In the spring of 1989, Rose Wang stood in solidarity with her student colleagues in Tiananmen Square, part of a massive protest to campaign for economic liberalization, political reform, and freedom of the press in Beijing, China. A daughter of college professors who had academic tours outside of China, Rose had been exposed to these Western, liberal values, and had made them her own. “When my sister and I were in middle school,” she remembers, “our parents sat us down and told us that the future was not there in China. They told us what the world was really like, and that one day we, too, would be able to see it for ourselves.”
In a sense, that experience was akin to one of Rose’s favorite Chinese proverbs. “When you’re in the mountain, you can’t see shape of the mountain,” she explains. “But when you leave the mountain, you can see it from a distance and behold its true form. It’s about getting perspective, and that’s what my parents were trying to impart to my sister and I that day.”
Her parents tried to dissuade her from putting herself in danger as part of the Tiananmen Square protest, but as a friend of several in the student leadership of the protests, and instilled with the values her parents had taught her, Rose felt it was her duty to be a part of the movement. Thankfully, when the People’s Liberation Army moved through the city on June 4th, using live fire to quell the protest and killing hundreds if not thousands of civilians, she was able to escape to her family’s home unharmed. Some of her friends, however, were not as fortunate.
Staying calm and beholding her problems from afar instead of getting lost in them, Rose spent the next few days following traces of spotty information to learn that one friend had been injured by a stray bullet, and another had been killed. A third dear friend of hers who was among the leadership of the movement disappeared entirely for weeks before turning up suddenly at her doorstep, announcing that he intended to turn himself in. Rose eventually helped him settle in the D.C. metropolitan area, and the two of them remain close friends today. Now the founder and CEO of Binary Group, a technology solutions and management consulting firm offering solutions and services to the Federal Government in the financial management, cyber security, intelligence community, and health markets, Rose has remembered the value of objectivity and perspective from those early days and continues to apply those skills to help her business flourish.
Indeed, the mountain proverb has always served her well, especially as she transitioned from China to the U.S. “As students and intellectuals,” Rose says, “the values we fought for had always been our values. After finishing my bachelor’s in China, I brought those values with me when I came to the United States the following year, in 1990.” Eleven years later, after finishing graduate school in Texas, an adventure with a cutting-edge Silicon Valley start-up, and a couple entrepreneurial misfires, Rose woke up on the bright and clear morning of September 11, 2001. A few hours later, she found herself reliving the heart-wrenching experience of pursuing any lead she could find to discover if her loved ones were safe.
“It took me three hours to locate my cousin,” Rose says, “who was working for a Wall Street firm at the time. I also had a relative who worked at the Patent Trademark office in Crystal City, who saw the plane slam into the Pentagon. Yes, that day had a big impact on me.” It wasn’t only shock and fear that she felt, however. Rising above the terror, she felt the resonance of those values she had put her own life in danger to protect years ago—the values that had never left her.
“I remember that night very well,” she reports today. “There was so much talk of failed intelligence, and a failure to share information effectively. I knew I had technical expertise, and that there was something important I could do with it. I knew I had to help—there was no excuse not to do something. It reminded me of being on the streets in Beijing back in 1989.”
That “aha” moment of realization was like water and sunshine arriving to nourish the seed of entrepreneurship that had been first planted in Rose years earlier, when she was working in Silicon Valley, California. Recently out of graduate school after earning her degree in computer science, Rose was recruited to write software for a start-up called Lighthouse Design. “I feel very fortunate for having had the opportunity to work there,” she affirms. “It was a classic Silicon Valley start-up success story. Everyone was under 30, and we worked very long, but very fun hours. We logged about eighty hours a week, but we had a masseuse come in once a week, and no one but the sales guy wore a suit. Our CTO didn’t even wear shoes!”
Around this time, Rose was sponsored for US citizenship and earned her green card. When the product she was lead engineer on went beta in early 1996, it was a great success in its technological niche, and she began to receive calls from recruiters. Lighthouse wasn’t for sale at the time, but after receiving a series of bids, it was eventually acquired by Sun Microsystems in the middle of that year for $50 million.
At first excited to be a part of such a large company, complete with stock options and vacation time, Rose soon felt the shock of moving from the start-up environment to that of a large corporation. A moment of realization came to her while sitting in an HR meeting in which she was treated as just another cog in a bigger machine. “I remember thinking very distinctly that, to this company, I was not even a number,” she recalls. “I was just part of a salary band. I walked out, and I realized that I was done with it. I wanted to be in control of my own destiny—that concept is at the root of why I’m an entrepreneur today.”
With that, Rose launched Binary Group and began working for herself, exploring the possibilities that various pieces of software presented. “You can’t help but get caught up in the excitement of using technology to solve problems,” she gushes, remembering that time. She put the fledgling company on hold for a short while, however, when she was recruited by a friend to work on a tech start-up in Northern Virginia, where she helped to construct a Java design tool to sell to corporations building web-based enterprise applications.
