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Students vs. Startups Ep 28: How to Overcome Challenges of a Woman-Owned Business

Students vs. Startups Ep 28: How to Overcome Challenges of a Woman-Owned Business


Featuring Rae International

Read Time: 15 Minutes

Welcome to Episode 28 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with Emily Rae, the founder of Rae International. With the use of political and commercial diplomacy, Rae International helps introduce clients across different sectors. Read below to learn more about the services Rae International has to offer as well as how they create successful introductions between clients.


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John Gilroy: Welcome to Students vs Startups showdown in the Potomac. My name's John Gilroy. I'll be your moderator today. Hey, a big round of applause for show number 28. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! We know by that opening what's going on here.

We have stolen a room at the Eastern Foundry and we have an audio guy at the end of the table. We have three students on one side of the table, a startup at the other. We have a little conversation, lasts about 26 minutes. We all walk out of here and go the local whiskey bar or I don't know what's going to happen.

Our students are all three from Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. Two are graduates. One is a wannabe graduate. Our first wannabe is going to be Kevin Uffelman. A little bit about your background please, Kevin.

Kevin Uffelman: Thanks, John. Kevin Uffelman, obtaining a degree.

John Gilroy: You can't say wannabe. Obtaining sounds much better.

Kevin Uffelman: In systems engineering management. I work in strategy and product management for federal customers for a company called Engility.

John Gilroy: Madeline finished, I think, a year ago. Right?

Madeline: Yes, I did. I graduated in May 2016 with my Master's.

John Gilroy: Madeline Tomchick, what company do you work for and what do you folks do?

Madeline: I work in AIS. We are an application development company. My job is to solely keep up with Microsoft and keep our relationship going there.

John Gilroy: Your company's been around since 1985 or something?

Madeline: It has. It's been over 35 years.

John Gilroy: Before I was born. It's incredible.

Madeline: Exactly. It's amazing.

John Gilroy: It's hard to believe. Greg Forman. You're back, I'm pleased, and your fancy pants degree from last week.

Greg Forman: Yeah. I just last Friday graduated from the Georgetown University with a systems engineering Master's. I work for the MITRE Corporation and do acquisition support for the government.

John Gilroy: Your undergrad degree is in finance.

Greg Forman: Right.

John Gilroy: Combining with systems engineering, so you should have a lot of good questions for Emily here, shouldn't you?

Greg Forman: That'd be good.

John Gilroy: Our startup is represented by Emily Rae. R-A-E. Her company name is Rae International. I have to tell you the truth, when I first met Emily, I walked up to her and said, "Where are you from?" She said, "I'm from Washington and I'm from Washington." I'm all confused. Maybe you can explain that, Emily. It's confusing.

Emily Rae: Sure. I think the last time we talked about this, I'm from two Washingtons, originally from Seattle, Washington. It's great to talk to students today because I've been reminiscing about my student experience.

I actually moved from Washington State with two suitcases and $500 in my pocket and no connections to DC when I was a student. I remember my parents looking at me at the airport with this look of bewilderment. I think they were taking bets to see who'd be right as to how soon I'd move back, but no, I've enjoyed being in Washington, DC. I've started calling it home more frequently.

I still harken back to Seattle, but when I came out here, I focused on two primary passions. One was the field of law. I was very compelled to move out to DC like many liberal art students inevitably choose. The field of law is the most noble profession.

I was also very keen on the public administration field. I ended up doing both degrees when I was out here. There were many Saturday nights I regretted that decision studying so much, but it's ended up paying off all in my company today.

John Gilroy: That's not the only place where you've studied.

Emily Rae: I actually studied in the UK for a time, which I think your previous podcast actually had someone from the UK as well. It gives me an opportunity to build connections and come back and use this for my business today.

John Gilroy: We had three from Georgetown versus one from Oxford. We have a real battle here today?

Emily Rae: Georgetown's very respectable, John.

John Gilroy: I'll have to ask you the question I ask everyone. Tell me Emily, what business problem does your company solve?

Emily Rae:

"We do what we call political and commercial diplomacy."- Emily Rae, CEO & Founder of Rae International

We like to introduce businesses to folks in the federal space. Likewise, we have clients who are either in the United States or internationally in the federal space who are interested in expanding the sectors of their society. It could be the finance sector. It would be the legal sector. We help make those introductions.

