The young whippersnapper.
That was the nickname Katherine Sleep, freshly graduated from college and the first woman employed in Western Electric’s engineering department, quickly earned for herself amongst her colleagues. Indeed, Katie was a fiery overachiever with a perm to prove it—the kind of lady who took every situation by storm.
Her boss, whom she admired deeply, was always supportive but encouraged her to develop an element of refinement in her approach to her work, as well as her hairdo. “I’ll never forget when he said to me, ‘Just remember that the foundation you build is the one you also want to stand on,’” Katie remarks today. Now the President and CEO of LIST Innovative Solutions, the company Katie launched herself to pursue excellence in software development for the federal government, she remembers those days early in her career as the time she first realized that the concept of “success” is a dynamic term that continues to evolve for her every day.
LIST was launched in January of 1996 after Katie had done work for several Fortune 500 companies in the IT industry. She had gone into the services industry to open several branch offices for different organizations, each of which ended up being bought up. “At that point I realized that, if I was going to do this, I should do it for myself,” Katie remembers. Thus, LIST was launched. Katie ran it with a solely commercial focus through 2000, providing software development for tech companies, but when the tech bubble burst that year, the market shifted dramatically. Fortuitously, LIST was subbing into a government contract for the Office of Personnel Management at the time and they decided they wanted to work with Katie and her team directly. With that, LIST’s first federal contract was won.
Today, the work LIST does is more in line with Katie’s nuanced background in building applications for financial organizations through the process of automation, and with a finger on the constantly evolving pulse of technological advancement. “I started this company because I wanted to do it my way,” Katie acknowledges. “And like my concept of the word ‘success,’ over the course of the last seventeen years, my way has evolved to be much more than it was in the beginning.”
This evolution is owed in part to Katie’s unparalleled drive to perfectionism, even at the expense of other areas of her life. “I’ve always felt the drive to be an A plus individual, and I’ve sacrificed a lot to pursue that,” she remarks. “I’ve worked unreal hours, and I never had a work-life balance.” The company culture of LIST, however, encourages more of a balance in its employees. “We’re a very family, relationship-driven company,” she affirms. “We have happy hours once a month, and our employees bring their families and friends. With a new office just opened in Alexandria and employees dispersed at different government sites, we also hold other events that unify everyone.”
This employee-centric approach has resulted in a 95 percent retention rate since the company’s inception in 1996, and among Katie’s top priorities is the maintenance of this strong integrity that undergirds the relationships of LIST. “You can make a lot of money, but if you don’t take care of your family and the people around you, you’re not going to do well,” Katie says. “It’s easy for people to stay with you through good times, but it’s those that stay with you through the bad times that really make a difference. LIST has certainly survived bad times and come out on the other side a much better company, and it’s because people didn’t give up on us. Now, every time I make a decision, I think about the fact that I have a hundred employees who each have families. Every decision I make is very calculated, taking into account the full breadth of this impact.”
Just how hard were these hard times? At the start of 2000, LIST was doing exceptionally well. It was still in the commercial industry at the time when its clients all began to file for bankruptcy. Katie had around 25 employees at that time and was forced to scale it back to 12, and Katie herself didn’t take a salary for five years. “We even had to operate the company out of our basement for a while, but it really made me who I am now,” she avows. “When I graduated from Indiana University as a woman in an engineering field, I had great prospects and thought I could do anything. People told me I’d hit hard times if I started my own company, but I didn’t believe them. When the tides turned like that, it almost took us under, and I really had to do some soul searching. I remembered what my first manager had said and took note of the foundation I had built that had held strong through that experience. I knew it was a foundation that I could stand on. And it’s true what they say, that what doesn’t take you under makes you a much better person.”
As LIST began to rebuild armed with a new perspective and a better understanding of that foundation, Katie’s entire approach evolved. It was no longer about being big and making lots of money. Now, it was about quality of life. “When you’re faced with losing everything, you sit back and really see what it is you truly need,” she explains. “I was always a high achiever and wanted to be successful, but your definition of success changes as you mature and grow. With that knowledge, the company became stronger. We pay all of our debts and always make payroll, and this pays off in winning more business and more loyalty. If you give up your integrity, you have nothing.”
