Class of ’96 | Courtney Banks C’96 vividly remembers the moment that her career path revealed itself.
“There was a mini-series on TV called The Winds of War, [based on the book] by Herman Wouk,” Banks recalls, “and that was kind of it for me. I just knew that when I grew up I wanted to work with national security and the military. There were a lot of aspects of it that really, really appealed to me.”
The fact that she was female when she decided to enter that traditionally male-dominated field makes her something of an anomaly even today. What makes her truly singular is that her eureka moment came when she was in the third grade.
“I think at the time  that was very rare,” acknowledges Banks. “Now, post-9/11, there are so many role models—you have Condi Rice, and Madeleine Albright, and Fran Townshend, and women who are four-star generals, so it’s less rare.”
Today Banks is CEO of National Security Associates Worldwide (NSAWW), a firm she founded two years ago that helps private companies address “the world’s burgeoning homeland and national-security markets,” in the words of its website. Before that, she was the first female vice president for Raytheon Company, the international defense and homeland-security firm, and before that she was the first female director of business development for Lockheed Martin.
Banks got there pretty quickly after studying military history at Penn, concentrating first on German military resistance to Hitler, and later focusing on the special-operations programs in Vietnam. From West Philadelphia she moved to the West Wing of the White House, as an intern for head counsel Jack Quinn in the Clinton administration, followed by stints at the Justice Department, at the Pentagon as an assistant for global terrorism, and then as program manager for the Inter-Agency Terrorism Response Awareness Program, which involved cabinet-level exercises for responding to a “terrorism-type incident.” That kind of detailed working experience and contacts with heavyweights in the field gave Banks credibility when the al Qaeda attack of 9/11 shook the nation.
Her constant travel at Raytheon—Banks logged an average of 170,000 miles a year—began to take its toll, as did large-corporation politics. She left the firm in May 2007, and a few months later launched NSAWW, which now has some 20 clients, including a Fortune 100 company, Computer Science Corporation.
“We work with companies to help them grow, primarily in the national-security space,” says Banks. Her clients range from HKS, an architectural firm that wants to improve its design for secure buildings, to ENSCO, an ultra-high-tech firm that develops products like Geo/Nav—“GPS-denied geolocation and navigation solutions”—capable of tracking people in remote locations or buildings where GPS is denied or jammed. (“If Q had a firm, this would be the firm,” says Banks, referring to the James Bond character.)
With her rich head of reddish hair, high heels, and stylish dresses, Banks is still something of an anomaly in a male-dominated profession, and she is frank in her assessment that men are sometimes threatened by her appearance. “I’m girly, and I don’t sacrifice my femininity to blend into more of a male environment,” she says. “I think it can be very threatening to men in that environment if they’re not secure.
“I don’t think this is a commentary on men writ large,” she adds quickly. “It’s just a generational thing—my industry is mostly managed by people many generations above me. In general, I’ve had very positive experiences, but I’ve also had negative experiences. And I’m quite positive that if I’d been a man, the negative wouldn’t have occurred.”
“I think women have a responsibility to other women in the workplace, in particular, to mentor and assist them, and not see each other as a threat,” says Banks. “However, I’m going to caveat that by saying that to a certain point, I do believe that a career in our field is a meritocracy.”