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

      Col. Nicole Malachowski, USAF (Ret.) defies stereotypes. Yes, she was a jet fighter pilot, but if you think you know her based on that, you’d be wrong. A leader, a combat veteran, the first woman pilot on the Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron, a White House Fellow, and an inductee into both the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame – she even has a Star Trek Federation starship named after her, the USS Malachowski (NCC-1619). Nicole’s distinguished 21-year Air Force career exceeded her wildest dreams. But the dream came to an end when a devastating tick-borne illness left her struggling greatly to speak or walk for almost nine months. An indomitable spirit, Nicole fought back against overwhelming odds and prevailed. Drawing on stories from her career and personal life, Nicole inspires audiences to rethink the challenges they face every day. She urges them to go beyond resilience and become resurgent. Nicole’s empowers people with three key beliefs: failure and risk is the price of entry for achieving something great; sometimes you need to yield to overcome; and her personal mantra – “Nobody wants to lead a scripted life.”

      Nicole brings her experience to the stage and holds audiences spellbound with an easygoing authenticity of someone who’s achieved greatness. She’s been a member and leader of exceptional teams. She has faced overwhelming challenges and adversity and has come out on top.

      While other high school students were practicing for their driver’s license, Nicole was accumulating flight time. She was sixteen years old when she took her first solo flight and from that point on there was no stopping her. While in high school, she joined the Civil Air Patrol and participated in Air Force Junior ROTC. Nicole’s professional story began when she earned her commission from the United States Air Force Academy in 1996. Following graduation, she attended Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) at Columbus AFB, MS and began her career as a pilot. Competitively selected to fly combat aircraft, she was among the first group of women to fly modern fighter aircraft.  As a career pilot, she served in combat as an F-15E Flight Commander, Evaluator, Instructor Pilot and Flight Lead. Over her 21-year career, Nicole achieved the rating of Command Pilot with over 2,300 flight hours in six different Air Force aircraft. She was also selected to fly as Thunderbird #3 with the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron – the first woman to fly on any Department of Defense military jet demonstration squadron. Colonel Malachowski has served as a mission ready fighter pilot in three operational F-15E fighter squadrons and has flown over 188 combat hours, including her proudest moment as a fighter pilot: leading the first fighter formation to provide security for Iraq’s historic democratic elections in 2005.

      On the ground, Nicole was a White House Fellow, class of 2008-2009, where she served on the Presidential Transition Support Team (PTST) while assigned to the U.S. General Services Administration. The White House Fellows Foundation and Association awarded Nicole the 2019 IMPACT Award for demonstrating both remarkable achievement and transformational contributions in her field, as well as a sustained commitment to the White House Fellows program. Nicole also served two high-level staff assignments at the Pentagon – one in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD P&R) as well as the Secretary of the Air Force Office of International Affairs (SAF/IA). She also served as the Executive Director of the White House’s national ‘Joining Forces’ initiative where she directly advised former First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden on all topics relating to service members, veterans, and military families to include employment, education, mental health, veterans’ homelessness and more.

      Nicole’s operational F-15E assignments include two tours of duty at RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom as well as one operational assignment to Seymour Johnson AFB, NC. She has also served alongside the United States Army 2nd Infantry Division, Camp Red Cloud, Republic of Korea, as an Air Liaison Officer. During her second assignment to Seymour Johnson AFB, NC, she had the honor of commanding the 333rd Fighter Squadron, leading an elite cadre of F-15E Instructors in the training of the next generation of combat aviators. Further, she was responsible for resources totaling over $1.1B and the execution of a $119M annual flying hour program.

      Nicole earned a Master of Arts, with honors, in National Security Policy from American Military University and a second Master of Arts, with highest distinction, in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College. While there, she earned the Admiral Stephen B. Luce Award as the class honor graduate, the first Air Force officer in the history of the Naval War College to do so. Nicole has been recognized with several honors for her consistent contributions to community service. As Nicole continues to recover from her neurological tick-borne illness, she embraces any opportunity to educate others about her medical journey and gains energy from educating others about this growing epidemic. She is on the Board of Directors at the LivLyme Foundation and is a Patient Advisory Board Member of The Dean Center for Tick Borne Illness. In November 2020, Nicole was announced as one of 2020’s “Mighty 25” by We Are The Mighty for her passionate advocacy on behalf of veterans’ health. The Mighty 25 is a recognition bestowed each year to change makers in the veteran, active duty, and military family space.

      Colonel Nicole Malachowski, USAF (Ret.) was born in Santa Maria, CA and graduated high school in Las Vegas, NV. She and her husband Paul have twin children; son Garrick and daughter Norah. Paul is a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and former F-15E Evaluator Weapons Systems Officer.

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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.


