UPTOWN Professional Sep 20, 2011

Elite Executive: Navy Rear Admiral Michelle J. Howard

Elite Executive: U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Michelle J. Howard It was just the first week on the job for U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Michelle J. Howard when Captain Richard Phillips was kidnapped by Somali pirates. Howard sprang into action to lead the rescue mission that eventually brought him home alive and made global headlines.

“The immediate focus is you have an American that was kidnapped and you want to get him back safely,” Howard says of the 2009 incident. “For everybody out there, the adrenaline was flowing.”

Howard has been no stranger to heroic moments during her nearly three-decade career in the U.S. Navy. Her latest position is chief of staff to the Director for Strategic Plans and Policy, for which she is one of many who help determine the country’s war and defense strategies. She was also in the Pentagon during the 9/11 attacks and served as chief engineer of USS Mount Hood during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. “I have been pretty fortunate to have a career full of some watershed moments,” she says.

Never one to back down from a challenge, she decided as a teen that she wanted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy before women were admitted. Her mother insisted she should sue the government if she didn’t get in. Luckily, the law changed before she graduated high school.

What no one could have predicted were her unmatched achievements. In 1999, Howard became the first African-American woman to command a naval ship, the USS Rushmore. “I think about all the different leaders that did not look like me,” she says. “They were men and probably Caucasian, and many were willing to say, ‘That young women, she is a keeper.’ They didn’t see Michelle Howard as being a female or minority. They saw Michelle Howard, a navy officer with potential.”

— ANDREA WALKER