By Catherine Trifiletti
Heather Kitay had always been in awe of her father and grandfather’s service to the nation as U.S. Navy veterans. But her interest in joining the military was only a distant dream when she enrolled in The College of William & Mary. She was slated to be the first college graduate in her family.
Just a few weeks into her junior year, the September 11 attacks changed everything.
“I immediately felt the solemn and quiet energy on campus, walked back to my dorm room, saw what was going on and thought, this is my sign,” she explains. At that moment, Kitay was certain that her service to country must take precedence over her education.
“The experience was powerful, and it motivated me to enlist,” she says of her decision to join the U.S. Air Force.
Today, after four years of active-duty service and a long list of veteran and civilian accomplishments (including the completion of bachelor’s and master’s degrees), her mission to serve the country—and others—remains as clear as it was on that morning.
In 2015, Kitay’s dedication to service seamlessly extended to MITRE when, after nearly a decade as a government contractor, she joined our Cost, Acquisitions, and Management Sciences Center staff as an acquisitions analyst in the McLean office.
“I loved the idea of being able to help the government and share my knowledge in a different way,” she says.
That’s the thing I am most passionate about—seeing other people succeed.
It’s fitting that Kitay tells her story from Texas, where she’s temporarily stationed to attend logistics readiness officer training for the West Virginia Air National Guard, an outfit she joined seven years ago to further her service to the nation.
In April 2020, the West Virginia National Guard sought her leadership chops in the state’s pandemic mobilization.
There, she served as the task force commander for Army and Air Force troops coordinating N95 mask-making operations, mass testing sites, and eventually mass vaccination sites. “The experience was stressful, fast-paced, and exhausting, but rewarding,” she reflects.
After almost two years of deployment, and with full support from MITRE, Kitay arrived back to McLean with enhanced skillsets related to leadership, management, and logistics coordination.
Upon her return, she joined the Black Pearl project, which applies advanced analytics to non-traditional data sources to characterize, resolve and automate large datasets for government sponsors.
Data analytics offered Kitay a new challenge, she admits, but colleagues shepherded her through critical processes and systems. She appreciated being welcomed back to a “fully supportive environment where everyone was open, receptive, and understanding.”
Kitay is guided by the Air Force’s core values of integrity, service before self, and excellence. MITRE’s parallel philosophies have made her feel connected and motivated to pay it forward.
Last year a new opportunity arose to do just that. Kitay was named a group leader for MITRE’s Intelligence Talent Incubator, an initiative designed to build professional intelligence careers from a foundation encompassing the full range of intelligence disciplines, missions, and domains.
In her mentorship role overseeing a cohort of young professionals, she has led with the Air Force’s—and MITRE’s—principles. Among other lessons she hopes will resonate with the group: prioritization, accountability, and the harder to teach, yet equally important, emotional intelligence nuances that can transform individuals into great leaders.
“It’s been so rewarding to not only see their personal growth, but to see them imparting that knowledge and wisdom to other early careerists,” she says, beaming. “I’m so proud.”
For her part, she’s learned to tailor her approach to each mentee. Active listening and taking the time to absorb their personal stories is key.
As Kitay reflects on her experience at MITRE thus far, she recalls attending a networking event in her first few weeks on the job where a colleague said: “You can do anything you want and learn anything you want at MITRE.”
Her personal evolution and professional trajectory have proved that true.
So, what will Kitay add to her diverse resume next? “Any role where I can mentor and actively develop other individuals,” she says. “That’s the thing I am most passionate about—seeing other people succeed.”