The day Hildegarde Sylla’s brother told her she could choose one of his oil paintings to keep, she wasted no time and immediately claimed the large canvas with the beautiful rendering of a country minister. “But it’s not finished yet!” her brother laughed. Hilda, however knew that it was painting she wanted, and she wasn’t going to leave without it, even though the minister’s hands were not quite finished and her brother hadn’t even had time to write Holy Bible on the spine of the book he held.
Though her brother has since passed, the painting hangs in her home, a profound symbol not of any one concrete thing, but rather of Hilda’s character and values. The product of her brother’s self-taught talent, it is a piece wrought from will, determination, and self-sufficiency. It speaks of a close-knit family, a respect for morality, and a clear sense of knowing exactly what one wants in life and pursuing it without distraction. And above all, the piece is elegant in its incompleteness—a reminder that no matter how much one accomplishes in life, there is still more that can be done.
Hilda has always wanted to do more, rising to the next challenge as she challenges society to both expect more and deliver more. Like many D.C. natives, she did her time working for the Federal government. For 16 years, she rose along the GS ranks—first in the Department of Transportation, and later in various parts of the Department of Agriculture—all the while observing frustrating inefficiencies. Those inefficiencies arose, in large part, from structural problems and a widespread aversion to change. “I was encouraged to attend trainings and conferences, but when I attempted to bring what I learned back to the office, no one was interested,” she recalls. “They wanted to continue doing things the way they had always been done.”
This status-quo approach didn’t sit well with Hilda. Her entire career was built on constant self-evolution, seeking new challenges rather than simply collecting a paycheck. Determined to make the most of her talents and interests, she can now say what few can: when she decided what she might like to do, she went out and did it. When she decided it was time to move on, she did so quickly, wisely, and with her eye on the next bend in the road. Secure though she was after nearly two decades in government, Hilda knew she could do more at a company that matched her spirit: self-sufficient, streamlined, ambitious, and adaptive. It was this spirit that, in 1994, drove Hilda and her husband Abe to launch AIS Engineering, Inc., the company they would build themselves from the ground up.
AIS Engineering (AIS) is a global provider of telecommunications, satellite communications, and information technology. Working primarily with the Department of Defense and large commercial communications firm, it boasts remarkable accomplishments despite its small size. Today the business employs 28 people at offices in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Melbourne, Florida. “I think we provide superior service at low costs,” she remarks. “There are a lot of large businesses doing what we do, but we’ve streamlined our processes and have top-notch, carefully selected employees who truly excel in the satellite and IT arenas. We can move faster, and we’re not bureaucratic. We know what we’re doing, and we give the government a big bang for their buck, which is a win for taxpayers.”
To preserve the company’s nimble efficiency, Hilda has no immediate plans to grow the business significantly larger and instead relies on hard working employees, efficient structure, and careful budgeting to keep her projects rolling. “Both at home and in the work place, it’s important to live within one’s means,” she stresses. “Poor financial decisions affect everyone. At AIS, employees are carefully chosen and are the best at what they do so that we can truly make the most of what we have. I learned from my parents growing up that success is based in large part on the company you keep, and we keep visionary, enthusiastic, success-oriented company with our employees.”
Hilda is also adamant that layoffs are not an option at AIS because of the ripple effect they have on employees, families, and communities. This attitude and commitment to the company’s employees, clients, and overall quality has kept her business growing slowly, steadily, and smartly for almost 20 years.
Hilda’s decision to go into telecommunications rested on two main factors. Having worked closely with other contractors to gain familiarity with the types of technology that were just beginning to catch on, she could see that telecommunications would gain incredible traction in the coming years. In the early 1990s, engineering was revolutionizing business practices, and Hilda knew expertise in the field would be in high demand. Beyond this motivation, her husband, Abe, had an engineering and telecommunications background, working for GE and then Voice of America. He had been offering his services as a consultant, and Hilda was unhappy with the irregular pay, long hours, and travel. “He was on a trip, and I decided to start the business,” she laughs. “I set everything up, so that when he came back, we had a company!”
From their home office in Maryland, Hilda and Abe received their first contract from Marathon Oil, who hired them to handle their new communications systems. Soon after, Hilda took a buyout from her government job, and AIS landed the State Department contract that has gone down in the books as their big break. “They needed to have better communications capabilities with different embassies all over the world,” she recalls. “Their calls were all routed through the U.S. embassy, and the embassies didn’t have direct communication with each other.”
After that first contract, the company’s positive past performance reports enabled them to bid on, and win, similar jobs. It was also able to move into its first office, in Silver Spring, Maryland. Soon after, they received a major 7-year contract with the Department of Defense at Patrick Air Force Base—a win that really put AIS on the map. Today, AIS partners with many of the major telecommunication companies on projects under various task orders and GSA Schedules. Along with their partners, AIS handles global telecommunication and IT projects. Abe, the Senior Executive Vice President, handles the technical side of the operation, while Hilda continues to serve as the major strategist and is more hands-on with the business’s paperwork, staffing, and structure.
Although geographically close to her childhood home in Washington, D.C., Hilda’s success as an executive is a million miles away from anything she imagined while living there. Growing up as the youngest of five children, she learned firsthand how to stretch a dollar from her frugal, responsible parents. Her mother was a homemaker and part-time domestic worker, and her father worked at the Navy Yard. “Both of my parents always worked,” she remembers. “They didn’t believe in any kind of credit, so if we couldn’t pay cash for something, we weren’t getting it. They believed strongly in saving and did very well for the income they had.”
