Securing the Homefront: Lurita Alexis Doan '79 Manages Hypergrowth at Her High-Technology Company

By Laura Washington '88

Concerns about national security and fears of terrorism have permeated America’s psyche. Lurita Alexis Doan ’79, through her high-technology company, is working to protect the nation. New Technology Management, Inc. (NTMI), the firm she founded 12 years ago, specializes in developing and integrating software applications you might expect to see in a James Bond flick. Envision a pair of laser eyes that can scan a license plate two miles from a border crossing, then feed that information to databases in the United States to tell within one minute the likelihood of someone being a good guy or a bad egg. This is not a plot from some Tom Clancy thriller. This is the technology Doan’s clients request, and she delivers.

NTMI is one of the few woman-owned businesses in the male-dominated technology services industry. Doan, a high-energy quick-thinker, grew her Reston, VA-based business from a one-person, $16,000-a-year startup in 1990 to a firm with $138 million in revenues,150 full-time employees, scores of part-timers, and locations in five cities. And there’s room for more growth. “I don’t think she’s tapped the limit on where she can go,” said Kenneth Reid, an analyst with Spear’s Security Industry Analyst. “This is a growth industry, and big brother — as well as big sister — has arrived. It’s all for the good, because it will take the kind of technology integration her company does in order to prevent something like the next September 11th from happening.”

So how did a nice Vassar girl wind up with a niche in surveillance technology? “It wasn’t a forethought,” Doan admitted. “I believe in serendipitous opportunity. Luck meets preparation.” She graduated with a degree in literature and planned on a career in academia. She went on to get an M.A. in Renaissance literature from the University of Tennessee and held various teaching positions while working toward her doctoral degree. But life’s circumstances soon led her in a different direction: technology.

Doan credits her liberal arts background with enabling her to recognize opportunities. “Vassar trains your mind to be flexible, which is incredibly important to a business person,” she emphasized. The skills she honed translating Shakespeare into modern language for her college students helped her bridge the vastly different cultures of technology and literature. Her job was still one of translation — only this time it was decoding computer languages for people more familiar with pen and paper. In 1983, during the early years of the personal computer, the screen was just black and users had to know combinations of keys or special codes to get the computer to do what they wanted it to do. These days Doan’s flexibility comes in handy when her company transforms a client’s wish list into a service she can sell by integrating existing and new technologies. “Very few people can do that,” she said. “It is easy to make technology solutions when you buy everything new. Our mission is to constantly recycle whatever resources we can and to make it work with newer technology so that clients don’t lose their original investment.”

Her Background

The New Orleans native’s entire life has been one of preparation. Doan is one of four children born to a Creole mother and Black father. Her father’s family had a strong history of business ownership, but Doan was the only one of her siblings who caught the entrepreneurial bug, though she shies away from that term. “I don’t feel comfortable announcing myself as an entrepreneur — it sounds so grand,” she said modestly. “I see myself as a businesswoman, a worker bee.”

Her great-grandmother, a freed black woman, sold pralines — the legendary New Orleans candy — on the waterfront. She was up and out on the docks by 5:30 every morning. “She used to say pralines made early in the morning tasted the best,” recalled Doan. “That was nonsense, but by being out there first, she was able to sell all of her product by 11:30 in the morning and have the largest market share on the waterfront.”

Another early influence was her grandmother, a black woman who, at the turn of the century, owned an insurance company — an industry that was one of the most important to the black community in Louisiana at the time — and rental property. Doan credits the ghost of her grandmother with being her first business mentor, though she died when Doan was only 18 years old, long before Doan started her own business. “When I came up against a problem in my business, I’d ask myself, ‘Now what would Rita H. do?’” said Doan.

Doan’s father, like his father before him, graduated from Harvard summa cum laude and went on to get an M.B.A. from the university. He owned an accredited business school that was the equivalent of junior college, where, for 30 years, nonwhites in the New Orleans legal secretarial pool were trained because they were not allowed to attend other schools. Doan started working there at age 7, putting stamps on envelopes for 15 cents an hour and running off dittos for a quarter an hour. Not only did it pay for boatloads of candy, but it also instilled in her a desire to work hard and do her best. “My dad worked really long days and seemed to hardly ever sleep,” recalled Doan. “Sometimes I think I am very like him and worry if my girls will grow up to have my workaholic ways.” As a teenager, she worked at a doughnut stand and “was the best doughnut girl,” she said with pride. “I’d get up at 5:30 and pour coffee and change people’s days.”

Doan in front of television displays
Doan in front of television displays

NTMI monitors remote sites from its “Wall of Thunder.”

In the late 1980s, when her husband, Doug, was transferred to Germany, Lurita followed him, but she was not what you might think of as the typical Army wife. While Doug remained on one base, Lurita was the one who traveled to 350 locations in Western Europe over an 18-month period — with baby and au pair in tow — installing Unix systems at Army bases so they could have Internet access to the Pentagon.

