SOSi accepts challenges, finds solutions: E-Bird Q & A with CEO Julian Setian
SOSi is a family-owned government services integrator that works primarily in the defense and intelligence sectors. Founded in 1989 by Sosi Setian, an Armenian immigrant who earned her bachelor's degree from UCLA, and master's and Ph.M degrees from the American University in Cairo and Columbia University, the company was initially established as a provider of foreign language and cultural advisory services to the U.S. law enforcement community.
Under current president and CEO Julian Setian (Sosi's son), the company has evolved into a provider of intelligence, technology and program management solutions and has worked in more than 30 countries. The E-Bird recently chatted with Julian Setian in his office on Campus Commons Drive in Reston, where SOSi is expanding its headquarters to accommodate about 150 employees.
EB: From the outside, it appears your company does it all, including supplying food, fresh water and laundry services to construction to sophisticated analytics. In a nutshell, can you describe what SOSi does?
JS: We are basically incubating two very distinct businesses here. I like to call them my blue-collar and white-collar businesses. One is doing all the long-range logistics: supply management, operations, management, and construction. Much of it is very complex and difficult to accomplish. The other line of business focuses on things we do in an office environment. It's analytical work, systems engineering, and integration. To grow in the defense services business, you have to become a jack of all trades. There aren't too many billion-dollar-plus companies in this industry that do one thing. The way to grow in this business it to build a versatile organization that can do lots of things so you can lift and shift, based on changing priorities and government spending.
EB: Can you elaborate on your motto: "Challenge Accepted" and your company's willingness to go anyplace, anytime, to get the job done?
JS: When we went through the whole exercise of rebranding the company a couple years ago, about the only thing that everybody agreed on, immediately, was that motto. It's just something we felt in our bones. It absolutely captures the DNA of the company. "Challenge Accepted" just reflects the general mindset of the corporation. Our people don't need to be told that we're a company that will take on the toughest assignments that our customers have to offer. It's not just about working in difficult places. It's also about approaching a problem in a very results-oriented fashion so that we can overcome obstacles in our path.
EB: What is the most difficult challenge your company has accepted?
JS: After the U.S military withdrew from Iraq in 2011, we learned there was a looming crisis. A large number of contractors that stayed behind were being supported by the military on a program that was about to sunset. We saw that as an opportunity. We went back to Iraq, in the absence of a treaty that protected our staff, and set up an operation to continue providing logistics and life-support to American military contractors...Then, in June 2014, as ISIS was emerging in Iraq and the U.S. embassy evacuated its non-essential personnel, all of the other American contractors left the country. We faced a difficult decision: to continue operating facilities at substantial cost or to abandon the operation and facilities under our management. We made the decision to stay. For six months I personally financed the operation at a cost of a couple of million dollars a month with no end in sight. In the end, it proved to be the right decision. When the military went back into Iraq, we were already there and able to provide a turnkey logistics solution. We were able to win work we would not have won if we had not taken the risk and were not pre-positioned there.
EB: How do you find the right people to dangerous work in far-flung places?
JS: Obviously, we're hiring a lot of retired military and government people. We're not recruiting out of colleges for the type of work we do outside of the Washington, D.C.,area. Even though some places are 'far-flung,' they're not that far from the core of what we do and agencies we serve. It's a very tightly-knit community when you're talking about the intelligence community...In terms of (danger), we make it clear that we don't force anyone to do anything they don't want to do. We contract for our own security and we probably go overboard in terms of the level of security we purchase for staff and our clients. When we commit to providing security, that's an enormous amount of liability we take on as a company. Fortunately, we have people working for us who understand and know how to mitigate the threats that we face.
EB: Tell us what's going on with your expansion.
JS: We've been in this building since 2010 and we love the area. We had no idea that the Metro was going to come out here when we first moved, so that's kind of exciting, just the fact we're in walking distance from the Wiehle Avenue Metro with all the development that is planned on the other side of the toll road. It means more restaurant options, shopping options and, with a hotel, that's going to make it easier for outside guests. Our business has people coming in from out of town on a routine basis. With the additional space we've taken in the building, we're going to have about 63,000 square feet (up from 29,000), and we may have to take even more space.
EB: Why is Reston and Fairfax County the right place for you?
JS: The Dulles Corridor has become the high-tech center of Washington, D.C., and one of the high-tech centers of the Northeast, so being here means we have access to an enormous amount of technical talent, not to mention that the majority of our customers are based out here...[Proximity to D.C.] is critically important. We can't be that far from the 'flagpole' as a government contractor, and we're close to many professional services like law firms and accounting firms based in D.C.
EB: You must be very proud of your mom and the company you've helped to build.
JS: She was a single mom, raising me in Manhattan on a very paltry salary. I'm enormously proud of her. When she made the decision to start this business and to get her Ph.D., she was living off student loans. We lived in a 1,000 square foot apartment on the Upper Upper West Side -- kind of a rough neighborhood back then...
Watching her trying to start her business, I really wanted to help her succeed. I was able to bring in a lot of new business in about two years' time, but I've always felt that, at the end of the day, she was the founder. She owned the risk. I would certainly not be where I am if not for her. She sometimes tells me that she has to pinch herself, thinking back to where we were at the start of this journey. Although she's not as 'hands-on,' she still insists of sitting in on Monday staff meetings and participates in monthly management reviews when we go through all the financials. She'll definitely still make her opinions known and, probably nine out of 10 times. I'll go with what she wants to do, really out of respect.
EB: What are some of the new things going on with SOSi?
JS: Just this month, a commercial subsidiary we spun off, Exovera, contracted with the U.S. embassy in Kabul to analyze social and traditional media, trying to understand public opinion through the prism of local media reporting. We'll try to gauge sentiment around certain topical areas of interest, things like the perception of the U.S. military's continued engagement in Afghanistan. That serves two purposes: to inform the public affairs professionals when they're developing their own messaging strategies about what's going to work and what's going to resonate, and as a tripwire mechanism. We try to anticipate problems before they occur...
We also recently acquired a company called New World Solutions, which specializes in the image sciences. A lot of information can be derived from things the eye cannot see. Hyperspectral and multispectral analysis can be done and a lot of data can be derived from material the government already has. What this does is enable us to create a new line of expertise within the agencies we target. It's pure white space for us. Stephen Iwicki is our new vice president of our Intelligent Solutions Group, which owns New World Solutions. We've also promoted Bob Billeaud to become our senior vice president for operations. One of my objectives for him is to help me cultivate new leaders within the company.
EB: We know you feel a commitment to give back to the community. What's the latest on that front?
JS: We believe in corporate responsibility and we're proud when we can give something back. We've tried to become a more prominent member of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and to sponsor a lot more community development activities. Since we do so much with the Army, we're targeting programs that benefit soldiers and their families, like the upcoming Army Ten-Miler in October. We're really proud to be one of seven major sponsors. Because we have such a huge footprint in Iraq, where we're housing and feeding 2,200 U.S. military personnel and contractors, we've decided to also organize a shadow run there. We're hoping 1,000 some-odd runners in Iraq will participate simultaneously with the Army Ten-Miler and to have those runners recognized by senior Army leadership at the start of the race here.
Surveying the workforce landscape: The Northern Virginia Technology Council (NVTC) is conducting a survey to determine the current and future needs of the technology workforce in the region. If you're in charge of hiring at your company, you'll want to participate by the September 2 deadline. Click here to take part in the easy-to-complete survey. Contact John Shaw at jshaw@nvtc for further assistance.
Additionally, NVTC has published its first in a series of research infographics, this one concerning the state of cybersecurity in the region. Check it out by clicking here.