Shelli Brunswick Interview with Venus Quates
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
Hello and welcome to another Space Foundation Space Commerce entrepreneurship interview. I’m Shelly Brunswick. I’m the Chief Operating Officer at the Space Foundation and today it’s my privilege to talk with Venus Quates. Hello Venus!
Hello, how are you?
I’m fantastic, it’s good to hear from you today. Let me tell our audience a little bit about your background. Venus is the president and CEO of LAUNCHTECH. LAUNCHTECH provides technology and end-to-end business services as well as technology resale solutions to government and commercial customers. They operate in four quadrants: public sector, financial services, healthcare and space industries. While they are well-versed in technology, they also make sure to prioritize the people and processes of things. I’m so thrilled to have Venus join us today! Again, thank you Venus for being with us!
Thank you for having me!
Well, you are a veteran, and so I kind of wanted to start with that. You started your career in the Air Force and information systems management. What prompted you to go in the Air Force and why information systems management?
Well, I actually signed up on a whim. I didn’t tell my mother until afterward and my main focus at the time was to get out of New York and to go to another state. And the quickest way I knew how to accomplish that was to go to the military. So in terms of career, I had always been a tech nerd, from video games or computers or taking things apart, I wanted to figure out how they work. My aunt had a management information systems degree and her husband was in the Army and all I knew is that I could do cool things at work and get to travel all over the world and so I wanted to do both.
What were the most important professional and personal knowledge or training you received while serving on active duty in the Air Force?
I actually learned plenty of things that are still relevant and still serve me to this day. The first one is definitely leadership. The second one, I guess I would say is teamwork. Not everybody can be a leader in all situations, so you still need to understand how to follow and things like that. Next, probably to remain calm under pressure, and that’s definitely needed as a CEO. There are plenty of fires we have to put out on a day-to-day basis. Adaptability and probably discipline… so many things. Too many to list!
I think that’s a wonderful list of ideas about what you learn if you enter the military service or other disciplines like that. So fantastic. Now you did already talk a little bit about the travel bug, but while you were in the Air Force your work took you to Italy and South Korea and it sounds like you got the travel bug before you even joined the Air Force. You had some activities after your military career where you were in England and Asia, Central America, and Africa. What professional and personal challenges did you face in these international activities and postings?
So again, I definitely was bit by the travel bug. My last stint on the road was an 18-month sabbatical backpacking trip across 12 countries and that was a few years before I started my business. But for the most part, I didn’t face any challenges, to be honest. I think you have the normal reaction from seeing a random black girl in the middle of a third-world country, so that was pretty interesting. But you know I mentioned earlier about the military teaching adaptability, so while things may have been a bit inconvenient, I wouldn’t necessarily consider them challenges. Some of the best and most memorable times of my life were actually abroad.
What did your experiences abroad teach you and help you as you became the CEO of LAUNCHTECH? How did it benefit you?
I mentioned third world countries before—I would see people doing a lot with little so just being resourceful. You don’t have a lot of money when you’re starting. Most people don’t. You know? So to try to put all your resources together in terms of what can I do? I know a little bit about finances or know a little bit about this or that. I was everything when I started the company and that actually helped me in my business to definitely put a lot of what I had into starting the company.
What prompted you to start LAUNCHTECH? Did you always want to be an entrepreneur, or did you see a capability gap and know that you could fill that gap by starting LAUNCHTECH?