Her parents’ advice carried over into Hilda’s adult life, where her cautious financial planning has served her well in the business world. And during childhood, when her future career as an executive wasn’t even on her radar yet, her parents’ emphasis on self-sufficiency and education spurred Hilda to seek out part-time jobs from a young age. They stressed the importance of college, and Hilda was eager to contribute to what she knew would be a difficult expense. Her first job, working at a small costume jewelry shop on 14th Street, was also her first introduction to inefficiencies in the professional world. The store was understaffed, rife with shoplifters, and poorly managed. The following summer, she landed her first office job, doing clerical work at the United States Information Agency, compelling her to save money for college and begin considering her future career.
Hilda at first wanted to focus on music, but her practical parents asked, “What will you do with it?” She opened herself to the idea of something more stable, and the attentions of a tough teacher soon piqued an interest in English. In the beginning, Hilda found the class too difficult and asked to be transferred, but the teacher wouldn’t hear of it. “She told my mother that they wouldn’t have placed me in the class if I didn’t belong there,” she remembers. “She told me to come back and work with her after class.”
Hilda took on the challenge and studied harder, and today, she’s grateful the teacher never gave her a break or lowered her expectations. Her hard-won success in the English course stayed with her, factoring strongly into her decision to major in English in college. After her freshman year at Saint Paul’s College in Virginia, Hilda transferred to the District of Columbia Teacher’s College—an attempt to save tuition costs by living at home—and earned a double major, a Bachelor of Science in English and Secondary Education, as planned. While at DC Teachers, she worked part-time during the academic year and then began working full time for the government in the summers. She became focused on teaching as a potential career path, and immediately moved on to a two-year Master’s Program at Howard University the semester after completing her Bachelor’s degree.
For the next two years, Hilda continued to work and study. As she earned her Master’s Degree, she thought about teaching on the college level, but that would require a doctorate. She had had enough of sitting in classrooms for a while, so when she earned her degree, she accepted a position as an English teacher at Roosevelt High School in northwest DC. “The experience was very rewarding and instructive,” she remembers. “I bonded with my students and was able to tailor subjects like Shakespeare and current events to their academic level, personalizing the subject matter so they could relate to typically unappealing subjects. I will always look back at that time in my life as a period where I was both a teacher and a student, because the students taught me as well.” Then, after two years, Hilda began to look for a new challenge. Her many summers of experience working with the government made it easy for her to find work in the Department of Transportation, and in 1978, she began a long tenure of federal employment.
Over the following years, Hilda held a variety of positions, learning much along the way. “I started out in human resources management,” she recalls. “I had to analyze jobs, write, interview people, manage programs, and put together organizational charts. It was a behind-the-scenes thing.” Hilda built these crucial skills working for the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, a regulatory agency responsible for testing cars and tires for safety and issuing highway safety regulations. As an HR Manager, she acquired a good sense of the government’s inner workings while also developing her own analytical skills and mastering the art of translating them to paper. She then went on to the Department of Naval Warfare.
After several years of strategic job changes within the government, collecting skills and information that she’d use for years to come, Hilda once again decided it might be time for a new challenge and enrolled in law school. But a year and a half into her studies at Catholic University School of Law, tragedy struck. Hilda’s mother passed away, and the ensuing chaos and emotional trauma left her unable to complete her degree. “I wanted to go back and finish, but I just didn’t have it in me,” she says. Instead, she was offered a position in the Department of Agriculture and returned to the government.
Once again, Hilda found herself working in personnel, but she was determined to find something more fulfilling—and determined not to let her law experience go to waste. She asked questions around the department and did her research, and before long, she found what she’d been looking for. “They had a Civil Rights Division with an Equal Employment Opportunity section, and I knew that was what I wanted to do,” she remembers. “I took Equal Opportunity Law for a semester at Antioch Law School nearby, and then someone transferred out of the Civil Rights Division, so I got in there and immediately developed the skills of writing employment decisions and adjudicating discrimination complaints.” After so many years of looking, she’d found something close to her ideal job. Over time, however, the inefficiencies of government began to weigh on her mind. By the end of the 1980s, the idea of owning her own business was a seed waiting to germinate, and Hilda was ready to be challenged again.
When the time came to make that decision, she willingly took the reins, and today, she and Abe couldn’t be happier with that decision—or the business that sprung from it. Of course, the lifestyle is not without its challenges. “I wish I’d known how easily it becomes a part of you,” Hilda reflects. “I have some other things I’d like to do recreationally, but running the company is all-consuming. It’s almost like a child—you just want to do all you can to make it better and grow. But ultimately, these challenges are what make it the rewarding, fulfilling profession I’ve always been looking for.”
In advising young people entering the working world today, Hilda encourages others to value their own fulfillment above all else. “I would tell them not to guide their success by how much money they’re making,” she says. “Do some research. Look at what the Peace Corps and similar internationally focused organizations do and see if it’s something you’d like to do to give back. Or maybe you’d rather do something on your own. Don’t guide your young life by how much money you’re making.”
Giving back is also a priority for Hilda herself, who four years ago launched a foundation and built a school in Guinea, in West Africa. Today the foundation is working to build an additional wing for older children, and she’s asked her engineers to devise a solar solution for the lack of electricity in the village. “I want to continue doing that,” she affirms. “I didn’t want to teach school, but it’s important to me to further the cause of education.” Years ago as a teacher, Hilda found meaningful contribution difficult within the rigid structure of a suffering educational system, but today she’s found a better way to share her talents while challenging the world to improve, just as she does each day with AIS. Her career demonstrates that rejecting systemic inefficiencies and embracing challenge will always lead to something better—even if you have to build it yourself.