By Tina Irgang
Gina Foringer served as an Army transportation officer from 1990 to 1994, earning a Purple Heart and a Meritorious Service Medal during her service in Somalia. Today, she runs Environmental Research Group, LLC (ERG), a certified service-disabled veteran-owned and woman-owned small business. Foringer tripled ERG’s workforce within a year, notwithstanding the government contractor’s unexpected office location, in the heart of Hampden’s Avenue. Recently, she hired a group of 30 veterans through a program that provides highly specialized training to many previously unemployable veterans.
What did your time in the Army teach you about leadership?
Foringer: I joined the Army on an impulse and didn’t really know what I was getting into. As I went through the Army, I found that the need for belonging is strong in most human beings, and having a single focus of fighting a war and national security — we were all facing the same direction as an organization. … Leadership for me was earning the loyalty and respect of those that followed rather than relying on rank.
Do you still apply the lessons you learned today?
Foringer: Absolutely. I’m often uncomfortable being a boss because I come from a place of service where I want people to be comfortable and to love their work and to enjoy their day. It’s hard for me to receive help that I need, administratively, or somebody travelling on my behalf, so the Army helps me in being direct and telling folks what I need. And luckily, I have a staff that enjoys meeting those needs because they like doing the things that I need done.
Foringer: I do. I’ve always sought to employ veterans because … soldiers have an unmatched work ethic, and the mission focus is beneficial anywhere in my company. So this year, I became a contractor in the Veterans Curation Program, and that allowed me to hire 30 veterans. With a contract partner, our firm was selected to hire the veterans for this transformative training program in their lives. And it gets work done from an archeological perspective. [Editor’s Note: The program employs veterans to preserve at-risk archeological collections.] At the same time, it helps veterans who may have been previously unemployable become employable. When I heard about the program, it sounded too good to be true. I remember when I first was in the military and I was shooting an azimuth. You shoot it in the direction you’re going to walk. … On a compass, you try to identify something in this little tiny window with a line in the middle. You try to identify something stationary and you shoot through your compass. You put your compass down and look up to see what it was in that little window, and you walk towards that. That’s how you are sure to be on an exact degree of orientation. I shot an azimuth and the little brown spot in that window turned out to be a deer. When I put the compass down, it was dawn and this deer was looking at me, and we were the only two out there. I thought, I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this. It has been a very long time since I felt that way. The Veterans Curation Program … gives me that same feeling.
Considering Baltimore’s many challenges, some business owners question whether it’s a good place to do business. What’s your answer to that question?
Foringer: I know my business belongs in Baltimore. Being on the front line of need serves a greater purpose and I can’t imagine being anywhere else, feeling as fulfilled. During the uprising this year, a lot of the soldier traits that I had long ago tucked away emerged immediately, and myself and some others went into action to take food to the folks that were cleaning up the city, and honoring the fact that they want to clean up their own neighborhoods. They don’t want a bunch of heroic white people coming in to clean up. So the best thing we could do was provide food for that effort, and money. So I was very proud to be able to serve the streets as well as the employees of our company.
What’s your favorite place in the city, and why?
Foringer: So my dad was in the military and we moved every couple of years. We moved my entire life, and then I was in the military, and while I didn’t move as much, I deployed often. It took me until my mid-40s to understand what people meant when they said, “I’m home,” because I’ve always had one foot out the door. When I moved to Baltimore in 2005, I finally understood what it meant to be home. I feel that way when I see the Baltimore skyline, when I have the inspiration of the Visionary Art Museum, when I walk my dog in the Mount Washington neighborhood or stop in the local stores all over the city. I know I’m home. So my favorite place? It’s Baltimore.
About The Human Element:
The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email email@example.com.