Whether or not you’re interested in entrepreneurship, you MUST listen to this episode. Yolanda has such a fascinating way of viewing and explaining the world of entrepreneurship. She also gives some of the best networking advice I’ve ever heard in over 300 episodes to date. As both a Veteran and a military spouse, she approaches the concept of entrepreneurship from a variety of angles, and I found this interview to be a real “knuckle burner” of an episode. I loved our conversation and hope you will too.
Yolanda Clarke is the CEO of Powder River Industries, which focuses on the management and technical needs of the U.S. Government. She served in the Army as an Intelligence Officer, worked at Lockheed Martin for over 12 years, serves as City Leader for Bunker Labs San Diego, is the Co-founder of a DEF chapter in Monterey, is a military spouse, and is in the Army Reserves.
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Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining me today from San Diego is Yolanda Clarke. Yolanda Clarke is the CEO of Powder River Industries, which focuses on the management and technical needs of the U.S. Government. She served in the Army as an Intelligence Officer, worked at Lockheed Martin for over 12 years, serves as City Leader for Bunker Labs San Diego, is the Co-founder of a DEF chapter in Monterey, is a military spouse, and is in the Army Reserves.
How do you describe what you do for a living?
Powder River Industries sells hardware, software, and communications accessories. We enable communication for the US government. That can be anything from ship-to-ship communications to welfare calls from service members overseas.
We support hardware frameworks, baseline infrastructure, and the software that goes along with each of those.
Why did you start Power River Industries?
I’ve always been fascinated by communication across people and cultures. I wanted to enable people to better understand each other.
I’m drawn to the technical aspects of communication, especially across continents. For example, everybody wants to avoid a nuclear missile strike. In order to come up with cross-culture agreements, there needs to be a lot of communication across countries and continents.
How did you realize there was a need for this in this space?
It started in a very academic way. When I was enlisted, I was a medic. That exposed me to people of all career fields. I heard a lot of great stories but it was the guys in the communication field that were really making the mission happen. They bought teams 15 extra seconds to get from one place to another in order to avoid getting blown up. So when I had the opportunity to go to school, I wanted to study communication.
When I was at Lockheed, I learned about the challenges small businesses face in getting contracts with the federal government. There’s a mandate that 23% of federal contracts must go to small businesses. So while I was putting together solutions to major problems at Lockheed, we would need to include considerations for small businesses that we could use to help us in solving those issues. I realized that it was difficult for small businesses to keep up with the specific demands and timelines of government contracts. That gave me the motivation to start my own company that was focused on supporting larger companies that were being awarded government contracts.
Had you always wanted to start a company?
It was kind of like watching a glacier move - pretty dramatic but slow. I knew that I had this fire to do something. But I wasn’t sure what that was. There were a lot of opportunities at Lockheed and I know I was able to make an impact there.
I think it was the military spouse narrative that really triggered me. I married an active duty Marine so that made my job options a bit difficult. I was getting credentials and experiences but that wasn’t necessarily getting me further in my career. At a certain point, I had to consider the amount of energy I was putting in versus what I was getting out. That’s when I made the leap into entrepreneurship.
How did you get your business going?
For years leading up to starting the business, I had been writing a business plan to make sure I was really ready. Day 1 was when I started to really execute on what was in the plan.
I started the business in 2016 and we’ve moved three times since then. When we find ourselves in a new location, I schedule meetings with small business groups in that area and just start digging in to making new connections that will benefit the company. With three years in now, I’m starting to lean more into small business development centers.
How are you able to make connections so easily?
I’m 100% an introvert so it’s not in my nature to just throw myself out there. For me, having a plan and knowing my goals is key. I want to be very clear on exactly what resources I need. That gives me more specific talking points when I’m meeting with someone.
When I first got going, I would meet at my Procurement Technical Assistance Center once a week to assess the state of my business. The PTAC also offered various classes in accounting and other skills.
The Small Business Administration and other organizations like that are there for you as well. Their door is open to help you grow as a business.
At networking events, I go in knowing exactly who will be there. A lot of times, I’ll write a note to someone there that I want to make a connection with. Frequently at the event that person is surrounded by many different people. I’ll find not the person themself but a friend of theirs at the event. I’ll have a conversation with the friend and ask them to give the note to the person after the event. I’ve found that to be more impactful.
How was the first sale you made?
During the first couple weeks we were in business, I met with someone that was very interested in our products. Within our space, you always win not from working alone but rather from as part of a team. So we ended up working on a project together.
How did you reach out to others for help?
When I was younger, I had great mentors and guidance. During my time at Lockheed, I made some amazing contacts and taught me what it meant to be a leader in this industry.
Since we’ve been in business, I’ve pivoted two or three times. My mentors have been watching us and reach out to me to offer advice for the way forward.
I also used my mentors to help fill gaps that I had. I’m not an expert, but I was able to fill those gaps which has allowed me to build the business and prepare us for bigger things.
How many government contracts did you go after before you won your first one?
Initially, I was doing a lot of traveling because my husband was stationed on the west coast but most of my network was on the East Coast. Eventually I began to build more of a network on the West Coast which allowed me to travel less.
I set a goal for myself to bid on 10 government contracts a month. I bid on projects all across the federal government. One month I bid on 17 projects. I lost so many projects. But on projects that you lose, you can request a debriefing. Those debriefings helped me gain information about exactly what these groups were looking for. Through that each of my bids got more and more competitive. I bid on 175 projects before I won my first one.
How long was it until your company was profitable?
I was saving for many years before I started the business. That savings helped us get through the major change that came when I first started the business.
Technically we could have been profitable sooner but because we are in a highly regulated environment, I’ve chosen to invest a lot of our profit back into the business. I’m hopeful that that will allow us to grow at a faster rate.
For someone that wants to start their own business, do you recommend getting an MBA or just starting the business?
It depends on your situation. Some people have a partner and in that case it may make more sense to get an MBA. Other people will have the infrastructure and support around them to be able to start the business right away. You have to have a strong sense of why you’re doing what you’re doing.
I don’t think you need an MBA. There’s not much in an MBA program that is directly applicable to the early stages of starting a business. But it can be an important credential. It will also give you additional confidence.
You’re still in the Reserves. How did you make that decision?
The Army Reserves offers many different options. Right now I’m inactive because of the demands of my husband’s career. I’m pretty choosy about selecting a unit. I need to be around people that I really care about. And then at that point, it just feels like going back home.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?
Have a plan but be flexible in your plan. Be able to adapt to your conditions. Don’t be so fixated on your plan that you miss opportunities. I think about building a sniper position. That position will give you a strong foundation and will also allow you to look out for opportunities that may come up.