We also have three spinoffs service offerings that we have. We do international management consultancy where we'll help them drive the solution in their company or into the government once we make those connections happen.

We also just do fun diplomatic engagements. We have office at the Willard and that's probably the best part of what we do is bringing some great diplomatic core folks to DC and entertaining them and having great dinners.

Then, we've gotten also more into the product delivery side with IT because I think anymore it's essential to solving our clients' problems. We like to connect people, make them successful, and then keep track of how they're doing.

John Gilroy: I watching Greg when you said dinner, his eyes light up. You said these dinners. Hey, what about these dinners? You have a question about these dinners or a question about her strategy?

Greg Forman: I have a question on strategy, actually.

Emily Rae: Sure.

Greg Forman: What made you actually decide that you wanted to start a company and how did you decide what type of services you were going to provide?

Emily Rae: It's a great question. I often think about this myself. When I got out of grad school, I was still pursuing to what I thought were bifurcated interests. One was in the field of law. I'd gotten into some law boards. We were doing a lot of volunteer work on my evenings and my Saturdays again, setting up dinners. I just found it was really fun to meet new people and organize events.

Then, I was still doing the management consulting side. With that job, I was traveling around. I went to the United Arab Emirates in New York. I went to the UK. I went to Toronto and back again to DC.

"I think it was either sheer exhaustion or some epiphany, but I decided to bring them together and make it a part of the service offering."- Emily Rae, CEO & Founder of Rae International

I realized we had so many people asking us to set up dinners that I would just start providing a paycheck for myself that way. Sometimes, I do it for free. If I see it as either someone who's a friend of mine or a business opportunity, I'll set up a foreign exchange program. I find them enjoyable, but otherwise, I'll charge a penny for it.

John Gilroy: Madeline, sounds like classic networking, doesn't it?

Madeline: It does. When you do some of these dinners, how are you pulling your network of people? Do you already have them or are you marketing to them or are you, in a traditional sense, advertising or are you just doing it organically? How exactly are you pulling all this together?

Emily Rae: Sure. It has happened more organically. I'm shy by nature, actually, so when I moved out to DC, I think the networking thing took me a while, but then I realized how fun it was to meet new people.

IMG_1323 Emily Rae, CEO & Founder of Rae International

Actually, recently I decided to market myself, advertise myself because I had gotten more into the federal contracting space and I can talk about that next. I think it's important for women to own businesses to have a presence in the federal space, but no, I think sometimes there's been too much demand.

I've had to turn people away. I don't really have a desire to grow, like to compete with somebody like the Albright Stonebridge Group or some of these other competitive firms. I like to help people that I know I can support. If somebody comes to me and wants to be introduced, it's easy for me to turn that around versus somebody where I have to go and build this relationship.

I would say it's happened organically. So far, it's been working out, but if we get too big, we might have to have more of a thorough strategy in place.

John Gilroy: Kevin.

Kevin Uffelman: Yes, so you mentioned women-owned small business. Tell us a little bit about your role in the space and how you see the market for women-owned small businesses growing.

Emily Rae: Sure. I hope that it does grow. I think it's been unfortunately very stagnant and a lower percentage than it should be for many, many years.

When I started working directly with the federal government in Washington and many of the agencies, I was realizing that, as a woman, even if I had somebody requesting me by name and the funds reserved and the statement of work written up and they were ready to hit go, there was a lack of awareness in the contracting officers about the women-owned small business program legitimacy in the federal contracting space.

We were actually having to compete against complete unknowns rather than a sole source that we could have had. We started to investigate it. I had been told, from time-to-time, that the women-owned small business program didn't even exist by people who I'd point to the federal acquisition regulation that they refresh on annually.

I started reporting back to the Small Business Administration saying, "Look, this is going on." The more I dug into the figures, I realized, well, women represent half the economy in terms of the jobs that we have and 1.6 trillion dollars in revenue where nearly 40% of the US non-farm businesses where 5% of the federal government's small business contracting dollars.

I grew so passionate about this because I was talking to other women who had similar experiences where, look, not only are you capable, but you set up the opportunity. They were having difficulties pushing through. I'm trying to make it easier for other women and that's part of the reason I've developed an online presence and started to mentor other young women in this area.

I still hope to do the dinners. I still hope to continue, but this has been absorbing a lot of my time because I think it's an important issue.

