Victoria Vasques with President Milton A. Gordon at Cal State Fullerton’s 18th annual Vision & Visionaries gala April 30. Vasques was among honorees, which Gordon described as “true visionaries, who serve as shining examples of our university’s outstanding alumni network.” (CSUF Alumni / Flickr, Photo by Karen Tapia)
Today Tribal Tech LLC, Victoria Vasques’ 8(a) start up, has an impressive and growing collection of awards as one of the fastest-growing small businesses in the DC Metro Federal Marketplace. It has a spot on the 2018 11th annual list of the 50 Fastest Growing Woman-Owned/Led Companies for 2018 for the third consecutive year. It’s on the Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 23rd Annual List of Virginia’s Fantastic 50. And Vasques has earned her own recognition as the Small Business Administration’s Person of the Year in the Northern Virginia Region, and on Inc. Magazine’s 5000 list for four consecutive years.
But the journey from her rough start in 2000, when she decided to retire from the federal government, to her stunning success today has been anything but overnight.
With 25 years of public service in Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Energy, Vasques stepped down from her position at the U.S. Department of Education in 2000 to launch her own business on the advice of friends, as the Department departed from a course she was invested in. It was, by all accounts, the logical next step in her career, other than full retirement anyway—something she was not nearly ready for.
Instead of having clients from her old departments knocking down her door to do business with her, it was, instead, a slow roll by her own account. Although she thought she could easily snag contracts with both federal agencies she had worked for, the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) made that difficult even as a woman-owned, Native-owned small business without past performance as a business. Consequently, she describes the period from 2000 to 2009 spent “literally knocking on doors to get people to give her work.”
She got a single person on a contract doing work as Tribal Tech. It was enough to get by, but not flourish, and when the opportunity to run as a Republican candidate for state delegate in Virginia’s largely blue 45th district in 2009 came about, she took it.
There, however, she suffered a stinging political loss that led to the epiphany that drove Vasques back into business. “If I can knock on all the doors in the district and work as hard as I had to run for delegate, I could work that hard to start my own business,” she related to Native Business Magazine™. And so she did. Thus, it wasn’t until 2010 – after her political failure – that she “did anything serious” and “really put the pedal to the metal to build Tribal Tech past performance” that would greatly improve her ability to bid competitively in the federal marketplace.
But along with that epiphany came the realization that to succeed in the federal marketplace meant getting her Small Business 8(a) certification, which was approved in 30 days—something nearly unheard of. Vasques also brought on a partner to encourage and mentor her as she built her business, while also seeking out subcontracting opportunities to build Tribal Tech’s past performance. After what she describes as two years of acting as a subcontractor to almost anyone that worked in her wheelhouse – “two years of making sure that Tribal Tech’s name was on every subcontract she procured, two years of making sure that checks were made out to Tribal Tech LLC, two years outperforming on every contract people threw her way” – she was finally positioned to leverage her own past performance as Tribal Tech LLC.
That lit the fire that eventually developed into a prime contract to the same client, and has since expanded into prime contracts in core and adjacent markets. Today, Tribal Tech has a healthy portfolio of over $8.3M with about 100 people working nationwide for Tribal Tech in training and technical assistance to various government entities including tribes, grant application, administration, data analysis, and a full spectrum of communications and IT services.
When asked what advice she would give upstart entrepreneurs trying to get into the federal marketplace, Vasques had several nuggets of wisdom. First, “…the big message to people stepping into this world is to trust and verify.” Early on, she had had a partner that turned out to be more interested in growing his own entrepreneurial effort off her performance than promoting Tribal Tech that left her cautious about who she has brought in to help her run the business, as well as who she chooses to bid with or otherwise collaborate with.
Second, and somewhat related to the first, she emphasized that in a small business, the president has to have his or her hands in every pot – “to know everything from A-Z” going on in her own shop, from executive management to finances, human resources, even IT, to ensure success.
“You can never get too far down into the weeds. Once I made the switch and had 100 percent knowledge in all of those areas, things took off,” she elaborated, adding, “I will never let [those things get away from me] again.”
Finally, but no less importantly, Vasques is a huge advocate of the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program, and advises everyone considering getting into the federal space to get certified as soon as possible. The education, training, and technical support the SBA offers can be the difference between success and failure for small businesses, and while the program is generally free or at very low cost, the education and mentorship available through the program is priceless.
As to how to make building a business work when you don’t have startup capital or the pension and savings that Vasques had to keep her afloat while building Tribal Tech, she counsels having “a little nest egg,” but consulting on the side to build past performance—as long as it doesn’t conflict with any contract you hold with your employer. “Definitely go after what it is that you do and do it well, do what is true to you. If you have a passion, go after it! Stay true to who you are, and be truly committed.” She concedes that it’s a “110 percent effort…and one you have to be 100 percent engaged in every day,” but one well worth it.
When asked what advice she would give to tribes as the casino sector becomes saturated, she wondered aloud whether “tribes with elders and members in charge….are really looking at the future of our community.”
“I know that they care, but financially there’s a disconnect, maybe because they didn’t grow up like I did” – with one foot in metro Los Angeles and the University of California system, and one accompanying her father to the Diegueno of the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians reservation as a child. She worries that tribes aren’t looking at what they could do with casino proceeds and per capitas they are paying to members.
“We want to show our younger folks that they can be entrepreneurs,” but concedes that it is not fast money. Vasques is a strong advocate for internships that help young people understand how they want to use their education – or not – and she would like to see more businesses and tribes sponsoring internships to give youth that opportunity.
Vasques’ final piece of advice? “Don’t get greedy or you’re going to fail!” As an 8(a) Tribal Tech has the right to 51 percent of the work, but that doesn’t mean that you have to have it all, according to Vasques. Spread the wealth around because it makes for good partnerships and translates into work as other small businesses look to collaborate on larger bids.
In spite of her credentials, Vasques herself is humble. She credits her very small, but elite, passionate, and dedicated management team and staff with Tribal Tech’s success. “People, Performance and Partnership” are her watchwords – and keeping those ideals in front of her drive her passion for success – for herself and for others.