainly, technology is changing. I think big trade shows on the government side are ending. Companies are cutting back what they bring physically to an exhibition. Partly that’s money, but the bigger reason is they can’t show everything they do. Even AFCEA is talking [about a] virtual trade show.

FCW: Has AFCEA hired a replacement for you?

Nolan: We split my job. We are going to restructure AFCEA as of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1. So we are focusing on six customer groups in particular. The “new Becky” will focus on industry. The other groups are homeland security, intelligence, chapters and regions, international, and defense.

FCW: Why have you decided to retire now?

Nolan: My husband [Paul] died in 2009. We bought a house in the Outer Banks in 2000, and Paul and I had always planned to retire down there. And he was always going to “retire retire,” which he did. He retired two years before he died.

We always both said that I wasn’t going to retire, that I was always going to do something, but I didn’t know what. I began to get this idea of having a store. I always wanted to leave my mark on something, so I thought if I’ve got my own store, then when I am gone, people will remember this little store.

But I have to tell you that since my retirement was announced, I have just gotten tons of incredible notes from people. Now I’m thinking I didn’t have to open this store [to leave my mark]. It’s really been touching.

FCW: What kind of store will it be?

Nolan: I plan to open a clothing store in the Outer Banks in Duck, N.C., [called] All Ducked Out. [I will sell] women’s clothing and accessories — just something that is fun and different.

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