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How Fran Pierce built govtech firm DSA into a $90M business

Gender gap in technology? No, the CEO and 40-year veteran of govtech firm DSA came up in a time when there was a gender gap in the workforce. Here's how she grew a $9 million company 10x in 20 years.

Update: A previous headline — 'Don't see everything through the lens of gender': Fran Pierce, DSA — was updated to widen its focus. (11/26/14, 10:00 a.m.)
Fran Pierce launched her career in a time when the phrase “work-life balance” didn’t exist.

“When I started, there were no women in the workplace [who were also] raising families,” said Pierce, who has spent more than 40 years at DSA, the Trevose government technology firm where she has been CEO since 1991.

Earlier this month, Pierce accepted the Iris Newman Award, the women in business award given each year by the Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs. Past recipients include Benjamin Franklin Technology Partners’ CEO Roseann B. Rosenthal and Monetate’s Lucinda Duncalfe. The award is named for the life sciences exec who in 1996 founded the Women’s Investment Network, a precursor to AWE.

In Pierce’s acceptance speech, she told the story of how she went from a student at then-women’s school Chestnut Hill College on full scholarship to running a 60-year-old company that provides technology to the Department of Defense and was on track to surpass $100 million in revenue in 2013.

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While at Chestnut Hill College in the 60s, she majored in mathematics, even though her strengths laid in English, because she found the subject challenging. She said she figured, “there must be a job in there somewhere.” Everyone, she said, tried to talk her out of majoring in math.

That’s when she learned the first lesson she wanted to impart to the crowd: trust your gut.

Society supports women in the workforce now more than ever.

After graduating, the job search was rough. As she puts it, she was looking for a job in the days when most expected “a young Catholic woman” to get married and then leave the workforce. The gender gap in technology and math that existed at the time is also not to be understated — even if that gap is a relatively modern concept.

To offer some historical context, Pierce graduated from college the same year of the publication of The Feminine Mystique, the seminal feminist text that described what author Betty Friedan called “the problem with no name” — how women were feeling increasingly desperate after being herded from college to marriage to the life of housewife.

At that time, women who chose a career over marriage were looked down upon, Friedan wrote. (On the Feminine Mystique, Pierce told SmartCEO: “Reading that was like, ‘Wow.’ It described exactly what I felt in terms of everybody making assumptions about me, about what I could do and what I should do.”)

After sending out 100 resumes, she finally got an interview at Ford Aerospace. The million-dollar interview question: what’s the fundamental theorem of calculus?

Pierce got it right. Her interviewer, as she told it, started jumping around the room because he was so excited, saying that all the Penn and Drexel grads he interviewed couldn’t answer the question correctly.

The salary negotiation went like this: Pierce gave her interviewer a number and he said, “We can do better than that.”

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She spent six years at Ford Aerospace, working on the “design and implementation of a backbone data communications network” and later moving into product development.

Fast forward to the 70s, when Pierce joined DSA as a systems design analyst and worked her way up to leadership positions. It wasn’t all rosy, Pierce said, referencing a low point in her career when she “was removed from [her] position of responsibility.” She decided to leave the company, but first, she’d work to flip the trajectory of her career: “I didn’t want to leave in a downward position,” she said.

In 1991, she became CEO.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mORW-tXOHYM

It was a time of turbulence, Pierce said, right after the company was nearly sold to a foreign investor.

“Selling almost felt like giving up,” she said.

Her task was to rebuild.

In those 20 years since becoming CEO, Pierce took the company from $9 million in annual revenue to $90 million in 2013, according to a SmartCEO profile.

There’s still a lot of work to be done with equality in the workplace, she said, but it’s worth celebrating the victories.

“Look at where we are,” she said, saying that “society supports women in the workforce now more than ever.”

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Here are three pieces of advice from Pierce:

  • “Understand that people might have preconceived notions about you, sometimes unconsciously, and know that you can prove them wrong.”
  • “Don’t see everything through the lens of gender,” she said, “because it’s not always about gender.”
  • “Don’t hire people who are just like you.”

And work-life balance? No, she said. It’s work-life integration. She gave a shout-out to her son and her husband, who were in the audience, and encouraged the women of AWE to become “Chief Work-Life Integration Officers” of their lives.

Companies: Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs

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