    Leaders across every industry and experience level share one thing in common: To be successful they need to effectively navigate failure, organizational change, and the unknown. Like headwinds to a pilot, these perceived barriers can force you to change direction, cost you momentum, and even take away options. These headwinds can feel confusing, disorienting, and downright uncomfortable. In this talk, Nicole Malachowski uses the aviation-based idea of headwinds as a metaphor to show how with the right mindset, individuals and teams can learn to harness the energy of these headwinds in their advantage.Nicole inspires individuals and organizations and bolsters their ability to:

    • Overcome personal and professional failures
    • Effectively navigate organizational and cultural change
    • Endure the discomfort of the unknown
    • Increase resilience, reinvention, regroup, and adaptability
    • Have courage to rise above self-doubt and cultural paradigms
    • Support and mentor others on the team


    To be successful, leaders from every industry and experience level need to effectively navigate moments of self-doubt, master the role of a trustworthy team player, and embrace moments of personal and professional vulnerability. Using the idea of an aircraft performance envelope as a metaphor, this elite fighter pilot and military leader will share inspiring personal stories and practical tools to ignite individuals and teams to reach beyond commonly-assumed limitations to achieve their maximum capabilities and impact. Nicole Malachowski’s presentation will bolster the ability of individuals and teams to:

    • Overcome self-doubt that often inhibits personal and professional growth
    • Model the selfless trust needed to be an effective teammate
    • Practice vulnerability and transparency to build trust and galvanize teamwork
    • Build accountability, dependability and reliability that drive performance
    • Break down silos to unleash creativity and adaptability


    Everyone faces barriers, both personal and professional, that may appear to place limits on what’s possible. When people pursue only what is expected, accept cultural norms that hold them back, and view barriers that appear unsurmountable, their personal and professional lives become limited—scripted. A powerful trailblazer herself, Nicole Malachowski reminds audiences to not let others draw their boundaries, and to break tradition with grace and purpose. She inspires people to see obstacles and challenges as opportunities to grow—a chance to reach new levels of personal and professional excellence.
    Nicole delivers actionable insights for pursuing dreams, making choices, and living an unscripted life.

    • Define your own possibilities and overcome self-doubt
    • Reevaluate traditions, paradigms, and overcome limitations
    • Welcome challenges to the status quo
    • Why having the courage to ask for help is key to, reaching your potential
    • Acknowledge the work-life balance myth


    “No war plan survives first contact with the enemy” is a truism. In the military, leaders must acknowledge and address the fog (things we can’t see, know, or predict) and friction (the forces which impede progress) of war. In such times, effective leadership is more crucial than ever. Using the challenges and uncertainties of combat as a metaphor for organizational challenges, Nicole Malachowski stresses perspective, priorities and positive leadership as she provides tools for leaders to use in times of crisis—or anytime—to keep their organizations successfully moving forward. Nicole offers leaders a framework to lead through fog and friction in times of crisis.

    • How to proceed regardless of the unknowns your organization facing
    • How to maneuver around or through impediments to your organization’s progress
    • Understand the leadership challenges that are unique to times of crisis
    • Keep focused on your purpose; perspective is critical to manage risk and adapt
    • Positivity and calmness are essential. Instill confidence; don’t add to the chaos


    One popular pilot saying is “speed is life,” because without enough speed, an airplane is nothing more than an expensive rock. In the business world, especially when technology is involved, speed can be just as crucial. The organization that moves the fastest often realizes the most success. Having flown a high-tech fighter aircraft that can reach speeds of up to twice the speed of sound, Nicole Malachowski offers principles that keep any organization functioning smoothly, efficiently, and at high speed, even when chaos and the unexpected occur. Nicole’s insights help leaders create a culture where decisions get made quickly.

    • Assess the dynamics that slow your organization down
    • How turmoil in your operating environment slows you down
    • How does a need for speed impact decision-making
    • Trust, clear roles, and communication are vital to navigate the unknown at speed
    • Practice, planning, and preparation underpin organizations that move quickly

    What People are Saying about Seeing Nicole Speak

    Rating Entries

    “We hired Nicole to speak at a lunch & learn our company was hosting at a conference. Our target audience has been experiencing much change in their industry so Nicole’s tailored message on Harnessing Headwinds of Change really resonated with them. Nicole has great talent for connecting with the audience with her relatable and genuine personality. Based on feedback from our customers, her story definitely made an impact on them. I highly recommend Nicole to anyone who is looking for a speaker that will engage their audience and influence them to think differently about their challenges.”
    – Senior Marketing Manager, Elsevier

    “I would say the biggest hit was Nicole – not only did they love her talk, but she took the time to walk around the foyer outside the ballroom and talk to people. She was so humble and appreciative. The most unassuming, friendly and gracious speaker I have ever worked with. She was a joy.”
    – American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC)

    “In 30 years of events, I have never had so many supplier appreciation attendees rave about any of our other VIP speakers than I had about you. The best we’ve ever had!”
    – CEO, Chase Plastics

    “…the most inspirational, connected, and all-around best leadership address I’ve ever heard. Needless to say, executives and attendees are still talking about you and your impact.”
    – Director, Enterprise Change Management, Otsuka

    “Nicole was an absolute delight as usual and got the first standing ovation for a virtual presenter I’ve never see that before.”
    – Otsuka (VIRTUAL EVENT)

    “I can’t tell you how impressed I was with you personally, and your presentation to our group. I appreciated the way you were able to weave our Core Values into your presentation so seamlessly. We have several franchisees who are part of large organizations, or larger franchise groups. Without exception, they told me that you were one of the most inspiring keynote speakers (in many cases, THE most) they have ever heard.”
    – Scooter’s Coffee

    “She was an absolute show-stealer – phenomenal, captivating, and exactly what this group needed…perfection.”
    – Northrop Grumman Corporation (VIRTUAL EVENT)

    “She was amazing from arrival, unbelievable on the main stage plus incredibly gracious in the VIP Photo. In my 24 years of being a meeting planner, Nicole is in my Top 5 as a speaker with her empowering content and we’re lucky to have someone like her sharing her message. Super human in my book! WOW!”
    – Principal & Senior Event Producer, planit inc.