I’ve actually always been an entrepreneur. I remember when I was a kid, I used to ask my mother (so weird) ask her for raffle tickets, like a roll of raffle tickets, and I used to make things to sell the raffle tickets at church or wherever else and then I would sell them. You know they would win this little painting or whatever I had made so I was always some type of entrepreneur. LAUNCHTECH is actually not my first business as an adult. I’ve always had that side business or side hustle or what have you. And it wasn’t that they weren’t successful, I just didn’t love them enough to leave my job. So for LAUNCHTECH, I had actually experienced some challenges on my last job and those challenges made me very aware for the first time in my career that I was different and that there was no one else that looks like me working in my space. So it wasn’t necessarily a problem for me, but it seemed to be a problem for other people. And you know, I thought back to the last time I actually worked with another person of color or a woman of color, and it was actually 17 years prior in my second duty station in the military. And you know, I have pretty thick skin, so again, it wasn’t an issue for me, but I just thought about how many other minorities or women were experiencing the same type of discrimination in the STEM space. So I was doing all this research and started looking at the numbers and it was actually really common. And so instead of making noise, my answer was to create a company that would be a small solution, to change in a workforce composition in the technology space. So that’s really what I wanted to do.
So it sounds like initially you started a company as a side gig and once you decided you were ready with LAUNCHTECH, you were able to walk away from your other—we’ll call—the normal job and be a full-time entrepreneur. Is that correct?
I knew I wanted to leave. It was the end game, you know, but this is the first time in life that I was replacing my job for a little bit to start a company for what I did for a living. It wasn’t as easy as those other side hustles where it was completely different from what I did on a day-to-day basis. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I knew because of my tenure in my career that there was a ton of opportunities available. I just needed to understand how to create that. So yes.
That’s excellent and I’m going to say for other entrepreneurs who are listening to you today, do you recommend they keep a full-time job or regular job where you’re working for someone else until they have that passion for the right entrepreneurship opportunity? Or they have the company up and running? I think they’d welcome your advice on that.
You know, it’s crazy leaving your job, your six-figure job to make zero dollars and zero cents, because that’s what usually happens if you don’t have a contract or customers initially, so I would definitely think the responsible thing to do would be to have some savings or just keep that job and just test it out. If you can get a side hustle—and I hate saying that phrase—but you know, test the waters first to make sure that’s actually what you want to do before you give up, your sure thing and your job.
People talk about the “Valley of Death” in the startup space, which refers to a problem of negative cash flow when first starting the company. Did you face the “Valley of Death,” and if so, how did you resolve it?
First off, I think there is a difference between that quintessential startup and a small business, and the first difference would be that unique product or service. The Airbnb, you know things like that that are created to serve a really large market and then the second is like your accounting businesses or people who sell t-shirts or something like that where you don’t need a large market to grow. Understanding the difference will aid you in determining how you obtain access to capital and what road you should go down. So from like VC funding to borrowing from family or friends and, for instance. That’s one thing, the borrowing from family or friends– everybody doesn’t have the wherewithal to do that, and it’s impossible for most of us. But you know, there’s all these other options out there. But I think understanding the type of business you have will kind of help you. And for me I didn’t obtain initial funding. Again, I worked for the first year or so and had savings and I was a technologist, so I knew how to do the work myself and that helps. But if you’re starting something that you don’t know how to do, it can be a bit tricky, but just figure out what type of business it is first. Understand if that’s the type of business that people actually get investors for or decide if you need to call the SBA or a bank for an initial loan.
That’s excellent advice. And you also commented that you had a lot of the technology background and ability to do it by yourself. So you started it, it sounds like, as just you, and then you grew. So my question is, entrepreneurs can oftentimes have a hard time finding talent to help them with their startup. What was your experience recruiting the right people that you needed to grow your business?
I did start by myself. The challenges I faced early on was hiring who I could afford at the time, and then that wasn’t always who could get the job done, especially not up to my or LAUNCHTECH standards. So I found myself putting in a lot more work early on, kind of doing the work twice just because that person didn’t know. I had to make sure it was right before I presented the final product to the customer. But in terms of recruiting people, I’ve honestly had people walk up to me at events or call me or email me or email someone else in the company and it’s because of our company culture. They are either seeing us out somewhere, volunteering or something else, and they want to be a part of it. And I kind of think that that reminds me of my time in the military service because you always felt like a team and a part of something and I wanted to create that here. So I would encourage companies still in early stages to spend time focusing on that, the company culture, and then lead with that as you head out to recruit talent. Not everybody goes—especially not technologists—not all of them go to higher-paying jobs. Sometimes they go to where they feel valued and that may be a smaller company. And you know, I’m honest and open with my staff when they come on. I’ve developed a culture of continuous improvement and I just always try to empower people to be their best and sometimes the job requires more than your best so you’ve got to kind of give that push and encourage them to stretch beyond that.
