With billions of dollars in play each year, opportunities abound in federal contracting for women- and minority-owned small businesses.

There are, however many barriers. Discrimination, glass ceilings and the maze of government contracting rules can all present treacherous hurdles.

Kelly Terrien, president and CEO of Colorado Springs’ Summit Technical Solutions LLC, has seen it all.

Terrien, 49, started STS in late 2001 with $15,000 of her own cash.

Revenue in her first full year was $300,000. Six years later, her company had made Entrepreneur magazine’s list of Hot 500 Companies. Last year, revenue had grown to $12 million and is on track to reach $30 million this year.

How did she do it?

- Advertisement -

How did Terrien, an Air Force veteran, succeed in a male-dominated business where so many others had failed?

How was she able to double the size of her company after its first two years? How was she able to land a $90-million-plus contract last fall that will mean doubling her workforce yet again?

The answer lies partly in a lot of hard work — the stream of emails sent to employees from her laptop in the middle of the night, in constantly searching for new ideas to drive her business, and in allowing a rare day at the spa to be interrupted by questions about a contract.

“I like to say, ‘You can work any 24 hours in a day that you want,’” Terrien said, laughing.

Developing a track record

STS provides systems engineering, design and related technology and data services to Department of Defense and other federal agencies. The company has offices in Colorado Springs, Huntsville, Ala., and Ramstein, Germany, among other locales.

Terrien’s experience in the early days of STS was typical of any startup:

Financial institutions wanted collateral and a track record before making her a loan.

“If you’re brand-new and don’t have an established banking relationship,” Terrien said, “a lot of people don’t want to take a chance on you.”

So, like so many other business owners have done, she used her credit cards to keep the company afloat.

STS started out in a small office building, sandwiched between two fast-food restaurants near Wahsatch and Platte avenues. It was “kind of a sketchy neighborhood,” recalled Kara Lewantowicz, a financial analyst at STS.

Lewantowicz watched as Terrien led the company from its fledging days to success.

“Kelly balanced working full-time as an employee on a government contract, while being president of STS. She was the only one bringing in revenue at the time,” Lewantowicz said.

“She’s very much a risk taker — she’s not afraid of anything. Some people might be intimidated by her strong opinion, but Kelly knows the big picture and what it will cost in the long run to do things.”

Establishing a track record was important because it can be a requirement to land many contracts.

“It’s kind of that chicken-and-egg dilemma,” said Brian Binn, president of the Military Affairs division of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce.

Terrien also faced the challenges of learning the rules of working with the federal government.

In the exacting world of military contacts, any “t” left uncrossed or “i” undotted can mean lost business.

It helps that the federal government sets women- and minority-contracting goals. But those goals aren’t always met and the competition can be fierce.

“There are more than enough women-owned small businesses and small disadvantaged businesses to meet those goals,” said Tom Elam, director of the Colorado Procurement Technical Assistance Center, which helps small businesses land federal contracts.

The government’s goal for small-business contracting is 23 percent of the $550 billion in contracts it awards each year. Five percent of that share is supposed to go to women-owned businesses, with another 5 percent going to minority-owned companies.

“(But) just because you’re in the Central Contractor Registration, doesn’t mean the Bureau of Land Management or Homeland Security will pick up the phone and call you,” Elam said.

“If you sell tank treads and you go to Peterson (Air Force Base), you’re wasting your time — because they don’t buy them,” Elam said.

Many would-be contractors either market to the wrong audience or don’t market at all.

Terrien understood well that important point. After all, she owned a souvenir stand at a minor-league baseball field while still in high school.

“Kelly’s a go-getter — aggressive,” said Sharon Bethel, a senior contract administrator for ITT Corp. in California, which has worked with STS.

“She (also) makes sure things go smoothly. And Kelly is warm and genuine — approachable and easy to talk with,” Bethel said.

Terrien’s approach recently helped STS win a contract worth as much as $91 million with the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Now she has 290 employees and manages another 165 temporary contractors.

Growing ranks

As for glass ceilings and discrimination, well, Terrien refuses to waste time worrying about it.

“There is discrimination. It has probably affected me. But I choose to address it in different ways and focus on my strengths and past performance — the strength of my company rather than gender,” Terrien said.

“If I went around every bend and said ‘you’re not doing this because I’m a woman,’ that’s very negative and sets a bad example,” Terrien said. “It opens a lot of other cans of worms that may not be productive in the future.”

To cope with all of its growth, STS has in the past 18 months added a number of people to its executive ranks.

Terrien has added a chief financial officer, director of contracts, director of operations, senior vice president and a human resource manager.

With a management team in place, she has more time for making business contacts and developing strategies.

And a full, uninterrupted day at the spa might be in the cards, too.