VersAbility Board member Embraces Opportunity for People with Disabilities

Versability board member Karen V

Karen Velkey grew up in Petal, Mississippi, with an eye toward a different future.

She knew she wasn’t going to be a nurse. Her grandmother, mother, several aunts and extended family were all nurses.

“Let’s just say I wasn’t a natural caregiver,” said Velkey, Vice President of Compensation & Benefits at HII and a volunteer member of VersAbility Resources’ Board of Directors.

In creating her own path, Velkey became the first in her family to earn a degree, awarded a bachelor’s in psychology from Millsaps College. Velkey imagined herself working in industrial psychology, although she didn’t want her focus to be on research and statistics.

“I wanted to help people be happier at work,” she said. “I saw both of my parents coming home and hating their jobs. I told myself I was going to solve this problem for people. I was going to help people love their jobs.”

Velkey realized it wasn’t so much the actual work that was trying, it was the financial struggle, the weariness that comes from being under compensated in pay and benefits. She wanted to have a hand in improving that piece for workers. Velkey realized she needed more education in business to go with her undergraduate minor in that field. She applied to graduate programs with her future husband, Andrew, who was interested in psychology research.

That’s how they ended up in another world — at University of Montana in Missoula. Velkey had been accepted at other MBA programs closer to home; Andrew was all for an adventure move.

“Don’t you think it would be great to move to Montana?” he asked.

“It sounds terrible,” Karen responded, but she relented, and they departed Mississippi for the west.

Missoula turned out to be a special place for both. They earned degrees and discovered a warm community and a new way of life. Karen remembers their time there fondly despite her Toyota Corolla being buried in snow regularly during the winter months.

“We made lifelong friends,” says Velkey, who worked in human resources at a local hospital and as a visiting instructor in the University of Montana School of Business during her time there. “Living there, we had to rely on other people for help. It was a great learning experience.”

After a brief return to Mississippi, the Velkeys decided they wanted more diversity and a more urban setting, a place where they could hike if they wanted and enjoy cultural activities.

Karen remembers the day Andrew called her to tell her he had heard back from an application he submitted to Christopher Newport University. “I have an interview on Friday,” he said.

“I have big news, too,” Velkey said. “We’re having a baby on Friday!” The interview was pushed back a week so Velkey and Andrew could together welcome their son to the world.

Today Andrew is Director of Neuroscience at CNU after starting as a professor there 22 years ago.

Velkey was hired by Northrop Grumman initially as a Compensation Analyst and promoted to a managerial role in 2008. While she only planned to be there for a short stint, she felt confident in a manufacturing environment. The crux of her duties required talking with employees about their jobs and ensuring they were compensated appropriately.

In 2011, Velkey went to work at HII, focusing on compensation and benefits following a data-driven approach that ensures the company is paying a competitive wage and incentive programs are compatible with industry peers.

“I’m living the dream,” she says. “I love this job.”

Velkey works in a space where diversity and inclusion are more than buzz words. That’s among the reasons VersAbility Resources’ mission — for people with disabilities to live full and productive lives of their choosing — resonates with her. “I love the fact that they have so many job opportunities, especially in government contracting,” she says.

Making hiring practices neurodiverse is important, she said. Her youngest son is on the autism spectrum but completely capable. He is finishing college while holding a job.  Differences shouldn’t exclude qualified people from a company’s hiring pool and yet they often do, Velkey said.

“It’s important to get good people in the workplace who can do good work,” she says. Accommodations can be made, for example, if a prospective employee has anxiety issues. “VersAbility has a good mission and I really enjoy the work they do. There’s blue sky opportunity for people with disabilities.”

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