One afternoon in 1995, Edward H. Bersoff, Ph.D. took a few deep breaths in the West Wing of the White House. As a youngster, his parents had always pushed him to get his doctorate. “If nothing else,” they said, “you can teach.” And although he had made his career as an executive, leading companies of all shapes and sizes, today he was to teach the nation about a new commerce bill. In doing so, he would introduce the man who would sign the bill into law, President Bill Clinton.
Later, Ed showed his parents the video of his speech introducing both the bill and the President. His father, a World War II veteran and a small business owner himself, had never been one to lavish praise on his two sons. Yet upon seeing the tape, a tangible manifestation of the making of his son’s remarkable legacy, the man’s eyes brimmed with tears of pride. For Ed’s parents, it was a sign that they had succeeded in one of their most sacred missions.
Now the founder and former President of BTG, Inc., and having impacted countless other organizations through his leadership and board participation, Ed’s path to the White House and beyond has been driven by many things—family, security, a testing of limits, a commitment to community. But with the passage of time, each has found its place in the broader mosaic of mission that guides his steps. “I’m not sure when my motivation coalesced from a series of disjointed cells to an object called mission,” he says now. “But I wouldn’t have made it to where I am today without it.”
Ed grew up in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood in the late 1940s, where his father and mother owned a small shop specializing in window and glass furnishings. As a young boy, he played heated games of street ball, stoop ball, and handball, absorbing the diversity and energy of the vibrant neighborhood. A diligent and tenacious worker from early on, he would wake up at 4:30 in the morning to assemble newspaper packets for delivery.
Ed’s father never had the opportunity to finish college himself, and though he appreciated the security the family business afforded them, he wanted something more for his sons. Ed’s mother, an exceptionally bright woman, never had the opportunity to pursue her studies either, and both parents put an extremely high premium on education. “There was no question that my brother and I would go to college, and our parents dreamed that we’d get our doctorates,” Ed recalls. “I adopted that as my plan, putting a stake in the ground and committing to making it happen.” He embraced this undertaking with incredible drive and palpable curiosity, earning a spot at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School.
After skipping two grades thanks to advanced placement, Ed earned his high school diploma by the age of fifteen, showing an uncanny ability in mathematics. He chose the subject as his major during his early years at New York University, the school that became his Alma Mater. Much to the dismay of his parents, he switched his minor from Physics to Philosophy after a series of mind-expanding courses. “My parents were convinced I wouldn’t be able to get a job because of that,” he laughs. “But I reassured them that I could always teach math. And those ideas have contributed substantially to the business leadership philosophy I adhere to today.”
The other “given” guiding Ed’s course through life was his father’s goal that his sons become officers in the military, so they both joined ROTC in college. Ed received a Distinguished Military Graduate designation at the time of his graduation in 1962, which would have allowed him to achieve Regular Army Officer status if he were 21. Because he was only 19, however, he entered the Army Reserves upon graduation, and chose to follow in his father’s footsteps by specializing in the Army Corps of Engineers. “My father wore his uniform to my graduation so he could pin on my insignia,” Ed recounts. “That was a great experience.”
As he commenced work on his Ph.D., Ed fulfilled his parents’ lifelong dream for him by applying for a state teaching fellowship. He supported himself by teaching college math and working at the NYU bookstore, nearing completion of his study in 1968. By that time he had been promoted to First Lieutenant, acting as the Senior Officer within his class, and applied for an assignment at NASA. His character was tested at engineering training in Fort Belvoir, where he was introduced to the Commandant of the Engineer School. When Ed was asked what he would do if he were sent to Vietnam instead of NASA, by that time a bloody and heartbreaking war, he replied, “I serve at your disposal—wherever you send me is wherever I go.” Fortunately, shortly thereafter, he received orders to report for duty at NASA’s Electronics Research Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“Like a GPS, life has many waypoints, and there are times you’re faced with a decision that will change your course,” Ed reflects. He came to one such waypoint in 1970 when, with a breadth of experience in mathematics and software engineering under his belt, he found his potential constrained by the bureaucracy of the civil service promotion system. With that, he decided to end his service and accept a job offer from Logicon, an IT contractor based out of California. With his newly-minted Ph.D., Ed was sent to help launch the Washington, D.C. office and build their East Coast operations. Though he was young, he rose quickly through the ranks, handling the company’s software engineering programs as Project Manager and landing large contracts with both NASA and the FAA. He ultimately left the company in 1974, hoping to bolster his expertise elsewhere.
