Karen Floyd: In 2002, your life took a dramatic turn through business. How did that happen?
Phyllis Newhouse: I retired from the military in 1999, and I decided I was not going to do what is typically done, which is work for the government in a senior adviser position. I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. Our rst client work was on a security platform. When they asked us if we could bring in more consultants with a security background, I thought, “Wow, this could be huge.” I decided to go back to the government and offer the same services we developed from consulting. The first government contract we bid on, we won. Within just a couple of years, the company had become a million- dollar business. In three years, it grew to a multimillion-dollar business. I knew we had a scalable model; the programs could scale, and the company could scale. We o ered professional services that encompassed ethical hacking and penetration testing, as well as helping organizations understand their vulnerabilities and how vulnerable they were to cyberattacks. Over the years, cyberattacks have become more sophisticated, which requires us to be more innovative in the toolkits that we offer our clients.
Q: What skill set did the military help to build or refine?
A: What I appreciate about the military is that, in 22 years, there was not one single project to work on; each assignment had a different mission. For example, the assignment that I had in Europe was in the European Headquarters Command. There, we worked on multiple platforms across Europe that involved security. Th at project was totally different from working in the United States intelligence community for the 92nd Military Intelligence Command. Each assignment gave new opportunity to refine skills and to broaden skillsets. My military experience also helped to develop leadership with various levels of responsibility and different opportunities for promotion. There is so much that I learned in my 22 years in the military, all of which prepared me for this journey.
Q: What was the rank you entered the military, and what was the rank you left?
A: I came into the military in the enlisted rank. I started as a private and finished as a command sergeant major, which was the highest rank a person can achieve. I came through the military in an era of expanding women’s rights. There were significant changes going on in the military with a lot of scrutiny into the roles of women, rights, treatment, promotions, and assignments. Simple questions were being addressed, such as: Do women go to combat or not? What combat assignments can women take? Can you get promoted if you’re not in combat? The military was in a transitional mode during that time. I achieved several ranks at a very early stage of my career, which was unheard of. I attribute that to great female mentors in the military. Many women paved my, and other women’s, way. They prepared me for that next assignment. I had male mentors too, but I attribute a lot of my success to understanding how to navigate through a very complex system. At that time, women leaders who had already come before me showed me how to find the path ahead.
Q: You are one of 11 children but raised as one of 19?
A: My mother was married and had 11 children by the time she was 32. My mother and her mother (my grandmother) were pregnant at the same time. My grandmother had pregnancy complications through the years and was told if she had any more children, she would probably have a very difficult pregnancy. During this time, in North Carolina, women did not get birth control; it was not accessible. African-American women were not readily admitted to hospitals either. But as luck would have it, they both ended up in this one hospital. My mother went into labor while she was with her mother (my grandmother). My grandmother said, “If anything ever happens to me, promise me my kids will not be separated.” My mother made that promise to her. My mother went into labor and had my sister. On that same day, the nurse brought her another baby and said, “Here is another child.” My mother said, “I only had one child.” The nurse replied, “Your mom died. So, here’s the other baby.” My mother had seven more children, which is how there were 19. She kept her promise and did not raise us separately. I didn’t know until I was in my early 20s that my aunts were not my sisters because she never made them feel like they were not part of the family.
Q: How was she able to provide for 19 children?
A: We have these conversations with her now. She’ll say, “I raised 11 children, and you guys complain about this and that.” It was community though. She survived a lot. My father was in the picture, but he worked all the time to provide. I would not be where I am in my life today if it had not been for the example my mom set. She was the first CEO that I had ever known. Think about the skillsets it takes to run a big company; think about that in terms of running a big family. You must be a great talent manager, proficient in conflict resolution, and manage a strict budget. And so, she led by example. Many of the attributes that she developed in raising a big family are some of the same attributes that she passed along to a lot of us.
Q: What is the source of your strength?
A: It’s my faith. At a very young age, my spiritual foundation was there. Not just because my mother told me but because it was what I felt. I truly live a very purposeful life. I know what my purpose is, and I do not think that that is an easy thing to figure out or to come by. I think it’s something that you have to be willing to investigate, explore, be willing to accept. I ran away from that purpose for a very long time. Every day, I live that purpose very deliberately.
Q: What is that purpose?
A: For people who may not feel like there is hope or may not even know that there is something unique within them, my purpose is to impact their lives and inspire. I think that God blessed me with that talent.
Q: Is your gift spiritual or inspirational?
A: I think it’s a combination. Yes, I think it’s a combination. I sat with a couple of women CEOs about two weeks ago, and there was not a dry eye in that room. It wasn’t because of my presence, but it was because of what I had to share. Sometimes I think that people don’t like to get raw. They don’t like to get real. They don’t like to get deep. When you do that, and when you open yourself up to that, that’s when we get a chance to really tap into who that person really is and what they’re about. CEOs that run big companies, there’s something unique in all of us that is waiting to come out. I believe it’s the connection that we lack. When we get an opportunity to connect on a deeper level, you get to know who Phyllis really is, and what she is about outside of the company, the military. This is who I am and where I think we can offer the most.
Q: What lifts you up?
A: I go back to God. He is my source. I’ve always been that way.
Q: Do you remember a cataclysmic moment, a pivotal moment in your youth, where you went from dark to light, or was it always from the moment you were born that you had a direction from God?
A: I was having a conversation with a dear friend who shared with me that they didn’t believe in God. It did not change my perception of the person; it just drew me closer. She was asking me the same question. I remember when our school system had been integrated. Children from the black community had been moved to an all-white school. I remember coming from the previous school where we had all African-American teachers and now, where we were going to school, all teachers were white. There was a teacher who used very racist language in the classroom. When she left to get the principal, all hell was breaking out. I said, “Listen, you guys, calm down. We will not let one person define us. Let’s come together, and let’s show them who we really are. We’re here for a great education.” I was in the sixth grade, and in that moment, it was a choice to either rebel or to exercise leadership at a young age. I remember, at that moment, feeling like I’m supposed to be doing something different. I’m supposed to be doing something which is coming from a higher place. No one told me to do that. I remember so many incidents like this.
Q: Do you believe God directed your actions?
A: Absolutely. I felt it in my heart first.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your son.
A: My son, wow. I named my son Ezekiel. I mean this is emotional for me because Ezekiel is about faith. When I see my son, I see faith. The reason I say that is because he was ten years in the making. Anything in my life that I am waiting on, an answer or even in business, it goes back to faith. There are so many areas in my life I apply this to. It took ten years. You can guess what people told me. There were some tough times in marriage, but he was the product of just trusting God no matter what. I often use this as a life example, even when I’m talking to family members or whatever. I say, “Look, I waited on something for ten years.” My relationship with my son is very deep. We have a very close relationship, and he understands. We have often talked about what it meant having him in my life. I told him recently, “Do you know what? You are my biggest reason why everything ties back to having faith. It’s like, look at what God can do when you trust Him no matter what.” Our relationship is indicative of that trust and that faith. At the Ernst & Young banquet, I made him stand up, embarrassed the hell out of him. Later he told me, “Mom, you’re beyond my hero.” To have a 20-year-old tell you that means a lot. He shared with me, “You know, mom, I don’t know if I’m enough when I look at the path you’ve taken and the journey you’ve had.” And I said, “Son, you are always enough. You know, you’re enough.” I think that’s so important to tell this generation. I think it’s more important to tell the people that you love that you’re enough. You are enough. I don’t care if you did anything else today. You are enough. When I look at this kid, he sums it up for me because I see so much in him that’s a part of where I’ve come from, where I’m going, and what the end will be.