How DSA's Fran Pierce defied tradition in favor of ambition

Fran Pierce wanted more than the path laid before her. So she created her own.

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By Marjorie Preston
Photography by Mitro Hood

TV’s Mad Men provides a Polaroid image of middle-class America in the mid-20th century. It was an era of Breck girls and Brylcreem’d guys, bomb shelters and shag rugs, three-martini lunches and rampant, unchallenged workplace sexism.

Don Draper’s way of life now seems almost cartoonish. But Mad Men is no caricature. From the 1950s through the early 1960s, “women’s work” was typically limited to teaching, nursing and, of course, homemaking. “Career girls” who braved the business world were largely relegated to the secretarial pool, the switchboard and other clerical departments. Almost like children, they were expected to be seen but not heard, decorative but not assertive, useful but not obtrusive. And they were never expected to be ambitious. Back then, ambition in a woman was not just unusual; it was rather startling.

Enter Frances R. Pierce. In 1963, fresh out of grad school, Pierce was the proverbial fish out of water — a young woman with a math degree.

The insular world of an all-female college had not prepared Pierce for the roadblocks she would face on the job front. At one interview after another she was asked questions that are astonishing — if not illegal — today: “Are you planning to get married?” “Are you planning to have children?” And the most galling of all: “Will your husband let you do this?”

Pierce likens her early years in the corporate world to “punching my way out of a box.” She applied for 100 jobs before she was finally hired as a junior engineer at Ford Aerospace. There, despite entrenched gender bias and perhaps a measure of self-doubt, she launched her career in information technology. It was the road less traveled — and a bumpy one to boot — but it would take her to the pinnacle of her profession.

Pierce is now president and CEO of Data Systems Analysts Inc. (DSA), a suburban Philadelphia information technology firm. DSA provides its clients — including the U.S. federal government, and particularly the Department of Defense and civil and intelligence agencies — with cybersecurity, software services, systems engineering and integration, data analytics, and SharePoint integration.

In more than 20 years at the helm, Pierce has taken DSA from a $9 million-per-year business to one that generated $90 million in revenue in 2012 and is on track to break $100 million in revenue this year. The Trevose-headquartered firm has made the Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing, privately held companies five times.

With persistence, tenacity and talent, Fran Pierce carved out a place for herself in what was — and still is — an overwhelmingly male profession. A half-century ago, when she was starting out, her destination was hardly assured.

Noteworthy

Fran Pierce’s lifetime of achievements hasn’t gone unnoticed. The following are just a few of the honors she’s received as chairman, president and CEO:

2013
Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist

2010
Philadelphia SmartCEO Brava! Award winner

2006
Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Technology Finalist

2006
Pennsylvania Best 50 Women in Business Award

2004
Maryland Technology Council Executive of the Year finalist

2002
Women’s Fund of New Jersey Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Technology

1998
Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist for Technology Services

The Feminine Mystique

Pierce grew up in Philadelphia, the oldest child and only daughter of a federal government worker and his wife. Even during childhood, she was always an outlier. As a girl, Pierce eschewed Chatty Cathy, Barbie dolls and other little-girl archetypes of the time. As far back as she can remember, Pierce preferred to work. In the winter, she made extra money shoveling snow. In the summer, she wrapped bait on a Wildwood, NJ, fishing pier.

“I served circulars in the neighborhood for a dollar,” Pierce says. “I sold Christmas cards and wrapping paper. From the time I was in grade school, I always had odd jobs.”

Pierce worked for two reasons: She wanted to, and she needed to. “We had no money,” she says of her family. “I had three brothers behind me, and I needed to find my own way. I always felt I had to take care of myself, be responsible and try new things.”

Despite a fiercely independent nature, Pierce was expected to chart a predictable course in life and walk in lockstep with the women of her generation.

“I was strongly encouraged by my family to get to college, but I was not coached to have a career,” she says. “Back then, you went to college, you got married, you had kids — that was the program. Not that I didn’t want to get married and have children. But I didn’t want to do only that. It was all so prescribed.”