Though it had taken a new spotlight in Katie’s life after the dotcom burst, the concept of integrity was no stranger to her and had been a foundational concept throughout her upbringing. Growing up in Indiana, Katie’s mother was a schoolteacher and her father worked in HR. Her mother was a big advocate for women, and this was deeply ingrained in Katie’s psyche. “I always grew up knowing I could do anything,” she reports. “It was just a matter of how I was going to do it.”
This lesson became particularly important when she became pregnant with her first child while working at Tenaco in Texas, and her employer basically assumed she wasn’t going to come back after maternity leave and began to plan accordingly. Katie, however, convinced him that her work ethic and commitment to her projects was unwavering. When her second child came along, her manager had no doubts whatsoever. “It worked for me to work with him and not against him, and to prove to him that I could do a great job,” Katie says. “That’s what I did, and he was my biggest supporter for the rest of my time at Tenaco. If you take that attitude in life, you feel good about it and about your relationships with people.”
As a kid, Katie worked at a candle store called Wicks and Sticks, where she eventually worked her way up to manager during her senior year of high school. She also loved teaching swim lessons to make money. As well, since her mother, father, and grandmother were all teachers in one form or another, the skill came quite naturally to her, so she taught computer science and information systems to high school students while in college.
Katie was always phenomenally skilled at math and exhibited a natural affinity for engineering, but she actually wanted to quit school when she was a junior in college to get married and to pursue a different life. Her father, who was always very analytical and just, did not try to dissuade her but instead took her out to dinner. “I’m fine with whatever decision you make, but let’s do a pros and cons list,” he said, true to form. After the brainstorming session, Katie quickly saw the value in sticking it out.
After graduating, Katie assumed her position at Western Electric building applications for manufacturing. The company then wanted to put her into a role dealing more with electronic switching systems, yet the business aspect of what she was programming was what really intrigued her. “One language is really no different from the other,” she remarks today. “I became bored with the computer side of it and more interested in the business side of it, and building things that could really make an impact on an organization.”
Katie then moved to San Francisco and got a job with a company doing application software development. That was her first business development job, and they wanted her because she had a true and infectious passion for software development and its dynamic possibilities. Katie then moved back to the DC area and was hired to open branch offices of the companies that were then bought out, igniting the entrepreneurial flame from which LIST was born.
“The biggest thing you learn in starting your own company is that, when you do it yourself, everything is on you,” says Katie. “Once you take that on your shoulders, you know that failure isn’t an option.” LIST became profitable within four to six months of its inception, and it has been a rewarding and successful ride ever since. Despite this fact, however, Katie acknowledges that she doesn’t talk about success much. “Yes, we’re successful, but I didn’t do it on my own,” she says. “There is no I in team, so I have a hard time talking about my success. There’s no way I got here by myself.”
With this philosophy in mind, Katie makes it a priority to give back. The unshakable desire to do this was perhaps first ignited when in 1999 when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and very suddenly passed away soon after. “It just didn’t fit because she was so healthy,” Katie acknowledges. “That, combined with the dotcom crisis that hit in 2000, just really hit home the fact that we have to help each other and give back.” As a result, she has raised money for charities by participating in dozens of events like marathons and Iron Man Challenges. She also sits on the board of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, honoring her mother and her own commitment to success by assuming a leadership role in an organization committed to helping other
families achieve success in fighting the cancer.
Success as viewed from this lens—the lens of philanthropy, relationships, and family—is the measuring stick that Katie now uses to measure her own progress. “Society tends to measure you on your income and your titles, especially in the engineering field, so that’s what it was all about in the beginning,” she acknowledges. “But over the years, that’s changed phenomenally. Today, I look at success as the fact that we won an award for being one of the greatest places to work, and as the fact that we were a finalist for an ethics award. And I look at success as the fact that I’m a loving grandmother and couldn’t be more proud of my family.”
In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Katie stresses the importance of being true to yourself. “Your gut is everything,” she explains. “You have to be true to your gut.” She also explains that it takes a lot of hard work to gain peoples’ respect, but it’s worth it. “If you put your head down and do a really good job, it will pay off in many ways you won’t see right away,” she continues. “People can tell right off the bat if you are what you say, so you have to follow your gut, work hard, and be authentic.” In this sense, Katie knows that success is not about shortcuts or quick fixes. Success is, in itself, a journey that is constantly evolving to new depths and new truths—a journey that’s worth taking to the fullest.