Having established himself as an expert in software systems, Ed signed on as the sixth employee at CTEC, Inc., a Washington-based startup specializing in intelligence systems. As the small company landed opportunities in Naval intelligence, it was rapidly successful and grew to around two hundred employees over the next several years. And just as he had done in Logicon, Ed climbed through the ranks quickly to the role of Executive Vice President. Then, when the President became severely ill, Ed was named Interim President, and then President. “I had set a goal for myself to be a President by the age of forty,” he recalls. “There are very few earned presidencies by that age, and I was honored that they decided to appoint me.”
Ed’s most profound experience at CTEC came one day when he was visiting an intelligence facility in Spain. His team was working to put in place computer systems to help the Navy manage the data it was collecting—a job where someone could easily get lost in the mundane details of the task. “I remember passing a sign on the wall that read, ‘What have you done to support the fleet today?’” says Ed. “In that moment, the mission really clicked for me. The world was really tense at the time, and our job was to provide data to the fleet to help keep them out of harm’s way. We were there to make a difference.”
The realization would prove key for the leap of faith to come. In 1982, Ed knew his tenure at CTEC was coming to a close and found himself at a major crossroads—another waypoint on life’s course. “I hadn’t planned on starting a company, and I never felt particularly entrepreneurial,” he recounts. “But I suppose it was always in my DNA, because when I turned in the keys to the company Jaguar along with my resignation, I announced that I was starting something new, something entirely my own.”
The first seeds for the new venture came from the Navy intelligence community, where he had become firmly enmeshed. When Ed was asked to serve as a consultant, he forged the deal that would kick-start and grow his new venture. “I said no to the consulting opportunity, and told them I wanted a real contract of my own,” he says. “They came up with one a couple weeks later, so I brought a couple people along, and just like that, we were off and running.” With that, BTG, Inc. opened its doors in 1982.
BTG, which Ed jokingly refers to as an acronym for “better than good,” evolved at a staggering rate. Ed piloted the organization through a small business contract before finding its niche in the Naval Intelligence Community and expanding to land contracts in other branches. BTG then engaged in a series of acquisitions that contributed to its growth and success.
In the early 1990s, Ed began to contemplate the mammoth task of taking the company public. At the time, no government contractor had succeeded in a bid for Initial Public Offering for nearly ten years. And while he watched contract firms larger than BTG as they tried and failed, the BTG board decided to push forward. In 1994, their bid was successful, and the company was valued at roughly $600 million. In 1996, they did a follow-on offering.
It was also in 1996 that Ed was selected for the Fed 100 by Federal Computer Week and AFCEA, identifying him as one of a hundred honorees from the professional technology field in government and industry. In earning this distinction, he was also chosen from industry representatives to receive the coveted Eagle Award for his role in the federal government’s effective use of information technology. Ed, a mathematician and intelligence software developer by trade, was now a seasoned entrepreneur and the visionary leader of a renowned public company.
Ed’s parents couldn’t have imagined that his college studies of philosophy would one day shape his prowess as a captain of industry. Indeed, as founder and President of a major organization, he suddenly found himself closer to his philosophical roots than ever before, particularly with regard to his outlook as a leader. “I came back to my studies of René Descartes, one of the French philosophers I studied in school,” he says. Descartes’s foremost philosophical statement, “I think, therefore I am,” put a high emphasis on purpose, defining it as the key factor in guiding a goal-oriented life. The phrase became profoundly meaningful to Ed, who developed his own incarnation. “For me,” Ed explains, “the question of purpose became huge — if you exist, then why do you exist? What do you want to do? When it comes to business and living life, I tell people that the first thing they should do is think long and hard about why they do what they do. It’s something that people don’t think about as much in their younger years. Often, when you’re young, your decisions are shaped by the opportunities that arise, and you’ll end up in a good place regardless of which road you take when you come to a fork. That’s how it was for me.”
Yet as Ed found himself in command of a major business, he reconsidered his own purpose and he profoundly changed his outlook—both as President of BTG, and beyond. “As I became older, the answer to the question of purpose became different,” he says. “I realized that I do what I do because I want to make the world a better place. It becomes a matter of evaluating what you’ve done, by the end, to have made a difference. It all comes down to realizing that, in the long run, you do what you do for reasons that extend far beyond the need to make a living. You do what you do because you realize the role you play in the larger mission, whatever that mission may be, and because you want to serve.”
This concept of purpose, newly reevaluated in his adulthood role as corporate leader, constitutes the first in Ed’s renowned list of the “Seven P’s”, a memorandum of tenets that he formed as a reference of guiding beacons. Purpose is followed by Principles, reminding us that success at any price is no success at all. Next comes the importance of having a Plan—a stake put in the ground and made public so everyone knows the direction you’re headed. This roadmap, pursued with Passion fueled by a true belief in Purpose, must allow for Pivots—changes in course based on data and observations of a changing world. Work-life balance must always be maintained through Perspective, and Perseverance is the momentum needed to push through the challenges that come along every road to success.
