“When my husband first pitched me the concept of starting a business together, I laughed about it for three days,” says Leslie Steele. “He’s the smartest person I know, but I thought he was crazy at the moment. I’d never thought of myself as an entrepreneur at heart, and I was deeply ingrained in corporate America at the time. I believed that was my path. To quit all that and start a company based on an idea that wasn’t even fully formed just seemed nuts to me!”
As the thought sunk in, however, Leslie began to consider it in a new light. Her husband, John, had always been an idea person, and she herself had always been an execution person. The combination had potential, and she wasn’t entirely happy with the consulting work she was doing, so why not take a chance?
That was 1996, and today, over fifteen years later, Leslie is the President, CEO, and co-founder of InterImage, the award-winning IT services company that sprung from that single crazy idea. The process of bringing that idea to fruition has been one of risk, resilience, and revolution, demonstrating that even after spending years on one professional path, a person can still surprise herself and discover that she is, after all, an entrepreneur at heart.
InterImage was first launched at a time when there were very few websites worldwide. Those that that did exist were primarily static pages, and in a 1997 survey by U.S. News and World Report, 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies said they’d be putting an end to their “web experiment” within the next year. “It was a very different perspective of the web,” Leslie explains today. “Society didn’t know how to use it, and couldn’t conceive of its capabilities.”
At that time, John was involved in patent research and had been following the internet since it was first conceived as a DARPA project. Always a visionary, he believed in the value of the technology and pitched Leslie on the concept of applying it inside companies to make information more accessible. They termed this concept a housenet, and today we know it as an intranet. John had no experience running a business himself, but Leslie had run operations for several companies, and together, their capabilities were ideally matched to provide InterImage with a foundation solid enough to thrive.
In the first couple years, Leslie spent a lot of time evangelizing about the technology. “It was a double-sales challenge,” she recalls. “We didn’t have to just convince customers to buy from us, we had to convince them to buy period.” Maintaining a safety net to cushion the risk of starting their own business, Leslie continued some consulting work for the first year as the fledgling company gained momentum. John, as well, continued to do patent research that added to their modest revenue stream. InterImage won its first job from the Department of Veterans Affairs to build an intranet for them, as well as applications that would let them share information. The company then picked up several more customers, which enabled Leslie and John to scale out of their other ventures to focus solely on the company.
Since then, the world has surged forward technologically at a rapid pace, but the mission and focus of InterImage remains fundamentally unaltered. It still builds applications that allow organizations to share information internally and externally, and that support employees doing their jobs more efficiently and effectively. Though it does build public facing websites and applications, most of what it does remains internal to the bounds of a large organization. InterImage’s early years were spent primarily servicing telecommunications companies, but as those began to crash and burn when the Dotcom bubble burst, its sights shifted to the federal space. “We wanted the complexity and size in our customers that the federal government could offer,” Leslie says. “It just became a natural place to focus.”
Today, InterImage has about a hundred employees. One of Leslie’s early challenges was getting the right people on board at market price. “Young people were coming out of college caught up in this “go go dotcom” mentality, and because we were a technology company, some people thought we were a dotcom,” she explains. “The dotcoms were paying outrageous salaries, and as a result, we’d interview kids fresh out of college who were expecting starting salaries of $90,000. Finding technologists in the DC area was really hard for a while because the dotcoms were just sucking up a lot of people. That changed quickly.”
Now, Leslie runs the company and handles the day-to-day operations, while John runs the network operations staff and advises on a range of issues. “Because he’s such an idea guy, he observes the industry and its broad trends,” Leslie explains. “Being in the throes of daily operations, I can sometimes get lost in the trees, but John can see things as a whole and provides a tremendously valuable perspective as a result.” With their complementary skills and strengths, the two respect one another’s decisions, never step on one another’s toes, and have perfect alignment on where they want to go, allowing InterImage to function like a well-oiled machine at both the micro and macro levels.
Though Leslie never saw herself as an entrepreneur, that adventurous, driven, solutions-oriented persona has always been at the heart of who she is, even at an early age. She was born and raised in Connecticut where she and her siblings would play explorers in the woods behind their house. Those days came to an end, however, when a tragic car accident took the lives of her father, brother, and sister when Leslie was only six years old. Leslie, her remaining sister, and her mother then moved to New Hampshire, where they had family.
Through high school, she pursued her love of sports. Recognizing it as a good outlet for her, she played on the field hockey team, raced competitively for the ski team, and then became a competitive gymnast. “Team sports certainly taught me about being a team player, but those more solitary sports like gymnastics and skiing taught me to fight, and to never give up,” she remembers.
When she was younger, Leslie had aspired to be a city planner, but by her junior year in high school, she knew she wanted to go into business. Her uncle had a small business cutting lumber, but other than that, she didn’t know much about it, except that she knew business was her path. By the time she graduated high school, she knew she would go to graduate school to get her MBA, so she wanted to pursue an undergraduate degree that would be a good segue while still offering some variation. She enrolled at the University of Michigan and then transferred to Cornell University to study industrial and labor relations. “I’ve often wondered why I was so clear on my path, and I can’t put my finger on it,” Leslie reflects. “Years later, while I was in graduate school, my mother told me that she had always wanted to go into business but had never talked to me about it because she didn’t want to sway me. As it turns out, I was innately drawn to a business career.”
