Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting the contributions of Department of Commerce employees during Women’s History Month.
Guest blog post by Jessica Falk, Area Director, Austin Regional Office, Economic Development Administration
I am an Area Director with the Economic Development Administration’s Austin Region Office and oversee the grant portfolio for Oklahoma, New Mexico and Northwest Texas. These grants are intended to bring jobs and prosperity to economically distressed communities. It had always been my goal to work with economically distressed communities and help improve their quality of life, but it was a long, winding path to the EDA.
I began my career as an AmeriCorps VISTA in an elementary school in Wisconsin, helping bridge a reading gap between the affluent children and their counterparts living in poor, underserved, communities. During that year, I saw how well-meaning policies failed to account for the reality on the ground. It was then that I decided to attend law school to gain a better understanding of law, policy and its interpretations.
After graduating law school, I spent several years as an attorney at a law firm, but continued to pursue my goals by advocating for “preschool for all” in the State of Illinois and holding an elected position on a Local School Council for an elementary school in Chicago. Realizing that I still had quite a bit to learn, I decided to earn a Master’s in Social Service Administration (SSA). I worked towards my degree while working as an attorney at the Citizens Utility Board drafting utility consumer protection policies; interning at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless advocating for policies to combat homelessness; and researching the impact of policies on public housing with the Business and Professional People for the Public Interest. Needless to say, I was extraordinarily busy and focused on my goals.
It was after graduating from SSA that I came to the EDA. I was selected as a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF) and had planned to continue my path by working at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Education or the Department of Health and Human Services. I stumbled upon EDA on accident. I met with an EDA representative at a PMF job fair and she told me about working with a community devastated by a major layoff. She told me how she helped them create a project to bring back jobs uniquely tailored for that community. It sounded great, but when she told me the job was in Texas, I thought “nope” and walked away. Later I realized that EDA was the only agency that I talked to that discussed working directly with communities to arrive at locally-driven solutions. Despite my trepidations, I was heading to Texas.
That was 10 years ago. I worked my way up from a PMF to an Area Director. I also got married, had two children and settled down as an official “Texan.” Today, I am enjoying my work—watching EDA grants take hold and stimulate job growth in economically distressed communities.
As I reflect on my path to EDA and Women’s History Month, I think about what means to be a woman in the workplace. There is still progress being made – when I first came to EDA there were no female Regional Directors, now three of the six are female—but now there are countless paths for women to take.
My advice to young women, interested in working, is to not only think of what they want from a career but also how they want to develop as a person. You will have some phases where you are hyper-focused on your career, while at other times you will be comfortable where you are and focused on other aspects of your life. Both phases are important to having a successful career and satisfying life. This is a gift our predecessors gave us, the ability not only to have a meaningful career, but also the luxury in choosing how that career will unfold.