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Women’s History Month: Meet the Woman Behind the United States’ Stringent Export Controls on Russia

You may not know the woman at the helm of the U.S. response to the crisis in Ukraine.

Through her outspoken advocacy for her team at the Bureau of Industry and Security and her definitive leadership in the face of geopolitical crisis, Assistant Secretary for Export Administration Thea Kendler intends to change that. 

Since assuming office last December, Ms. Kendler has served as the policy leader steering the unprecedented export controls placed on Russia. The Assistant Secretary guides strategic thinking at the crossroads of industry, U.S. national security, and technology through the lens of exports licensing. BIS oversight extends to nearly all U.S. exports licenses, from cosmetics to semiconductors, including military items and dual-use goods with nuclear capabilities.

The Assistant Secretary’s track record speaks for itself: her portfolio ranges from previous service as BIS counsel, overseeing major export control reform, to prosecution within the Dept. of Justice’s National Security Division, to private counsel in global trade law.  With over 20 years of policy and enforcement experience, she is a no-nonsense policy powerhouse.

I sat down with Assistant Secretary Kendler to discuss how she views her role, her position within the department, and a few of the driving women behind her success.

What drives your interest in national security vis-à-vis export administration?

This is a fact-based organization—not a theoretical economic policy debate—and export controls are very specific. Ultimately, we look at individual transactions and we ask, do we or do we not let this go? This job is policy-based on a massive fact gathering exercise. We need to understand the intelligence that we’ve obtained. We need to understand open-source industry research: what is out there? What are companies saying they’re doing? We need to understand industry perspective. We need to understand the impediments to industry supporting our national security. We need to know how we can facilitate industry supporting our national security. This is like micro-microeconomics. That’s what drives me: trying to understand how very specific information draws into our national policy.

What are your priorities as Assistant Secretary for Export Administration?

It can be very amorphous to talk about national security. I want to make sure that our focal points--what we are strategizing and planning for--are real national security threats. We need clarity on what national security means. And we need an international approach to our view on national security. On top of that, within the Commerce Department, we need to think about national security and how our focus on national security impacts U.S. businesses. Beyond the question of, “If we cut off exports, will US business be harmed?” my bureau is thinking about the role that industry can contribute US national security.

We’ve seen during this crisis in Russia overwhelming support from US industry. They have reached out saying “I want to help,” and have affirmatively supported our goals in response to the horror of the situation unfolding. That’s exactly the rule for the Commerce Department. To bring industry into our national security picture.

What are some of the challenges and successes that you’ve experienced in fields largely dominated by men?

When you say a field largely dominated by men, I assume you’re referring to national security. Because at Commerce, I’ve always been surrounded by women in policy and execution roles--I’ve never thought of Commerce as a male-dominated institution.

But within national security, it has not been unusual, in my experience, to be the only woman in a meeting of men. The same is true in law-enforcement, during my time at the DOJ. Perhaps I’ve been too outspoken in some of those environments, but for better for worse I’m not a wallflower.

Now, it is not uncommon to see greater diversity—in terms of gender, race, background—in many of the critical meetings I attend focused on Russia response. And maybe that speaks to the Biden-Harris administration. I see a reflection of the country in the national security meetings I attend and it brings me joy every time I see that.

And with the leadership Secretary Raimondo provides… She is setting such a powerful standard for women in this department, and frankly, everyone in this department. She is showing us what a successful woman can do. I’m awed by her leadership. You certainly can’t view this as a male-dominated institution. But of course, there’s always more work to be done. And it shouldn’t be administration-dependent.

Is there any advice that you’d like to give women and non-binary folks about achieving success in law government national security?

There’s a lot of noise out there. You might interpret it as a hurdle to your success, but that’s all that it is: noise. You need to barrel through. I’ve never let that noise stop me.

I grew up with a mother who is a litigator in environmental protection for the state of New Jersey, and she is the one who taught me about public service. She taught me about fighting for what’s right.. I grew up with a strong mother who showed me it is affirmatively good to be a strong woman. And that can be difficult, especially for women and non-binary people coming from more marginalized backgrounds than me or without the support that I had growing up. But the world is changing whether people like it or not, and the people who don’t like it are just noise.

Who are the women you admire past and present and why?

I have to start with my mom. She passed a few years ago, and I wish she could have seen the success that I’ve had in my career. She was an absolute trailblazer. I try to live up to her standards every day. And my grandmothers were working women when that was unheard of: on one side of my family, my grandmother was a teacher, and on the other side of my family my grandmother kept the books for my grandfather’s business. Both were examples of tremendous and strong women who made a difference for their families and for the world. I have a family tradition of women who get the job done and I think I’m just the next generation trying to meet the standards of the women who came before me.

Of course, I am also a huge admirer of our Secretary Gina M. Raimondo. 

What is a fact about you that no one yet knows in the department?

I would knit in every meeting if I could. I love knitting. It’s a creative outlet I picked up in law school when I felt that my brain was too far removed from creativity. I love the textures, I love the colors. It grounds me. If it was socially acceptable, I would do it in every meeting. I always admired Lois Schiffer, the former general counsel for NOAA, who used to knit during every meeting.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Government service is remarkable. It is a space that allows people to be their unique selves while contributing to our country, our society in the highest way. The opportunities I’ve had in government and the opportunities I’ve seen my colleagues pursue demonstrate the incredible potential impact that you can contribute to. It is an honor and a privilege to serve.

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