She earned a mathematics degree when doing so was an almost-revolutionary choice. “Nobody else was doing it,” she says. “And while I didn’t know anything about the professional world or supply and demand, I figured if I pursued math, there would be some way to make a career out of it.”

She found a kindred voice in Betty Friedan, whose landmark book, The Feminine Mystique, was published in 1963, the year Pierce graduated. The book, which sparked the so-called second wave of feminism, examined “the problem that has no name,” the quiet discontent among women snared in culturally defined, often repressive roles in the early 1960s.

“It would be a great service,” the author wrote, “to tell girls who plan to work in society to expect this subtle, uncomfortable discrimination. Tell them not to be quiet and hope it will go away, but fight it.”

“Reading that was like, ‘Wow,’” Pierce says. “It described exactly what I felt in terms of everybody making assumptions about me, about what I could do and what I should do.”

Out of her own way

At Ford Aerospace, as the only female technician in her group, Pierce vowed to win over her colleagues. She did so with a strong work ethic, a keen sense of humor and, of course, high-caliber technical solutions.

She spent six years working on the design and implementation of a backbone data communications network, and then moved into product development. Day by day, she built her reputation as a go-to professional: smart, dependable and flexible. When her superiors assumed she would not travel (by this time, she had a husband and son), she made it clear she was not only available but eager.

“I realized people cannot read your mind,” Pierce says. “You have to let them know what you’re willing to do. I’ve always been one to put my hand up and volunteer.”

Pierce proved especially valuable in a pinch — for example, jumping into a leadership role at the 11th hour after a project manager was hospitalized. That kind of boldness propelled her from the rank-and-file to positions of increasing responsibility. “Every time I’ve gotten to do something new or different in my career,” she says, “it’s been in a time of crisis.”

While her husband, Carter, a college professor, tended the home fires, Pierce traveled the world. Along the way, she discovered that resistance to women in the workplace was not just a homegrown phenomenon.

“As difficult as it might have been in the U.S., in other countries I was like a creature from outer space,” she recalls. “People were respectful, but they just weren’t used to a professional woman. They couldn’t put together the fact that I had husband and son and I was over in Europe.”

Pierce concedes the one characteristic that might have threatened her career growth was a lifelong social phobia. “I was always pretty comfortable doing technical work and communicating about that,” she says. “It was the soft skills that were harder for me — networking, for example.” She avoided public speaking at all costs, until she acknowledged this avoidance was hampering her effectiveness as a leader. After that, Pierce forced herself to speak whenever and wherever she was invited — at conferences, symposia, industry events and those dreaded mix-and-mingle receptions.

“I would say to myself, ‘This is a room full of strangers. What’s the worst that can happen?’ As with anything, once you’ve had a difficult time and come out the other end, you know you can do it.”

Crisis conquerer

In 1971, Pierce joined DSA, starting as a system design analyst working on a large-scale data switching system. She ascended the ladder rung by rung, becoming chief engineer and overall technical manager in 1975 and program manager in 1976. In 1979, she was appointed the company’s vice president and technical director, and in the mid-1980s, she was named executive vice president of the New Jersey operation. Shortly after, she was also named executive vice president and general manager of the Washington, DC, operation.

Even at DSA, when she should have moved beyond gender-bias issues, Pierce continued to suspect she was being held back because of her sex. At that point, she quietly resolved to stay on at the company until she could beef up her resume, then make her exit. “Instead,” she says, “I became CEO.”

Once again, Pierce was called in the midst of chaos. It was 1991, a time of recession and industrywide contraction. DSA, now owned by an employee trust, was about to be sold to a foreign investor. At the last minute, the deal was shelved, and the board tapped Pierce to move into the corner office.

Commuting weekly from the company’s Pennsylvania headquarters to its office in Washington, DC — a practice she continues to this day  — the new president and CEO undertook a complete overhaul of DSA’s business model, pivoting away from in-house software development and ground-up programming to on-site consultancy, systems engineering and integration.

