LaunchTech founder and CEO Venus Quates leveraged her military experience — and a drive to assert her right to belong — to win government contracts.
Venus Quates, 43, grew up in a single-parent household in inner-city Buffalo, New York, where her smarts got her into a college prep school. While most of her classmates went off to Ivy League colleges, Quates decided to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and join the Air Force. She spent four years working in information management in locations such as South Korea, Italy, and Saudi Arabia, and then landed a job at the aerospace firm General Dynamics. Throughout her 15 years working technical jobs, Quates was often the only Brown woman in the room and constantly felt like she was underestimated. That motivated her to quit her job and start her own technology solutions company in 2016. The leap would lead to more obstacles and — eventually — resounding success. –As Told to Kevin J. Ryan
I started LaunchTech out of my bedroom back home and lived off my savings while I tried to get customers. In the early days, I had different aliases when I spoke with potential clients: I would adopt a British accent and pretend to be an assistant; I would mention Bob in accounting. None of these people existed. It was all me.
A year in, I was on my way to an SBA class and my car got rear-ended. I had to go through vestibular therapy to regain my balance. I used to be a fast talker, but now I have to take a moment and choose my words. Until now, I’ve told only a few people that this happened to me. My mind is what makes me money, so I’m insecure about people knowing. But I think it’s important for me to deal with it.
Not long after the accident, my spouse and I abruptly got divorced, and I was left with next to nothing. Recently, I was scrolling through photos and saw a screenshot of a bank statement from around that time: My account had negative $270.
At that point, LaunchTech served as an outsource tech department, helping a few smaller clients upgrade their systems or providing IT support. I had a few part-time workers, and paid my mom to be my receptionist.
I kept hustling, trying to earn bigger contracts. In 2018, we won one with the state of New York to provide IT solutions at a workforce training center. It was my first real contract, but I had underbid myself and it wasn’t enough money for me to hire the people I needed. Lesson learned. Eventually, we earned contracts with the Air Force, the Department of the Army, and New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and I could finally hire people. Today, we have 28 employees.
We moved our headquarters in 2021. I love Buffalo, but it’s not easy to find people there who have experience doing business with the government. Huntsville has one of the highest rates of government spending, but it’s way cheaper than places like D.C. It was a great decision.
Sometimes, I still feel like I need to go overboard to prove that we’re the best, because we’re run by somebody who looks like me. At my last job, I was a data storage engineer for a bank and worked on the third floor. When I got in the elevator in the morning, somebody would usually press two for me — that was where most of the people of color worked, in the cafeteria. My team was all White males and me. When our vendors came to visit, they would pass business cards out to everybody except me, probably because they thought I was a secretary.
I founded LaunchTech because I wanted to start a company that would be so successful you couldn’t deny that we’re intelligent enough to do what we’re doing. Our last year in Buffalo, we were No. 1 in that city on the Inc. 5000 list. Our first year in Huntsville, we were No. 1 here. There’s no denying us anymore. It doesn’t matter if I’m the only Brown person in the room or the only woman in the room. I know I’m supposed to be there.”