The power of ‘no’

Dr. Therese Suaris wasn’t supposed to earn 1 degree, let alone 3. But she is growing and succeeding by being herself.

July 13, 2022 in Defense

Dr. Therese Suaris doesn’t pay attention to doubters, but she does give them some credit for her success. “You just have to keep pushing and show them what you got,” said the Boeing deputy program manager.

Therese Suaris

Dr. Therese Suaris knows she isn’t what some people expect.

With her quick laugh and bubbly demeanor, Suaris doesn’t “fit the mold” of a highly educated engineer and senior leader. Even going to college was not supposed to be her path. But Suaris has never limited herself to what she is supposed to do.

“When someone tells me ‘no,’ that motivates me even more,” said Suaris, who has three degrees –- including a doctorate in aerospace engineering –- and a career that has taken her from NASA to Boeing.

As a deputy program manager, supporting Missile and Weapon Systems programs such as Ground-based Midcourse Defense, Suaris is transforming U.S. homeland defense. It’s not a role everyone in Suaris’ life wanted for her.

Suaris said her relatives, who like her are from Sri Lanka, tend to favor traditional gender roles. When she became one of the first women in her family to earn a college degree, she didn’t feel supported by everyone in her circle.

“There are always going to be people who don’t see it, who don’t believe in you,” Suaris said. “You just have to keep pushing and show them what you got.”

What Suaris has is a love of aerospace and an affinity for connecting with people and solving complex problems. Now she isn’t just dreaming of things that fly but also creating them – in ways never seen before.

Outwit. Outwork. Outdo.

Suaris leads a team that is helping the warfighter out-engineer and stay ahead of increasingly sophisticated threats.

“Boeing brings a wealth of knowledge to programs that support homeland defense,” Suaris said. “We understand how to operationalize today’s systems, but we also know how they need to evolve to outsmart maturing technology.”

Suaris and her team spend their days solving “incredibly complex problems.” She enjoys the challenge but doesn’t hesitate to tap into Boeing’s vast resources for help. Bringing in expertise from all areas of the business makes for a top-quality product, she said.

“For example, all of our customers are looking to be part of the digital transformation, but many are asking what that means,” Suaris said. “As a company, we are helping them figure that out. By working together, we are giving them not just one team’s expertise but the best of Boeing.”

Suaris is adamant that success depends on “getting the right people in the right room.” If her team gets stuck trying to solve a problem, she quickly reminds them: “I assure you, there is someone in this company who knows how to do this.”

Seeing herself through others

While Suaris always gravitated toward math and science in school, and watching any vehicle that flew, she wasn’t the first person to see engineering in her future.  

“My mom knew long before I did,” Suaris said. “She has always supported me, and she’s my biggest fan.”

When Suaris was in ninth grade, a math teacher further inspired her with a powerful — and accurate — prediction: “You are going to change how we do business.” Those words resonated with Suaris, who in addition to her doctorate has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering and a master’s degree in systems engineering.

Dr. Therese Suaris graduates from George Washington University with a doctorate in aerospace engineering.

Therese Suaris

After working as a communication systems engineer and analyst at NASA, Suaris joined Boeing in 2012. She relocated from Washington, D.C., to Boeing’s campus in Huntsville, Alabama, where she applied her engineering expertise to a number of space and defense programs. Boeing leaders soon encouraged her to apply for her first management job.

“It wasn’t a path I thought I’d take,” Suaris said. “I’ve been so blessed to have great mentors here. They knew I would enjoy being a manager before I did.”

That’s not to say there aren’t bumps. One of the toughest parts of being a leader, she said, is guiding people during times of change. She has learned that everyone deals with change differently and that she can best support her colleagues by following her instincts.

“I have a loud personality,” she said. “I’m very blunt and up front. If things are going to be difficult, I acknowledge that. Boeing has built a safe space for me to lead, be myself, and work on what I love every day.”

Still looking skyward

When Suaris arrives at work, she’s eager to problem-solve. Often that means thinking about customer issues before anyone fully understands them –- and putting forward seemingly impossible ideas that can lead to new realities.

“It’s inspiring to see something you have been working for years up in the sky, keeping us safe,” Suaris said. “Together we are protecting our country, and that means everything to us.”

As Suaris mentors others, she reinforces the value of challenges. She encourages students and her Boeing teammates to try new things, without fear of failure. She tells them to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable, because that’s how you learn.” Most of all, she reminds them to stick with the journey.

“When things get difficult — and they will get difficult,” Suaris said, “just keep pushing, because you will get to live out your dreams. I know I am.”

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By Elaine Brabant