Before they are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, many U.S. troops get a cultural crash course from Lexicon. The El Cajon, California-based company provides translators and interpreters for the military, helps create military training sites designed to look like Middle Eastern villages, and provides native speakers to act out various roles in those villages. CEO Jamie Latshaw, a West Point graduate who spent eight years in the Army, founded Lexicon in 2005 with her husband, Leroy, a retired Army helicopter pilot who recently started his own company. Lexicon, which has 50 full-time employees and annual revenue of $14 million, landed in the No. 4 spot on last year's Inc. 500, with three-year growth of more than 14,000 percent.
Although the company has two offices—one in El Cajon and the other in Vienna, Virginia—Latshaw, 35, works from her home in Stevenson Ranch, California. The arrangement lets her spend more time with her two children, James, 4, and Leah, 1. During the day, Latshaw schedules conference calls around trips to preschool. She often works late into the night, writing proposals so the company can land more government contracts.
I feel so blessed that I am able to stay home and be with my kids every day, even though they're constantly barging into the office while I'm working and spilling juice on my laptop. It's nice to be able to stop what I'm doing and help with a puzzle or look at an art project my son wants to show off. I know there will come a day when I will wish they were taking my hand, wanting me to play.
In the morning, I basically have a human alarm clock. Around 7 a.m., I hear Leah calling, "Mommy!" through the baby monitor. My husband, Leroy, meanwhile, has usually been up since 5 a.m. and had three conference calls by then. He recently launched his own company, GT Training, which handles tactical training for the military.
Leroy spends most of the day on the phone. He and I share a small home office, with two desks back to back. The bulk of my work is writing proposals for government contracts, so I need quiet. Leroy travels a lot, but when he's home, I often have to move to the dining room table, because he's so loud.
He and I were both Army officers when we met. During a rare break from the action, we played in a volleyball tournament. Leroy, who was one of the team captains, said, "I'll take the tall girl." I'm 5 foot 11—I played basketball at West Point. We've been together ever since.
We have a babysitter, Carmen Arias, who comes over Monday through Thursday, so I can get some work done. My parents help out sometimes, too. I'm usually still in my pajamas when Carmen arrives at 8:30. I take James to preschool three days a week. It starts at 9. I'm often late and show up wearing yoga pants. Then I get back to work.
At Lexicon, we typically have four or five contracts going on at once, usually at military bases around the country or on the other side of the world. Since our employees are spread out, I have several conference calls throughout the week to make sure everyone's on the same page.
Depending on the mission, our linguists typically act as translators and interpreters or, through role playing and training, instruct the military on the culture and the language of the country to which the troops are being deployed. We may send, say, 50 linguists with secret or top-secret security clearances to Iraq or Afghanistan to work with the military as interpreters. One of the other things we do is help create mock villages that the military uses for training. Our goal is to make the most realistic scenario, so soldiers feel as if they are in Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, we hear from soldiers all the time that it is just like being there.
We have a contract now with Marsoc, the Marine Corps Special Operations Command. For that contract, we provide three to five training exercises a year. We just finished a rotation at Fort Polk, Louisiana, where we provided 186 role players who acted as Afghan shopkeepers, tribal leaders, members of the Afghan National Army, and insurgents. Our set dressers made the village feel realistic, down to the meat hanging in the market and the license plates on the vehicles. We also did pyrotechnics—simulated improvised explosive devices inside vehicles and houses—and provided the insurgents and the Afghan police force with AK 47s loaded with blanks. For this exercise, we also did simulated combat wounds, so the medics could practice treating battlefield injuries.
After we started having kids, I wanted to become less involved in daily operations of the business. That meant finding the best possible people and trusting them to do their jobs. I hired Terry Sharp, our chief operating officer, and Todd Gould, our vice president of operations. They both had long careers in the military. I check in with them regularly, but they're the ones who make sure everything runs smoothly.
Working at home, I feel guilty all the time. Sometimes I feel like I am not spending enough time with our leadership staff and employees. Other times, I feel guilty about being cooped up in my office when Leah is pounding on the door. Plus, a lot of times I'll be groggy because I worked all night, and I'll feel terrible that I am not as present for my kids as I could be. Sometimes I miss being more involved in day-to-day operations.
