Nicole Malachowski Profile

  • Col. Nicole Malachowski broke new ground time and time again as she rose through Air Force ranks to become the first woman Thunderbird pilot.

  • In addition to accumulating 2,300 flight hours, including 188 hours in combat, Col. Malachowski has served her country as a member of the Obama White House and adviser to the First Lady, advocating for service members, veterans, and their families.

  • Past attendees have consistently called Col. Malachowski “one of the top speakers” they have ever seen, citing her relentless spirit and unique ability to relate her enthralling tales of risk and failure to diverse audiences.
  • The first woman Thunderbird fighter pilot, Nicole Malachowski is one of the most raved about speakers on dreaming big, achieving more, and performing under pressure. During her 21 years of military service, Col. Malachowski had to make fast smart decisions again and again in life and death situations. Furthermore, she forged cultural change in the military over the course of two decades, as she broke paradigm after paradigm, rising in Air Force ranks due to her courage, determination, and continuous mastery at the helm.

    Col. Malachowski was one of the first women mission ready fighter pilots to operate a F15-E, a dream she had had since the age of 5 when she attended her first air show. A graduate of the Naval War College, she has accumulated 2,300 flight hours, including 188 hours in combat, serving in missions over the Balkans, Southwest Asia, and Iraq.

    On the ground, she has been a powerful bridge between service members and the government, serving as Executive Director of Joining Forces in the Obama White House. Her responsibilities included overseeing initiatives to support veterans, military members, and their families, as well as advising First Lady Michelle Obama. Previously, Col. Malachowski had been a White House Fellow and a driving force in legislation that formally recognized and awarded the service of 1,102 Women Airforce Service Pilots who served in World War II.

    Since a chronic tick-borne illness prompted her medical retirement from the military, she has turned her fiery spirit to advocating support and research for tick-borne diseases, in addition to quickly building a reputation as a sensational and effective speaker on the topics of achievement, overcoming adversity, and rocking the status quo. She is a volunteer leader in numerous change-making organizations including the Tick Borne Diseases Working Group, the LivLyme Foundation, and Flying Scarves, a non-profit that helps Afghanistani widows and their families gain economic independence.

    • View Extended/Alternate Bio

      Combat veteran, first woman Thunderbird pilot, fighter squadron commander, White House Fellow and advisor, patient advocate.

      Many have called her a vanguard as one of the first women fighter pilots for the United States Air Force and the first woman to fly in the elite USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, better known as the “Thunderbirds”. Titles and accolades aside, Nicole Malachowski has lived life according to a simple mantra – “Live an unscripted life.”

      Throughout her career ranging from combat fighter pilot to commander, to White House Fellow, and duty as a personal advisor to the First Lady concerning military service members, veterans and military families, Nicole sought opportunities that she had passion for, rather than ones that followed the expected progression in her career field.

      While that passionate, adventurous us spirit yielded a successful military career, Nicole’s flight path was not always smooth. Along the way, she learned how to use undaunted determination to overcome adversity, break some barriers, and live with a higher compassion for humanity. Sometimes you have to yield to a big obstacle in order to be able to overcome it.

      Nicole is a leader, an igniter of passion and purpose. She is an advocate for those who have chosen to serve their country and for those who have endured personal challenges, to include complex medical journeys.

      In this new chapter of her life, as a retired Colonel from the U.S. Air Force, Nicole looks to share her stories and what she has learned, to help others find and ignite their own unstoppable spirits in order to succeed far beyond what they had dreamed.

    Nicole Malachowski Speaking Videos

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    Nicole Malachowski's Speech Descriptions

    Col. Nicole Malachowski hooks audiences from the get-go with her feisty presence, and the effects of her story and message reverberate long afterwards. Malachowski relates her rise in the Air Force and tales of flying under fire to a wide range of audiences. Her struggles and achievements put things in perspective and provide numerous insights on how attendees can forge their own path when all the winds seems to be against them.