With this philosophy, Ed staked his claim on future success by charting a growth path that fell squarely in the middle of the spectrum of possibility. He told the world that BTG would double in size annually, reaching $25 million in seven years. “That was the plan, and I told everyone who would listen,” he recounts. “And by God, we hit that curve almost exactly. If you set your objective and tell everybody what it is, you have a much better chance at success than if you keep your mission secret, leaving everyone to wonder what the plan is.”
By the new millennium, BTG had grown into a tour de force in its own right, making its mark as one of the foremost innovators in IT contracting. Guiding his team as a benevolent manager, Ed remained engaged with the details of the company’s operation while empowering his team to act with authority and succeed independently. In the summer of 2001, after 19 years of operation, BTG was sold to Titan Corporation, where Ed served on the board until Titan too, was sold in 2005. But his company’s legacy continues to live on, most notably in the countless people who grew through its ranks and are now exceedingly successful executives in their own rite. “When BTG had its thirtieth anniversary party in 2012, several hundred alums showed up, and it was incredible to hear what they’re up to now,” Ed recounts. “It means a lot that we were able to contribute to the personal legacies of our employees.”
Ed’s wife, Marilynn, was beside him every step of the way through the BTG journey. In fact, several years before they married, she left CTEC and became Ed’s first employee at BTG. “She’s my moral compass,” he says. “Through all the ups and downs, she’s always kept me on the straight and narrow, and is an exceptional judge of character. She’s got this sense about her, and she keeps me grounded.” Ed is also grounded by his remarkable daughters—one a research physician and professor at Harvard Medical School, and the other a practicing physician in DC who successfully treated one of the anthrax patients. “As proud as my parents were of me when I showed them my speech at the White House, I’m equally proud of my daughters,” says Ed.
Ed’s engagement in the business community has remained strong in the wake of selling BTG. In 2006, he joined with a team of investors to form a Special Purpose Acquisition Corporation, raising $126 million in the public market to purchase a civilian government contractor called ATS Corporation. Ed served as CEO of ATS, leading it to flourish until it was sold in 2010 to Salient Technologies, Inc.
Ed then shifted his focus full-time to his participation in nonprofit and for-profit boards—commitments he has prioritized since 1984. Using his “Seven P’s” as guiding beacons, he has served as a Board member, Advisor, or Committee member of over fifty organizations, including Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, the Northern Virginia Technology Council, the Technology Work Group of the Virginia Economic Recovery Commission, and Holy Cross Hospital.
Education, as well, has remained a passion for Ed, and although full-time academic teaching never became the focal point of his career, he taught mathematics at NYU and Kingsborough Community College. During his tenure at NASA, he taught similar courses at Boston University and Northeastern University. Later on, he continued to teach at American University, the University of Maryland, and George Mason University. He served as President of the Board of Directors of the Northern Virginia Community College Educational Foundation, as well as on the Board of Trustees at Virginia Commonwealth University. One of his greatest honors came when he was asked to serve on the Board of Trustees at New York University, his Alma Mater, and more recently, he was invited by Governor Terry McAuliffe to serve on the Board of the Virginia 529 Program. “It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “We have to think about how you finance a college education, and what the return on capital for that education will look like in 20 years.”
In advising young people entering the working world today, Ed underscores the importance of commitment as a foundation for laying out the Seven P’s. “Nothing is easy,” he says. “Don’t flounder. Figure out what you want to do and then go do it. And when you face setbacks, remember you have two choices. You can go back to bed and hide, or you can go to work and put on a brave face. Those moments will be your waypoints, and I hope you choose to do what you have to do, rather than what you might want to do in that moment.”
Beyond that, Ed has found that the Seven P’s tend to lead people to that ideal ground where altruism and self-interest intersect. “Self-interest is fine, but never at the expense of others,” he says. “Altruism is wonderful, but you can’t have a mission without money. I think the real value set is all about pursuing something of importance, but in a business-like way so you ensure you have the resources to actually accomplish it.”
From his days delivering papers and playing street ball in Manhattan, to his introduction of President Bill Clinton at the White House, to his legacy of leadership throughout the DC business community, Ed’s astounding accomplishments are the projection of the mission sense that has always guided him—a pixel-precise vision he hopes the entire country will reclaim with time. “When I graduated from college and started work at NASA, every single person in that organization—and across the U.S.—was aligned and motivated in our goal to make it to the moon,” he reflects. “Now, I attribute our national sense of malaise to the fact that we’ve lost our mission sense as a country. Everyone needs that object called mission—the new moon that inspires them to write their future, and then go out and live it.”