John Gilroy: I think the magic word is wosb. W-O-S-B. Is that the ...

Emily Rae: That's correct.

John Gilroy: That's the Women Owned Small Business. Greg.

Greg Forman: Along with your current projects or past projects, what would you say is most challenging or most rewarding?

IMG_1312 Kevin Uffelman, Madeline Tomchick, & Greg Forman. (from left to right)

Emily Rae: I would say most challenging is when a client doesn't quite know what they want. It's very easy for us to have a client that says, "Look, I want to grow the legal sector in our country by X% over the next couple of years because it's measurable." We can trickle on and say, "How are we doing?" Versus somebody that says, "Look, I don't really understand the DC market. I just want to meet people. Help me connect."

It takes a while before you feel like you're getting traction. I think that that can be challenging, but it's also rewarding because through that process, you develop a relationship with the business that you're supporting.

I think it becomes clear and you can help them see. In some ways, ironically, it becomes the most rewarding when you help them understand what they're really trying to solve. We've done that for a couple of our clients in the UK, actually. It's been nice to see the progress.

John Gilroy: Your website talks about diplomacy. Kind of a big, fuzzy word. I want to put some serious meaning in it, but more details and more specifics?

Emily Rae: Sometimes what we'll do is resolve conflicts. There have been cases where we have a business approach us that is having a difficulty with a federal government in the US or abroad. What we'll do is help them build relationships in a positive way. I think I have a soft touch. I have people around me that I really trust.

What we try to do is start small in incremental ways, foster relationship in positive ways, and often this happens creatively. I think dinners are one great way to do that or just bring people together to talk about something other than the problem, starts facilitating other relationships.

We'll also work creatively with sports or a foreign exchange program with students to breakdown those barriers. That's been extremely rewarding for us.

I was a woman working abroad in the UAE, in the United Arab Emirates about ten years ago. It was also quite challenging, but I think I had to be a diplomat for women from time-to-time, but it's a wonderful society. I think I've also enjoyed welcoming those delegations to DC. That, I would say, an exercise in diplomacy that's different.

You know, you have to make sure you understand a culture before you're working with them so that you're aware that you're building a positive relationship from both perspectives.

John Gilroy: Our previous podcast was a gentleman from England.

Emily Rae: Yes.

John Gilroy: Going to a new world, Madeline?

Madeline: Along that part and I think the fact of, like you said, you were a diplomat for women. Was there major differences between how the United States handles stuff and especially with you working with UK, how do they treat that mentality, I guess, out there?

Emily Rae: I don't know if it's fortunate or just rare, but we've had a lot of support. If somebody's coming to me, I'm a young woman anyway, I think they're very open to having a woman at the table. I don't notice many differences between the US and the UK in that regard. I think we're both in some ways meritocracies.

"If you have the ability to speak up and establish a relationship, you're going to get respect."- Emily Rae, CEO & Founder of Rae International

I think in the US, we have a lot of strong networks of women support groups that help other business owners out. That's been interesting to see. I think many exist in the UK as well. I might not as familiar with those, but I think in the US you have an opportunity to engage and have the support with other women.

John Gilroy: Kevin.

Kevin Uffelman: You talked about engaging, having a support, it's really about networks and relationships with people.

Emily Rae: Right.

Kevin Uffelman: That's really more on the services side.

Emily Rae: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kevin Uffelman: You had mentioned earlier in fees and technology and developing products for your clients, what are those products that you're providing them and how are you using them?

Emily Rae: It varies based on the kind and the ones I can disclose, I'll just give you an example. We were invited to be an alliance partner for Tableau software recently. I get to tap into my Washington State roots and I'm actually flying back in a couple of weeks. They've been a great company for our business. They've also been seeing some success in the US and in the international market.

What I've been doing is helping to sell their software, where it makes sense to the US and also help them strategize some of their international expansion. It's about the product and then I think on the tail end of it is service as well. I agree with the sentiment that you can't really responsibly sell a product without establishing some governance and training around it for those you are serving.

It's more adaptable that way. Then, I think your clients appreciate the extra help in making sure that it sticks. I think in the US, I've noticed a lot of waste. I'll just be very frank in the space when it comes to IT procurements. There's a lot of latent licenses lying around that aren't even being used that the taxpayers are paying for.

