Women in Business and Women in Leadership: Meet Donna Long, US Navy Veteran, Trailblazer in Public Sector
Women in Business and Women in Leadership particularly in the commercial furniture industry are topics I am very passionate about. If you listen to the Trend Report Podcast episode #77 or have been around me at any industry event it is likely you have heard me on my soapbox about the lack of women at these events or me being one of the “token females.” For those of you newer to the industry who notice this as well- take heart, things are better than they were 26+ years ago when I joined!! We currently have wonderful women CEOs of major manufacturers as well as smaller ones, additionally we have a lot of female dealer and rep principals.
This month, in honor of this theme, I wanted to interview a female entrepreneur and dealer principal Donna Long of GovSolutions out of Virginia Beach. I honestly do not know when I met Donna for the first time, but I have had many years of the opportunity to work with her and watch the growth and success of her dealership. GovSolutions is a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned/Woman-Owned small business and, as expected, Donna, has a lot to share with us about being a woman in Public Sector.
Michelle: First off Donna, thank you for taking the time to share your experience and thank you for your service to the United States through your time in the US Navy. Can you share what drove you to join the NAVY? Please also share some of your experience that may have prepared you for your career which has led to founding and owning a very successful furniture dealership with a focus on Government.
Donna: I had a strong desire to serve my country from an early age. Although I planned for college during high school, I made the decision to enlist in the Navy under the Delayed Entry Program (DEP) one year prior to graduation. The military brings Limited Duty Officers (LDO) up through the ranks because the job is so unique that specialized training is required to understand and lead the technical operation. I feel the same way about the Contract Public Sector Furniture Industry. It is a specialized industry that requires internal training, policies, and procedures. As a dealership, we must be nimble enough to adopt our Public Sector Client’s requirements and contracts to do business with them as well as conform to our manufacturing partners processes for specification and order entry.
Michelle: Your first position in the commercial furniture industry, right out of the NAVY was as a Government Specialist with a dealer in Southern California. Can you share how that all came about and your experience, if you recall, in getting started in this industry and with a focus on Government?
Donna: I served my country in the U.S. Navy and traveled around the world serving at several duty stations for 2-3 years each. In the 80’s and 90’s this much travel did not resonate well in the business world. When a Federal Job opportunity fell through, I needed to apply elsewhere. I landed an administrative, temporary, position at the local furniture dealership. It was my second day on the job when the dealer Operations Manager asked me if I would be interested in a full-time position. I said “absolutely”. I quickly learned Project Coordination/Project Management supporting Federal Government Sales. A major account was the standardization of NAVFAC Southwest Division. I worked my way into a sales position with a focus on the Federal Government Accounts and eventually wrote the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for the Federal Government Sector at the Furniture Dealership in San Diego. I was even asked to train other dealer salespeople at one of the manufacturer’s Federal Government training conferences.
Michelle: I love that you learned the industry and dealer from the ground up!! In 2004 you started a dealership in Hampton Roads, Virginia. What led you to want to start your own dealership?
Donna: While writing the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) back in San Diego, I dreamed of one day owning a dealership with a focus on the Federal Government. The SOP consisted of developing a division within the Commercial Dealership that included modifications to their standard way of doing business. It built in the need to be nimble with the Public Sector clients. It was challenging to make this happen. There were commercial processes in place that would not conform to doing Public Sector business and I had to explain why the current standards would not work and write in the internal procedures to make it work. It was almost like having a business within a business. In 2004 I started my own company as a dealership with only the Federal Business Sector as a potential client. The manufacturers held all of the Federal GSA Schedules but in 2007 I obtained a new GSA FSS “Packaged Office Contract” and was one of the first companies to register as a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The project that really launched GovSolutions into existence was a 2.5 million dollar GSA Packaged Office Contract project that consisted of approximately 50 manufacturers and vendors. The job was the first VA Cares project for The Department of Veterans Affairs in Pittsburgh PA. Now, 19 years later, GovSolutions services all Public Sector, Commercial, and provides General Construction Services as well.
Michelle: You have talked a little about this, but as you look back, what were the contributing factors that led you to the career in Public Sector?
Donna: Without a doubt it is my military background that is the largest contributing factor. I was in the process of applying for a Federal job when the National Performance Review began in 1993. The outcome was a significant reduction in Federal Workers so the position I was interested in was eliminated. I was fortunate to find an opportunity at a local Office Furniture Dealership as a Project Coordinator for Government Sales. They said it would be easier to teach me furniture than to teach someone else how to do business with the Department of Defense (DOD) and Federal Agencies.
Michelle: I definitely agree with that- way easier to teach furniture than how to do business with DOD. When did you know you were in Public Sector as a career vs a job?
Donna: I believe I always knew that my calling was working with or in Public Sector. The bigger question here is how did I know I would be providing interior solutions by way of Contract Office Furniture to Public Sector? This career is not one that most people go to college for or decide that this is what they want to grow up to become. Everyone I know has an interesting story for the “why”? I knew creating functional, ergonomic, healthy, beautiful environments in Government, Healthcare, Education, and other Public Spaces was my calling when I took part in converting an old Plant 19 Air Force Hanger in San Diego California to the Headquarters Building of SPAWAR (Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command) in 1996-1997. Our dealership provided the Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment and I was the Project Coordinator/Project Manager.