How long has LAUNCHTECH been in business?
We’ve been in business for four and a half years, so we’re still a toddler.
So over those four and a half years, what has been your biggest accomplishment to date?
I would say that we’re still here, you know, going strong. I can see a clear path ahead. I think every day is something to learn, a lesson learned for all of us. You don’t know what you don’t know until you get there, no matter how much you read. So I honestly think the biggest accomplishment is that we’re still here.
I think that’s really paramount during COVID-19 right now. How has COVID impacted your business?
To be honest, it’s been a blessing. I was traveling so often and I had time in the earlier months to stop everything and go back to the office to evaluate and create processes for everything, to fill any gaps that we may have had, and to really be honest about some of the work we had done to see how we could do it better and to see what we needed to improve upon. It’s really been that “timeout” to really work hard. We just so happened to have been at the end of Q3 and then going into Q4, so we had to increase our output and the number of solicitations we went after. I hired more staff after I figured out what those gaps were. So it’s definitely been an extremely busy time for me.
You were able to use this as an opportunity as opposed to a challenge. I think that’s a really great lesson for entrepreneurs to look at all of those challenges as really opportunities and how you can optimize. So thank you for sharing that. One of the other things we noticed that was great about your company is that LAUNCHTECH is a certified 8(a) HUBzone Minority, Women, and Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned firm. How have these qualifications helped or maybe hindered your company’s growth?
They definitely have helped. Of course, we’ve been called “Unicorn.” You know, “Purple Unicorn” or what have you in the space, but we don’t try to lead with that too much because we can do outstanding work and that’s most important for me. But I definitely think it helps to lessen that pool of competition. So there may be “set-asides” on the commercial or the federal side of the house and just small things that make you stand out from the crowd from a small business perspective. So that’s always great. There are still opportunities for you to go after things that normally you wouldn’t even get a chance to go after on the commercial side. A lot of the contact, you have to have a minority or woman-owned or a service-disabled veteran on board, and I think that’s great. Just make sure we get a piece of the pie.
Have there been any challenges that you faced being the 8(a) Minority Woman and Service-Disabled entrepreneur that you are? If so, how did you solve those challenges?
Not really a challenge, but I’ve heard other people have the same one, but I think some people go into the program thinking that just because you got certified that the work is going to come from everywhere. And that’s false, I can definitely tell you that. It’s still work, and you have to show a lot of preparation even down to filling out the application. And you know the paperwork, which is a beast, but if you’ve done one, you’ve done them all. So I say if you’re qualified for them all, just do them at one time because it’s the same paperwork that they request from organization to organization. So not really many challenges. Luckily, I learned to ask questions from other people beforehand just so I can make sure I was even ready to obtain these certifications and that I knew what to do when I got this.
So you’ve worked in many capacities and environments, from the Air Force to a large aerospace and defense company to a bank to an independent consultant to a serial entrepreneur now and a thread that I might see through all these positions is that you teach people skills that they need to work in the most efficient and productive ways. It feels like you’re kind of a teacher at heart. What do you enjoy most about that type of work?
I love teaching a man to fish. I love empowering and teaching others how to get things done. Even if the customers still at the end of the day pay me to do it, I just love the work that I’ve done and that we are embarking upon now. And then, being able to teach and architect and create, especially in the technology space, it means that we’re also getting to learn. You have to learn in order to teach. So I think it keeps us fresh. And it also does a great service to someone else as well so they know what to do and they can keep up on and stay fresh in front of trends and things like that.