    Nicole Malachowski lights up events with energy and purpose. Onstage she is sincere, funny and humble. Her story will have you on the edge of your seat, she will make you laugh and she may even make you cry. But despite being the gal that broke the mold, she will tell you: “It’s just me, and if I can do it so can you.” Her indomitable spirit raises the tempo for everyone in the room and inspires them to greater heights.

    Through her amazing career as a former squadron commander and mission-ready pilot in three operational fighter squadrons, her gender-empowering leadership role as the first woman pilot for the elite US Air Force Thunderbirds team, to her leadership roles in two presidential administrations, she has led an unscripted life.

    Her incredible story is one of perseverance, dedication and a mindset that rises above the challenges of the day, leaving success as the only option. The lessons she shares about embracing the unexpected are told from her experience in a cockpit traveling faster than the speed of sound.

    The best organizations and leaders create cultures that engage and harness the diverse ideas, talents, and abilities of every person; one where challenging assumptions and the status quo drives extraordinary success.

    Nicole Malachowski knows about high-performance cultures and challenging assumptions. As a member of the elite United States Air Force Thunderbirds flying demonstration team, the first woman to do so, Nicole was part of a team that demanded flawless execution under extreme circumstances because lives literally depended on it.

    Yet, it would be wrong to define Nicole by simply labeling her the first woman Thunderbird pilot – and that’s the point. In order to create a culture that challenges assumptions, it’s important to look beyond the obvious – beyond unconscious bias. In Nicole’s case, the Thunderbirds were just two years of an exceptional 21-year Air Force career during which she became a White House Fellow and adviser, served at the Department of Defense, was a mission-ready pilot in three operational squadrons and a fighter squadron commander, and served as a combat pilot.

    As an Air Force leader, Nicole constantly challenged assumptions by matching people’s values with the job to be done. In this keynote, Nicole draws on her distinguished career to offer inspiring lessons for leaders and followers.


    In flying, headwinds slow you down. At their worst, they cause you to change your plans and impact the effectiveness of weapons in combat. Headwinds demand that pilots be resilient and resourceful, literally on the fly. “Headwinds are the perfect metaphor for the change impacting organizations and individuals today,” says 21-year Air Force veteran Nicole Malachowski. A former fighter squadron commander and mission-ready pilot in three operational fighter squadrons and the first woman to fly on the Air Force Thunderbirds, Nicole has the perfect message to inspire audiences to think differently about the headwinds of change they face – organizationally and personally.

    Drawing on her extraordinary Air Force career, Nicole offers lessons on leadership, followership, and overcoming adversity. She weaves storytelling with breathtaking video from the cockpit of her jet as the Thunderbirds execute precision turns, rolls, and loops – all just 36” from one another at 400 mph and just 300 feet off the ground. Nicole’s keynote helps audiences ignite their own indomitable spirit in order to succeed far beyond what they might dream. “Failure isn’t fatal,” she says, “it’s the price of entry if you want to achieve something great.”

    What does it take to be the best? The individuals and teams who achieve at the highest levels have one thing in common: they push the envelope and go to the edge of boundaries. They accomplish as much as possible and do it to a standard of excellence. Pushing the envelope is an aviation term for taking an aircraft to the maximum limits of its abilities. In the business world, pushing the envelope means knowing yourself – certainly knowing your limits – all while using every bit of your ability to maximize your performance, be your best and be consistent.

    As a combat-tested fighter pilot and a member of the military’s most elite group of aviators, Nicole inspires audiences with lessons learned from her career, giving them the courage to push the envelope in their own lives. This presentation provides an unforgettable and practical roadmap for individuals and organizations looking to make the most of their team’s talents and efforts.

    Nicole Malachowski has lived a life of service to others. Her commitment to making a difference was the foundation of a distinguished 21-year Air Force career and it continues to drive her work as an advocate for health care and veterans’ issues.

    First, as a White House Fellow in the General Services Administration and later as the executive director of Joining Forces, a nationwide initiative launched by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, Nicole rallied around service members, veterans, and their families and supported them through wellness, education, and employment opportunities.

