Kathryn (Kathy) Freeland was $300 away from declaring bankruptcy.
She knew starting her own company would be a challenge, but it was something she needed to do. Despite years of education and hard work under her belt, her former employers had taken her for granted, so her only option at reaching success within her career was venturing out on her own. Her husband, Greg, had a background in business development and gave her some helpful advice: “If your career is not going the way you want, start your own business.” Shortly thereafter, RGII Technologies Inc. was launched, but now, she saw it flickering away. All that stood between her and total failure was one last payroll.
Kathy has never been one to shy away from adversity, however. She had faced discrimination within the workplace. She had battled a breast cancer diagnosis. Most heartbreakingly of all, she had lost her first-born son, Richard Gregory II (RGII). She had encountered the worst-case scenario many times before, and she knew the only way to survive was to move forward. With that, she cashed in her 401k, essentially signing over everything she had to her business venture. “I never thought of myself as a risk taker, especially since my father had always taught me to play it safe, but going all in turned out to be the best decision I ever made,” Kathy recalls. “If I hadn’t made that decision, then I never would have taken a chance on me.”
Luckily, her drastic decision paid off, and the company slowly began to stream in its own revenue, allowing Kathy to pay back her debts and RGII to take off. With the help of her husband, Kathy carried the company through its tumultuous adolescence until it was a stable, thriving business. She went on to sell the company, and has since acquired A-TEK, Inc, an organization focused on providing enterprise information technology services and solutions, scientific data management, and cybersecurity, where she currently serves as CEO.
A southern girl at heart, Kathy grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where she spent her childhood learning from her hard-working parents and four older siblings. Her father only had a sixth grade education, but through his lifelong work at the US Steel Plant, he was always able to provide for his family. “My dad understood that his lack of education meant he would have to use his hands to provide for us,” Kathy says. “And despite his limited education, we learned far more from him than we ever did in school. He taught my sisters and me not to rely on anyone else, and he taught us to use our hands so we could be self-reliant and independent young women.”
Not only did her father teach them how to fend for themselves, but he also instilled in them a deep sense of family values. The relationship between her mother and father was sacred, and set a standard for what she and her sisters would want in their future husbands.
Growing up, Kathy never saw herself as an aspiring entrepreneur, mainly because she had no exposure to that type of business leadership. “My father was a worker, so my reference point was getting a job and working hard to provide for myself,” she recalls. She often looked to her three older sisters for guidance, since all had entered the working world by the time Kathy reached her teen years. After graduating high school, she attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which she commuted to from home every day in a 1972 Pontiac LeMans, given to her by her father. She studied finance in the hopes of one day working on Wall Street, and every summer, she traveled to Washington, D.C. to visit her sister, who worked as a budget analyst for the Federal Defense Department.
The summer before her senior year of college, her sister introduced her to Greg Freeland, a young man working in her office as a presidential management intern. Sparks flew between the two, and after maintaining a long distance relationship during her senior year at UAB, they were married the day before she graduated. “My father had instilled three main principles in us: to get the best education the Alabama school system had to offer, get a great job to support ourselves, and then marry great men, in that order,” Kathy laughs. “I guess I let him down in terms of order, but I followed Greg to Maryland and landed a job less than a month later, so Dad was happy.”
During her transition to Maryland after graduation, Greg helped her write her resume so that her limited work experience, which included gigs at McDonalds and J.C. Penny’s, looked far more extensive and impressive than it really was. “We put on my resume that I was great with Lotus 1-2-3, which is what we now know as Excel,” she recalls. “I got a call from a company that was very interested to talk about my familiarity with the program, so my husband gave me a crash course in it, and I was able to get the job.”
