Jill Sanborn leads the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts, and she is the first woman to serve in this role. (FBI)

Change Agents: FBI Recognizes Leaders for Women’s History Month 2021

During this Women’s History Month, the FBI is recognizing the accomplishments of women in our workforce. Women in the FBI don’t just break down doors—they break barriers and make change. Learn more below about some of the women in FBI leadership and how they are making a difference every day.

Larissa Knapp

Executive Assistant Director, Human Resources Branch

Why did you join the FBI?

My parents instilled in me at an early age the need to contribute and make a difference. As a result, I wanted to join an organization where I felt I could make a difference while simultaneously giving back to our community. The FBI met that mark—and provided me the opportunity to work outside my comfort zone while leveraging my background as a lawyer.

What has been the highlight of your career?

Wow, hard to narrow it down to one! I’ve enjoyed working in various locales (St. Thomas!) and supporting different investigations. Most recent highlight? Getting recognition from my kiddos that their mom is kinda cool.

What is your favorite aspect of your job?

Being an agent of change within our organization. I also enjoy working with and supporting so many incredible people from diverse backgrounds.

What advice would you give for women interested in an FBI career?

Go for it, even if you think its outside your comfort zone. There is not a day that has passed that I do not count myself lucky to be part of this awesome organization.

Jill Sanborn

Assistant Director, Counterterrorism Division

What does it mean to be the first woman leading an operational division within the FBI? 

The stress and the pressure and the responsibility to lead the division, lead the Bureau’s counterterrorism efforts, is not any more stressful or burdensome on me than on anyone who walked before me.

I definitely feel lucky in that I’ve had a lot of mentors, role models, bosses, and coworkers that have really helped lift me up and support me as I progressed in my career.

What responsibility comes with your leadership position? 

I think being the first female assistant director of the Counterterrorism Division comes with a responsibility to the people who watch you. I didn’t take this role without understanding that there are a lot of women in the organization who look up to the fact that I’m the first female AD of counterterrorism.

There is pressure on me, because I want to be the best role model possible for them. I don’t take it lightly that I’m in this spot and that a lot of women think that is fantastic. It gives them the belief that they can be whatever they want to be, too. Which I think is great.

You’ve stressed that your office door is always open. Why?

I’m a firm believer in this: I wouldn’t be where I am today without the people who helped me get here. So no matter who it is, what position they are in the organization, if a conversation with me helps them think about what they want to do in the FBI, my door is wide open.

Your path to the FBI wasn’t the most conventional one. How did you get here? And what would you say to someone who is drawn to the FBI, but doubting themself?

The turning moment in what got me to where I am today was an opportunity to be a Senate page in 1987. I grew up in a small town in Montana. My parents had the opportunity to come to across Senator Max Baucus, who sponsored me for the internship. That internship really opened my eyes to the fact that I wanted to give in public service.

It was something I always thought about, I just didn’t know exactly what that meant. So to figure it out, I spent five years trying to get a bachelor’s degree instead of four like most people. When I got my bachelor’s degree, I went to Los Alamos National Laboratory as an internal investigator. There, I was very fortunate to work very closely with the Department of Energy Inspector General’s office. I became friends with one of the inspectors who encouraged me to apply for the FBI.

For all those who think, “I can’t necessarily do that or be that,” I, too, thought that there was no way the FBI would hire me. The thoughts that went through my head were: “I grew up in this small town. It took me five years to get through college. There’s no way in the world I would even be competitive.” But because of the encouragement of that Department of Energy agent, I applied.

It’s another one of those examples, too, of somebody encouraging or pushing, which is what I want to do for people. You can be whatever you want to be. It doesn’t matter what your background is. I like to tell young kids that the only thing that really matters is make good choices because you can’t do choices over.

Regina Thompson

Assistant Director, Victim Services Division

You have spent most of your FBI career as an intelligence analyst. Prior to the FBI, you were a clinically trained social worker. What has it been like transitioning from working on operational and intelligence programs to leading the Victim Services Division (VSD)?

It has been fantastic! When you ask people why they want to work for the FBI, one of the most common responses is that they want to help people, so it’s obvious why VSD is such a desirable place to work. VSD is very operational and touches almost every threat program in some way or another, as well as plays a critical role in crisis response. This has made the transition seamless based upon my previous experiences. Being able to combine my prior work experience with my FBI experience has been great.

What has been the best career advice you ever received? 

“Consider the source” is one of the best and most broadly applicable pieces of advice I have received during my career. It is reinforced over and over at the FBI Training Academy as a cardinal rule in investigations and intelligence analysis, but its application is much broader.

Throughout our lives we will hear many opinions, feedback, and criticisms about what we are doing, our plans, our decisions, our aspirations, etc. It is important consider them all regardless of whether they are positive, negative, constructive, or condescending. But never forget to consider the source.

Information must be properly framed to be effectively used. For example, let’s say you aspire to do something that has never been done before. Some people might tell you it’s a great idea, and this makes you feel good and motivated, but then others might tell you it’s not possible and give you a list of reasons why. Pause here and remember that everyone is a product of their experiences, culture, biases, personal motivation, etc. This should help you decide how to use their information. If you reflect on what has been said and still don’t see the barriers, then their response might be a common case of saying something can’t be done, when what is really meant is it has never been done. Big difference!

As one of the few female assistant directors at the FBI, what advice would you offer women who are looking to advance their careers?

In one word—ask! Ask for what you want, ask for opportunities in the areas you are interested in, ask for that meeting you want, ask for what you need to be successful, and so on. In addition to hard work and experience, asking is one of the most powerful actions you can take to create opportunities or get what you need to succeed.

We have all heard the saying “opportunity knocks,” and while that is sometimes true, waiting for that “knock” should not be the only course of action. I highly recommend proactively asking if the door could open now; otherwise, you might just be standing around waiting for no reason, aside from you thought you had to wait for the “knock.” Sometimes doors are closed for a reason, but why not check?

Read more at FBI

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