Phyllis Newhouse had served her country with distinction. Having joined the military as a young private, she’d risen through the ranks to become a command sergeant major, protecting national security against cyber espionage. But after two decades of service, it was time for Phyllis to contemplate the future.
With her glittering record, there was an obvious and prestigious path open to her: becoming a senior advisor to the government. Phyllis, however, had very different ideas.
When I retired from the military, I had already decided I wasn’t going to do the typical thing, she recalls.
I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. But I was still driven by the same mission: fighting cyberattacks to protect our nation.
The internet was still in its relatively early stages, with many companies and consumers scrambling to embrace the new technology. But while the corporate world could see the potential of doing business online, the importance of securing company and customer data was not nearly as widely appreciated. By Phyllis’s reckoning, the private sector was a few years behind the army in this regard.
With military precision, Phyllis began to map her business idea. She created a vision board, setting out how her future cyber security organization would look, where its offices would be and the sort of customers that it would serve. To realize her vision, though, she knew she would need to assemble a great team, just as she had done throughout her military career.
As a leader, it’s about letting some things go and some people grow.
It was during an intense session at the gym that Phyllis suggested to her long-time workout partner Hervia Ingram that he join her in her new enterprise. Not only was Hervia a highly accomplished coder, but he also had deep experience of how the private sector worked. By joining forces, Phyllis argued, they could address both government and corporate clients most effectively.
Given our respective backgrounds, I told Hervia we could create a service offering that you typically don’t see, says Phyllis.
Cyber and other IT companies typically serve either the private sector or federal clients. But I knew we had a unique opportunity to leverage the skillsets we’d built up in the two dimensions.
Ever since their first encounter in an Atlanta gym – see Phyllis Newhouse: My life – Hervia had recognized Phyllis’s sheer determination. However, he had his doubts about collaborating in an untested new venture. After all, he had built a stable and highly lucrative career within a company serving the big regional telecoms operators across the US.
Starting a business was a very oreign concept to me, he recalls.
I was doing well, making a lot of money and really enjoying my work. So, it was a fork in the road for me, a really difficult decision to make.
Hervia overcame his reservations and joined Phyllis. The new business set about pitching its services to the target clients that she had identified on her vision board. Xtreme Solutions’ offering encompassed ethical hacking and penetration testing, as well as helping organizations understand their vulnerabilities to cyberattacks.
In three years, we had become a multimillion-dollar business.
Phyllis and Hervia knew they had a compelling message and a valuable service to deliver. What they lacked at that point, though, was a fully functioning organization behind them.
As a start-up, you’re scraping together every type of resource that you can to make this thing work, says Phyllis.
We didn’t have all the engineers or a sales team. But we would still walk into our prospective clients’ offices as if we deserved to be there. They didn’t need to know we had no sales team. We just decided to figure it out and put the pieces together as we went along.
Their efforts soon paid off. One Saturday morning, Phyllis received a phone call from a federal contract officer to inform her they’d won some government business, the very first work they had tendered for. At first, Phyllis thought it must be a prank, given the timing. The caller assured her it was for real and that she’d taken the unusual step of reaching out on a weekend as she was so happy to see a smaller company win the contract rather than a big defense corporation. She also told Phyllis that there would be support to help them execute on their first commitment.
Soon afterwards, Xtreme Solutions secured its first contract in the private sector, with one of the largest players in US telecoms. Phyllis’s vision of straddling both government and corporate worlds was fast becoming a reality.
In three years, we had become a multimillion-dollar business, observes Phyllis.
I knew we had a scalable model; the programs and the company could scale.
Xtreme Solutions’ subsequent transformation into a powerhouse has earned an array of accolades. In 2017, Phyllis became the first female recipient in the technology category of Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year® award. The company has also been named as one of the Women’s Presidents’ Organization 50 Fastest Growing Women-Owned Companies in the US eight years running.
Achieving this growth was far from easy, however. Expansion has been a constant rollercoaster ride for Phyllis and Hervia.
When we were a small business, we had much greater flexibility in managing growth, says Phyllis.
Client expectations were of dealing with a new, emerging company. We’d grow, everything was rolling along nicely and suddenly we’d win some unbelievable new contract, and we would start all over again, trying to develop new infrastructure to handle the additional work.
Occasionally, the work has accumulated faster than Xtreme Solutions could add capacity.
Like any fast-growing company, we’ve taken some gut punches from clients along the way, says Phyllis.
These can be quite brutal, but they’re important lessons learned. We go back and review everything that went wrong and right. And the next time that you’re about to win a new contract, you’re aware that what your happy sales team are feeling may not be the same as your implementation team.
Even some of the best organizations in the world aren't equipped to deal with the complicated cyberattacks we face today.
Growing as leaders can matter as much for entrepreneurs as growing their business. Just as Phyllis and Hervia’s professional backgrounds complemented one another, so have elements of their approach to leadership.
I’m more of a ‘let’s charge and take the hill’ kind of leader, says Phyllis,
whereas Hervia is the kind of leader who is very analytical, wanting to know and analyze every detail before we storm the hill. And we’ve learned to blend these approaches together to accomplish our mission.
