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The Power of a Purpose-Driven Career: Insights from Women Leaders in Government

Woman talking on the phone.Mary Kaye Vavasour, Senior Program Manager, Web Applications at Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and Kim Nelson, Executive Director of State and Local eGovernment Solutions at Microsoft, met just this year and have built a professional alliance with a combined 80+ years of working with technology in the public sector. The two recently sat down together to discuss their unique professional journeys, their roles as women in IT leadership, bringing diversity and inclusion into their teams, and more.

Opportunities and Visibility

In one of many similarities, both Kim and Mary Kaye began their careers out of college working in government-related fields. Kim’s journey began with over two decades at the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania before being appointed as an Assistant Administrator to the United States Environmental Protection Agency by President George W. Bush. Mary Kaye started out with American Management Systems’ Federal Group where she led IT business strategy consulting engagements for OMB, GSA, State, Commerce, and US EPA before moving to the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (DC government) followed by her move to WMATA. While there is still a shortage of women in IT leadership roles, both women found that by working in government, they were given unique opportunities and visibility that helped forge their paths.

When Kim started out at the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission in 1979, it was shortly after the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident. “The exposure to senior level management that I received right out of college working for the PUC chairman was tremendous and the equivalent of another graduate degree,” she said. “When you’re that young and you get that level of exposure, it does amazing things for your career.”

“Technology isn’t an area where women have been dominant in leadership, but women in government IT have had more opportunities to assume senior roles,” said Mary Kaye. “Especially for women who are in their early or mid-stage of their IT careers and are looking for a sense of where they can aspire to, government is a great launchpad.”

Kim has seen the same thing across her time in government roles. “You get much more responsibility early on in your career than in the private sector,” she said. “As a woman, you can get visibility sooner because you’re able to take on bigger, more significant jobs.”

At WMATA that is particularly true. There are several senior women serving as executive vice presidents in Rail Service delivery, and other line businesses, as well as IT. “Especially in transit, there are many complex operational contexts for which IT is the underlying technology, and you have the opportunity to innovate in delivering a service to customers that is increasingly critical,” noted Mary Kaye.

The circuitous route of moving from government to either government IT or private sector IT is a common theme. For Kim, merging into IT was a result of trying to make environment and policy more transparent to the public. “I was focused on how to use our information to improve the lives of people, so my IT experience grew from the public-facing side of government,” said Kim. “I wouldn’t be where I am today at Microsoft if I didn’t have that job in government.”

Finding Purpose and Service through Technology

The notion of a purpose-driven career is another common thread connecting Mary Kaye and Kim’s work, both personally and as they look at nurturing and building their teams. Research shows that the key element motivating people in their job isn’t money, but instead task significance and whether someone believes they’re working on something of purpose and importance. For leaders, this provides a basis to attract excellent people to work on hard problems with visible solutions.

“The reason I work in Public Sector at Microsoft is to continue my impact in government and on people. Here at Microsoft, I have the ability to help government leaders accelerate their efforts to improve service delivery.”  

When talking about building her team at WMATA, Mary Kaye finds task significance a key factor in building its strength and pride. In particular, her team recently launched a new contactless payment app in partnership with Apple that spans all bus and rail services. “It’s the combination of the technology challenges, coupled with applications that millions of people use every month that makes it so rewarding for my team,” she said. “The people who work for me use the apps we build in their daily lives. They get to say, ‘I built that to their friends and family!’ People take great pride in work that has such a public-facing purpose.”

Strength in Teams and Allyship

Building strong teams with purpose-based ethos can help alleviate discord when crises arise. The COVID pandemic brought mass disruption to workplaces across the world and now statistics are showing the true adverse impact of that on women. According to Gallup, more than 2 million women left the labor force in 2020, resulting in the lowest workforce participation level since 1988. President Biden recently deemed it a national emergency.

“How do we make sure this doesn’t happen again in the future? How do we make sure that our organizations are resilient enough, with technology in place to weather whatever the next emergency may be? It’s critical that we find ways for organizations to continue to have diversity even during times of upheaval,” commented Kim.

At WMATA, Mary Kaye credits the strength of her group’s team mentality for helping each other over the past year. Multiple people were tasked with childcare and other work-life challenges and co-workers stepped in and helped each other over those hurdles.

“In addition to strong technical skills, if you seek out employees who have a helping mentality and want to be part of a high-performing team, you can often attract and keep excellent people from a wide range of backgrounds,” Mary Kaye said.   “Making sure all voices are heard, and that as a leader you’re vocal with giving credit and presenting challenging opportunities – that enables people to flourish in ways that benefit both them and the larger organization.”

At Microsoft, that same approach is formalized by expecting managers to exemplify three things: modeling the right behavior, coaching employees and caring about them as individuals. Kim feels that this approach not only boosts retention and productivity but yields unexpected benefits at unexpected times.

A few years ago, Kim walked in the Washington D.C. Pride parade with Microsoft and mentioned her participation at an internal management event. “I did this to support people in my personal life,” she explained. “But also, I did this because you never know who you’re working with and what it could mean to them.” A few years later, an internal manager reached out to Kim and recalled that moment from the event years before. He told her he wished he could work in an organization like hers, alongside a leader “who thinks and acts like you do.”

For more on women leadership in government, Microsoft’s mission of promoting allyship, and building public sector resiliency, please visit: