Kathryn Freeland: A Woman Leader Slaying the IT Sector

A-TEK | Kathryn Freeland: A Woman Leader | CIO Women Magazine

Women business owners juggle a lot more than just leading and growing their business. They must learn how to navigate and thrive in predominantly male-dominated industries and bring their own seat to the tables traditionally not reserved for them. They must speak confidently and boldly, know when to pick their battles, and stand firm when their decisions and ideas are questioned. And in the federal government sector, which is undoubtedly male-oriented, women leaders must make the conscious decision to show up every single day even when the doubts and questions are coming from within. 

When a small woman-owned business is determined to deal with whatever comes its way, it surely comes out with flying colors despite the obstacles, red-tape, and bureaucracy. After a marvelous entrepreneurial journey of 30+ years, Kathryn Freeland, CEO of A-TEK has evolved into an inspiring leader whose story is one of community, perseverance, and faith. 

Kathryn’s Inspiring Journey 

It is easy to look at Kathryn today and see and admire the many accomplishments, accolades, and success. But to truly understand her journey, you must also understand it is not without decades of hard work, sleepless nights, and overcoming life’s challenges. She bootstrapped her first start-up RGII Technologies, her late son’s namesake, to the point of using credit cards to fund the company until the first contract was won and invoices were consistently being paid. Kathryn hired her first employee and has been moving full steam ahead ever since. She sold the company 10 years later. She tells this story in her first published book, Navigating Your Way to Business Success, An Entrepreneurs Journey, which she wrote in 2009.   

In 2010 she would revisit the federal market, but this time through the acquisition of A-TEK.  

She adds,” Although I serve in the capacity of CEO, I cannot do what I do every day without the team who make the magic happen for our customers.” 

A-TEK’s mission is clear—to consistently deliver high-value services and solutions that advance critical government missions, foster a dynamic culture of innovation to effectively meet the customers’ strategic goals. It also provides an enriching, and purpose-driven work environment that nurtures its greatest asset—its employees.

Services & Solutions of A-TEK  

Kathryn started her first information technology (IT) company in the early 1990s and acquired A-TEK, Inc. 14 years ago. A-TEK provides services and solutions to its customers’ most difficult IT challenges, enabling a myriad of missions across the U.S. Federal Government. The secret to A-TEK’s success as a mission enabler is not only a credit to its leadership but most importantly its people. Kathryn considers her employees to be the most cherished asset; gifted with the technical know-how to sense the evolving needs of their customers, to innovate and integrate cutting edge technologies and solutions, and remain abreast of the accelerated changes occurring in the digital environment. A-TEK’s service & solutions offerings include: 

  • Agile DevOps 
  • Cloud Migration 
  • Cybersecurity 
  • IT Modernization 
  • Laboratory Science including micro and molecular biology staffing support  
  • CIO and Mission Support

Triumphing Over the Challenges 

Just like many small businesses, A-TEK also faced several challenges during its initial stages. A-TEK’s primary market focus is the federal government, and as thousands of companies are competing, the addressable market collectively is complex. During Kathryn’s entrepreneurial journey, she faced numerous challenges, professionally and personally, including: 

  1. A minority woman-owned small business operating in a male-dominated market.
  2. Lack of access to capital to fund the business. 
  3. Navigating the complexity of doing business with the federal government as a small woman-owned business without prior experience in the federal market. 
  4. Identifying the resources necessary to succeed in the federal space, such as the Small Business Administration (SBA). 
  5. Learning to do business with the government collectively. 
  6. Time killing effort to identify and be properly positioned to bid and win the first government contract which can take years. 
  7. Loss of her first born and a breast cancer diagnosis 

Coping with these and other challenges was just as intimidating as the complexity of the federal government. However, as an entrepreneur, Kathryn compels herself to rise above the challenges and press in even more.

“The most successful entrepreneurs don’t give up and quit because it’s hard, develop the resilience to overcome the myriad of challenges that every entrepreneur faces.” 

Kathryn

Leading from the Front 

As A-TEK’s CEO, Kathryn is responsible for leading the company’s strategic vision and direction. She develops strategic and tactical goals, operating plans, and policies for the corporation. Moreover, she guides the A-TEK with forward-thinking business plans to increase both profits and return on invested capital. She also serves vital roles in business development, customer engagement, financial stability, and employee relations. Kathryn believes her biggest achievement is not professional, but personal. It is faith in God, the family that she has been blessed with, who are her strength every day, and her village of extended family and friends. Her husband and daughters have supported her immensely in the 30+ year entrepreneurial journey. They are her biggest supporters and cheerleaders.  

Long-standing Success 

A-TEK’s long-standing success is upholding to implementing the core principles that reinforce the ethics, standards, and goals of the organization. The core principles are: 

  • Operate with Honesty & Integrity 
  • Partner with Customers 
  • Commitment to Excellence in Service Quality to all Customers. 
  • Value the Employees 

United with the mission and vision, these principles established the foundation for continuously evolving as a staunch competitor while maintaining the expectations of providing value to the customers and shareholders and a literal commitment to the team. 

People-first Culture 

A-TEK’s employees are the heartbeat of the company. “They make the sausage,” as the adage goes and are one of its greatest assets. Kathryn acknowledges that the A-TEK cannot exist without employees who possess the experience, determination, and skills to deliver the services. The workforce of today is different from the workforce 30 years ago and will be different from the workforce 30 years from now. However, the one thing that will remain the same in Kathryn’s opinion is that companies are made up of people, and it’s the people who make a company great.  

A-TEK’s employees are vocal and trusting. Kathryn acknowledges that as a leader, she will never be able to meet 100% of every need of an employee, however, she and the leadership team make a concerted effort to address their needs as best possible. She takes pride in sustaining a people-first, purpose-driven, and inclusive culture that attracts, retains, engages, trains, recognizes, and rewards her employees. A-TEK provides competitive salaries, benefits, and challenging work assignments that are public health, national security, and law enforcement mission-oriented. “The uniqueness of the team is in the diversity, not only ethnically, but also in skillsets, technology stacks, educational levels, and personal interests,” stated Kathryn. 

Keeping Up With Tech 

A-TEK’s services evolve as technology evolves. Customers require their technology partners to evolve and recognize the potential impact a change in technology may have on mission operations.  The introduction of new technology by the industry’s technology leaders is a key factor in assessing how A-TEK approaches service delivery and ultimately how technology is incorporated into the solutions offered. 

Expansion Plans 

The ability to continuously evolve, expand, re-engineer and innovate as a technology partner that looks beyond the “as-is” to the “to-be” requires a paradigm shift.  This shift is towards not just performing on contracts, but on maturing/expanding services and solutions that facilitate an expanded customer experience with capabilities and skills that solve near-term and long-term customer challenges.     

Stagnation in A-TEK’s service or product offerings is a sign of the company’s inaction and limits its growth potential. A-TEK will continue to expand its offerings to address the priorities of its current and future customers technologically and programmatically. 

Advice for Aspiring Women Entrepreneurs 

Being from a family with humble beginnings that valued education and hard work, contributed to Kathryn’s business mindset. Although she didn’t initially know anything about starting or running a business, her post graduate experiences would later propel her toward entrepreneurship. After facing a denial of a management position, she took the plunge and stepped out on faith to become her own boss. Her dad would always tell her “Nothing beats a failure but a try.” She knew she was qualified but questioned whether she was as prepared as others to start a business. Well, history says yes, as she has turned setback into success.  

Based on her own background, Kathryn’s advice to aspiring women entrepreneurs is that you can succeed as an entrepreneur but just know that entrepreneurship is not for the faint-hearted.  

She says, “the desire to start your own business may come from frustration or dissatisfaction with the employer”, which was a critical driving force for her, but she learned that it takes more than just being frustrated.  She recommends “plan for the journey, know your risk tolerance, make the decision, step out on faith, and never look back.” 

Women’s Corner 

Q.1. As a woman leader, what has been the biggest challenge in your career? Have you ever confronted any gender-related barriers? 

As a woman leader I have had to overcome multiple challenges, some bigger than others. I could answer this question specifically from a business perspective and say the biggest challenge was being an African American female, with no start-up capital, and operating in a male-dominated environment with no one to mentor me through the process. Yes, each of these instances challenged my professional prowess, however, the biggest challenge by far was balancing my professional and personal responsibilities as an entrepreneur, wife, mother, daughter, friend, community leader, and the list goes on.

Gender-related barriers were front and center from day one in the 1990s, thankfully not as prevalent today but in some circles it’s still there but very subtle in most experiences. When I was able to convince myself that I deserved to be there irrespective of whether I was the only African American (female or male) or not, my presence added value and my voice would be heard. 

Q.2. What is your definition of feminism? 

My definition of feminism is the actions taken to establish a level playing field of equality to ensure all girls and women, no matter their ethnicity, social, political, or economic status, can pursue their dreams, which is the inalienable right for all people irrespective of gender. No, it’s not a female–male thing, it’s about being fair and ensuring the playing field is fair for all. 

Q.3. Whom do you look up to as a source of inspiration and why? (You can name any woman leader that inspired you) 

Many female leaders have transcended and broken through business, political, social, religious, and economic glass ceilings that were designed to stymie our quest for success, including Linda Gooden, the former EVP of Lockheed Martin Information Systems & Global Solutions who I admired from afar until I met her one day and was inspired to keep moving forward. 

As female leaders, we have all learned many lessons from female leaders like Linda, directly or indirectly. My daily inspiration comes from my faith in a God, a higher power that’s beyond myself. Entrepreneurship had a way of challenging everything I thought I knew about myself, and it required a deeper/stronger faith foundation to shepherd me through my entrepreneurial journey even now. In my book, Navigating Your Way to Business Success, An Entrepreneur Journey, each chapter starts with a biblical scripture or principle that inspires me to keep going for the vision is yet for an appointed time. I just keep showing up and being my best self every day. 

Q.4. Beyond the cabin, how do you ensure a perfect work-life balance? 

Work-life balance: what does that mean for an entrepreneur, especially for a female entrepreneur with mounting responsibilities at work and home? When I started as an entrepreneur, I had just given birth to twin daughters. Who starts a company while starting a family at the same time? Women. Today my daughters are 30 years old, and I’m still on the entrepreneurial wheel. 

Perfect work-life balance, I do not believe exists. I have a village that has played a significant role in helping to maintain my sanity, but work-life is still not perfectly balanced by any means have not yet experienced a perfect work-life balance, whatever that means. When someone can define perfect work-life balance for me with a 5-step process, I will take a shot at it, until then, I will continue reminding myself daily to take care of me – spiritually, mentally, and physically to maintain my version of work-life balance although not yet perfected. 

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