One of those employees who left to launch a startup was Smith, who had become vice president of computer applications at Nichols Research; she had a larger vision in mind than furthering her own success. She elaborates, “I had a lot of opportunities coming into the industry that a lot of females didn’t have. I wanted to have a way to promote females in the defense industry. It became clear that if I wanted to make an impact in the industry, I could do it best through owning my own business. What better way was there to promote females in the industry than having a woman-owned business hiring women and giving them opportunities? That was a big motivation for me.”

In the early 1990s, women-owned businesses were becoming a promoted socio-economic category. In 1991, Smith made the gutsy decision to hire those first three women — “me, myself, and I” — hoping they would succeed out of, literally, her home office. Yet, it wasn’t really hope or chance she banked on since Smith’s personal motto is: “Destiny is a matter of choice, not chance.” Rather than going it alone, she learned to hire from the large population of Army veterans in Huntsville. “It always goes back to the people that you hire and the commitment those people have to the mission that you envision. Any manager can have a great plan, but it’s a team sport, so if you can’t recruit people who are of like mind and commitment, you can’t succeed. I’ve been very fortunate in mostly making the right staffing decisions, and we are 71 percent veteran staffed. Some people say we operate like the Army and maybe we do; we operate with a lot of structure and strategic planning. Those are Army attributes and I’m very comfortable with that direction,” she says, hastening to add that she doesn’t slight other military branches. “The Army is in our backyard so to speak. Only recently have we obtained contracts with other agencies (Air Force and Navy) and opened facilities to support those requirements.”


Smith’s companies don’t hire veterans solely for patriotic motives or out of habit, but rather she has found that vets have the training and skills that best serve her markets. There is one overriding qualification she seeks: commitment to mission. “Without commitment, I don’t think you can succeed,” she says. “I hire people with the experience, education, or training that’s required for their job, but without commitment to their mission, they won’t be as successful as we like our leadership to be. Many of our employees are veterans because the military profession emphasizes commitment.”


S3’s success has led it to a mixed blessing of achieving a threshold in revenue and full-time employees that prevents the company from continuing to be classified as “small business.” This milestone means that S3 can no longer bid as a prime on future contracts that it services today, and at least half of S3’s current business will go to a new small business prime contractor when it is time for the contracts to recompete. “Our success has created a situation where we are looking for new prime business in markets where competitors are larger or much larger than us. We’re in no-man’s land; we’re too small to be large, but too large to be a small business,” she explains. Still, Smith and S3 have historically overcome conventional odds and are preparing to meet the challenge by competing with commitment to customers in the business sectors where they operate today and penetrating new markets that need S3’s capabilities and commitments. For the new markets, Smith returns to her beginnings by reshaping the company’s strategy to place greater emphasis on developmental engineering, technological advancements, pioneering innovations, and always aerospace.

The no-man’s land dilemma could be a hard challenge, but John Pack, president of S3 International, toward the end of our interview with his boss, volunteers this colorful assessment of Smith: “When the situation demands, she can be harder than woodpecker lips, but she also has a heart of compassion for others in need. I can’t tell you all the things she’s done for others because she wouldn’t want me to, but there’s a lot of people here in Huntsville that she’s helped.” It seems to be a fitting summary for the pioneer woman: she was tough enough to explore new STEM space frontiers rarely seen by women, and tough enough to peck through a not-so-fragile glass ceiling that kept women below the upper level, male-dominated C-Suites of military contractors. Yet, Smith continues to offer a compassionate helping hand to those willing to fly higher with her.


Sept/Oct 2018

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