I have a real issue with that as a conservative and a citizen. I really try to be careful when I make a sale that it's something that will be used. More often than not, it's after a request that we'll sell that. I like the tool. It helps people make decisions very quickly. I'm sure you've all heard about it and can read about it.

John Gilroy: I heard you speak at the Tableau conference a couple of months back. You're technically competent. You're almost hiding your technical competency here. It's like, "Don't talk about that. Talk about ..." You still have some success in that, don't you?

Emily Rae: I do. I'm kind of a nerd. In fact, when I was a young girl, at fifth grade, I was the Washington State Science Student of the Year. My parents always thought that I would become a scientist, but I do enjoy it. It's something that you can learn right away. That's why a lot of the people that we see in the tech industry are so young. I mean, many people my age, I think, are intimidated by tech, but you realize how quickly it's changing.

You can just start learning whatever latest tool you have and bone up on it. I can't promise I could write you a clean code, but I can completely understand what it's trying to say.

John Gilroy: Greg.

Greg Forman: Where do you see your company in maybe five or ten years?

Emily Rae: When I started advertising for service offerings, I think I did it in a way where I could see how they play. It makes sense to me that one or two of them would spin off into their own entity perhaps at some stage. For example, like the IT service delivery or IT product services, those might become separated at some point. I would like to grow a stable presence, I think, in a couple of key markets so that we can start to focus on building out partnerships.

We're looking at expanding our offices in Seattle and in the UK so I can see my family more often and also I'm kind of an Anglophile myself. I do want to expand into those particular markets. Seattle makes sense for the IT side. I could see us having the four service offerings staying together or spreading off in five years.

I do hope we can help other women in the federal space, I think, probably in the IT spinoff with acquisition.

John Gilroy: Madeline, you connected with a company from that area in Seattle, aren't you? What's the name of that company up there, your company?

Madeline: Microsoft?

John Gilroy: That's it.

Madeline: I think that's what they're calling it is Microsoft.

Emily Rae: I've heard of them.

Madeline: Yeah. Is there any other alliances that you plan to make? I know you said Tableau is one of those, is one of those kinds of companies. Is there any, like a Microsoft, that you tend to eventually hook to since they have ...

Emily Rae: We're very friendly. I think with our clients; we always make recommendations based on the need. I'm not such a loyalist that I won't call a spade, a spade and say when they need another company, but I try to make sure that my alliances, for example, with Tableau, are preserved. It's a very successful company. I was born in Redmond, which is the headquarters of Microsoft. I can't deny they're doing well. It's very much a part of my life.

Then, I think, just as a Washington state native, I'm always supportive of our tech industry, doing well in DC. We should chat, but so far we've invested in the top of the space, but I think it's a great company that you work for, absolutely.

John Gilroy: Kevin.

IMG_1328 John Gilroy

Kevin Uffelman: It sounds like you have a very diverse group of clients. It sounds, again, like you're spending more time in the federal space. How do you go about generating these leads for new clients, marketing your company and identifying you know, moving into the UK, possibly back to Seattle, moving into those new markets? What is your strategy around that?

Emily Rae: I think, I have personal relationships. Sometimes, businesses just come about that way. It's not like we sat down to paper, but I have personal relationships in those two cities that I think ... I'm there anyway, so it helps to build up businesses that way. I'm still involved in two of these law boards that it's probably worth mentioning, the Washington Foreign Law Society and then the Friends of the Law Library of Congress.

Just last night, we were at an event where just Justice Ginsburg released her new book. Justice Roberts was there. There are incredible business owners that are in the room. It's very easy to meet, for me to meet people, that are interested in working with me. At those events, I obviously focus on whatever subject group I'm involved in there, but it's been easy.

DC is a special city. I think I look back on those two suitcases and I think that's about all you need when you come to DC. I mean, I have evidence of that, but if you really show up ... I can't remember what Congressman said this, but DC's about showing up.

I think speaking up, that's something I've learned over the years. Just focusing on work that you're passionate about issues that you care about. It's a very easy city to startup. I think there's no surprise, groups like 1776 and Eastern Foundry are setting up like this. It takes a couple of years and you're off the ground.

