After attending high school in Frankfort, Kentucky, Angie Lienert was too independent-minded to go to college, or even to hack working at a local factory. One day, on a break from her job at a gas station, she grabbed a chili dog and a cigarette and met up at a picnic table with some friends who were home from college. "That's when it dawned on me: This is my life. My entire life is working at a gas station, eating a chili dog," she says. She was 19.

Lienert's chili-dog epiphany would ultimately beget IntelliGenesis, a big-data analytics and cybersecurity firm whose biggest customer is the Department of Defense. IntelliGenesis has made mission-driven government contracting--defend your country, earn a good living--a powerful enough concept to support offices in Maryland and Georgia, with a third, in San Antonio, on the horizon.

That ethos, and the workplace Lienert created, has also made IntelliGenesis a magnet for

veterans and their families. "Everything we do--the work we go after, the benefits we offer, the events we hold--we try not to deviate from our core values," she says. "We don't want to work with just anyone. We want to leave the world better than we found it."

That journey to do so began at chili-dog day plus one, when Lienert phoned an Air Force recruitment office. Within a month, she'd shipped out to basic training and then on to California to study Arabic. She picked the Air Force at her father's recommendation and Arabic because she blanked on dad's recommendation to choose Korean. From 1993 to 1999, she served as a linguist for the USAF. She subsequently earned an MBA and took a job at BAE Systems, the British defense contractor, where she was a project manager for technology systems for the U.S. intelligence community. She and nine colleagues set off on their own in 2007, wanting to build a workplace with transparency, a moral compass, and "a culture where we wanted to work every day," she says.

The new company specialized in developing software that auto­mated analytics used by the DOD, and launched as a contractor based in Columbia, Maryland. As the company grew, it took on more big-data analytics, which help make intelligence out of troves of data for the U.S. military. Lienert's explain-it-like-I'm-5 pitch for all this is: "We help the good guys catch the bad guys." 

And within that phrase is the company's moral compass. She envisions Intelli­Genesis as the computer engineering superpower behind "the good guys." While it has been on a push to diversify its client list in recent years, including digital forensics, machine learning, and cyber­security for utility-control systems, Lienert says Intelli­Genesis won't pursue a contract with a company or government entity she believes isn't doing good in the world. The work is highly challenging--some 95 percent of employees have government security clearance, and many often work offsite (a few work way offsite).

Don't look for startup trappings such as Ping-Pong tables or beanbag chairs at IntelliGenesis's offices--grownups work here. Lienert instead offers substantial, top-shelf benefits to ensure her workers' families are well supported. She's strived to make sure benefits aren't redundant with those carried by the 65 percent of her workforce who are veterans. Those who opt out of the company's health benefits because of their continuing military benefits get a $10,000 annual bonus. IntelliGenesis also offers unlimited education-expense reimbursement--which can be used in tandem with G.I. Bill benefits.

Stephen Scarbrough, a senior analyst who leads a team of data scientists, had 20 years in the Navy when he met Lienert. He retired in a snap and joined the outfit, which he describes not as colleagues but as "teammates" or "family." Makes sense, as the company's frequent parties cater to employees' full families. Most recently, Intelli­Genesis rented out a movie theater for a private screening of Avengers: Endgame, a nod to the company's "catch the bad guys" mission. That same weekend some employees also participated in a 5k run; others got tickets to Hersheypark for their families.

IntelliGenesis, Lienert says, won't pursue a contract with a company she believes isn't doing good in the world.

The biggest annual bash is the combined kids' and adults' holiday parties. There are buses full of video games for the kids and a magician. The adult party has world-class catering and casino games. "It's such a fun party," Lienert says, that it goes into overtime. "I have to have an after­party." She may have topped herself when, to celebrate the company's 10th anniversary, in October 2017, she flew the entire crew, along with spouses or partners, to Cancún for a long weekend.

Scarbrough says his own kids, who have grown up while he's worked there, love the company's season tickets to the Philadelphia Flyers and Baltimore Orioles--and one of his sons, who is studying national security at Penn State, accepted an internship at the company this summer. But Scarbrough's favorite benefit isn't a benefit at all. It's Lienert. "Working with Angie, I know I'll never be bored," he says. "She brings challenges to us all the time. She challenges anyone."

Spread Out But Keeping the Culture Tight

As a government contractor divided between two HQs, and with a lot of its workforce embedded within the Department of Defense, Intelli­Genesis has faced challenges in building a strong company culture. But its playbook stresses the basics: strong, deliberate communication, plenty of online chitchat--and killer parties.

Put down roots before you arrive
In 2012, while pursuing a military contract in Georgia, Lienert took a leap of faith. She planned an office in Augusta, Georgia, home to the U.S. Cyber Command at Fort Gordon and 600 miles from Intelli­Genesis's headquarters in Maryland. She knew the territory--she'd met and married her husband and co-founder at Fort Gordon­--but the company hadn't actually won a local contract.

Still, IntelliGenesis began laying down roots, developing a presence in the community while scouting locations. Lienert met with local organizations, including veterans' groups, technology organizations, and the local chamber of commerce and eco­nomic development corporation. IntelliGenesis began supporting the local military transition assistance program, known as TAP, and Soldier for Life, another nonprofit. This was part foundation-building, part ensuring the company would be able to staff locally should Lienert win a contract.

Today, IntelliGenesis has 16 employees in Augusta--including one in the state-owned Georgia Cyber Center downtown. As in Maryland, team members are spread out with various clients. Lienert has deliberately bridged the distance between the two offices. She flies to Georgia quarterly and sends out a monthly companywide newsletter with birthdays, anniversaries, milestones, and news. She hosts breakfasts with groups of employees offsite, at the offices of clients, so employees who work together get to know one another--and have regular face time with their boss. "It's important they can get the feel for the larger scope of the company," Lienert says. "And just to make sure that they see my face and I can build that rapport."

Chatrooms are the new break rooms
Corporate training is frequent, and mostly virtual, over Skype, and employees gather, all day, in various chatrooms, which Lienert describes as a mix of "problem-solving, networking, and chitchat."

Each office has a big gathering roughly once a month--a dinner or a movie screening or a family-friendly sporting event. "We coordinate it so that no matter where employees are, we make sure they have access to that," Lienert says. The lone employee in Alaska gets flown in for major events--like the epic holiday party--and for important meetings.

Next up: San Antonio. IntelliGenesis has one employee there already, and more are eager to relocate. This time, Lienert won a piece of business before opening the office.

From the June 2019 issue of Inc. Magazine