NCMA CEO Kraig Conrad met with Vice President of Supply Chain for Boeing Defense, Space and Security Penny White during the 2021 World Congress in Denver on July 26 to discuss her impressive career journey, what she has learned along the way, diversity and inclusion in the contracting career, and the importance of mentorship—both receiving and giving—for building strong contracting professionals. The following interview has been edited for space.

Kraig Conrad: Welcome, Penny. Let’s jump right in. Reflecting on your career, which opportunities did you grab hold of and which ones were just happenstance or luck?

Penny White:  I've had a lot of great opportunities in my 31 plus year career. Most of them were just things that happened. They weren't things that I planned, but they were things that were instrumental in helping me get the knowledge that I need. I'll go through a few of the things that I think were really pivotal in my career.

First, I started out with Rockwell in Cape Canaveral, Florida, working with NASA on the space shuttle program in the contracts organization. After being in the contracts organization for a year, I was looking for another opportunity and went to supplier management. That's where I started putting all the pieces together, realizing that what we were selling is what we needed to execute on, from a supply chain standpoint. That was one of those pivotal areas that gave me those two pieces of what I love best. Contracting.

Then, I joined United Space Alliance (USA), which was a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed that operated the space shuttle program. I got to put my two loves together. I was able to be a part of the proposal team that negotiated the contract that started USA, but then I was also a part of the supplier management organization that helped set up the policies, procedures, processes and all the terms and conditions that were needed to operate the supplier management organization.

My next opportunity occurred when I was invited to a meeting to get us ready to implement our new system. So we needed to have a whole new suite of tools, and I was invited by my boss to just sit in on a meeting on our materials management system. During the meeting, they talked about purchasing and quality and freight and transportation—all integral in the supply chain. I thought, wow, it’s great he invited me to this meeting. Well, two months later I was leading that activity. So, to take someone who had a law degree, who had been a compliance person both on the buying and selling side and to give them an opportunity to learn more about technology was great.

Later, I was given the opportunity to have our property management organization report to me. Again, I raised my hand and volunteered. That allowed me to broaden my skills, better understand the supply chain, and hone my appreciation for everything that we're doing.

Let me also say one of the things that was very critical for me was joining NCMA. Becoming a part of NCMA was planned, but not on my part. It was planned by my boss who was going to be president of the NCMA Space City Houston chapter. He brought all of us along. Once I got on the NCMA train, I didn't know how to stop.

KC: And we're glad you stayed on the train.

PW: Thank you, and I stayed on the train and for the Space City Houston chapter. I was able to leverage the experience to improve our small business program. Small businesses are important to our economy and to companies like Boeing. Through my role at USA, as well as through NCMA, I was able to start an NCMA small business conference with the Space City Houston chapter, which has lasted 15 years so far.

When I joined Boeing in 2014, I was back on the space side, which was exactly what I had done for most of my career. After one year, I had the opportunity to go to Boeing Commercial Airplanes. That was one of the most tremendous three years of my career. To really be able to see contracting from a commercial standpoint, to understand the similarities and the differences, was invaluable.

I also had the privilege of being NCMA national president during that period.

KC: That's a great story, Penny. I'd like to move on to another question about supply chain. We all became aware of the risks in the United States because of COVID-19 and the impact that had on our supply chain throughout the country, because there's predominantly a strong international component to how our supply chain comes together. From your role as vice president for supply chain, what have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis and what would you carry forward?

PW: What I learned is that people are very resilient. From my team standpoint, I had a lot of them working from home and I had a lot of team members who were still on-site every day. All these people had different things going on, but you saw the resiliency of people.

Another thing we had to focus our attention on was making sure our supply base was financially healthy. We made it a priority to stay engaged with our small businesses throughout the pandemic, communicating with them, encouraging them, and assisting them as they navigated the CARES Act and the other resources available during that time. Frequent information-sharing was crucial, and helped us see that we had to work differently with our suppliers.

Onsite reviews weren’t feasible during the pandemic due to health and safety restrictions. So, we had to figure out how to do things virtually, including meetings and reviews that previously had been conducted face-to-face. Our teams were using their phones to look at things as they were being produced!

There was so much that we had to really change, but we also had to continue monitoring suppliers and assessing their financial health. The vulnerability and volatility of the supply chain became even more apparent. For me, it underscored how much visibility we need at the sub-tier level. We share a lot of the same sub-tiers across many industries and the impact was global.

KC: That’s a great story about the role of humans in the risk model. So, at NCMA, we focus on the future. We focus on preparing people. How would you recommend that a contracting professional go about learning more about supply chain, in moving to the next level?

PW: First, there are so many disciplines that people can choose in supporting the supply chain—engineering, supply chain or materials management, business or law degrees, and any number of others. I would tell people to do your research. Go out there, read articles that talk about supply chain—what it is and exactly how you could enhance your skills. I also suggest talking with others who are in the profession. Having a broad network is critical.