John Gilroy: Last week, T.R. Reid wrote a book about taxes. It took him three years of research. He talked about technology companies locating outside the United States in places like Ireland and the Bahamas to avoid taxes. You seem to have a pretty good idea what's going on in the international world. What if Tableau or a company you work with tried to make a move like that? Where does the ethical part come in? Where does it fit with taxes and companies and overseas here? Gets tricky, doesn't it?

Emily Rae: It does. It's a great question. We've actually had that come up, not with Tableau, with another client. We've had countries approach us that say, "Look, we're interested in expanding our international space." In this case, it was finance. What if we lower our corporate interest rate?

Well, what's interesting about that is it takes a year and a half before maybe the rubber hits the road and whatever form of government they have, so by the time you get around to that company having already decided sometimes where they're going to land. It's a process of continuing to court that company and the relationship again back in DC. Maybe it is a dinner, maybe it's a meeting, something like this, or a program that you get where you get knit together before the corporate interest rate would lower.

That's one example where we've looked at helping a client figure out what they're going to do with their corporate interest rate to attract clients. Then, I think with the Brexit issue, it's become really interesting.

There's a lot of uncertainty in the market. There's a lot of movement already. Sometimes, it's reopened conflicts and borders that were otherwise resolved. Even a question about, does that border exist there has come up, and especially in the UK.

John Gilroy: I have to say, Greg, we brought in a lot of new startups to the class. I expose my students to all kinds of different ideas. An unusual type of startup here, isn't it? A typical writing code and trying to get business with the federal government. A different level here, but similar, but really kind of a geographically-wide, but also intellectually deep here.

Greg Forman: Yeah. Absolutely. I think one thing that's really fascinating about your company is the policy side of it and I do think that the fact that you're reaching across boundaries and supporting the women's causes is definitely very admirable.

Emily Rae: Thank you.

Greg Forman: Actually, I do have a question in terms of how you got started.

Emily Rae: Yes!

Greg Forman: When it came to funding, how did you approach that? Was it borrow, beg and steal from friends and family or was it personal? Did you get investors or how did you approach that?

Emily Rae: I've been very supported by the clients that come to us for services. I think we've had a few initial clients that paid us significant amounts that we could get off the ground, but I think overall, it was a matter of maybe not even having a life. I saved up a lot of money over my graduate school and my careers with other commercial diplomacy firms in a way dabbling around. I saved up. I've been planning this for a while.

Again, I didn't really want to advertise necessarily because I think, what we do, is a bit discreet. I've decided to come forward. It's because I've seen profit in IT sales. That's been another area that I have been really happy to see grow. I've just tried to be careful and make sure that whatever next step I make, I know three months down the road what I would do under a variety of outcomes.

We've been again, just very supported. Been very fortunate. Hopefully, that will always remain the case.

John Gilroy: The theme I hear is ethical responsibility in the conversation. At Georgetown University, every class has to have an ethical component. In fact, you can't get the Master's degree without a class in ethics.

Emily Rae: Yes.

John Gilroy: Is this ringing true with you here, Madeline.

Madeline: I would totally agree, yes. It's in part of our coursework. For you, you have both the law background and you have public administration background, all of this amazing kind of experience to go off of, is there anything you would say, sitting here say? If I could go back and change it, I would.,

Emily Rae: Great question. I should have a ready answer for that. It's probably too many things. I think I wish I'd been bolder sooner, because I think a lot of people with an ethical conscience are so self-critical before they make their next move. They want to do the right thing.

I know I was initially shy even with public speaking. I wish that I had had more confidence in myself. That's why I'm trying to help other young women to get off the ground sooner and say, "Don't second guess yourself. Go ahead and speak out." I think politics has gotten so crazy, it's easy to find inspiration to get involved. I wish I'd done that sooner. I wish I'd been bolder. Fortunately, I have that regret to fill me now.

John Gilroy: Emily, we're going to permit you to be very bold and tell everyone the website they can go to, to learn more.

Emily Rae: Thank you. It's www.raeinternational.com.

John Gilroy: We're running out of time here, unfortunately. I'd like to thank our sponsor, The Radiant Group. If you are interested in getting involved in geospatial projects, contact The Radiant Group. We are hosted by Eastern Foundry. It's a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information, go to eastern-foundry.com.

If you would like to participate as a student or a startup, contact me, John Gilroy at the oakmontgroupllc.com. Thanks for listening to Students vs. StartUps, Showdown on the Potomac.