When her husband was called back to the United States, Doan had to start her business from scratch and find new clients. Being pregnant with her second daughter made it that much tougher. “The minute they’d see I was pregnant, they’d make an excuse and show me the door,” she recalled. Her big break — a $200,000-plus contract — came from Carleton Jones, who ran a mid-size, high-tech firm. He took a chance and hired Doan as a consultant when she was nine months pregnant. “I was so desperate, I worked 48 hours straight the first days on that assignment,” Doan recalled. Jones went on to become a mentor, inviting Doan to sit in on senior management meetings and, in the process, see how larger organizations are run.

“She was vital to the success of the program we hired her for, and I was happy to give her a sub-contract that could get her new company off the ground,” recalled Jones. That contract allowed her to qualify for the 8(a) minority program from the Small Business Administration. In the decade since Doan joined that program, NTMI has rapidly become a standout among the fastest-growing companies in the government contracting area. “Government contracting is highly competitive and customers are very demanding. It’s a management challenge to maintain the level of excellence that she’s boasted so far with her customers,” explained Jones.

Running the Business

Working 100-hour weeks at points in her career as a businesswoman, Doan says it is not possible to have it all. “Everything in life is a tradeoff. I try to be as focused as I can on the activity at hand.” While at work, she totally focuses on work; she doesn’t keep photos of Doug (who now works at NTMI) or her two daughters at the office. But when she is at home, she sews, bakes, grows herbs, and makes soaps and teas and aromatherapy projects with her daughters. “I don’t balance the amount of time I give to either work or family. When you have me, you have my undivided attention; and when you have that, you have an amazing thing,” she said.

“Every now and then I have failures,” confessed Doan. “But my initial approach is always, ‘I can work with that.’ That’s something I learned at Vassar.” Doan almost didn’t attend Vassar. The day after she sent in her acceptance letter to Vassar, her father died. His estate was tied up in probate, which meant Doan could not attend as a full-paying student as planned. She wrote to Dean Elizabeth Drouilhet ’30 who responded, “Never let it be said that a good mind went to waste for want of money. You will be attending Vassar College.”

In the early 70s, the women’s basketball and volleyball teams were formed, and Doan made first cut. “I wasn’t a great player, but I had heart and was willing to work hard,” she said. Sports made a lasting impression on her. Today, Doan organizes her employees into teams. And she still uses the visualization techniques so important to athletes. Instead of focusing on the goal of winning a particular game, she focuses on hiring three employees or helping a customer win a leadership award for service NTMI provided. Her vision for herself as a business owner, however, was fairly modest compared with where she is now. “I wanted to have five employees, a bottom line of a couple million a year, and a small office downtown,” she recalled.

Command center
Command center

Government Site Command and Control Center

In 1994, four years after she started NTMI, Doan hired her first employee. Three years later with 87 employees working with her, NTMI won a $20 million contract from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and Doan nearly lost the company. “We grew too fast and were too top-heavy,” she explained. Doan was seeing her family less than she wanted to. Finding herself constantly in management meetings, she knew she had hard decisions to make. Paraphrasing management guru Peter Drucker, she said, “A business that meets is not working. The job of a business is to work.”

In what may have seemed like a death knell to others, Doan turned down a $22 million contract that would have required her to double her headcount. Instead, she trimmed her staff until she felt it was a manageable size. Next, she fired bad customers, the ones who take up 90 percent of a business’ time but do not contribute 90 percent of revenues. “You can have revenue growth and still be unsuccessful,” she suggested. “Growth at the bottom line, net profits, is what I concentrate on.” Within several quarters, NTMI’s profits rose, and she enjoyed the slower pace. But that didn’t last.

NTMI has been in hypergrowth mode since the September 11 terrorist attacks. The company has sprouted from one with $25 million in revenues to one with revenues of $138 million in the year and a half since the attacks. Doan, who owns 100 percent of NTMI, gets 97 percent of her work from government agencies, including the Army, Navy, U.S. Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Customs, INS, Agriculture Department, and Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Her ability to get the kinds of contracts she has from the government, despite the stall of the homeland security bill for months, speaks volumes.

Her latest contract is a $40 million one with HUD and has nothing to do with the surveillance industry. For this contract, NTMI develops systems to manage verification for public housing applicants. The HUD deal allows Doan to diversify the business while recycling some of the same technology the company applies to border surveillance, such as wireless transmission of information from remote locations and encryption of sensitive information. Clearly, high technology will one day permeate more of our everyday life. When employees ask Doan where the company is going she responds, “NTMI performs best on high-visibility, high-risk projects because few companies dare to venture into those areas, our future looks very bright, and very busy.”

Laura Washington ’88 is a freelance writer who has written for the VQ in the past.