    When a health crisis unexpectedly ended her military career, Nicole viewed this as an opportunity to cultivate a new perspective. She is now making a difference in places she never expected—including healthcare—where she works closely with patients and their medical practitioners to find ways to focus on the whole person and not just the illness being treated.

    In this keynote, Nicole inspires audiences with her candor, authenticity, and humor, encouraging them to bring humanity back into their own work and make a difference in the lives of those around them.

    What People are Saying about Seeing Nicole Speak

    Rating Entries

    “…she was the absolute ‘best’ speaker we have ever hired. With that, the leadership from Major Account Summit have asked, how do we give her a bonus? She was that good.”

    – Manager, Meeting & Events, Kaiser Permanente

    “Everyone sitting near me (including myself) agreed that you were the best speaker we have ever heard, hands down.”

    – Senior Counsel, Member Service, ALAS

    “Everyone…I mean everyone…left raving about your message. As you can imagine being in healthcare as executive I hear a lot of people speak. You are an exceptional speaker and have an incredible message to share with anyone that’s looking at ways to be motivated to improve themselves. So yes, count me in as a card holding member of your fan club”

    – Chairman, Board of Directors, National Association of Specialty Pharmacy (NASP)

    “I want to thank you so much for being THE highlight of our Women in Specialty Pharmacy luncheon last week! Your keynote address was one of the most empowering and impactful that I have ever heard. Our attendees could not stop talking about how fabulous you are and I think the line of folks who wanted to meet you and have their picture taken with you is a testament of how well your message resonated with our attendees.”

    – Executive Director, National Association of Specialty Pharmacy (NASP)

    “I have to tell you, she is unbelievable. Powerful, tremendous story, engaging and more…I cannot thank you enough. She is a winner, role model and legend.”

    – Law Firm Vendor Association

    “We cannot thank YOU enough for bringing your inspiring, moving, profound, vulnerable, INCREDIBLE story to our team. If your ears have been ringing it is 120 people saying you were the absolute highlight of the whole offsite. And many told me you were the BEST speaker they have ever heard. [And these people hear a lot of speakers.]”

    – Training Manager, Genentech

    “We were already excited to hear Nicole speak because of her impressive bio, but her presentation still blew us away. She has a compelling personal as well as professional story to tell. And she does it with a passion and vulnerability that create a strong connection with her audience. Five minutes into her presentation, you could tell that she had our group hooked. Nicole creates a three-dimensional experience for her listeners – we had the sense that we were with her in the cockpit of her fighter jet as she recounted experiences of flying with the Air Force’s Thunderbird team. Her presentation resonated so deeply with our audience that people are still talking about her presentation a week later and employees who could not attend are asking to see the video of her presentation. Nicole is professional, organized, timely, and an all-around pleasure to work with. She was thoughtful in researching our organization and event so she could craft her discussion to fit our audience.”

    – Investments Director, Fundamental Equities, Invesco Advisers, Inc.

    “Most of us will never lead a squadron of F-15E fighter pilots, fly right wing for the USAF Thunderbirds or have our careers transformed as a result of a tick bite. But your storytelling took us there for a brief moment and the lessons they represent— failure and risk are the price of entry for achieving something great; plow your own path; nobody wants to lead a scripted life; etc.—resonate in a way that can change lives, personal and professional. You are one of the most engaging and effective speakers I have come across—a humble force that touches people emotionally. Without question, you presented exactly the message we wanted to share with our elite performers.”
    – Chairman and CEO, SunTrust Banks, Inc.

    “Nicole was exceptionally well received. She—truly—did a magnificent job. Connected with the audience, inspiring, thought provoking, funny, real, open. Our colleagues couldn’t stop talking about it. Was the highlight of our event.”
    – UnitedHealth Group

    “Col. Nicole Malachowski took our financial professionals by storm – three weeks later, people are still talking about her. She has a unique gift of being able to relate her very interesting and exciting professional and personal life experiences to a diverse audience in a completely different profession. Her genuine conversational style made each attendee feel she was talking directly to them.”
    – Treasury Management Association of New York (TMANY)

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