That leads me to this: throughout your career, you’ve been a huge consumer of education from the Air Force project management programs to UC Berkeley to MIT to Dartmouth. Why was this such a critical component of your personal and professional growth?
So again, we’re in technology. There are continuous changes there. You know, constant shifts and cultural norms, and, I think, ever-evolving competitive landscape, so you need to be on top of your game, and that’s just plain and simple. So any opportunity I can get to enhance my personal skills—executive courses at colleges or an industry-specific training like federal government such as 7(j) training and things like that that is free to go to or other things that are paid, whatever it takes, I sign up! I keep a training calendar for myself and it has goals on it. I don’t want to be so far on the CEO side that I forget the technologist side of the house so I’m in the trenches with my employees getting the same certifications as well. And that’s how I started my career after the military. I would do all this research and look at magazines, you know, before we Googled a lot, and research the hottest certification for the next year and instead of waiting for my employer to send me, I would actually pay for myself to get them and so I didn’t rely on somebody else to secure my future. I wanted to do it myself.
So it sounds like we all need to take ownership of our continuing education and our reskilling and upskilling as the world and technology continue to evolve. That’s fantastic advice for not only entrepreneurs, but everyone out there who’s looking for a great mentor. You’ve provided some great mentorship advice, which leads into my next question. You do a lot of volunteer work, from the Girl Scouts of Western New York to the Boys and Girls Club of Buffalo, New York to being on the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women to being a mentor to entrepreneurs. Given the number of volunteer activities you’ve been involved in, this is clearly an important part of your life. Can you tell us why? What got you into volunteering in this sort of capacity?
Well, I’ll first say, out of the pack (now I love them all) but the Girl Scouts is just—there was just something about it that drew me to it and I think it again reminds me of the military, you know. But what they teach young women is just outstanding. I just knew I wanted to be a part of it. But going back to where I learned this from, before I learned “service before self” in the military, I learned it at home with my mother. I vividly remember her getting excited and telling me “there’s a family in need, go upstairs and get things to give away!” She made it a point to say don’t give your worst, give your best. And that’s always resonated with me. I was probably about 5 or 6 or 7. I can always remember her saying that. And then from a military perspective, there’s no man left behind. So if I see a need, I’m going to do whatever in my power to help.
That’s fantastic advice for again not just our entrepreneurs who are listening today, but all our young professional leaders in the space industry—that there is an opportunity to always give back no matter where you are. So thank you. Do you have any final thoughts or insight for our audience today that you could share with them?
If you’re a business owner in your career, no matter what industry, I think it applies across the board: you will fall. You will fail. But keep reverting back to your vision and mission. Even before I started my business, I had a vision and mission for my career and for my personal life, for what I wanted to accomplish and what I wanted to do. And I allowed those pains and all those roadblocks to propel me forward so I wouldn’t give up. Another point, I know it sounds really cliché, but I always say that preparation is key and when you know your stuff, you’ve studied, you’ve listened, and you’ve prepared for contingencies, you present and proceed more confidently. Lastly, I just encouraged one of my mentees on this yesterday and I say this often: don’t let or allow anybody with limiting beliefs of you to prevent you from doing what you want to do—prevent what you want, or you have in your heart to do. I have had teachers that told me I wouldn’t amount to anything. I’ve had personal and professional relationships that just kind of deemed me unworthy and if I had listened to that, I wouldn’t be here today. So I just encourage somebody else to not do that and to just kind of steer the course and look forward.
Venus, thank you so much for joining us today and thank you for sharing your insight and knowledge with other entrepreneurs in the world that are that are looking up to you and hopefully get to follow in your footsteps.
I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you for having me.
I’d also like to thank our audience today for joining us for the Space Commerce entrepreneurship interview. You can find more information about our programs by going to www.spacefoundation.org. We look forward to you joining us for our next webinar. Thank you again, Venus, and we wish you a wonderful day.
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