As the Deployment & Distribution flight commander of the 145th Airlift Wing of the NC Air National Guard, Captain Ashleigh Neilson oversees “the centralized command and control, planning, and execution of all wing and support units, deployment operations and the distribution of cargo, passengers, and personal property.” That’s military speak for being in charge of getting planes, people and equipment where they need to go. A lot of them. She’s helped mobilize military support in war zones and aided in disaster recovery.
But, as a woman who has excelled in the male-dominated military, her ability to move people extends well past the runway.
The flight plan
As a member of the Air National Guard, Neilson’s required to spend one weekend per month, and two weeks per year, serving her country. The rest of the time she’s a Procurement program manager for Ingersoll Rand.
Nielson joined Ingersoll Rand in October 2018. Prior to that her stops included roles at various robotics and aerospace companies. She’s managed both programs and projects, coordinated advanced processes and worked as a manufacturing supervisor. And while she’s picked up different skills at each stop, Nielson credits the 18 years she spent with the Air National Guard for giving her the skills she needed to succeed.
“It helped me to develop a sense of teamwork and the concepts of leadership and followership,” she said, “as well as the importance of processes and standard work.”
The biggest thing she’s taken from her time in the military, though, is “how much the morale of a team and a sense of purpose can affect the ability to achieve objectives. It’s important to ensure that everyone realizes that they are a valued part of a team, and that the work they do is integral to an organization’s success.”
And that’s true of any organization – whether it’s providing national security or consumer goods.
For Neilson, joining the military back in 2001 was a little like joining the family business; her dad, William, was a captain in the Coast Guard. One grandfather was a staff sargent in the Air Force, the other a captain in the US. Army. Her brother is a staff sargent in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.
So, when she was seeking money for college after high school, Ashleigh knew the military would be a good resource. She joined as an airman first class assigned to Supply Management. She spent the first 10 years working in the supply field and progressed to staff sargent. In 2011, she attended Officer Training School as a commissioned Logistics Readiness officer.
Her civilian life took off in that time, too; in 2008 she achieved her goal of graduating college when she earned a B.S. in Aviation Technology from Indiana’s Purdue University. She followed that up last year with a Master of Engineering Administration degree from Virginia Tech. In all, her private-sector career has taken her to California, West Virginia, Virginia and, now, North Carolina.
Despite the cross-country job-hopping, Neilson said the Air National Guard supported her career and transferred her to bases near each of her new positions. In all, she’s served at five different bases and is currently stationed at Charlotte Douglass International Airport’s Air National Guard Base in Charlotte.
“I’ve been fortunate to be able to transfer between Air National Guard units as my education, civilian career and family commitments have taken me across the United States,” she said.
Captain, our captain
With her degrees in hand, Neilson said her military career has now taken on a different mission, one which her new employer seems willing to help with.
It wasn’t until 2016 that the military opened up all career paths to women, said Neilson, and since then the opportunities available for females have “grown by leaps and bounds.” But while they’re rising up the ranks more than ever before, the overall percentage of females in the military hasn’t strayed too far from 20 percent during her 18-year career. So, while women can earn a high-ranking career, they haven’t had a surplus of examples to model themselves after.
As a captain, Nielson said she realizes the stripes on her uniform mean more than just rank to the women serving under her.
“Everyone, and women especially, needs someone to look up to, people they can aspire to become,” said Neilson. “And it helps a lot when those people have similar backgrounds and experiences because it helps you realize the fact that any job or position is attainable.”
After a year with her new company, Neilson said she’s noticed Ingersoll Rand values the potential of its employees in a similar way, and “has also done a great job creating initiatives that help everyone recognize their potential. You can see that reflected in the diversity and culture of the organization.”
For Neilson, that means her mission doesn’t have to stop when she sheds her camo for business casual.
“Having strong, female mentors within an organization -- and becoming a positive role model myself -- is critical to me.”
Neilson will share more about her military experience during Ingersoll Rand’s Veterans Day Celebration on Friday, Nov. 8, at the Davidson campus.
Getting to know Ashleigh Neilson
Ingersoll Rand: What’s your favorite pet?
Ashleigh: “We have 2 cats, but I had horses growing up and would love to own one again someday.”
Ingersoll Rand: What’s the best advice you ever received?
Ashleigh: “Confidence doesn’t come from knowing how to do everything, it’s knowing you have the capacity to learn how to do anything.”
Ingersoll Rand: If you could invent anything, what would it be?
Ashleigh: “A cookie machine that provides fresh baked cookies on demand.”
Ingersoll Rand: What’s your favorite place to be when you’re not at work?
Ashleigh: “My time with my family is so important. Anywhere we can get together will be a great time.”
Ingersoll Rand: If you could High Five anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
Ashleigh: “The guy who invented Diet Coke.”
Ingersoll Rand: What’s your least favorite chore?
Ashleigh: “Tie between washing dishes and folding laundry”
Ingersoll Rand: Where did your first real paycheck come from?
Ashleigh: “Working as a waitress in an all-night diner.”
Ingersoll Rand: What’s your favorite band/musical group or song?
Ashleigh: George Strait
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