In honor of Women's History Month, this March we're showcasing Envision female speakers and role models who have and continue to make history. Women throughout the past have worked hard and sacrificed to do great things. Join us this month in celebrating them! Please share our posts through out the month and use #WomenWednesday to commemorate the amazing strides these women have taken!
This week's highlight is Jonna Mendez, a retired CIA intelligence officer with 27 years of service. During her career she lived overseas on multiple assignments, under cover, serving tours of duty in Europe, South Asia and the Far East. Her work took her throughout Western Europe, the sub-continent and Asia.
She joined the CIA’s Office of Technical Service (OTS) in early 1970, an office remarkably similar to the “Q” Branch in the James Bond Movies. OTS provided the CIA with the technical wherewithal to facilitate its operations around the globe. Within a few years she was overseas as a Technical Operations Officer with broad technical skills and a specialty in clandestine photography. Her duties included training the CIA’s most highly placed foreign assets, in some of the least hospitable countries in the world, in the use of spy cameras and processing the intelligence they gathered.
Retiring in 1993, she had risen to the position of Chief of Disguise and the rank of GS-14 earning the CIA’s Intelligence Commendation Medal. As Chief of Disguise she was responsible for a worldwide staff that created identity transformations for both CIA officers and foreign assets working with the U.S. government.
Since retiring from the CIA Jonna has continued her career as a fine art photographer, a consultant/lecturer and an author. She and her husband, Antonio J. Mendez, wrote a book about their work against the Soviets in Moscow during the last decade of the Cold War. The title of that book is Spy Dust. She also worked closely with her husband in the writing of ARGO, the story of his rescue of six American diplomats during the Iranian revolution. They have just finished their next book, The Moscow Rules, which was published in May 2019.
Both of the Mendez’s have traveled extensively, lecturing and presenting a variety of intelligence themed programs to a broad range of audiences. Together the Mendez’ have participated in over two dozen television documentaries on a variety of channels to include Discovery, History and PBS. Her work has recently been featured on Morning Joe, and in The Washington Post, WIRED.com, NPR and other places.
Jonna is a founding board member at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C and has also served as Vice President of the La Gesse Foundation, under the auspices of the Princess Cecilia de Medici, presenting American pianists in Europe and at Carnegie Hall, in partnership with Peabody Conservatory and Catholic University. She is on the board of the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts in Hagerstown, MD and is a board member of Breast Cancer Awareness, Cumberland Valley
Jonna speaks to future leaders at NYLF National Security.
Did I always know what I wanted to do in my professional life?
I did not know what I wanted to do particularly. I knew early on that I wanted to read, and to learn, and to experience the world. When I was in college with a major in English Literature, I think I assumed that I might one day be a teacher. As it turned out I took the long road to get there. I left Kansas for Europe, married a CIA officer there, then went on to live in The Far East, the Subcontinent, and Europe (again). I had a life of adventure and amazing opportunities to do work that really mattered, both in photography and as Chief of Disguise. I retired before I was 50 to pursue my photography career, but was soon involved in speaking, writing and teaching about intelligence and intelligence-related activities. So here I am – teaching, in my own way.
Have I faced obstacles?
Yes. All women of my generation faced obstacles in the work place. It was, and still is, to an extent, male-dominated. The only uncertain thing was how you, as a woman, were going to deal with that. My plan was front-loaded with confidence in my own skills. I started out in the photography laboratories at CIA, working with other photographers, all male, with advanced degrees in optics and film, etc. What I did was put my head down and do the work. I became the person they would all bring their projects to for help. I never said no. I outworked them. I became part of the team.
Favorite career advice I have received?
Carpe Diem! Seize the day! Never miss an opportunity to exceed expectations.
My advice to women in a similar career path:
Prepare yourself to compete with males. Take some of the same subjects and don’t skimp on math and technology if that will help you in your career path. (It will!) Foreign languages are helpful and can give you a broader range to use your skills, and foreign travel will open your eyes to opportunities you might not imagine otherwise.
I am on a glide path at this time. I speak widely, write as much or as little as I wish, and teach occasionally. All of the above are in an attempt to illuminate the possibilities of government work as a career. Why not do something worth doing? Why not take on a subject that matters? Why not make a difference?
Favorite Woman in History?
Women. Many. But at CIA, there was one woman named Eloise Page, who most women in CIA today have never heard of. She began as an Assistant to Wild Bill Donovan, the first head of the CIA. She became the first woman to be a CIA Chief of Station and her career in-between is a lesson on threading the professional, male needle at CIA to obtain great success.
If anybody wants to know more, there are three books I have participated in: Spy Dust, ARGO, and The Moscow Rules. There are two Wired.com YouTube videos - here and here. There is the website Themasterofdisguise.com. You could also google my name and a number of articles come up.