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January 4, 2024

Find the Diagonal: An Excerpt from Venture Meets Mission

Toni Townes-Whitley’s journey from Princeton to Peace Corps to corporate consultant shows that a mission-driven career can yield skills that employers cherish.

The people best suited to thrive in the face of uncertainty and tackle large systemic problems are those whose experience draws from diverse perspectives. While the national, cultural, ethnic, and social forces that have shaped you are determined by chance at birth, professional diversity is largely an individual choice shaped by one’s passions and the knowledge attained across different industries and sectors.

Case and point: Toni Townes-Whitley, CEO of SAIC, which provides engineering, digital, artificial intelligence and mission solutions across the defense, space, civilian and intelligence markets.

My career was built along the premise that public and private-sector work would allow me to see where I could make a difference—and to apply technology to do so.

Seeing Government from the Inside
“I’m a military brat, so I’ve been moving around my whole life,” she says. “I think that really shaped how my professional life unfolded.” Townes-Whitley, who now sits on the boards of organizations such as NASDAQ, PNC, United Way Worldwide, and Johns Hopkins Medicine, recalls her professional beginnings. “When I graduated from Princeton with an economics degree, at a time when everyone who graduated was going to graduate school, I decided to join the Peace Corps, in hopes that I could apply my economics and business principles right there on the ground. I went to several countries along the equator and started building schools, learning different cultures, and exposing myself to new situations and experiences. And when I came back from the Peace Corps I decided that I wanted to join the government. I went right into the GAO—the Government Accounting Office, which has since been renamed—and I started working with three- and four-star officers in the military and State Department trying to find fraud, waste, and abuse across the government. It was a great way to see the government from the inside.”

She goes on to say, “My next move was over to the private sector into Arthur Andersen as a tech consultant and then later to Microsoft with the goal of running their public-sector technology interface on a global scale. And I was able to see how the private sector really interacts with the state and federal governments in regards to how new and emerging technologies shape and can address societal and national challenges. For example, we had many discussions on issues of responsible AI, Microsoft’s role in the healthcare industry as a HIPAA-certified platform, and the role of technology in educational equity. The company really began to focus on the UN sustainable development goals and ESG targets while working with the government and trying to understand the intersection of civics and technology. And in some cases, I actually felt like I was working for the DoD, as we were shaping policy as technologists that the government was not equipped to easily understand.”

The Value of Professional “Cross-Training”
Townes-Whitley’s greatest piece of advice: “Find the diagonal. The broader and more diverse your scatter plot, the better your regression line is in terms of your own career. For me, I created a pretty broad scatter plot. I did public- and private-sector work, and I found that the learnings are important to apply across the two. Look for the vertical opportunities to learn something new. And then look to the horizontal opportunities to apply what you’ve learned. I think we’ve got to break down the construct that ‘Oh, I’m doing A or B.’ To find the diagonal—to really walk this critical path of developing skills and experiences, you have to extend your curiosity into different areas.”

​​A lifelong hooper, Townes-Whitley is quick to make a basketball analogy about her career. “Be a triple-threat athlete. In basketball, the most valuable player on the court for any team is the player that can shoot, dribble, and pass. The triple threat. And I realized the importance of this coming out of Princeton. When I joined tech, it was the economics background and the regressions and the econometrics models that led me to see how to define the need in business innovations. And when you consider that, growing up as a kid in a public-sector family, I had this idea of volunteerism and making a difference ingrained in me. And my career was built along the premise that public and private-sector work would allow me to see where I could make a difference—and to apply technology to do so.”

One final piece of advice from Townes-Whitley—there’s no dichotomy between purpose and profit. She says, “I never felt like I ever had to make a choice between doing good or making money. While my parents were exceptional public servants, I made an amazing amount of money working at Microsoft, and yet it was my most impactful work on the globe in terms of social change. The idea that you can’t make money while making a significant and meaningful change is wrong. And even more so when you have the technology to really scale this change.” Townes-Whitley is a remarkable and shining example of how to develop a skill set to thrive in the Venture Meets Mission ecosystem.

See how NobleReach’s Scholars program is helping recent grads “find the diagonal."

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