Drones and Dawn: How women can advance in aviation and aerospace

Dawn Zoldi

Read DroneDJ’s exclusive interview with Dawn Zoldi, one of the most recognizable, inspirational figures in the drone industry. 

Dawn Zoldi has superhuman powers when it comes to multitasking. She runs her tech consulting business, P3 Tech Consulting. She hosts a weekly podcast, Drones at Dawn, to discuss the latest developments impacting the UAS industry. She serves as an adjunct professor at Colorado State University, teaching about the developing discipline of Homeland Security. She is an adviser at Women and Drones, having won recognition from the organization in 2019. And she is the first female CEO and president of UAS Colorado, a nonprofit business league dedicated to advocating for the unmanned aircraft community in Colorado.

Oh, and did we mention, before all this, Zoldi had served 28 years in the US Air Force, providing advice on legal matters, formulating military plans, and authoring numerous policies on topics ranging from drones to commercial sponsorships!?

Landing a job with a cold call, and tons of research

This Philadelphia native was the first in her family to earn a Master’s degree, a law degree, and become a US Air Force officer. And that Air Force career almost wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Zoldi’s uncanny perseverance and cold-calling skills.

Zoldi tells DroneDJ:

My career counselor at Villanova Law School, my alma mater, encouraged me to explore the armed services’ Judge Advocate General Corps (JAGs aka military attorneys). She told me that the JAGs she had met seemed to love what they did, it seemed to be a collegial environment, and she thought I’d fit in.

So, she did her research and cold-called the McGuire Air Force Base JAG Office in New Jersey. The office agreed to let her shadow folks there for a day. Then she interviewed a retired Army JAG to understand the profile better, and met with the Navy and Marines on more than one occasion.

Ultimately, I interviewed with the Air Force at Dover AFB, Delaware. A two-hour interview turned into an all-day event. Right then, I knew it was a great fit for me. When I was competitively selected into the JAGC, I accepted the offer. Signing up to be a JAG is a 4-year commitment. I figured I could do just about anything for 4 years. That was in 1992. I retired from active duty almost 25 years later in 2018.

Interesting: Watch aerial refueling drone top off US Navy jet in midair

From military leadership to nonprofit management

Quiz Zoldi about the difference between leading military organizations and leading a nonprofit, UAS Colorado, and she’ll tell you how you need to adapt strategies when it comes to getting work done through volunteers. “This is why we set realistic goals for 2021 in our strategic plan,” she quips.

“For us, it’s all about elevating the platforms (literally and figuratively) of our members. So far, we’ve kicked off MeetUps (Zoom online training), Industry MashUps (in-person mixers with companies), a new Newsletter, and added Clubhouse and Instagram to our social media presence. We rekindled prior strategic partnerships and made a host of new ones to add additional value for our members in the form of discounts and job opportunities.”

They say in the Air Force, “Flexibility is the key to airpower.” And this is the mantra Zoldi swears by while providing advice on policy and regulation. “With advanced tech, especially tech that can impact privacy, regulators always have to balance what I call the Big Three: safety, security, and privacy,” she says.

That balancing act is hard, though. They may not get it right the first time. Listening to constituents and assessing the impact of regulations after they are implemented is key. If things need to be changed, then do it. Policy is usually never ‘one and done.’ Policy must keep up with the tech and the times, while always enabling the mission.

Success takes hard work and a great support system

These tenants of flexibility and listening to others have helped Zoldi climb up the professional ladder, too. “Good leaders use 360-degree feedback. I try to learn from everyone: above, sideways, below, and regardless of gender or other identity characteristics.”

Young women often approach Zoldi, wanting to know how it’s possible to balance family and a successful career. And Zoldi is quick to point out that this balance takes hard work.

“I use the Bosu ball as an analogy,” she says. “If you stand on a Bosu ball with the round side down and flat side up, you have to engage every muscle in your body, especially your core, to avoid slipping off. No one can help you maintain balance, really. They can give you a hand, literally, but what balance looks like (where you place your feet, how low you have to squat, where you put your arms, etc.) is going to be up to you and within your control.”

Zoldi is fortunate to have a great family. This includes her husband, who gave up his career to raise their boys, enabling her to focus on her career and still enjoy a family and life. “That enabled me to stay ‘on the ball’.”

Related: Of drone deliveries, tech accelerators, and getting more women to fly

Authenticity and self-belief above all

Stressing that leaders should be authentic, Zoldi says that women must not fall prey to the “imposter syndrome,” thinking they don’t deserve a leadership position or shouldn’t apply for one.

Believing in yourself is the first step to being an authentic leader. Having a support network, whether that be family, friends, mentors, colleagues, is key to getting positive reinforcement, as well as the unvarnished truth when you are falling short.  As they say in sports, ‘You’ll always miss the shots you don’t take.’ So, just go for it!

That said, men have an equally important role to play in propelling a gender-balanced aviation industry. As Zoldi says:

For women to succeed, men must be supporters and allies. Celebrating female role models is a great way to make them visible enough to inspire girls to want to become part of the drone industry. The saying, ‘If you can see me, you can be me,’ focuses on girls and women. I made up a corollary for men: ‘If they can see HER, SHE can be HER’.”

Women and Drones does a great job of this, says Zoldi, adding that winning an award for leadership in 2019 changed her life. So, this year, to pay it forward, she has agreed to be the Ambassador for the Women to Watch Global Awards Program.

“The Canadian Advanced Air Mobility Consortium (CAAM) also recently held an event called ‘Women in AAM,’ which is another great way for people to see women leaders in the industry, to connect with them, and to learn.”

And then there are publications like Matt Higa’s widely distributed “Top 62 Women to Follow on LinkedIn in Aerospace and Aviation” (a list that, needless to say, Zoldi is on) that helps provide much-needed social exposure to female professionals.

All of these efforts help elevate the profiles of women in this industry and normalize their presence as not only participants but also as leaders. More of this, please!

Read more: Meet Canada’s youngest drone pilot with Advanced Operations license

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