Women of the C-Suite: “Shake it off; Failure is part of the process,” With Katie Bigelow of Mettle Ops

Shake it off. Failure is part of the process. The difference between people who reach their goals and people who don’t is the willingness to push beyond failures. As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Bigelow. Katie started Mettle Ops in 2013 with a plan to […]

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Shake it off. Failure is part of the process. The difference between people who reach their goals and people who don’t is the willingness to push beyond failures.

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Bigelow.

Katie started Mettle Ops in 2013 with a plan to make an impact for the warfighter. She is a former Army aviator with experience in leadership and wartime operations. She completed four overseas tours including Korea, Bosnia, and two year-long tours in Iraq. Katie started her army career as an enlisted, Arabic linguist but spent the bulk of her time as a warrant officer and most notably a medical evacuation pilot.

Mettle Ops has won nine contracts since its start and currently has three large customers including a prime government contract. Mettle Ops’ primary competencies are program management, engineering, and business development. For the government contract, Mettle Ops partners with the Army to research and develop materials and solutions to increase soldier survivability on the battlefield.

The Bigelow family motto is “Never Give Up”. Katie and her husband, Mark, raise their own army of seven (soon to be eight) children in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Mettle Ops allows Mark and Katie to be passionate about their profession and the flexibility to be passionate about their children.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Myoriginal goal was to be warfighters serving warfighters. I am a combat veteran. When I was deciding what I wanted to do once I left the military, I knew I wanted to give back to the soldiers. When I first set out to build my business, I was not sure what direction we were going to go in, but we settled into a natural rhythm. As my business grew, my husband decided to leave his job and join me. That is where the “Warfighters Serving Warfighters” really bloomed. My husband is a retired Army officer and naturally shared my vision. Right now, we are focused on ground vehicle survivability. We work with CCDC (formerly TARDEC) in the ground vehicle survivability office in prototyping armored applications for the new Army ground vehicles.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I was invited to a NAVOBA event as a nominee for woman veteran entrepreneur of the year. We were on a dinner cruise around the Baltimore coastline. I didn’t bring anyone and didn’t know anyone there. It was such an intimidating scenario. When I embarked, I found a seat and introduced myself to the ladies nearby. The moderator briefed me on the evening. I would be getting my award and given five minutes to pitch my company. I was completely unprepared to speak and felt a little like having a heart attack! Another business owner close by jumped in with her advice, “Get up there! And pitch the hell out of them!”

At the same time, I discovered that Vernice Armour was the keynote speaker. I am one of her 500+ connections on LinkedIn, and I know that her nickname is FlyGirl. She’s a former Army pilot like myself. I introduced myself and discovered that she and I were flying in Iraq at the same time.

For the pitch, I reviewed my notes from a previous speaking engagement and went for it. I was pitching to diversity suppliers from major corporations as well as other veteran women business owners. Vernice was in the front row cheering me on, literally! Within a minute the whole boat was screaming and encouraging our business success. It was an amazing experience that was completely outside of my comfort zone but a tremendous honor, nonetheless.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

As a company leader, nothing is funny when you make a mistake. My team is counting on me to connect the dots and avoid mistakes. A lighthearted mistake I made was speaking at on IOT conference and completely forgetting to connect IOT with the platform we were currently marketing. The connection was there, but I didn’t communicate it and confused a large room full of people. The lesson wasmknow your audience and ensure your message speaks to them specifically.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company stands out in our industry for several reasons. The barriers to entry in the defense market are really high. Our successes have always been as the underdog. I am an Army warfighter and take that spirit of ‘never give up’ into everything I do. We are tenacious and lose 100 times for every win, but we are gaining traction. People are noticing that a company can break in and line up with the big dogs.

We recently attended an Industry 4.0 trade show with breakout sessions for many industries. Naturally, we signed up to attend the defense breakout sessions, and we were late to the first one. My hopes of sneaking in the back were dashed when we walked in and the only seats available were right up front. Before I could formulate a plan, the speaker stopped his speech and welcomed me and my VP by name and invited us to the front to sit down. I didn’t even know who he was. It was such an honor to walk into a room filled with people from our industry and be recognized.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are always working on new projects. We have a handful of amazing teaming partners that are developing amazing technology to benefit the warfighter. Our role is to come alongside and support them in making the connection between the warfighter and their technology. We have innovations in mobility, lightweighting, and augmented/virtual reality that will enable our battlefield soldiers to have the advantage.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Leadership is about the people and a common goal. People are the most important asset to an organization. A leader gives them a collective vision to aim for and facilitates the effort to get there. People want to be inspired. They want their day, their jobs, their lives to have purpose and meaning. A leader helps them find meaning in their workplace. A group of people with a collective goal need a leader to facilitate that goal. This can mean removing barriers to success, providing a clear path to goal achievement, encouraging efforts, and celebrating successes.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Women lead in a different way than men. While both have unique inherent qualities, women have been underestimated for their ability to lead. Women tend to show compassion and connection. These are tremendous qualities for a leader and the fastest way to collaboration.

Do not feel that you need to pretend to be a man to be a great leader. While many men have great qualities and make great leaders, it’s not the only way.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My husband, Mark, is my biggest champion. He pushed me to start my business when he knew it was still just a big dream. He quit his job to come alongside me and become my first employee. He’s been all-in from the start. His expertise is an important part of the business, but he rarely takes credit for his contribution. Instead, he proudly backs me.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We do two things to help our community beyond research and development in soldier survivability. The first is raising money for our school’s robotics team. We have 7 teams and all the funds and equipment have been provided through our fundraising efforts. The second is my role on the Refuge for Nations board. Refuge for Nations is a non-profit that aims to grow employment opportunities for refugee and immigrant women who may not immediately thrive in traditional work settings through strategic partnerships with the greater community.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

Don’t be embarrassed to get help. Trying to “do it all” often means you are mediocre at everything. Pick the things you are best at and get help for all the rest.

Shake it off. Failure is part of the process. The difference between people who reach their goals and people who don’t is the willingness to push beyond failures.

Know your talents. Respect other’s talents and don’t compare yourselves. My nanny is amazing. When she’s in charge our seven children are calm, fed, have finished their homework, practiced their music, and the house is tidy. When I’m in charge, things aren’t nearly so smooth. If I compared myself to her in that regard, I would feel like a failure. Instead, I love her for what she brings to our family. In return, she loves her job and spoils us. When we have confidence in our own strengths, we are all happy.

Business relationships don’t last forever. Have a hard exit strategy in place when the relationship begins.

Don’t waste time on toxic people. Be kind always, but don’t invest in relationships with people who are draining.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Hire people if you have the means. I recently read a book about a very poor African nation that has no public welfare system. People with decent incomes are expected to hire other people to help with cooking, cleaning, yard care, etc. This cultural expectation creates jobs for those that couldn’t otherwise find employment.

As a culture, we put pressure on women to “do it all”. This mentality is oppressive and unrealistic. What if, instead, we provided jobs to people so that we don’t have to “do it all”? It may mean shorter vacations or less fancy cars, but wouldn’t it be worth it if you lived a life without unrealistic expectations and still accomplished everything needed?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Never Give Up

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