The daily lunch-time line of customers spilling out to the sidewalk and down the block from Foods R Us told you everything you needed to know about the popularity of the authentic Caribbean food served there.
Located on Church Avenue, in the heart of Brooklyn, New York’s West Indian community, the successful family-owned restaurant molded John F. Kennedy International Airport’s (JFK) Rhonda Singh into a Jill-of-all-trades business woman.
“The attention to detail, planning, execution and issues that arose with managing daily restaurant operations definitely prepared me for my TSA career,” confirmed Singh, TSA Deputy Assistant Federal Security Director (DAFSD) for Threat Assessment Programs at JFK. She started working at the restaurant part-time after graduating high school and learned the business—and her work ethic—from her immigrant parents who founded the eatery.
“After two years, I obtained my food handling license and started managing the daily operations of the business from payroll to customer service and vendor purchasing,” said Singh. “Fostering an inclusive environment with employees and sharing stories with my diverse clientele was rewarding and outweighed the hard work I accomplished six days a week.”
Even as thoughts stirred of expanding the restaurant into franchises, Singh pondered a career change into public service. Joining the Army or a career in law enforcement appealed to Singh, however the Indian culture prevailed: a traditional culture in which women were looked at as family matriarchal providers who married and had children.
Scheduled to travel into the city to pick up her renewed food handling license one September morning in 2001, Singh changed her mind and decided to go the next day – September 12. “It could have been me,” she said as she recalled the tragic events of 9/11.
Spurred by patriotism, and with her mother’s blessing, Singh answered the call to public service by joining TSA on Thanksgiving Day in 2002 as a JFK TSA officer.
“I moved up quickly through the ranks and once I became a manager in 2006, I stayed there a bit,” recalled Singh when asked about her career progression. She credits training and mentoring from senior leadership for clearing a path to promotion. “Knowledge is power, so all the training TSA offered in each of my positions was definitely value added to enhancing my career.”
In 2015, Singh became the first Asian-American female at JFK to be promoted to DAFSD for Screening and then in 2017, the first JFK female DAFSD for Threat Assessment Programs, her current position.
Her Aha! moment in seeking self-improvement and proficiency was at a TSA leadership training; it changed her personally and professionally.
She was acting out a class scenario and listening to a classmate, and in her mind, evaluating the problem being discussed. By the time her colleague finished, she had four steps in an action plan already laid out in her head about how to solve his problem.
At the end of his remarks, he approached her and sincerely thanked her for listening: deeply troubling to her since she inwardly realized she stopped actively listening to him long before he ended his remarks. At that moment Singh remembered thinking, “just how big listening effectively was going to change my career.”
Singh insists listening and truly being heard is so powerful that she strongly encourages colleagues to take advantage of TSA resources such as the Employee Assistance Program. She candidly offers that she’s used the resource for financial and emotional guidance and feels it is one of the best, and most underappreciated, benefits of being a federal employee.
With family roots originating from India, Singh’s ancestors arrived on the shores of Trinidad and Tobago sometime in the mid-1850s. She immigrated with her mom to the U.S. at 18 months and became a naturalized citizen in 1984. Calypso and Soca music speaks to her soul, as well as a well-seasoned Caribbean meal. Just ask any fortunate JFK coworker who is gifted with her indigenous home-cooking at pot-luck gatherings, and they’ll testify to her cultural culinary talents.
What about your job matters most to you?
I support TSA’s mission of protecting the nation’s transportation system by ensuring that each resource I oversee to mitigate threats meets the requirements. I encourage feedback, roll up my sleeves if needed, and support the team through my professional experience in each position that I held before and during my TSA career.
What I do matters because I love my job and the people and techniques that we are governed by. My hard work and dedication to my team and the agency directly supports TSA’s vision, core values — integrity, respect and commitment— and mission.
I truly know that I’m making a difference every day. When I address new hire classes, I start off by highlighting my background in the restaurant industry, being a strong independent West Indian woman, and all the firsts that I’ve accomplished leading by example to the next level.