Under Pierce’s direction, the company broadened its product base and service offerings, expanded its presence in key markets and extended its operations to four regional offices with more than 180 employees. In the process, DSA was transformed from a struggling organization into a vibrant business on the move.

In one notable growth spurt, between 2009 and 2012, annual revenues increased 123 percent, from $40.6 million to $90.4 million. In 2013, the government shutdown took a bite out of the business. Though revenues dropped to $72.5 million, DSA remained vigorous, says CFO John Foley. “A lot of companies in our industry took some hits relative to the sequestration and budget cuts, but our bottom lines show our business health did not suffer,” he says.

With her deep grasp of the defense industry, Pierce knew what types of programs were likely to be cut in a downturn. “And we didn’t have a lot of margins or people on those programs,” Foley says. “I joke with Fran that she’s productively paranoid. She is willing to take risks to help the company grow, but she also manages to prevent the downside.”

Restless by nature

Kimberly Crew, CEO of Lighthouse Venture Management in Philadelphia, says Pierce succeeds because she is “always looking into the future.”

“She has an organization, and she has to run the tactical day-to-day stuff. But she’s always looking 10 years ahead, at minimum,” Crew says. “Not only does she have her plan she also has about five parallel plans laid out in case she needs to jump track. And she not only designs the future, she evangelizes it, so everybody just says yes, yes, yes. And you’d better get on the train or get out of the way. Nothing is going to stop her.”

Though she works primarily with the U.S. military, a bastion of top-down leadership, in her own workplace, Pierce prefers a collaborative style. She does not rule by fiat but “constantly seeks input from employees; it is constant, and it is formal, several times a year at least,” says Dave Borland, former deputy to the Army’s CIO and a member of DSA’s federal advisory board. “Fran does a very good job of taking the pulse of folks in the engine room, the people who are shoveling coal on the fire. Everybody gets their say.”

Cindy Scott, formerly with Lockheed Martin, recently joined DSA as senior director of contracts and business strategy. Scott says Pierce, “is a kind of an icon to us. We look at what she has achieved and is still achieving for a company that’s been around for 50 years. Things have gotten easier for female executives, but she has gotten to the head of the class on sheer talent.”

Pierce says the company is well positioned to grow in the years ahead; DSA’s business development team has been rebuilt to make sure that happens. “Budgets are a big challenge right now; for sure the federal government is doing more with less,” she says.

“We are no longer the small company,” she adds. “We are coming into mid-tier [status], so that presents its own challenges,” because the company will no longer be eligible for contracts awarded to the small-business category. “Once you’re out of that,” Pierce says, “you’re going up against the big guys, [like] Lockheed Martin [and] SAIC … But we know we can beat them.”

Meanwhile, along with all her other responsibilities, Pierce continues to sound the call for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). “It needs to start young — seventh grade or even younger. I think it endangers our country not to have strong STEM education, and one of my favorite causes is attracting young women and girls to science and technology. It’s a great career.”

Thinking back on her own early career, the struggles and the success, Pierce says, “many things have changed for the better” for women in business. But the number of women in the C-level ranks is still disproportionate to the talent pool. Despite high-profile executives like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson, a recent Catalyst census showed that female CEOs, CFOs and board members remain an anomaly, and less than 17 percent of corporate board seats in Fortune 500 companies are currently held by women.

According to a 2012 Forbes article on successful business women, “The No. 1 trait that most successful women share is that they never let the small numbers of females in an industry keep them from taking a seat at the table,” Pierce says.
As she steers her company into its second half-century, Pierce is not really content with her accomplishments. That dissatisfaction may be one of her greatest strengths.

“I used to ask myself why I can’t be satisfied, why I always stay somewhat restless,” she says. “I finally know myself well enough to understand I will never really not be restless, and that’s OK. I’m not unhappy, but I always have that ‘What’s next?’ feeling.” CEO

Marjorie Preston is a freelance writer based in Media, PA. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.

 

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