Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Next Best Thing

    Early dreams for a new business took root during the agonizing ten months Army Captain Dawn Halfaker spent recovering from over 20 operations she endured when she was severely injured in Iraq. She had spent five months in Baquba, in the volatile province of Diyalah as a Platoon Leader, charged with training an Iraqi police force. Shortly after midnight in June, 2004, Dawn rolled out in a convoy of 4 humvees on a reconnaissance patrol when her vehicle was hit by a barrage of small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. One grenade pierced the engine of Dawn's vehicle before it burst immediately next to her, leaving her right arm hanging by a piece of skin and a few tendons. Dazed and covered with blood, Dawn still managed to order the driver to flee before lapsing into a coma that lasted twelve days. She awoke as a patient in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in terrible shape: besides burns and lacerations, Dawn suffered 5 broken ribs, a shattered shoulder blade and a deadly infection that almost took her life, and eventually led to the amputation of her right arm. For her heroism, she was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
During her recovery, as Dawn began to realize the military career she had desperately wanted since the first day she entered the United States Military Academy at West Point was over, she worried about "losing a sense of purpose.":
I really loved what I was doing. To me the military was a dream job with so much of my life and my identity wrapped up in it. So I was fiercely determined to stay connected to the fellow soldiers I had left behind on the battlefield.
     Like a good soldier, she switched into survival mode and began to plan the outlines of a consulting business to help the military to seek out new technologies that could save lives or at least lessen injuries, a career path she calls "the next best thing." After working out of her basement for a year, Dawn landed a contract with the Department of Defense, specifically the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, where she led projects researching various technologies ranging from nanotechnology that could make lighter weight body armor to advanced medical devices, such as creating miniature ventilators for use directly in the battlefield to help prevent brain damage from serious injuries.
      When she began to see the growth potential for her consulting business, Dawn headed back to school to acquire an M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University. Her company, Halfaker and Associates, was officially launched in 2006. Located in Arlington, Va, the company provides help with security policy, physical security management services for military bases, administrative and technical support and training. Currently Halfaker and Associates has over 120 employees. For 2010, it expects to post revenues of more than $15 million from services provided to over 20 major clients, mostly governmental agencies. Her biggest client remains the Department of Defense for which her team is currently analyzing how the intelligence data gathered from a variety of sources affects the army and its decision makers as they develop policies and strategies.
      Another major client is the Department of Homeland Security for which the Halfaker and Associates team offers solutions in the areas of force protection, antiterrorism, emergency management and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high yield explosive (CBRN) defense. Soon after Dawn launched her business, the economy began to slide. One consequence was that "we got a whole new slew of competitors who began to chase lucrative government contracts for the first time since their former clients were slashing budgets because of the recession." Her solution was "to continue to seek out exceptional talent so we can offer our clients the best services possible."
     As part of her plans for long term growth, 31-year old Dawn Halfaker plans to adopt her company services to the needs of commercial clients for whom she sees rising demand in all areas of security; she also offers in depth capabilities in information technology solutions to help clients with a variety of business problems from website designs to software integration to data management. Currently she spends most of her time on strategic planning and maintaining essential relationships by planning quarterly visits to the sites of her twenty most active programs. She also attends industry events because "you can't get new business if you don't put yourself out there."
     Recently, Dawn was selected as one of the winners in the 2010 Winning Women program, sponsored by Ernst and Young. Her reward was participation in a 5-day strategic growth forum that brought together 1700 business leaders in Palm Spring in early November. The experience, she said, "made me realized I was pigeon-holed; the blinders were removed as I began to see that there are opportunities everywhere. I developed a much better understanding of how to access the resources I need; it also gave me the ability to understand how to navigate the obstacles we face as I look at my strategic plan for growth." She also loved the networking with the other winning women which "became the kind of sorority I never had at West Point."
Since the growth forum coincided with Veteran's Day, Dawn was unexpectedly invited to the stage by the forum leaders to share her combat story. The audience responded with a standing ovation in honor of her courage and determination to accomplish her "next best thing": running a successful company.

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