It had been five years since we last interviewed Bonnie Carroll, Founder of Information International Associates Inc. (IIa), but her explanation of how she launched the Oak Ridge-headquartered company with an international reach was much the same.
“My goal was not to be an entrepreneur,” the energetic resident of the Solway community explains. “The company I was working for left town, I started consulting, and my clients needed more people, so I had to hire staff.”
Those needs and contracts led Carroll to found IIa in 1988 even though, as she looks back, she readily admits, “I never had an exit strategy.” Carroll just pushed ahead, winning more work from government, academic and private entities. Click on these links to read Part 1 and Part 2 of that 2013 series.
Today, IIa has 300 information technology systems designers, developers, mission specialists, and security professionals in Oak Ridge as well as those serving clients in Alexandria and McLean, VA; Rockville, MD, Dayton, OH; and the United Kingdom.
Earlier this year, Jeannette Lee and a group of investors bought the company, and Carroll has shifted roles to one that allows her to pursue her passions while also leaving the daily responsibilities of running a business. She’s Chief Data Officer, while Lee serves as Chief Executive Officer.
“I love to lead and mentor,” Carroll says. “I don’t want anyone to supervise.”
Of Lee, IIa’s Founder says, “We are extremely different individuals with different motivations.” Carroll sees that as a positive for the company.
“We’re at a point where we (the company) are ready to take the next step,” she says. “To further advance into a large business, we needed new expertise and skills.”
Carroll started thinking about shifting her role several years ago and, as she puts it, “realize some of the gains (equity)” she had built in IIa over three decades. Ironically, it was four females who consummated the deal – Carroll, Lee, Carroll’s lawyer, and an investment banker.
“I used her (the lawyer) in a 2011 acquisition, and I went right back to her this time,” Carroll said. “She’s that good.”
The deal closed March 31, and Carroll is comfortable shifting into her less stressful but exciting new role.
“With Jeannette, it was perfect,” Carroll says. “IIa did not go away. It stayed intact as a company and will be the platform for winning new business and acquiring new companies.” That view is held by Lee as readers will see if Part 3 of this series.
With the recent but much larger corporate acquisitions in Knoxville like Scripps Networks Interactive and Regal Entertainment, local leaders are always concerned about what the changes mean.
“Keeping the back-office operations in Oak Ridge made it a really good deal for me,” Carroll says. “We are a part of this community. It is part of our DNA.”
“I want to chase ideas,” Bonnie Carroll, Founder of Information International Associates Inc. (IIa), says in describing her new role as the Chief Data Officer of the 300-employee company.
Noting that she’s always been in the world of science and technology and at the intersection of information and technology, Carroll says simply, “You finally realize what makes you happy.”
As she has said on previous occasions, it was the legendary Alvin Weinberg, former Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director, who inspired her to pursue what has been a long and successful career in the ever-advancing world of information technology. And what better base to start a company than in the Oak Ridge community.
“The output of the $150 billion (S&T) sector is knowledge and information,” Carroll explains. “Managing that output and reusing it has now been recognized as the fourth pillar of science. My love is effective use of content, with the best technology as a means, so they are inextricably interwoven.”
What’s at the intersection of content and technology? “It’s data analytics. Making data useful and actionable.”
“Analytics is the fertilizer of the information revolution,” Carroll explains as she becomes more animated and excited in discussing areas and opportunities that she can spend more time exploring in the new role.
She points to the ever-evolving movements in open government, open data, and open science, calling them an enormous and overpowering wave.
“Data are a public good, overlaid with open science,” Carroll says, citing the acronym FAIR which stands for findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable. “Open data without these is not open data.”
She sees opportunities to leverage the region’s myriad of assets into a center for data analytics.
Looking back to 1988, we asked Carroll to share with us some lessons learned.
“They depend on where you start,” she explained. “I start with the love of knowledge in my DNA. I really worked hard for 30 years and ended-up in a good place.”
Carroll described one key factor for her success as what she called a “multi-faceted community effort” that is an important foundation for any new venture.
“You’re not successful because of yourself,” she says. “It requires good customers, a supportive community, great employees, and strong political relations.”
Those who know or have observed Carroll over the years will attest to the fact that she truly believes in these ingredients and has practiced them.
“What makes me happy is the integration of those things,” she says.
“We saw this as a very strong foundation on which we can build,” Jeannette Lee, the new Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Co-Owner of Information International Associates Inc. (IIa) told us when we interviewed her recently.
Taking over from Bonnie Carroll, IIa’s Founder and former CEO, Lee already brings her own impressive set of experiences to the table. In many respects, they are very similar to those of her predecessor. Lee has worked in the government contracting and information technology sectors for more than 30 years. She founded her own company – Sytel – and grew it to 300 employees, about the size of IIa.
“When I met Bonnie, I could immediately relate to her success over 30 years,” the South Korean-born Lee told us. “The previous company I ran was serving a lot of customers in the science and technology areas, mainly NIH (National Institutes of Health), NSF (National Science Foundation), and DoD (Department of Defense).”
Lee also says she has fully embraced IIa’s tagline – “Navigators in the Sea of Data.”
Carroll, Lee and the investment banker referenced in the first article in this series first met in md-2017. Lee immediately felt a synergy with Carroll and also clearly saw the opportunity to further leverage what she characterized as the “long-term relationships with elite customers” that Carroll and her IIa team had developed.
With a group of other investors, Lee and Carroll closed the sale March 15 of this year, and the latter is now IIa’s Chief Data Officer.
“That’s what she does,” Lee says. “Her mission is to leverage what the company has done in big data and focus even more on data analytics.”
IIa’s new CEO sees that emphasis as a key component of the growth strategy, something Carroll described to us as the “next step” for the company.
“The chief challenge that CIOs (Chief Information Officers) face is they have too much data and frequently don’t even know what they have,” Lee explains. “We want to help them make proper decisions and mitigate risks in cybersecurity.”
It’s part of “helping change the way they think and also protect what they have,” she adds. “We are helping them visualize the data they have.”
What about the Oak Ridge operations?
Lee pointed to IIa’s founding in Oak Ridge and its decades of experience working with the Department of Energy.
“Our company’s heritage is centered in Oak Ridge,” she says. “We will preserve it; it is the heart of the organization.”
Noting that the local region has “an amazing talent base,” Lee believes having bases in both Oak Ridge and the Washington, DC area is “a win-win for all our customers and ourselves. We have the best of both worlds.”