When is a woman-led company not a woman-led company? When it's used as a front for getting government contracts, that's when. How one woman fought to be more than just a figurehead

In 1994 my company, Mevatec, was recognized by Hispanic Business magazine as the fastest-growing Hispanic-owned high-technology company and made the Inc. 500 list as the 43rd fastest-growing small business in the country. Our team has won many awards and recognition for our expertise, which is in providing a full range of engineering services, including the designing and building of electronic hardware systems. We have been hailed as a creative organization of scientists and engineers who apply insight and advanced technologies to meet technical challenges facing government and industry.

All of that has occurred under my watch over the past 10 years. But the beginning of Mevatec was very different. When the company was founded, in 1985, I was one of four cofounders who believed that a $1,000 personal investment and a key employee/consultant who knew everything there was to know about circuit boards and doing business with the government were all we needed to start a successful company. What soon became evident, however, was the consultant's intent to have me hold the title of president and serve as nothing more than a front to qualify the company for lucrative government contracts. Though not a founder, he had come up with the idea for the company and did not plan on my involvement in any of the major business decisions.

There is no doubt that he thought a minority woman who owned and operated an insurance agency, and who knew nothing about circuit boards, would be easy to manipulate. (At the time, I didn't know what a circuit board was.) What he didn't count on was my avid concern over the fact that, in addition to putting in $1,000, I had signed on a line of credit as part of my initial investment and I was adamant about knowing how the money was to be spent.

After some time my frustration intensified as the consultant became irritated each time I asked what I believed were relevant operational and managerial questions. It seemed to me that the company was spending too much money and lacked a clear focus. One day he became very angry and told me that if I thought I could run the company better, I should. At our next board meeting I surprised everyone by recommending that we let the consultant go. The board agreed. And within the space of a year, I was the only founder left.

Freed to run the company I was picked to run only ostensibly, I went to work developing an intensive marketing plan and a business infrastructure to support it. Soon we won our first contract, modifying circuit assemblies for a large electronics manufacturer. We also landed a navy contract and a major contract to build circuit boards for a satellite-linked communications pager. From there, the rest is more or less history. We have hit some bumps -- some you could actually call washouts -- on the road to success. The company has grown and continues to do so despite having many customers in the defense industry in an era of shrinking revenues. Much of our growth has come from our participation in programs established for the express purpose of providing opportunities to women and minorities in business.

The public-sector markets offer those opportunities to woman-owned businesses to help them build a business base and become prepared to enter the competitive private-sector markets. I fully support those programs as basic steps to correct years of discrimination. But to endorse the programs does not mean that I endorse the practice of assigning women as figureheads so companies can receive such contracts.

It has been my personal experience that many public-sector contracting officers view a woman company owner as a front for her husband or another man who wants to take advantage of the set-aside opportunities provided by the federal government. The implication is that a woman is not smart enough to run a business or is allowing herself to be just that -- a front. Unfortunately, I find far too many cases in which a woman has allowed herself to put her name and gender on the line for someone else's benefit. Many find that acceptable. I don't.

The number of women in business is growing, and I am proud to say that we are beginning to be recognized as a viable market force. When I meet the many women who are out there running their own businesses, doing good quality work, meeting the day-to-day challenges, and setting high standards of integrity and honesty, I consider it an honor to be counted as a woman in business.

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Nancy Archuleta is the president and CEO of Mevatec Corp., a $17-million technology company in Huntsville, Ala.