Jacki Toms

Proposal Graphic Designer/Editor
@ Highlight Technologies

Since graduating from college, Jacki Toms has never turned down an opportunity to learn new skills on the job. Transitioning from a science background to graphic design, she propelled her proposal career by embracing a lifelong learning mindset.

Saying my career took off to a wild start is an understatement. 🐯

In just 8 years, I’ve held 7 very different positions in my evolution from a Zoology Research Assistant to a Proposal Graphic Designer—which I credit to a lifelong passion for learning.

Fueled by childhood memories of learning how to garden sustainably, I started my career pursuing a dual bachelor’s degree in Zoology and Environmental Science. “I want to be a researcher in a field laboratory setting, not sit at a computer all day,” I thought.

However, during my time as a student worker, I dabbled in graphic design work. I made everything from presentations to flyers, even learned HTML coding via MySpace (shout-out to my fellow millennials), not knowing it would take me from the world of science to the art of proposals.

From the World of Science to the Art of Proposals

After college, I embarked on a new journey towards proposal editing and design—eager to learn about the complex ecosystem of RFPs. But it took a little while to get there…

When I finished my undergrad, I planned to be a researcher in aquatic ecology. That idea quickly shifted after a semester in graduate school when I realized I didn’t want academia to be my long-term goal.

Determined to stay in the world of environmental science, I applied for entry-level roles with environmental agencies. Thankfully, my technical and scientific writing background helped me secure a job as a Technical Librarian for an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) contract.

I did some graphic design work with the EPA, but most of their documents were text-based, so the role mostly involved editing, formatting, and optimizing accessibility. Little did I know, this experience would later play a crucial role in my proposal skill set.

While at the EPA, I worked for CACI International, Inc. as a subcontractor for Highlight Technologies, Inc. That was when I truly experimented with graphic design. I even designed the logo for the department I worked in. I became an expert in desktop publishing and technical document formatting while gaining experience in editing and graphics. Most importantly, I got familiar with proposals and government contracting overall.

Joining Highlight full-time in 2018, I was soon promoted to their corporate proposal team after saying “yes” when they asked for my support with editing and design. I learned on the job how to create proposal graphics with Adobe Illustrator and my progress took off from there.

Two Mentors Pave the Way for Growth

When I first entered the government contracting world, I didn’t fully understand proposals or the career options that were available. I needed teachers, so I soaked up every leadership development and mentor-protégé program CACI and Highlight offered.

Each mentor gave me clarity and valuable perspective on the potential paths I could take, but there were two mentors who had the biggest impact.

The first was Joanna Patterson at CACI, who is now Vice President of Risk Management at CACI. I connected with Joanna through the company’s mentor-protégé program and we met monthly to talk about possible career directions.  She also gave me valuable insight into how I could lead my team of document specialists at the EPA STSC.

The other is June Marion, who is my current supervisor and Senior Proposal Manager at Highlight. I love that June pushes our whole team to pursue professional development opportunities like training and conferences. Beyond that, she regularly checks in and provides honest feedback while giving us guidance and promoting a healthy work-life balance. June encouraged me to embrace the graphic design element of my current role, and it’s become the most invaluable skill set I’ve acquired to date.

Without these two women and the other mentors I’ve met, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Taking the Leap for More Learning Opportunities

I’m currently a Graphic Designer and Editor for the Corporate Proposal Team at Highlight Technologies. I’m responsible for creating detailed infographic designs plus proposal editing, writing, and formatting with a focus on accuracy, readability, and compliance.

Maybe this is cliche, but I genuinely enjoy the fast pace of proposals, largely because it forces me to learn new things all the time. There’s nothing that says “grow” like “we need to get this done…RIGHT NOW.”

That said, jumping on new learning opportunities has also been integral to diversifying my skills. Highlight and CACI are both incredible organizations that provide staff with tons of professional development support. I have taken full advantage of that.

Some trainings and certifications that I’ve found helpful to fast-track my proposal career, are:

The Shipley training in Writing and Managing Federal Proposals particularly stands out. It was pivotal in teaching me how to write persuasively (i.e., not just make a proposal look and sound good). After all, when I first started in proposals, I could barely read an RFP. Shipley dug deep into the whole RFP process and how to engage with customers.

Beyond all the training and certifications, the proposal community has been a stellar source of learning. I fell in love with the APMP (Association of Proposal Management Professionals) community, where I frequently make use of their extensive body of knowledge, attended a conference, and earned my APMP Foundation certification.

A Metamorphosis Into a Future Proposal Manager

I believe that since I’ve never limited myself to one industry, I’ve been able to grow and refine a unique skill set that has molded me into the proposal specialist I am today.

Having multiple skills means I get to wear multiple stripes: I’m part editor, part writer, part designer, and part accessibility expert. From capture meetings to color reviews, I’m included in each stage of the proposal process which gives me a deep understanding of every proposal.

This also gives me a leg-up on the management side. Thanks to my birds-eye view of the proposal process, I’ve been working under two proposal managers and am currently training to become one myself. I get to fill in for them when they’re busy, giving me on-the-job training—which I’m here for.

I’m excited to see how I continue to evolve in proposals over the next couple years. Who knows what other new skills I can unleash in this professional wilderness.

My Secrets to Proposal Success

When it comes down to it, I think finding success in the proposal world is all about being a permanent student. Own your expertise, but don’t be afraid to see things through the eyes of others—especially those in different roles. Here are my top three pieces of advice:

Be a Lifelong Student

When you accept that there’s always something new to learn, you leave room for growth. Ask questions, stay curious, and take advantage of the resources and mentors around you. There is so much value in collaboration, sharing your knowledge, and asking questions when you don’t understand something.

Embrace the Big, Scary “Yes”

The only definitive reason I ended up with the diverse skill set I have is that I continually said “yes” to new opportunities. Jumping into new tasks and responsibilities can be incredibly unnerving. But learning on the job and putting yourself in rooms of multifaceted people, and even messing up once in a while goes a long way. Be open to trying things a couple of times before you write them off.


If you’re just starting with proposals, APMP is a fantastic place to ramp up your skills. Get access to their Body of Knowledge, network with proposal professionals, and work through their training and certifications. It’s a running joke at APMP events that no one in the proposal field went to school to work on proposals and we all just ended up here, but APMP has in-depth trainings and certifications that will guide you and help you network until you’ve figured it out.

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