Because she was brought on the team as a senior developer and early investor, she had the opportunity to travel extensively with management, lending her a high degree of exposure to the business side of the company. Experiencing both the good and bad decisions of the company leadership, Rose began to take an interest in business management herself. She began asking more questions of her colleagues, fleshing out her knowledge and honing her skill set. Ultimately, she realized that her own business instincts and common sense, while undeveloped and unpracticed, boasted an innate strength and vivacity, and it was time to invest herself fully in their pursuit. “After that realization, I walked away from that company in early 2000 to start my own dot-com,” she affirms.
At a women’s leadership conference the year before, Rose had met two ladies in their fifties who were savvy in business but unfamiliar with the kind of technology Rose was building her career around. Together they embarked on a venture to build a technology company near the peak of the dot-com bubble, incorporating in Delaware and developing a prototype of their product. Then, one day in April of 2000, Rose and her partners began a presentation to venture capitalists on K Street in Washington, DC. “There I was,” Rose says, “pitching this great idea we had. I was running our audience through a little demo when I realized that the head gentleman we were meeting with was extremely nervous. He kept checking his blackberry. Then someone came in and gave him a note, and suddenly he stood up and told us that he had to stop the meeting. The NASDAQ had just crashed spectacularly.”
Ultimately, the business failed, but instead of quelling the entrepreneurial drive in her, the fire was actually fueled by the experience. “I thought to myself, well that was awful,” Rose remembers. “But it was a lot of fun, too! It didn’t work in the end, but it was fun trying to make it work. That’s when I really got the bug.”
By the end of that summer, Rose was determined not to go back to mere coding. Instead, she was fully committed to the goal of building a business. Just a year later, in September of 2001, Rose’s sense of duty in the wake of the September 11th tragedy dovetailed with her surging passion for entrepreneurship. Knowing what she needed to do, she resurrected Binary Group and entered the government space as an IT consulting and advisory group. After a few years of developing and honing Binary to the emerging trends in federal government IT needs, the small company emerged in 2006 as an Inc. 500 rated company, ranked 114th overall and fourth of nineteen in defense contractors.
Since that time, Binary has gone through several transitions to stay on the cutting edge of IT trends, which has presented a number of challenges to Rose’s business sense and leadership ability—challenges she has been eager to meet. At the outset of 2012, for example, Rose began transitioning the company away from its status as purely an advisory firm to begin providing both advisory and technology solutions. “This recent change in our business model was met by employees with applause,” she reports. “In the past, transitions Binary has gone through have been challenging, but now with our aperture opening up, my employees and I feel that there are more opportunities for potential growth. We are a nimble company, and we’ll change with the market.”
Though she speaks like a seasoned entrepreneur today, her innovative skill set and knowledge base are the products of thoughtful cultivation and years of experience. “When I first realized that I’d caught the entrepreneurial bug,” Rose says, “I just read everything I could get my hands on. I have also been very blessed to have several important people lending a hand and mentoring me along the way. These lessons helped me build on my early passion to control my own destiny, helping to turn that passion into a great success story in which I’ve been able to meet the challenges I’ve had to face. It’s been a truly incredible journey.”
Several lessons came from one individual in particular, Clara Conti, who taught Rose how to shift her introverted tendencies outward on command to turn her into a networker as effective and magnetic as she is sincere and genuine. She also learned crucial components of her business savvy from a business owner named Jean Woo. “At the time I was introduced to her, Binary was subcontracting,” Rose recalls. “She asked me if I wanted to subcontract all my life, or if I wanted to become a prime contractor. I told her I didn’t see the problem with subcontracting, but she pointed out that it prevents one from having control over one’s own destiny. Boy, that was definitely a trigger for me! Considering the fact I was drawn to entrepreneurship in the first place because it allows one to shape one’s own future, I knew I couldn’t settle for less than that.”
These are just a few of the many people Rose has drawn guidance and inspiration from throughout her career, and today she continues that pursuit of growth and knowledge as a member of Vistage International, an executive coaching and peer advisory group for CEOs. “My decision to stay with Vistage stems from that same Chinese proverb that has helped guide my life all these years,” she explains. “Sometimes, as a leader, when you have an issue or a problem, it’s difficult to identify its true shape and nature. By stepping away from your business for a while and collaborating with a group of CEOs of similar-sized businesses, you have the opportunity to behold the mountain from an objective, realistic point of view—one that allows you to conceptualize of it in its entirety, and to better come up with a solution.” By being mindful to always seek a clear, objective, realistic perspective, Rose has built success in both good times and bad, and young entrepreneurs entering the business world today can hope to do the same if they, too, seek to behold their mountains.