Black engineer of year runs 700-worker firm

CEO is black engineer of year

CEO: A continuing interest in science and learning has helped Lydia W. Thomas rise far since her high school days in Portsmouth, Va.

February 15, 2003|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Lydia W. Thomas learned early in life about meeting high expectations.

As the only child of the principal and the head guidance counselor at her all-black high school in Portsmouth, Va., Thomas was constantly in the spotlight.

"It's like being a preacher's kid in a small town," she said. "You're everybody's kid and eyes are on you at all times."

She disliked all the attention as a teen-ager, but now this year's recipient of the annual Black Engineer of the Year Award attributes growing up in a tight-knit community with much of her success.

"It was a great crucible to grow up in," Thomas said. "It prepared you for all sorts of things. It teaches you to deal with expectations, whether people have high expectations or low expectations of you."

The 58-year-old Thomas is chief executive officer and president of Mitretek Systems Inc., a $100 million, 700-employee technology firm in Falls Church, Va.

She is to receive the Black Engineer of the Year Award today to honor her achievement in science and technology. This is the 17th year that Baltimore-based Career Communications Group, publisher of Black Engineering Information & Technology magazine, has given the award as a way to recognize blacks with careers in science, technology, math and engineering.

"What she represents is the cutting edge of the new high tech leadership," said Tyrone Taborn, president and chief executive officer of Career Communications Group.

`A very elite club'

"She also represents a very elite club of women that actually head up major research or technology companies."

Thomas said it was almost inevitable that she would enter the field of science.

She was a book-smart child who created science experiments while other children played hide-and-seek outside. Her father, who was a chemist before becoming a principal, bought her chemistry sets. Aptitude tests always pegged her for a career as a chemist, engineer or doctor.

When she was 8, Thomas decided to try to extract the color from flowers petals using alcohol. Midway through the experiment, she thought heating the alcohol would speed up the process. Instead, she started a fire on her mother's stove.

"That was my first triumph in the chemistry world," she said with a laugh.

Thomas often entertained herself with books, hunkering down in a corner of the house reading Langston Hughes and other authors.

"When I got a big stack of books for a present, that was a cool thing," she said.

She might have had a career as a pianist, but her father discouraged that because his own father was a musician who spent days away from his family.

"If I played for more than a few minutes, my father would say, `Don't you want to go outside and play?'" Thomas said. "He viewed it as a very lonely life."

Instead, she dreamed of becoming a doctor during an era when there were few minority or female physicians. Teachers at her high school encouraged her to study such subjects as biology and chemistry.

Her parents took her on trips to New York and Cuba to teach her about the larger world. They always urged her to try new things.

`You can do anything'

Her father would often tell her, "You can do anything you want to. The only person to stop you is you."

"They always encouraged me to make my own decisions on what I wanted to do," Thomas said.

"They exposed me to as much as possible and gave me guidance to find my own way."

In 1962, Thomas began studying zoology at her mother's alma mater, Howard University in Washington, but love deterred her plans of becoming a doctor. She married and gave birth to a son by graduation. Her husband was on his way to becoming a doctor, and Thomas decided one doctor was enough for the family.

She followed her husband to New York where she worked for the city's Bureau of Healthcare Service, confirming hospital patients' medical coverage.

"It was the worst job in the world," she said. "It wasn't challenging at all."

That would be the last job she ever hated.

When her marriage fell apart, Thomas, by then the mother of two, headed back to Washington to recharge her career. She received a master's in microbiology from American University in 1971 and a Ph.D. in cytology from Howard University in 1973.

She spent the next 23 years at Boston-based Mitre Corp, a not-for-profit that implements engineering and information technology programs for federal agencies.

Thomas brought a life sciences background to a company of mostly engineers, and her colleagues said she worked against the odds to develop an environmental and biotechnology side to a company embedded in defense contracting.

Mitre split in 1996, and Mitretek was born with $70 million in nonmilitary contracts and 750 employees. Thomas became president and chief executive officer later that year.

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