For Aisha Bowe, CEO and Co-Founder of STEMBoard and former aerospace engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center, starting a tech company in Silicon Valley was a no go. “We went to the Valley to raise money and the reception wasn’t what we had hoped for, so we decided we knew what we wanted to do and that we were going to make it work. So I continued to work at NASA for two years until we got the company off the ground,” says Bowe.
The resilience paid off for the co-founders of the innovative tech company who partner with defense and enterprise clients to create smart systems and software solutions. “I’m so happy that we didn’t raise a single dime. I run a profitable, sustainable company that I own 51% of outright without any significant debt,” says Bowe.
Here, Bowe talks about her path to NASA and founding STEMBoard as well as choosing the Government as her source of capital.
EBONY.COM: How did you figure out that you wanted to work in engineering?
Aisha Bowe: I sort of fell into it. I remember being aware that technology was changing very rapidly, but not necessarily thinking I wanted to be part of that shift. When I was in community college I realized that I had an aptitude for math and I became interested in space and exploration while reading science fiction and novels about Deep Space, satellites and spaceships. Interestingly NASA has a tagline, “We turn science fiction into fact.” So I was seeing all of this and when the idea presented itself to choose the path of aerospace engineer, I knew it was something that I would always be excited about. The idea that we’ve perfected cruising at 35,000 plus feet in a pressurized tube boggles my mind. It’s safer than driving. And you now have WiFi and you have TV, and it’s amazing when you think about what went into creating that.
EBONY.COM: How did you end up at NASA?
AB: I was fortunate to be in a program that combined your undergraduate and graduate studies. There was a professor, Thomas Zurbuchen, who had an instrument with NASA called Mercury Messenger. The Director of Engineering at NASA at the time came to visit my professor and he asked me to take him on a tour of the campus. When I met the Director it was one of those moments where you know it is meant to be. He asked me why I didn’t submit my resume, and I realized at that moment that I didn’t think I was good enough. He said “let me be the judge of that” and I submitted my resume. Within two weeks I was offered a position in the intern program.
At that point I realized I needed to redefine how I think about myself and what’s possible for me, so I started setting really ambitious goals. “I want to be a distinguished employee.” “I want to do this with public service.” “I want to do this with technology and outreach.” So I published papers. I spoke to school groups. I was a recipient of NASA’s Equal Opportunity and Diversity Medal, which is one of NASA’s highest honors given to individuals within government who are champions of diversity and inclusion programs or display those characteristics within the workplace. I was part of the African-American advisory group. I created a career shadowing program for students. There are so many talented people out there but they don’t have the access and exposure that they need to succeed, and I want to help with that.
EBONY.COM: How long where you at NASA?
AB: I was at NASA for six years as a federal employee and then for two years as a contractor. My entire career there, I wanted to advocate for the underserved and underrepresented. Working there as an engineer really changed my life. Besides what it did for me, it even helped me uplift my family and help them do many things.
When we started the company, I continued to work at NASA and signed a work agreement so there was no conflict of interest. It’s been a year now that I’ve been running the company full time and we’ve been a company for three years now.
EBONY.COM: What was the journey from year one to year three?
AB: We have 12 engineers on staff. If we don’t do anything different, we’ll make a minimum of $2 million this year. If we win a fraction of the work that we’re planning to bring in, we’ll earn between $10 and $20 million this year. We’re an incredible force. We were able to ink a three-year deal where we are incubated out of the Department of Defense. That agreement alone is worth $5 million easily, and we’re in the second year of that agreement. In terms of our overall growth, going the route where we bootstrapped and bid on government business, our growth has been phenomenal. Our money isn’t short term. Our contracts are for five years. I know where we stand for five years. The work that we do is diverse:we do hardware, software, frontend and backend. The technologies that we touch are 10 to 20 years ahead of what’s in the commercial sector. While we come up with custom solutions for our government work, we have the flexibility to extend those products for our commercial clients where it makes sense.
EBONY.COM: What’s the difference between Governmental funding and VC funding?
AB: Fewer than 1% of US companies received funding from venture funds. The US Government has $400 billion a year that it spends on stuff. They have set-aside requirements that are geared toward helping minorities and disadvantaged groups. All of this is considered in the Government’s budget from year-to-year. And so they have organizations that can help African-Americans run a business successfully. The reality is that when dealing with the government, they are incentivized to help you and there is money already allocated for you. You can obtain a certification say for being a Women Owned Small Business, so when you bid on work it makes you eligible to be considered for certain things.
The Government puts out announcements asking you to address a problem. And you can respond. With the Small Business Innovative Research Fund, you can take your company from idea to working with the Government. You get $100,000 to develop your concept and then you can get more money to turn it into a product. For us, we might get on teams with other capable companies to respond to a proposal or we might create a white paper to show our solution. Every agency has a team of people that can help you with the process. You can also go to FEDBIZOPPS to learn about opportunities. When we talk about VCs, the process is not as straightforward.
One of the things that gets slept on is developing businesses that are sustainable. Our customer is a $100 billion agency and they are going to be around for 10 to 20 years. We’re focused on not going into debt, whereas when you’re raising VC funding you’re operating in debt. For us, that’s not appealing. I’d like to empower others to do exactly what I’m doing. They’re talking about I raised $13 million dollars; I’m saying I made that. We are also scaling across the Caribbean and Africa, and we’re turning into a global company.
We run tech but we also run education. We want to take the same skills we use to build our products to turn it into educational content for students. We hired Dr. Jarvis Sulcer, who was the Director of Education at Level Playing Field in California, to run our education program full time. We teach cybersecurity fundamentals to students at HBCUs on a grant from the Government. We are in our third year running a STEM camp in the Caribbean. We created HackIT, where we combine technology with entrepreneurship to offer students a mini incubator to launch their ideas. We want to touch hundreds to thousands of students within the next year. When you raise money from venture, you have to go to a board to decide those things. There’s no board to tell me what we are and are not going to do.
Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of technology and everything else since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.