While Lotus 1-2-3 may not have initially been her strong point, the job proved to be the ideal training ground for her future business endeavors, since it taught her all there was to know about budgeting in the federal government and the procurement process, from start to finish. She was assigned to a Navy Program, where her mentors fostered her development as a young businesswoman. She went on to work for three different companies between 1985 and 1992, all of which were involved in the fields of budget analysis and procurement associated with federal programs. During that time, she attained her MBA from the University of Maryland, College Park in order to move up in management, particularly because she had spent five years at her previous company and was projected to fill the next manager position.
In 1991 to 1992 timeframe, however, all of her hard work and dedication was cast aside when the managerial position she was next in line for was handed over to a man from outside the company. “They told me he had more of a rounded experience base, and had been doing similar work longer, which I saw as an acceptable reason for their decision,” Kathy explains. “What really upset me, however, was that they requested that I train him. I didn’t know how to respond. How was it that I was good enough to train him for the job, but not good enough to perform the job myself? I felt it was discrimination in the work place, and naturally I was very upset.” It was a devastating insult to Kathy, who had thrown so much of her life into her work, yet in the adversity, she found opportunity—the response that often sets leaders apart from their peers. “I knew I couldn’t just accept what had happened. I needed to do something,” she recalls. “That’s when my husband suggested I create my own business. He said it sarcastically at first, but it got me thinking.”
It was an outraging moment in her professional career, which she had grown with diligence and dedication, but from the ashes of her efforts at her previous company came the birth of her own company, a thought that had materialized from her husband’s off-hand suggestion and grown over years of careful planning. “It would have been much easier to go work for someone else, since there are so many companies around the beltway that could have used my talents, but something told me not to do that,” she recalls.
Though Greg worked in government contracting and business development, he had an entrepreneurial spirit himself, and he had helped new businesses get their footing before. With his encouragement and guidance, Kathy slowly but surely pieced together a business plan while maintaining her full-time job. It took the pair nearly three years of strategizing before she was ready to present the idea as a real company, which she initially called Freeland and Associates. “One of my former customers was the first to take a chance on me,” she recalls. “I went to him and said, ‘Look, this is what I’m trying to do. All I need is a purchase order, and I’ll do anything.’ So he decided to let us do an analysis of his computer infrastructure. I agreed to do it, but of course I had no idea what he was talking about. My husband reminded me, however, that there’s always a right way to do something, so we had to reach out to all our connections and find the right people to help us get that job done.”
In 1991, shortly before closing the deal with her first customer, hardship visited Kathy once more. She gave birth to her first child, a son whom she lovingly named Richard Gregory II, but the child lived only 50 days, leaving the Freelands shaken and heartbroken. In order to memorialize her son and the impact he had on her life, Kathy decided to rename the business RGII Technologies (RGII), for Richard Gregory II. “It kept his memory alive, and it helped me heal from his loss,” Kathy says. “It drove me to succeed, because in my mind, the success of RGII hinged on me keeping his memory alive. I wouldn’t have been able to continue as an entrepreneur if I hadn’t taken that approach because I was devastated.”
Having the company renamed in their son’s honor helped the couple push through the challenges that many entrepreneurs face when starting a new business, such as financial instability, which Kathy identifies as the greatest hurdle they had to overcome. When they began RGII, they had less than $5,000 saved up to invest in their company. They had bills to pay and a mortgage on their home, so they were unable to attain a small business loan, causing them to rely heavily on their credit cards to sustain the financial piece during the company’s fledgling months. They managed a $50,000 credit debt, and at one point, found themselves $300 from filing for bankruptcy. It was that emergency funding from Kathy’s 401k that provided RGII its last lifeline, bridging the divide from failure to flourishing.
As RGII gained momentum, they entered into the Small Business Administration 8(a) program for minority small business certification to gain entry into the federal government contracting market. After nine years, they had grown exponentially outside of the program, causing them to begin their exit in 2001, hoping to be fully independent from the program by 2003, the 8(a) graduation date. At that time, however, the government was undergoing massive changes, which gridlocked RGII, since they were considered a “tweener”—too small to compete with big companies, and too big to compete with small ones. Responding to the challenge, they restructured their business strategy. Then, around that time, a company out of Mountain Lakes, New Jersey looking to gain entry to the federal government space approached Kathy about buying the company. Originally, selling RGII had not been part of Kathy’s immediate plan, although it was her exit strategy a few years later.
