TSA’s Trailblazer Award winner Jenel Chang

Tuesday, September 5, 2023
Jenel Chang speaking during a Miami International Airport (MIA) press conference. (Photo courtesy of Jenel Chang)

“Never forget where you started,” Jenel Chang said.

It’s a phrase the Large Hub Executive Director has kept close throughout her more than 20-year TSA career where different roles brought her to new cities, airports and communities. Chang approached each workplace with an open mind and open-door policy.

She is the 2023 TSA Trailblazer Award winner, having inspired others with her approaches and endless efforts to create safe and inclusive workspaces. The yearly award honors a female TSA employee who exemplifies effective leadership and personal and professional excellence, while contributing to the advancement of opportunities for women. 

Jenel Chang and her former MIA colleagues during a Feds Feed Families campaign. (Photo courtesy of Jenel Chang)
Jenel Chang and her former MIA colleagues during a Feds Feed Families campaign. (Photo courtesy of Jenel Chang)

Chang started with TSA in 2007 as a contractor turned government employee, working as a deputy program manager for baggage, supporting all 440 checked baggage systems across the country.

The position highlighted the intricacies and technical complexities of TSA, emphasizing how one small part of a larger process effects everything else within the system. The experience became a metaphor that guided Chang throughout her TSA leadership roles: every position – no matter the rank – is valuable and necessary to the whole organization.

“I started out at the bottom at one point in my career,” Chang said. “I did not come from a wealthy family, so when I entered the workforce, I didn't enter with a college degree. I'm very humbled that I have gotten to where I am today in my career because of the people in my life who saw potential and gave me opportunities that I might not have had otherwise. And so, I try to do the same for my workforce.”

When Chang left her behind-the-scenes program manager role, she entered the frontlines shadowing an Federal Security Director (FSD) on detail and later became one herself. The FSD position provided Chang the chance to thank her former mentors and colleagues by paying their kindnesses forward to her workforce.

As a leader, she is a strong advocate for open communication between leadership and their employees, routinely encouraging her team to come to her with any problem, regardless how small.

“I remember where I came from, and I know what it’s like to work full-time and put myself through school and try to take care of my two children,” Chang said. “I remember living paycheck to paycheck in some cases, and I've never forgotten what that was like. I care very much about the people who work for us, and I want to make sure that I am as approachable as possible. I want them to feel comfortable coming to me and sharing their concerns or issues no matter what they may be, whether it's personal or business related, so I can try to help them in whatever way I can.”

Chang is relentless in her desire to lead change among all ranks and often reminds the frontlines that there are ‘leaders at every level.’ Her outlook remains that regardless of someone’s position description, they can be a leader and have the ability to drive change and make an impact.

She also knows the unique challenges of being someone viewed as less than her counterparts in the workplace.

“I remember early on in my career I worked for a contractor supporting the Department of Defense environment,” Chang recalled. “And I remember my supervisor pulling me aside at one point and he said ‘the rules are different for women than they are for men.’ And he said ‘it's not right, but it's the way it is.’”

Her experience is far from exclusive, and Chang has used those moments to drive her passion to bring change to TSA.  

“My experiences are some of the reasons why being part of WE@TSA and the Inclusion Action Committee is so important to me, because I spent years in very diverse environments where I was a minority. This experience helped me better understand the struggles of minorities and underrepresented groups,” Chang said. “The working groups highlight the challenges our workforce is having, and the groups helps me see where we need to do things differently and influence change so other people do not experience the same obstacles. Leadership is about taking care of people. And if you take care of people, no matter who they are, you're naturally going to drive diversity.”

Jenel Chang and MIA colleagues; the team nominated their former FSD for the TSA 2023 Trailblazer Award.
Jenel Chang and MIA colleagues; the team nominated their former FSD for the TSA 2023 Trailblazer Award.