Along the way, Phyllis and I had a pivotal conversation, recalls Hervia.
She laid it to me straight: she saw a pattern with me and these projects as we were growing this business. It seemed to her that I was always going in the weeds. In a real heart-to-heart conversation, she told me I should make up my mind. Either I was going to be an engineer or an entrepreneur. And that really helped me.
Something I learned in the military is if you’re doing a task three levels beneath you, you’re micromanaging and not really leading, observes Phyllis.
And that’s true in business too. So now, we look at the task that we’re doing every day, and that dictates roles. As a leader, it’s about letting some things go and some people grow.
As the world has undergone intensifying digitalization over the last two decades, an increasing amount of criminal activity has focused on cyberspace. While there is now much greater awareness of the threat than there was when Xtreme Solutions started out two decades ago, this does not automatically translate into preparedness.
Even some of the best organizations in the world aren’t equipped to deal with the complicated cyberattacks we face today, says Hervia.
The key for us and all technology companies is to be thinking well into the future.
The type of cyberattacks faced today are increasingly well funded, organized and structured, he continues.
The target might be critical national infrastructure such as power networks or a small business: no one is exempt from cyber risk. And it’s a continuous challenge. There are still some folks out there who are convinced that it’s not going to happen to them. I tell our clients constantly that even if we build them a ten-foot wall, eventually the criminals will acquire a twelve-foot ladder.
To help clients understand their vulnerabilities, Xtreme Solutions often carries out ‘ethical hacking’ operations. These involve hacking into companies’ networks without malicious intent, instead exposing inadequacies in their defenses with a view to subsequent remediation. Such problems are often worst at firms that rely on legacy systems, where insufficient investment has been made in closing gaps and updating security.
We’re not just talking about businesses here, says Phyllis.
It could be the likes of family offices and others that have a lot of assets. We also expect the challenges to intensify because the adversary is constantly getting more sophisticated. And with the expansion of working from home, the metaverse and cryptocurrencies, there are ever more targets. This is like Christmastime for hackers. Companies can either invest significantly in security or end up paying a heavy price when their defenses get breached.
In the face of ever smarter hacking, Xtreme Solutions relies on innovations of its own. A few years ago, it developed a cyber range where, like at a gun range, experts can learn and deploy the latest tools and techniques to defend proactively against online attacks.
The key for us and all technology companies is to be thinking well into the future, says Phyllis.
We are constantly thinking about what the cyber landscape might look like in three years’ time. We don’t want to be left behind and end up with antiquated technology.
Identifying and executing the next crucial pivot has been a defining feature of Phyllis and Hervia’s mission throughout Xtreme Solutions’ existence.
How can we pivot quickly, is it the right choice and what should it look like? says Phyllis.
Hervia and I look to find agreement on these things. We’ve worked together this long and have leveraged the skill sets we each have. I think that’s what’s made our entrepreneurial journey so exciting even after twenty years – and we still feel the excitement every day.
I describe my mother as the first CEO I ever saw in action.
My parents were instrumental in shaping who I’ve become. My father worked tirelessly to provide for us, and he taught us that each of us brought distinctive value to our family. I describe my mother as the first CEO I ever saw in action. Successfully raising so many kids takes real leadership, just like running a corporation. She had to manage an incredibly tight budget and resolve conflicts while always encouraging us to achieve. She was truly inspirational, always leading by example.
From very early on, I always felt failure was not an option for me. When I joined the military, I was really impressed to see women serving as pilots, but I noticed how few females there were in the higher ranks. My father had always told me since I was a child that I was a leader and a warrior, so I went into the military with that mindset.
Hervia and I first met at the gym when I was training for a bodybuilding contest alongside some professional American football players. He and I arranged to train together one day, and I took him through an unbelievable, hour and threequarters leg workout. I didn’t think he’d last but he did! The next time I invited him to train was at 5am on a Saturday and again he showed up. Our becoming training partners would propel us to become business partners and life partners.
I don’t just want to be known for being a CEO and entrepreneur. Helping to advance women is critical to my life’s work. When I saw women in the military who didn’t believe that they should be there or didn’t feel accepted, I felt I had a deep responsibility to encourage them to keep striving, make that next rank and convince them they were leaders. We had a saying, ‘let’s soldier up,’ meaning ‘I will support you no matter what.’
That saying helped inspire ShoulderUp, the movement I co-founded with Viola Davis. We use our voices and economic power to connect and support other women who want to bring about positive change in their lives. As part of this, I teach a course on the principles of leadership, while we also enable women to invest in opportunities to build their wealth and influence. We’re all about getting women to stand shoulder to shoulder and support each other.
For young women starting out on their entrepreneurial journey, I’d urge them to understand and use the ‘ROC’ – resources, opportunities and connections. Too often, we don’t ask for that one resource, opportunity or connection that could change everything. I realized the power of asking and I received. Now, I’m pleased to be giving those things back to others. So, it works both ways: be willing to give what you’re willing to ask for.
My journey in life so far has been amazing. There have been highs but also lows. I couldn’t have been blessed with a better business and life partner than Hervia. We’ve lived the experience together. Whether laughing, crying or hunkering down, we’ve done it all. And we’ve enjoyed it throughout.