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Spotlight on Commerce: Nancy Potok, Associate Director for Demographic Programs

Nancy Potok, Associate Director for Demographic Programs

Ed. Note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series, which highlights members of the Department of Commerce who are contributing to the president's vision of an America Built to Last.

I direct the Demographic programs at the Census Bureau. We calculate annual population estimates for each area of the US, calculate the official poverty rate numbers, and work with data from the decennial census and the American Community Survey to create numerous reports and products that inform our nation about the changing characteristics of our growing population. We also conduct surveys on behalf of other Federal agencies such as the National Crime Victims Survey, which the Bureau of Justice Statistics uses to calculate the crime rate, the Current Population Survey, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics uses to calculate the unemployment rate each month, and many others.  One unsung area of the Census is our strong international program. That group, in cooperation with USAID and other agencies, offers technical assistance to countries on how to set up their own scientific and objective statistical activities and conduct censuses and surveys of their population.

The President has laid out a vision to build an America that lasts, and the Census Bureau contributes to that future. Much of the data that we produce is used by state and local Economic Development Authorities to bring businesses to their area.  Businesses use the information to make relocation decisions and to target their marketing appropriately.  We also report, at various geographic levels such as states, counties, cities, and small towns, on educational attainment, income, poverty, how people make various use of government assistance programs, and other critical information needed to inform our communities on how we as a nation are doing and where we need to invest our resources to strengthen our future.  Without the data collected by the Census Bureau, we would not have the information we need to grow our economy, create jobs, improve our schools, build roads, and other activities critical to our civil society.

I grew up in Detroit, but have been living in the Washington, DC area for many years now. I earned my Masters in Administrative Science from the University of Alabama and then became a Presidential Management Fellow at the US Department of Transportation. I went on to earn my Ph.D. in Public Policy and Public Administration from the George Washington University. Since I enjoy school and learning so much, I’ve returned as an adjunct professor there, teaching in the Trachtenberg School of Public policy and Public Administration.

I have been able to achieve success in part because of two major influences in my life. My parents were incredible role models who always encouraged me to excel and be the best I could be in a way that helped build my independence and self esteem.  My favorite quote that I remind myself of several times a day is from the famous sage, Hillel, born in Babylon in 110 BC.  He was asked by an unschooled person to explain the essence of the bible's teachings to him while he was standing on one foot. Hillel responded by saying "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn."  That bit of wisdom came to be known as the Golden Rule, and I really try to practice it daily.

My parents also instilled a love of learning, and I love to learn about women in history, because I think too many very accomplished women have been overlooked and many of their contributions have been attributed to others.  After all, our historical documents were often written by men, and anyone who works with statistics and data and information collection knows that responses that haven't been contributed by a full representative sample are probably biased. I celebrate Women's History Month by thinking about how I can build on the work of those women who came before me in order to leave my workplace and my corner of the world a better place.  I like to mentor and encourage young people regardless of their gender, and a part of that is to help people understand the past in order to improve the future.  My own children, a son and a daughter, are in their twenties, and I like to keep up with their perspectives, because it helps me understand some of the generation gaps we see in the workplace.  My daughter generally does not face many of the situations I faced when I first started my professional career in the 1970s, but young people of both genders entering the workforce today still face many other challenges.

In fact in my travels, I often speak with women, and I encourage them to be assertive about taking control of their career. Young women in particular tend to hang back a little and are less likely to negotiate for promotions, good assignments, and other opportunities.  You need a good education and the willingness to keep learning throughout your career, as well as be willing to work very hard.  But you also need to think ahead, get great mentors at work who will support your career advancement, and be sure that you are meeting your own needs.  At a time when it wasn't very common, I negotiated part time schedules and job sharing arrangements, and still got regular promotions when my children were small.  I found an environment and a boss that were willing to accommodate my work-life balance needs, and most importantly, I repaid that support with my best efforts and well received outputs and deliverables that made my boss and my office look like they had made a really smart decision to be supportive. If you want a career at the Census Bureau, there are many opportunities for people with skills in math, economics, demography, sociology, statistics, anthropology, IT, project management, and generalist good management and leadership ability. I encourage people to apply if they're looking for a fun interesting place to work that encourages and rewards innovation and lifelong learning.

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