    “WOW! Nicole was awesome! So generous with her time this morning and just completely genuine. We truly enjoyed having her here at BICSI.”
    – Building Industry Consulting Service International

    “While I am confident you get positive comments on a regular basis, I always feel compelled to provide feedback when somebody goes above and beyond – and you did just that! To a person, the response to your presentation was outstanding and many felt it was the best that they had ever attended. Your style, message, passion, and the way you made it relevant to our team all made for a fantastic experience and made you a ‘rock star’ in the discussions that evening. You were able to create a level of motivation in those that attended that enhanced the business message we provided following you – that is something that does not always happen. You being able to tie-into and reinforce our messages was a big win for us and shows you did your homework…Your story is one I hope many get to hear in the future, as I do not see how somebody can walk away from your presentation and not feel a higher level of motivation to just do better both personally and professionally every day.”
    – President and CEO, Isuzu Commercial Truck of America

    “The best leadership and motivational speaker I have ever had the privilege to listen to. Engaging from the moment she took the stage until the second she exited. I wish my daughters had been with me to hear her speak.”
    – Chief Technical Officer, Modivcare

    “I didn’t sit in on her recording session but watched the final cut and WOW! She is A.M.A.Z.I.N.G! We’re really excited to share this with our audience on Thursday.”
    – Riverbed Technology, Inc.

    “We engaged Nicole to present at our recent virtual Comerica Bank Women’s Business Symposium. Our audience of over 700 guests were totally captivated by her stories of grit, determination and vulnerability too. The term ‘goosebumps’ popped up in the chat and it was the perfect word to describe her message and our experience!”
    – Director of Events and Contributions, Comerica Bank (VIRTUAL EVENT)

    “Nicole was just fantastic and the perfect speaker for our Annual Dinner. I have not worked with a speaker that was as easy to work with as Nicole. I can’t say enough good things about her!”
    – University of Nevada Las Vegas Foundation

    “Nicole was MAGICAL. She is a remarkable human being and feel very lucky to have heard from her. Her stories were inspiring and came at a perfect time.”
    – Medical Operations Leader, Takeda Pharmaceutical Company

    “You absolutely ROCKED the Network Event today! Thank you so much for your message. We are honored to have heard you. Most importantly, your message of leading through the Fog & Friction was perfectly on point. I look forward to connecting with you in the future.”
    – President and CEO, Network Services, Inc.

    “Our organization LOVED the session. We will be compiling the positive comments we’ve received and passing them along. The theme of the talk aligned so well with our safety culture and strategy, and Nicole was an absolute pro at connecting her message to ours.”
    – Nutrien

    Nicole will come prepared to meet your event’s objective, she will inspire your audience with poignant personal stories and is incredibly down-to-earth for someone who’s pushed the limits at the greatest heights.”
    – Senior Director, Marketing, Zebra Technologies

    “…our experience with Nicole was incredible. She’s very down to earth and humble. Her presentation was outstanding. She did an amazing job at bringing our values and interconnecting them with her message. Everyone… truly enjoyed it and left inspired. She’s remarkable!”
    – Land, Buildings & Real Estate, Stanford University
    “Such an amazing presentation today by Nicole. I just don’t even have words to describe how she hit it out of the park – pure awesomeness!!!”
    – Human Resources Business Partner, Raytheon (VIRTUAL EVENT)

    “Nicole did a stellar job, tailoring her content to our specific needs and delivering it with confidence, energy, and enthusiasm. We feel privileged to have someone of her caliber spend time with our team to share stories and words of encouragement. She truly was the highlight of our event!”
    – Kimberly-Clark (VIRTUAL EVENT)

    “If I was to summarize I’d say that your hour long presentation has done more to catalyze AVEVA’s New Horizons journey than the rest of the event put together (and that’s saying something, because this is the best digital event we’ve ever run). You are a complete inspiration and we are blessed to have had you work with us…I suspect it won’t be the last time either!”
    – Sales Enablement Director, AVEVA Solutions Inc. (VIRTUAL EVENT)

    “Can’t thank you enough for Nicole. She was absolutely terrific, I don’t even know where to start. She touched us all and we’re absolutely in awe/speechless. Inspiring, motivating and just a really nice person. So lucky to have had the opportunity to hear from her.”
    – A&E Network (VIRTUAL EVENT)

    “We’re rolling her presentation right now, and she’s getting nonstop ‘virtual’ applause in our platform.”
    – Takeda Pharmaceuticals (VIRTUAL EVENT)

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