For someone who is starting a career in supply chain and is a recent college graduate, I suggest taking advantage of internships. Hands-on experience has many benefits and is a great way to learn. I also think people sometimes decide they want to change professions. NCMA is a great place to learn more about supply chain. At this year's World Congress, there's a learning track related to supply chain. That's a great way for people to get information, and you can be like me and be both on the buying and the selling side.

KC: Section 889 restrictions imposed another set of rules for contractors, for the safety of their suppliers and the other restrictions in effect and under consideration. How has complying with these regulations affected your approach to suppliers and the monitoring of its supply chain?

PW: We take this very seriously. We have a team focused on understanding the requirements that we communicate internally to our teammates. It's important that both our supply base and our procurement agents understand the rules as well as the implications to business operations. To ensure that we are following requirements, we are doing certain things like conducting surveys among our supply base to gauge their compliance. Getting that clear understanding and communicating is essential.

KC: Wow. So, in addition to cybersecurity, and again, we all know that CMMC is a big challenge for many, what are the other areas of concern for you from the supply chain perspective?

PW: Just kind of stepping back and thinking about COVID-19, I think there are lots of unknown impacts, and they need to be fully evaluated.

KC: It's like an onion, right?

PW: Yeah, it's just like an onion. It's just a peeling back—you really don't know what's happening or where things are being impacted. It's very important to stay tied into our people who are looking at it from a strategic standpoint, what's going on in industry relative to raw materials and things like that.

We are actively monitoring microelectronics. Currently, companies can only buy from certain areas and obsolescence is occurring. So, we’re maintaining visibility at all levels of the supply chain. Those are some of the things that are definitely keeping me and my team up. It’s important to keep communicating when you have those types of concerns and to pull in industry sources to talk through some of those common issues.

KC: Very good point about visibility. I'm going to turn back again to NCMA. You're an incredibly active member, and of course you're now the vice chair of the Standard Consensus Body (CSB), and you continue to give back to this great organization. How have you utilized NCMA's work on supply chain to help you and your career or your current team?

PW: In my prior role at United Space Alliance, I was responsible for establishing a training and development program. NCMA helped to develop our employees through participation in local NCMA chapters as officers. They truly enjoyed that. I also encouraged them to be active participants in conferences by paying for travel and registration fees if they wrote abstracts and presented them in forums, such as World Congress, which gave them an opportunity to be on a national forum. I even offered to help them present!

At this year’s World Congress, one of those employees approached me. She's now a manager and has 23 employees. All of that is through connecting with others and the experience she had through NCMA, which I may not have been able to give her any other way. I think that was the icing on the cake—to be able to see someone who was part of that story with me.

KC: Amazing. That transitions to a conversation about diversity and inclusion. Obviously you've had a tremendous career, tremendous career growth. Usually that relies on a network and a lot of people to help you get there and help support you along the way. How have you been able to navigate that through your workplace and be able to find a pathway forward in your career growth?

PW: I've had people who've been there and been advocates for me and supportive of me. From my family to my small town of a 1,000 people. As a Black woman, my first boss was a Black male, and as I came into Rockwell, it showed me that there were people like me and that the opportunities were there. For probably the first six or seven years of my career, all of my bosses had something in common with me—they were either Black or female. It made me feel that there were possibilities for me to continue to move on, to be able to move up. I know that's not the case for everyone, but that's my story. I could see that there was a place for me.

But I know we have a long way to go. There are so many times that I am the first Black female to do something. I am often the only Black female in the room—even today. I know NCMA is working on doing a lot in diversity and inclusion. We’re doing that at Boeing, too.

One thing that I want to make sure of is that I am a role model for others. People can come talk to me. They see me, and they can see themselves in me. They know that what I do is achievable for them. I had a lot of allies who helped get me to where I am. But the first bosses gave me that understanding that it was possible. I want to be able to do the same thing for other people.

KC: That's a great story and certainly having allies along the way, it's important. NCMA, as you know, is really taking a good look at itself because while we may not be able to solve the problems beyond NCMA, we want to make sure that our world is inclusive, and people are represented in their leadership so that they see that they have options similar to what you had.

PW: Yes. Because contract management is a great profession.

KC: Well, we're now onto our closing question, and we ask this all the time. What would you recommend to someone who's starting out in contracting or considering a career in contracting?

PW: I would tell them that going into contracting was the best choice I ever made after I graduated from law school. There’s tremendous satisfaction in the work we do.   We get to apply all of our skills, and we’re helping drive business performance. 

I have a favorite poem called, “Because the Customer” that talks about why we do what we do (see sidebar).

KC: That’s a great way to end the interview. I'm delighted to hear conversations about how our community can be successful helping people with their career growth. That poem tells its impact. And for today's generation, they really want to have impact and our profession is a way to have that impact, both in society and generally in the United States. Thank you, Penny, for sharing with us. We appreciate it.