From college, Leslie enrolled immediately in Duke’s MBA program. She had worked her first job back in college in the mailroom of an insurance company, but her first job out of school was for Ernst and Whinney in Washington, DC, doing transportation consulting. The work was extremely stimulating—among other cases, Leslie helped Continental Airlines craft and justify a plan to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy by doing the largest asset purchase of any company in bankruptcy in history. In time, however, Leslie tired of not being able to execute. “The thing about consulting is that, at the end of the day, you’re not making the decision—somebody else is,” she explains. “They’re listening to you, but they can take it or leave it. They’re making the decision, and they’re ultimately responsible for the outcome. I wanted to get on the other side of that.”
This desire led Leslie to accept a position at MCI in its financial planning organization. At the time, the company was rocketing forward, and when MCI acquired and absorbed a company called Satellite Business Systems, Leslie was appointed to work on a team handling that process. She then transitioned over to Sprint, which was newly formed, to work for the CFO of its Eastern region. “It was an amazingly vibrant, dynamic place,” she recalls. “I was always in the senior leadership meetings, either presenting or as an observer, and was able to witness that early growth. It gave me a lot of visibility, and I was put in the CFO role after my boss left the company. It was a great place to be.”
From there, Leslie was recruited out to a small company called Phone Base Systems, which was launched by the initial founder of what later became AOL. He had a reputation of successfully founding businesses, and Leslie thought she would give it a shot. The company floundered, however. “It just wasn’t the right concept or team, and it turned into a grueling effort to find investors and then placate them when the news was bad.” After two years, she left to offer consulting services on her own before landing a position at Oncor Communications, a mid-size company that wanted her to start up a new line of services for them. She launched and grew that before returning to consulting, when she began working with a government contractor called TCS.
TCS ended up offering her a job running the new telecom division that she had been providing strategic consulting services to, landing Leslie at a crossroad. As she was driving home from a meeting, she called John to mull over the decision—she felt that the path being offered to her by TCS wasn’t quite right for her, yet she was unenthused about continuing consulting. It was that conversation that prompted John to dream up an entirely new path—the one that would lead to InterImage’s creation, and to where they are today.
Though her father wasn’t physically present for most of her life, Leslie notes his influence as paramount. In addition to the glow of the fond memories she has with him in the early days of her childhood, her mother’s emotional retreat after his passing meant that, in many respects, Leslie raised herself. “I learned tremendous self-reliance, and that has been the single strongest influence on me—something that I’ve returned to all my life,” she affirms. When she bought her first house at a relatively young age, for example, she gutted and replaced her kitchen, learned wiring and plumbing, hung cabinets, and built a deck and closet—all on her own.
“Self doubt creeps in at times, but it never interferes with my ability to make decisions,” Leslie explains. “I always have the sense that I don’t have worry; that I can make a decision and, whether it’s right or wrong, I’ll get through it. That gives me a confidence to make decisions easily, which is a very important skill in business.” Because she has such a strong sense of resilience, she’s able to move swiftly through sequences of choices on a daily basis that would make others grind to a halt.
With her consistently rational, highly efficient, and swiftly executed style of decision making easily distinguished as among her greatest strengths, Leslie readily points to her introverted leanings as among her greatest weaknesses when it comes to business. “Leading InterImage, I’m the company’s most important spokesperson, so I’ve had to really focus on learning public speaking,” she says. “It’s easier not to put yourself out there, but you have to do it. You can’t put on a mask; you have to be who you are to really connect with others, which is an integral aspect in conducting business the way I believe it should be conducted. And I’m lucky, because it’s easier to do when you have someone supporting you through good times and bad. That’s what John does for me, and it makes a big difference.”
In reflecting back on the past decade and a half, it becomes clear that, in realizing a dream she never knew she had, Leslie has contributed to the community and to the lives of her employees as she has watched herself transform into the entrepreneur she never thought she was. As a result, InterImage has become one of her proudest accomplishments. “I wanted a company that wasn’t limiting to anyone, that instead really promoted people working together as a team across boundaries,” she affirms. “I wanted a company that allowed people to grow and learn and make mistakes without getting their hand slapped. We built that culture. It’s very collaborative and encouraging, giving people the opportunity to do things they’ve never done before, and in an environment that puts their wellbeing ahead of the financial growth of the company itself. That’s the prioritization system John and I believe in, and it’s served us well.”
Within that prioritization system, Leslie also places a premium on taking the initiative to contribute positively to something bigger than yourself, whether it’s a charity, one’s community, or the world at large. When she acted as Chair of the Industry Advisory Council, with its seven thousand active members, she actively pursued this philosophy when she collaborated with a team to publish a series of papers on current technology issues and then briefed senior leadership in the Obama Administration on those matters. She was the first person from a small services company to chair that massive organization. She now serves as Vice President and incoming President of a chapter of AFCEA. “It’s good to give back to the community of which you’re a member,” she explains. “Helping to get others involved and understanding the value of giving back is part of that impact.”
In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Leslie emphasizes that being authentic to one’s self is of paramount importance. “I’ve seen people try to take on a role that wasn’t comfortable to them, and they couldn’t,” she says. “I would also say that, if one company isn’t working for you, go find another company to work for. Companies and cultures vary hugely, and you just have to find the right place for you to fit in and thrive.” Or, as it was in Leslie’s case, go out and create that place yourself.