ONE STORY IN AMERICA
As a receptionist for an early software marketer called Lifeboat Associates, Lynette Spano had already become a keen observer of the office and the comings and goings of its management and staff. Through a nearby window, she could observe the bullpen where all seventeen salesmen worked, and she quickly noted that the executives and every interesting visitor would always go straight to the fifth floor. “I loved the constant movement and the hum of the typewriters,” Lynette says today. “Before there were keyboards brought in, there were typewriters.” Lifeboat Associates was the first software distributor with a business model much akin to McGrawHill, the book publishing company. It takes products from various software authors and creates markets and commerciality for those products. Lynette would sometimes spot pioneers in early computers such as Bill Gates come through its doors to meet with company executives. Soon, she became determined to see the top floor with her own eyes. One night after everyone had left the office, she walked into the elevator and hit five. When the doors opened up to polished mahogany floors, oriental rugs, antique paintings and other elegant furnishings, Lynette was awestruck. When she spied a library through an open door, she had to slip in and pick up a book. “I walked through that library,” Lynette says, “looking through books and at photos, and trying to figure this all out.” It was at that moment that she suddenly heard a man softly clearing his throat. Turning around she came face to face with Lifeboat co-founders Tony Gold and Dr. Edward Curry. Lynette froze, and in trying to come with an explanation for why the receptionist would be paging through volumes in the library after hours, she couldn’t help but flash back to another time that she had found herself very unexpectedly among books. Over a decade before she started working for Lifeboat, she was growing up with her Puerto Rican mother and Italian stepfather in a poor and crime-riddled area of Brooklyn. In considering early childhood influences, Lynette can’t help but remember gang wars and drugs. “The mean girls didn’t just pick on you—they ganged up on you in the bathroom,” she explains. The neighborhood, the demands of taking care of her six siblings, and a distant stepfather had left Lynette feeling frustrated and angry. But in the 4th grade, a teacher of Lynette’s, Mr. Pendergraff, came to her house and asked her parents permission to take her to a local bookstore. “Pendergraff used to say,” Lynette explains, “that I should really explore when I go into bookstores. So when I was found by Mr. Gold in the library at Lifeboat, all I could say was, ‘I’m exploring!’ I went right into the whole reason I was there.” Lynette expressed her great curiosity at how information was moving from physical records to what she had come to understand were floppy disks and computers. She desperately wanted to understand it. When she was asked why she wanted to understand, she said, “Because I work here and I need to know what we’re doing.” Thus marked a pivotal moment in the life of “The Explorer.” Dr. Curry mentored her several times a month after work to teach her how the business worked, and about digital computers and software. “I said I wanted to be in sales,” Lynette says. “I said that our people didn’t understand. They weren’t hungry. They would come in and smoke their cigarettes, put their feet up, read the Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area newspapers, then hit the clock at 5pm and leave. They weren’t hungry!” Dr. Curry called this a “sense of urgency,” but whatever it was called, Lynette had it, and it quickly rocketed her into a position in sales support. Lynette flourished there for two and a half years in the face of opposition from some who were intimidated by her aggressiveness and the rapid success she was seeing even without a degree. Toward the end of the two and a half years, Lynette discovered a sales opportunity with Sperry Rand before it would become a part of Unisys, who was trying to land the largest US Air Force contract of the time. But managers at Lifeboat, including Dr. Curry, refused to take seriously her idea to expand Lifeboat to Washington, DC to handle this possible contract. With that, she left Lifeboat. Sperry Rand secured the Air Force deal, and Lynette started SCI Consulting Services to serve as its consultant, with a twelve-year contract working out of her new offices in Washington, DC. “In our first year, 1983, we started at $1.7 million in revenue,” Lynette says, “and then continued to grow by a million each year. Eventually we started to take on more clients.” Today the result of Lynette’s boldness and vision is a company that has evolved into a federal integrator of IT services working with several government clients, including the US Departments of Energy and Homeland Security , reaching 275 employees with revenues reaching almost $50 million, poised SCI to be a major mid-sized player in the federal marketplace. “I love to walk around our facility,” Lynette says, “to poke my head into various conference rooms and hear that buzz of activity. People will look up to say good morning, and then they’ll just look at me as if to say, ‘Do you need something?’ It’s great to feel the company have a life of its own that carries it forward without my constant involvement at every level.” It’s not only Lynette’s management style that keeps her from micromanaging. Several years ago she experienced a head trauma that was initially life threatening and required four years of therapy. Even though she had to temporarily take a step back from day-to-day operations of SCI, she was still able to see her company continue to grow. Since then she has worked to channel the energy of her triumph and survival in the face of both a childhood steeped in a rough, threatening environment, and later illness, into efforts to help others in need. “When I try to understand how I survived that environment as a child,” Lynette says, “I think a lot of it was anger. I had a tough exterior, from my step-father being tough on me, and I had no fear.” When she saw the chaos of business, she found that she could thrive in it. “I loved that chaos because I came from chaos,” Lynette says. It was in the climate of gang culture and a tough neighborhood that Lynette first expressed her entrepreneurial spirit, when she gathered friends to work for her shining shoes at certain street corners. One day she came home from school at 3 o’clock in the afternoon to find a heroin addict on the staircase to her house. “That was a catalyst,” Lynette says. “These things said, ‘You have to be all you can be and escape this.’ You have to maneuver yourself around these minefields, avoid the traps that force you to stay here and live on welfare in the ghettos and on drugs.’” Some of her friends never made it out. One got 15 years in prison for cocaine trafficking. Another was shot and killed. One more died from a heroin overdose. “It was Pendergraff who exposed me early on to those bookstores,” Lynette says, “where I had discovered the world that existed outside of the ghetto.” Pendergraff gave her an “injection of influence” that told her there was more out there. By high school she was alone, but she was made tough by those lessons. By the time she graduated, it was clear she was not going to college. She got the receptionist job at Lifeboat Associates, and the rest is history. As a result of her triumph over adversity, Lynette has become determined to improve the lives of people who have struggled as she has. She is involved with nonprofit organizations that foster the development of underprivileged children, and she has launched an organization called Stars, Stripes, & Hearts in support of Latino Hispanic veterans. In her latest venture, she is expanding into the entertainment industry to raise money for nonprofits. She has produced an album of her own work, made up of 12 tracks, released under a form of her mother’s name, “Stebani Cruz” who died of cancer. “My legacy is about never giving up on someone,” Lynette says. “Life is about truly having a love for living in every aspect. SCI as an institution is growing, and it will live on without me.” Lynette Spano has a 27-year-old daughter, and she has tried to impart her wisdom upon her daughter as she starts a company of her own. “Both as managers and as parents,” Lynette says, “we have the responsibility to provide guidance, direction and leadership. This is one of the most important jobs a person can have, and I take it very seriously.” Recently, Lynette went out to Osbourne High School in Manassas, Virginia, to speak to about two hundred students, almost half Latino or Hispanic. She exhorted them to have integrity, to tell the truth, to work hard, and to dream and have an imagination—words of wisdom she would pose to any young entrepreneur entering the business world today. They identified with her history and asked her many questions. After her visit, and with nearly thirty years as a businesswoman under her belt, she saw messages over Twitter expressing great gratitude for her visit and her enthusiasm. “They respected me for being a woman of my word,” Lynette said, “and that I showed them what was out there in the world. It meant everything to me.” By continuing to lead her company and her life with the characteristic passion and commitment that have led her to where she is today, Lynette’s story continues to infuse the stories of those around her with that same energy, such that we might all come to explore the world around us as she once explored that library so many years ago.