Aazia (“Aaz”) Mickens-Dessaso
32, Director of the Office of Innovation at Zel Technologies, Hampton
Business and Civic Involvement:
Global Shapers Norfolk Curator; CIVIC Leadership Institute Executive Leadership Program Class of 2019; VersAbility Resources Business Advisory Council
What is something that makes you stand out professionally?
Early in my career, as an intern incubating solutions for clients at ad agencies and as an entrepreneur building a software company, I honed the ability to visualize big ideas, validate their usefulness and execute to completion with constrained resources. These skills are a perfect fit for my role leading innovation efforts at ZelTech, where I’m called upon to dissect problems into solvable parts, pitch novel solutions to stakeholders, justify additional resources, stand up new teams and create products and services that are of value. I can easily navigate between the big picture and the small details to bring viable new ideas to life.
Who or what keeps you motivated or inspires you?
I’ve always been motivated by competition; however, my daughter’s competitiveness exceeds mine 10 times over. She likes to joke that she’s reached achievements in school before I did and has excelled at her sport earlier in life than I did. Whenever I achieve something that I think is great, she makes a mental note to do it better, sooner. As strange as it is to say my greatest motivation is making it harder for my 15 year old to beat me at things in the future; it’s personally motivating and, by some definitions, halfway decent parenting.
Tell us about an accomplishment that you’re proud of.
It’ll be hard for me to top the time I was selected to pitch my first company on Shark Tank at the White House. The filming day included an afternoon with Vice President Biden and the Sharks as well as a roundtable discussion with Steve Case, Tony Elumelu, Penny Pritzker and other business leaders. Not only was it a great accomplishment for the company I built as a first-time entrepreneur, but it was a legacy-affirming experience for my family who got to watch it all unfold during Barack Obama’s historic presidency.
How do you feel your industry can best respond to the effects of COVID-19?
The national economy, and especially businesses in our region, depends heavily on a government contracting industry that few would consider agile. Government guidance is taking steps in a quicker, more responsive direction to keep government contractors solvent amid the crisis, however. By applying quicker, more adaptive solutions—like higher thresholds for simplified acquisitions and micro-purchases, using other contracting authorities (OTAs)—federal agencies are better able to keep government contractors and their employees in a ‘ready state’ to provide the vital products and services our country will need during and after the pandemic. At least that’s the goal.
What new idea or development are you excited about in Coastal Virginia?
I’ve been following Assembly in Norfolk and visiting their Instagram for some much-needed escapism from COVID-19 news. I’m excited to experience Assembly’s high-design work-meets-play space once it’s complete. I’m also very intrigued by the new Fine Arts Center at Christopher Newport University. Apparently, the building was designed by the same architect who designed the Louvre. I pass by the construction project almost every day during my social distance bike ride, and it’s exciting to see the abstract structure slowly come to life.
What’s the most important aspect you look for in a workplace?
I come from the world of startups where many new companies rely on crazy work perks to attract and retain talent. Early in my career, I would have been attracted by free in-office beer and Pancake Mondays. Now, I’ve come to realize that happy long-term employees are a more reliable indicator of the enduring culture of a workplace. One of the reasons I love working at ZelTech is because I work with so many other people who, after so many years, still love working at ZelTech. That’s not easy to replicate.
What would you be doing if you weren’t in your current position?
I’m very fortunate to work for a boss, Jack Ezzell, who supports all of my crazy, random pursuits, but I still haven’t worked up the courage to tell him about my latest idea: standup comedy.
What’s your favorite spot to relax in Coastal Virginia?
I’ve developed a greater appreciation for all of the beaches and green spaces hidden around my home in Newport News. As a result of the stay-at-home order, I’ve been doing a lot more walking and biking to stay active and fight boredom. Almost every time I venture out with my daughter and fiancé, we find new, quiet outdoor spaces to kick a soccer ball. And most of the time it’s just us!