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Soccer pro turned engineer leads through teamwork

Teamwork is about collaborating and bringing out the best in a group to achieve a common goal. Nelson Akwari has experienced that firsthand as an engineer and leader at Boeing South Carolina and as a professional soccer player.

“My best memories of soccer are all about the teammates I played with,” Akwari said.

Akwari played on the U-17 U.S. Men’s National Team with Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, who are now icons in the sport. While Akwari didn’t become a generational star, he played for a decade in the top American leagues – Major League Soccer and the United Soccer League. Each season meant forming bonds and cultivating relationships with a new group of teammates.

In 2019, Nelson was featured in US Soccer’s BOND OF BROTHERHOOD: 1999 U-17 MEN’S NATIONAL TEAM REUNITES 20 YEARS LATER. Photo courtesy: US Soccer

“I moved around quite a bit and played in different cities and had definite experiences that have shaped me as a person,” Akwari said. “I truly believe that those experiences have also shaped me as a leader here at The Boeing Company.”

Nelson Akwari with the Charleston Battery, right, defends the ball against the Puerto Rico Islanders during a game at Blackbaud Stadium in Charleston, SC. Photo courtesy: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Marie Cassetty

A former player for the Charleston Battery, Akwari is now part of a different team in the Charleston area: the Interiors Responsibility Center South Carolina (IRCSC). As the IRCSC director, Akwari oversees a multifunctional team of approximately 400 teammates, which manufactures, assembles and delivers a wide range of interior products to the 787 program and Global Services aftermarket customers.

As the director of the IRCSC, Akwari meets with teammates one-on-one throughout the day to make sure they are checked-in and feeling safe.

On any given day, you can find Akwari walking the IRCSC production floor and encouraging teammates as he did on the soccer field. 

“I’ll take the time to meet with teammates one-on-one and make sure they are checked in and feeling safe,” Akwari said. 

Akwari knows how impactful leadership engagement can be. After retiring from professional soccer, he returned to school at the University of California, Los Angeles. There, he received another coaching lesson. Now-retired Boeing Chief Technology Officer Dr. John Tracy encouraged Akwari to challenge himself and align himself with teammates who shared his drive for innovation and success. 

That advice left a lasting impression. Akwari earned a bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree in engineering – all while working as a materials and process engineer at Boeing. His dissertation, “Environmental Effects on a Protective Coating Used to Mitigate Composite Degradation,” has added to the aerospace industry’s knowledge of composite materials, which are being used more and more in airplane structures like the 787 Dreamliner. Additionally, he’s filed several invention disclosures and holds two patents.

The National Society of Black Engineers recently named Akwari the 2022 Pioneer of the Year and 2022 Distinguished Engineer of the Year. Akwari expressed gratitude to the mentors and coaches who guided him.

Akwari was recently featured in Boeing’s 2021 Annual Report as a participant in Boeing’s industry-leading Learning Together Program through which he earned his doctorate degree in Materials Science and Engineering from UCLA in 2021.

 “I’m grateful for the leaders who not only recommended me but have been a part of my journey as a young engineer to where I am now,” Akwari said. “I’m just excited to represent The Boeing Company and to know the platform I’ve been provided has given me the opportunity to be recognized with these awards.”

Akwari now pays that support forward by actively working in the community and contributing to youth STEM and outreach programs, food banks and other faith-based nonprofits as a volunteer, as well as coaching youth soccer. For leisure, he spends time with his wife and three children.

Whether it’s with his family, in the community, on the soccer field, or at the IRCSC, Akwari recognizes that goals are best scored through teamwork.

“I think when we work as a team and we listen to teammates and their perspectives, we are actually much stronger,” he said.