As Deborah Scott Thomas presides over a meeting in her office on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., the decorated walls of her conference room tell the history of her accomplishments. The wall holds commendations from several U.S. presidents for her three decades of military service. A framed, intricately woven rug commemorates her company’s accomplishments in Iraq. Another framed portrait features photos and personal autographs from the nation’s black military generals.
Scott Thomas founded her current company, Data Solutions & Technology Incorporated (DST), in 1994. But even without the title of “entrepreneur,” she has a résumé that would make even the most successful person envious. She retired as a colonel from the U.S. Air Force Reserve. She has been named one of MEA Magazine’s 50 Women of Power in Business, and received a Black Engineer of the Year STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Trailblazers Award.
Her company, DST, provides a wide spectrum of services in information technology, aviation management, logistics and operations, management support and more. Its clients include the Defense Logistics Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, Defense Information Systems Agency and a bevy of other federal agencies, as well as private entities.
On a professional level, Scott Thomas considers herself a government contractor. But she is equally quick to bring up her personal side: She’s a mother to three sons, and will celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary this year.
With an already-distinguished career — and a poised, polished appearance — Scott Thomas has never forgotten her roots growing up in rural Alabama. She’s more than ready to talk about family ties at the same time as she describes her life as an entrepreneur. In fact, she can’t imagine one without the other.
‘An Entrepreneurial Spirit’
When Scott Thomas — one of seven children — was 8 years old, her father died, leaving her mother to oversee the family farm. Farmers, she said, have a built-in entrepreneurial spirit.
As Scott Thomas put it, “My father transitioned into heaven. My mother had a ninth-grade education. She instilled in me the importance of getting an education. I always dreamed of owning my own business.”
Sitting in her dream-come-true offices in Lanham, Scott Thomas readily pulls out the booklets depicting the yearly family reunions at which she joins her mother, who still lives in Alabama, and the rest of her large extended family.
“I was the only one of my siblings born in a hospital,” she said. “The rest of them were born on the farm.”
Her background of faith is also one of the deep roots out of which she has grown her strong entrepreneurial endeavors. “Over the years I have learned that, if you get the right teaching and training, then you put God first in your life, all will be given to you.”
One Entrepreneur? Or 250?
On the other hand, in the hyper-competitive world of government contracting, Scott Thomas knows that nothing is a given. With 250 employees, Scott Thomas said she believes every employee needs to be an entrepreneur.
“We must — I mean really must — think that way,” she said, “because we’re contractors. And once you start a contract, you have to consistently think in entrepreneurial ways.”
As she grew DST, she found she had to delegate more work while still ensuring her company culture remained true to her vision. Being an entrepreneur is not unlike being a parent, she reflected, in that you learn to let go of the company the same way a parent learns to let go of a child.
“You can see the baby,” she said. “You have the baby. Then, you set different rules, different policies and procedures, and once you grow to a certain size, you try to get those into the company culture.”
Operating a small business is vastly different from working in a large corporation or serving in the military, she added. “In the military or in a large company, people are used to maintaining their specific role,” she said. “But when it comes to small business, you’ve got to have the passion and the willingness to work at different levels of the organization.”
Find A Role Model
Scott Thomas — through speaking engagements and contributions to many colleges, universities, nonprofits and communities across the nation — tries to support the next wave of entrepreneurs.
Like her own mother, Scott Thomas stresses that getting an education is the first step toward reaching a career goal. “First, learn all that you can,” she advises new entrepreneurs, whether they are young or starting a second career. “Then, select a role model you see who is ‘making it’ out there. Then follow them, and ask them questions. Talk to them about how they’ve gotten where they are.”
With so much technology moving so rapidly, particularly in the federal contracting sector, Scott Thomas believes that entrepreneurial opportunities will never be lacking. “You will have the opportunity in any area,” she said. “It’s a matter of being very smart and realizing that, in the end analysis, people are what makes the world go round.”
An Entrepreneurial Marriage
If Scott Thomas is surrounded by dozens of entrepreneurs within her own workforce, she’s also steeped in entrepreneurship at home. Her husband, Oatice Thomas, is president and CEO of Operations & Technology Incorporated, which provides program management, translation and interpretation services, human capital management and more.
When Scott Thomas started DST — “with one person and a half,” she recalled — her husband took on a huge role parenting their three sons who were, at that time, 18, 4 and 2 years old.
“From my perspective, I wouldn’t be where I am today without him as my support,” she said. “He is loving, kind and courageous. I can’t say anything but positive things about my husband. He decided early on that his career would be secondary to mine.”
But now that the children are grown, Oatice has been able to become an entrepreneur in his own right. “He’s been a model for our sons in every way imaginable, and I support him,” said Scott Thomas.
Power Naps, Powerful Fun
Scott Thomas’s enthusiasm and humor with her staff emanates out of every encounter in the hall, in meetings and even in photo opportunities.
Tammi Thomas (no relation to Scott Thomas), vice president for strategic management, likes to relay how her boss can manage on very little sleep. “She can sleep on the metro for five minutes, and that holds her for the whole day and night. I mean, she’s like a Navy SEAL.”
Like many entrepreneurs, Deborah Scott Thomas can get by on just a few hours of sleep each night. “Tammi’s right,” she laughed. “On the metro, I take a power nap. Once I go to sleep, I’m very sound.”
Tammi Thomas, who is an Alabama State University alum along with her boss, said that she admires how Deborah Scott Thomas gives back to the community. “She mentors people, and she mentors other small companies.”
Scott Thomas believes she is blessed, but entrepreneurship isn’t without its challenges, she acknowledged. “If it was easy, everyone would do it,” she said.
Her spirit of giving back is what keeps her going each day, she added. “My highest moments are when I see my employees truly happy and celebrating what they’re going through at any given time.”