What is “A Moment With”? The Women’s Business Development Center is pleased to continue with our series, “A Moment With,” where we periodically highlight some of our greatest supporters and partners, sharing their career experiences and advice. This month, we are highlighting Jamie Rhee, Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) Commissioner.
Meet Commissioner, Jamie Rhee: As Commissioner, Jamie Rhee manages one of the world’s busiest airport systems, comprised of O’Hare and Midway International Airports, which serves more than 100 million passengers each year and propels Chicago as a global leader for air cargo activity. Rhee has a long history of mastering complex issues in aviation as well as municipal government. She began her career with the City of Chicago and has worked for nearly 24 years in various roles, most recently as the Chief Procurement Officer. She also served previous administrations, including as Deputy Chief of Staff to Mayor Daley, and in various roles at the Departments of Law and Planning and Development.
We asked: Tell us about a piece of childhood advice that shaped your career.
Commissioner Rhee shared: Leaving home at 17, my grandfather told me that wherever you find yourself in this life it is exactly where you’re supposed to be, as long as you approach every opportunity, question, or issue in your life thoughtfully. He said I should try to look at both sides, analyzing what to do or what not to do. If it turned out not to be the best decision to make, I didn’t beat myself up about it later because maybe I was meant to learn something from it.
A Turning Point
We asked: What was the biggest risk you took in your career? Did it pay off?
Commissioner Rhee shared: It may not be the biggest risk in my career, but it really took me outside of my comfort zone. Serving as a General Counsel at Aviation for five years – my second time at Aviation – eventually led me to becoming Chief Procurement Officer. I say that it really wasn’t a risk because I had no choice at that point. Mayor Daley asked me to lead the department, not knowing that it would lead to becoming the Chief Procurement Officer for the City for nearly 10 years. It really gave me the chance to learn about the companies that operate within the city and the struggles smaller companies have competing. It led to a lot of the big incentives and different programs that we now have for workforce development, capacity-building programs and bid incentives for small and diverse firms to grow our pool. It also allowed me to meet people like Hedy Ratner, who has inspired me from afar for years. I finally got to meet her and really see what makes her tick. The passion that she has for empowering small and women-owned businesses is contagious. While working with people like her, it became second nature to me to adopt DEI before it was ever called DEI.
We asked: Share with us a mantra you live by.
Commissioner Rhee shared: When I started as General Counsel in 2004, we were in charge of the O’Hare Modernization Program. At one point, I was very concerned about making sure that I was doing things right. One of the attorneys, an older, seasoned professional, came to me at one point during a very low time when it seemed like nothing was moving forward, and I couldn’t get people to listen to me. I was expected to do things in a very quick manner, but I couldn’t get everybody on the same page fast enough. I was the new attorney on a three-billion-dollar program that was newly started and announced. We’d gotten our record of decision in 2005 and it was a go.
The attorney came by my office, and I had my head down and he looked at me and said, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “Well, there are all these things I want to get done but nobody’s paying attention and nobody will give me an answer, and nobody will this, and nobody will that.…” He looked at me and said, “If you’re in a hurry, then you should act like it,” and I looked at him and said, “Oh, that is absolutely correct!” If you care, then you need to act like it, and that means leading by example. If you’re in a hurry, then you need to act like it. You need to put yourself out there and make sure that you’re getting what you need to bring the group in alignment and allow them to make decisions, and instead of it being on everybody else, it reflected back to me.
That has been something that I’ve carried with me in every aspect of government, including when I witnessed inequities, saw something that needed to be fixed, or realized something needed to be done. When I feel connected, I talk about public service in a very meaningful way, a very personal way, what it means to me having worked for the City for almost three decades, it all comes back to me. I have to lead by example. I must be the one putting myself out there and making sure that I am contributing to the conversation, that I’m bringing possible solutions to the issue at hand. The man who shared his wisdom is still a friend of mine; he told me exactly what I needed to hear without my even knowing it, and it really has benefitted me greatly through many challenges. It became a lot easier for me to handle when I wasn’t looking to everybody else but was actually looking within.