A Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic engineer received a 2023 Stars and Stripes U.S. Federal Agency Leadership Award Feb. 10 as part of the 38th annual Black Engineer of the Year (BEYA) STEM Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
Claire Commodore-Wheeler, NIWC Atlantic’s specialty and tactical networks manager, was presented the award during the BEYA Stars and Stripes dinner for her leadership and impact on NIWC Atlantic’s STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] initiatives.
“The fact that my team covertly gathered information and then took the time to submit the award means the world,” Commodore-Wheeler said. “It means that all the work that I and my team have done over the years actually matters, that we’ve made people’s lives better and we’ve had an impact on our workforce and will have an even greater effect on our future workforce.
“Winning this award makes me feel like anything is possible and I’m ready to go on and do more good work.”
The Stars and Stripes BEYA award is one of the most prestigious and competitive honors in science, engineering and technology management, said Tyrone D. Taborn, chairman and CEO for the Career Communications Group, in a congratulatory letter to Wheeler.
“In its 18-year history of BEYA Stars & Stripes, hundreds of America’s military leaders have been nominated for this nationally recognized honor, but less than 16 individuals have achieved the distinction of being a Stars and Stripes award winner,” said Taborn, as he welcomed Commodore-Wheeler “to this exclusive family of high-level achievers.”
The award is presented to individuals whose actions have enhanced their agency’s ability to carry out their mission, increased opportunities for career advancement for STEM professionals and effectively managed a diverse workforce. Nominees also must demonstrate support to the Navy’s efforts in mentorship, diversity and value-based service to the nation service and act as personal advocate for advances in STEM.
Commodore-Wheeler is the first and only African-American female to be a competency lead systems engineer at NIWC Atlantic. She attained this role in 2017 and served for three years before transitioning to manager for the Tactical and Specialty Networks group where she currently leads a team of supervisors for about 160 geographically dispersed engineers and technicians.
“I have enjoyed this role because it provides the opportunity to lead a team of supervisors and technical leads who support the design, architecture and maintenance of information systems for our military and civilian workforce,” Commodore-Wheeler said. “I also have the opportunity to work with my leadership to put programs and guidelines in place to grow an advancing workforce.”
Commodore-Wheeler has also been chairperson for NIWC Atlantic’s Women of the Workforce (WOW) team, which focuses on the recruitment, retention, mentorship, diversity and inclusion of women engineers.
“She uses the WOW platform to positively encourage, uplift and motivate other women,” said Michael Johnson, lead systems engineer, NIWC Atlantic, who nominated Commodore-Wheeler for the BEYA award. “Her leadership of the program has garnered accolades from women and men, internal and external to our command.”
Through WOW, Commodore-Wheeler has provided a structure for individual and group mentoring, impacting the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of women, including personally mentoring 18 individual mentees and one group consisting of six employees exploring the focus of “How to Be Happy at Work.”
“I volunteered to chair Women of the Workforce out of a place of my own personal struggles,” Commodore-Wheeler said. “I was driven by the desire to make a change because I understood and experienced the adversity of the challenges and what it felt like to be on the other side, overcome and to have support to work through them.”
She spearheaded the implementation of WOW’s Lean In Circles, an initiative that calls for the formation of women peer groups and allies organized by common career goals, who meet monthly to learn and grow together. The circles focus on a variety of topics such as career development, work-life balance and challenging bias.
Commodore-Wheeler was also a driving force behind the WOW’s Lunch with Leaders program, which provides opportunities for leadership members to share knowledge within small aspiring groups. Topics have included time management, the power of mentoring, how to lead men, holistic leadership and raising kids while having a successful career.
“The impact has been important because as the community grows, the change becomes more sustainable and ingrained in the culture,” Commodore-Wheeler said. “The tough conversations don’t get easier, but they’re no longer taboo. As we keep the conversations going, actually take action based on the community needs, and then continue reinventing based on feedback, we leave the world better than how we found it. We make our lives better and set stepping stones for the future workforce and our children.”
It was during her own childhood, especially in her teenage years, that Commodore-Wheeler learned the importance of having good role models and how they can have an impact on the trajectory of one’s life.
While growing up on John’s Island, attending Burke High School, young Claire was good in math and science, but it took the encouragement of a lot of mentors and family members for her to decide on pursuing a career in engineering.
“I didn’t grow up knowing anything about technology and it kind of scared me to go into engineering because I didn’t know what I didn’t see,” Commodore-Wheeler said.
She credits her mother’s unwavering support for steering her down the right path.
“My mom was my first and continuous inspiration,” she said. “When deciding on a major, she noticed that I wanted to back out [of engineering] because of the fear of not knowing. My mom strongly suggested and highly encouraged — in other words, made me — major in electrical engineering. Today she continues to be my biggest cheerleader.”
In 2002, Commodore-Wheeler was the only African-American female in her Electrical Engineering class, of which she earned a Bachelor of Science. However, before graduating Clemson University, she was fortunate enough to become a part of a mentoring program focused on the retention of minorities in the university’s engineering and science programs.
“The leaders were integral in my success, not only by leading and developing those initiatives, but also being a personal mentor who took the time to talk about the hard issues/burdens that minorities carry in college,” said Commodore-Wheeler. “It was a safe place to talk about my hardships; I felt heard, and got sound advice. That sparked some of the ideas that was implemented in the WOW program because I knew the impact of having a safe environment.”
Commodore-Wheeler began working at NIWC Atlantic, then known as Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWARSYSCEN) Charleston, as a student co-op and engineering assistant working in the Global Broadcast System lab, then progressed as a system engineer focused on requirements development supporting the AMF Joint Tactical Radio System, as well as other positions.
As Commodore-Wheeler continues to blaze new trails and opportunities for Black and female professionals coming up behind her, she offers the following advice to anyone considering pursuing careers in STEM.
“My advice would be to be bold,” she said. “There were a lot of times that I thought I was undeserving because I was just doing the job. After some research and enlightenment, I realized that was all a part of imposter syndrome. I learned to combat that by restating to myself all that I’ve accomplished. ”
Commodore-Wheeler also shared the importance of keeping trusted allies, friends and those that think differently ‘in your corner.”
“They will speak the truth to show you the good and bad,” she said. “Lastly, trust your gut, always do what’s right, tap into your strengths and take the leap. It could turn out better than you imagined or a lesson will be learned. The world is waiting for you to step into your element and share your talents.”
About NIWC Atlantic
As a part of Naval Information Warfare Systems Command, NIWC Atlantic provides systems engineering and acquisition to deliver information warfare capabilities to the naval, joint and national warfighter through the acquisition, development, integration, production, test, deployment, and sustainment of interoperable command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, cyber and information technology capabilities.
|CHARLESTON , SC, US