Michelle: You are seen as a successful woman in Public Sector, what are the key influential people or factors that supported your success?
Donna: One of the things I love about Public Sector is the team environment. When you enter into a contract with a client there are responsibilities for you, the client, and all of the subcontractors and suppliers. Whether working at a Contract Furniture Dealership or running my own Construction/Contract Furniture dealership, it is our customer, our manufacturers, internal team and our subcontractors that I attribute to success!
Michelle: Were there any twists or turns that developed that helped you to learn along the way that you did not anticipate?
Donna: Yes. There have been many. I once said that we made it through the Housing Market Crash, Sequestration, 2 Government Shut-Downs, and a Pandemic. In each scenario, we had to adjust business operations to some degree. I believe the motto here is to stay relevant to the current shift in tide. Circumstances can change everything at a moment’s notice.
Michelle: You have weathered a lot of things in your years selling to Public sector for sure!! To the outside, it appears that Public Sector is favorable to women. How do you see the opportunity for women in Public Sector?
Donna: We have come a long way baby – but we are not quite there yet!
Michelle: I agree whole heartedly!! So, what is one piece of advice you have for women wanting to develop a career in Public Sector?
Donna: It is hard to pick just one thing so let me give you a couple. First and foremost, support other women! Be a mentor, a confidant, a team player, a role model and cheerleader! To quote Madeleine Albright: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
Madeleine Albright was an American diplomat and political scientist who served as the 64th United States Secretary of state from 1997 to 2001. She was the first woman to hold this position.
Lastly, Women are often expected to trade in their natural, collaborative, altruistic leadership style to conform to a more autocratic style of leadership. I’d say, be true to yourself and your style.
Michelle: Great advice for all women, not just in Public Sector!!! What would you say are some of the things you have learned over your career as a woman leader in the commercial furniture industry that you would want to pass on?
Donna: Our industry is small by comparison to many industries. When people find themselves in this industry, they stay or get back out really quick. Best advice I have is: “Don’t burn any bridges or at least try not to.” Our industry is more territorial than other industries too. Don’t be afraid to work together and collaborate on opportunities that make sense to do so. Remember your ethics and also remember that 100% of nothing = 0 nothing.
Michelle: Such great advice and I couldn’t agree more!! Ok, to wrap it up 2 final questions. What one book would you recommend for a woman who is pursuing a career in Public Sector? (This can be a book on business, leadership, life, etc.)
Donna: “Span of Control” by Carey Lohrenz. First Female F-14 Tomcat Fighter Pilot. It gets real!
Michelle: What one podcast you would recommend for a woman who is pursuing a career in Public Sector?
Donna: I recently listened to a podcast by an American, Female Entrepreneur whose net worth is approximately 650 million. Dolly Parton’s America. She covered it all, business, leadership, life and even politics.
Michelle: I have never listened to that but it has been on my list of ones to listen to so I guess I need to move it up!! Donna, Thank you so much for your time and insight!!
I hope that you, the readers, find as much value in these interviews as I do. Great pieces of wisdom from successful women in Public Sector who have paved the way. If there is someone you would like to learn from let me know and we will see if we can get an interview on the books. Until next time- Be A Catalyst!!
ABOUT DONNA LONG:
Donna Long is a seasoned President with a passion for Design-Build-Furnish projects. As the head of govSolutions, Inc., she brings with her a wealth of experience and knowledge in the commercial and government office furniture industry. With a strong commitment to giving back to the community, Donna has instilled a culture of philanthropy within her company. Under her leadership, govSolutions, Inc. has been recognized as an Authorized MilkerKnoll Dealership, providing full-service interior space planning, project management, office furniture and furnishings, installation services, warranty/repair, and move/reconfiguration services. As a holder of the company's Class A Contractor's License, Donna has a deep understanding of the technical aspects of the industry and is well-equipped to manage complex projects from start to finish. Her dedication to her craft and community has made her a respected leader in the industry.
ABOUT MICHELLE WARREN
Founder, President - Catalyst Consulting Group
Michelle Warren is President of Catalyst Consulting Group, a firm specializing in providing strategic solutions to the commercial furniture industry to enhance their sales, positioning, and distribution. With 25 years of industry experience on the dealer and manufacturer side of the industry, Michelle has been recognized as an innovator in selling to the Federal Government, State/Local Government, Higher Education and Cooperative Purchasing. Her expertise includes: sales strategies, strategic planning, 3-5 year road mapping, targeted marketing plans, distribution development, hiring reps, and training for reps and/or dealers. Michelle is known as a “serial networker” in the furniture industry and enjoys meeting people and making connections happen. If you’re interested in connecting - reach out at: Michelle@strategic-catalyst.com, connect on LinkedIn or visit www.strategic-catalyst.com to learn more about her work.
As seen in Delve | March 2023 V.36