However, due to the changing landscape within the government, the timing turned out to be perfect, and the company was acquired in July of 2003, a short seven months following graduation from the 8(a) program.
Kathy continued with RGII for three additional years after the deal was made, and was at last able to relax and focus on her twin daughters, who were at the time just entering high school. “The timing was perfect because those high school years are so crucial,” Kathy notes. “My daughters, Brya and Brynn, grew up with both Greg and I in business, so they sacrificed a lot to let us do that. That’s what they had known in childhood, so I was so happy to finally be able to spend more time at home with them.”
After the success with RGII, Kathy and Greg could have comfortably retired, but when their daughters began getting ready for college, they realized they needed a new challenge. Kathy was heavily involved in philanthropic projects, but she wanted to see if she still had her edge in business, so they decided to acquire A-TEK, Inc, a company very similar to RGII in size and scope, focused on providing IT services and solutions. “I understood everything that came with a new startup,” Kathy explains. “So instead of doing that again, we decided to identify a company with the infrastructure in place so we could hit the ground running and bring our experience, our capabilities, our energy, and our spirits to grow it from there.”
Founded in 1996, A-TEK was originally started as a contract and program management firm with a primary focus on supporting the government in several key departments, including that of Homeland Security, Agriculture, and the National Institutes of Health. Since Kathy acquired the company in 2010, it has emphasized its focus on IT in terms of scientific data management, information insurance, and security, as well as systems integration. Kathy shares the company with her equity partner, and in the past two years of working together, they have faced their challenges head on with a strategic plan for growth. When they acquired the company, it had roughly 140 employees spread over twenty-six cities and sixteen states, bringing in $24 million in revenue, which she plans to grow to $100 million over the next five years.
Kathy feels that, despite her success in both RGII and A-TEK, her leadership skills are not innate. Rather, she has learned through her experience, modeling herself after those she admires most and focusing on perspective. “I ask myself what I would want in a boss, and then attempt to fit that mold,” she explains. ”I think the most important thing is staying true to your vision, and truly caring about the people who work for you. I consider myself a collaborative leader, and I try to surround myself with people who are smarter than me so I can learn from them as well.”
Having a mentor would have gone far in helping Kathy to avoid so many of the difficult lessons she learned through trial and error, but there were simply none available to her at the time. When RGII was beginning, she frequently reached out to entrepreneurs in the government space, but most saw her as a threat. Thus, to help other young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, she wrote a book entitled Navigating Your Way to Business Success: An Entrepreneur’s Journey. “It speaks to my journey as an entrepreneur,” she says of the book. “It’s not the right or wrong way to start a business; it’s just how we did it. My hope is that the book will reach out to other entrepreneurs and students looking for a little more advice, helping them to learn from some of the mistakes I made and successes I enjoyed.” In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, she encourages the importance of education, emphasizing the importance of maintaining an unshakeable faith in oneself. “Don’t limit yourself,” she insists. “Be in a position where you can make the greatest impact and get the greatest happiness from that. Know that you are worth taking a chance on.”
There is no question that Kathy has mastered the art of rising from the ashes. With every great hardship, she has found an opportunity to bring happiness and success twice-fold. While she credits the wisdom bestowed upon her from her parents, and the encouragement from her husband, she ultimately traces this indelible resilience, and the success it has garnered, back to her faith. “My twins are my greatest success, but I might not have had them without Gregory II’s sacrifice,” she says. “God gave me double for my trouble. Even in the toughest times, my faith is what I draw on, regardless of what I’m doing or how successful I am. It’s who I am, and I give it all to God.” When you know you have the support, the belief, and the strength to rise up from anything, taking that chance doesn’t seem so hard after all.