I visit our El Cajon office about once a month, just to say hello. It's near San Diego, about 170 miles south of where I live. In that office, we have 30 employees, including four recruiters, all of whom are either Iraqi or Afghan. We opened an office there because El Cajon has one of the largest Iraqi-American populations in the United States. Our recruiters are deeply embedded in the Arab and Afghan communities. Our HR director, Saif Alchi, is a former role player. We always try to promote from within—a lot of the directors and managers started as role players. Before we hire anyone, we have to conduct very intensive background checks.
We hired a director of security, Jackie Keith, to oversee that process. The Department of Homeland Security is heavily involved. We have to dig deeply into each linguist's personal and family history. We'll ask for addresses of all the places the person has lived, worked, and gone to school for the past 10 years. We'll ask for phone numbers and addresses of relatives and friends. We'll check into the person's financial and criminal history. Any blemish—an arrest, a bankruptcy, a bad check—can get a linguist disqualified, especially for positions that require secret and top-secret clearance.
I talk with Bruce Greene, our CFO, once or twice a day. He has been doing government contracts for 30 years. He does most of the costing—figuring out how much we would need to charge for, say, hiring 150 linguists and delivering them to a military base. Bruce lives nearby, so we meet once a week to go over the financials.
Bruce and I are always talking about how to improve the numbers. The answer always is the same: We need more contracts. It's hard to get the long-term ones, the kind that last for a year or more. We have about three of those right now. Our goal is to get more. Instead, we get a lot of last-minute requests from government groups that need, say, 100 people next week.
We discuss ways to cut costs. Instead of renting, we recently started buying equipment—uniforms, pyrotechnics, trucks, weapons, and tribal gear. Over time, that should save us a lot.
Every Tuesday, I have a big conference call with about 15 or 20 people, including our COO, CFO, VP, and every site manager involved in a current operation. We spend 45 minutes comparing notes.
When we're working on a proposal, I'll have a conference call twice a week with everyone working on the project. We'll discuss whom we would need to recruit if we got the contract—say, people who speak Pashto, one of the native languages of Afghanistan—and what sort of equipment we would need. Then we'll figure out the cost and discuss what sort of issues might come up and what strategies we would need to employ.
For contracts, we have to scope out the competitio—being in the industry, we hear things. We also subscribe to a site called Input that gives us intelligence about the different contracts coming out and who is competing for them. A lot of times, the big defense contract companies approach us, wanting to team up on a proposal, because there are quotas—a certain number of contracts are supposed to go to small businesses, woman-owned businesses, and businesses owned by service-disabled veterans.
I spend a lot of time working on proposals. On average, we submit 30 a year. Depending on the scope of the project, the proposals might be 30 to 500 pages long and take from a few days to six months to complete. For each, we have to submit our operational or technical approach—how would we go about completing that mission in detail. In the beginning, we made the mistake of offering to do more than was laid out in the requests for proposal. We never won those contracts, because the government assumed we would charge more for all the extras.
We work with a proposal development company on big, unwieldy proposals, because there are usually several volumes to submit. My team and I write all of the technical parts and then submit those to the company, which organizes the project and makes sure we adhere to the guidelines laid out in the RFP. With big proposals, we have a lot of people writing different sections, and the company helps us make sure that the information and terminology are consistent throughout.
After the proposal is finally pieced together, I'm ultimately responsible for making sure the finished product is polished and grammatically correct, and that we're accurately conveying what sets us apart from the competition. Proposals are typically awarded based on cost—the lowest bidder wins. But past performance and experience are also key. We always have to submit proof that we know what we're doing.
At some point in the afternoon, usually around 2 p.m., Carmen usually pops her head into my office and says, "Are you going to eat?" I'm on a gluten-free diet. I'm trying a holistic approach to treating my rheumatoid arthritis. It got really bad after Leah was born. It was very painful to pick her up or open a jar—let alone type. It was awful. Giving up beer has been the most difficult thing. But I'm starting to feel better, so I'm going to stick with it.
After Carmen leaves at 4:30, I stop work and focus on my kids. We go to the park or play in the backyard. At about 6, I make dinner. Then I give the kids a bath and read them some books. After I put the kids to bed, that's when my workday really starts.
While I work, I need it to be completely silent. Any little distraction throws me off. That's why I like working at night. No phones ringing, no TV, no surprise FedEx deliveries totally throwing me off my game. If the baby cries, it takes me an hour to get back to work—and remember what I was working on in the first place.
In the evenings, I answer e-mail, edit and write contract proposals, and work on the website, usually until 1 or 2 a.m. If we have a proposal deadline, I sometimes stay up all night and start over again in the morning. It's not the ideal sleep schedule, but it works for us.