Glamour Gal Who's Tough on Terror
By Terri Schexnayder
Photos by Eric Doggett Stud
Irene Williams barely tops five feet and still gets carded. She loves “girly” things, such as glittery ball gowns, and volunteers as a Girl Scout leader with her daughter’s troop. But when this petite woman steps into the conference room as CEO of 21st Century Technologies (21CT), she is there on a mission: to help fight the bad guys.
William’s company provides intelligence analytics, targeted at cyber security and counterterrorism, for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marines and Intelligence agencies. Since joining 21CT in 2005, she has helped grow revenue by over 50% and increased profits by over 300% in a single year. But, she will stress, what her team does every day is way beyond profit numbers and Capitol Hill rhetoric.
“Our company develops research and technology focused on preventing threats to our country’s safety, such as, cyber network attacks. We help make our country safer. In many ways, you can get lost in those words – every politician and many defense contractors say them – so it’s easy to become numb to what those words mean. I am so fortunate to be in a position to make a true impact on the world, because it could be my child or husband who gets on that plane the next time a terrorist gets on, too,” explains Williams.
She recalls, while watching the recent news story of the “Christmas Day Bomber” attempt in frustration, thinking, “We have technology and people that could have helped prevent that. I am not naïve to think we are the only ones who can help, or that we could have single-handedly prevented it, but we are another very viable and credible solution. That knowledge empowers me every day to get our solution out into the world,” says Williams.
From Border Town to Protecting Our Borders
“The way I remember it, it was a safe place, enriched by its proximity to Mexico. The Mexican cultural influence was a very positive one. The images in my mind are of the tropical beauty in the city and long lazy days at the beach, playing in the sun until our skin turned black,” recalls Williams. “I especially remember how we would rustle up quarters to buy raspas (snow cones), and watching the Charro Day parades from our front porch.”
Her world then was not seen as one with a cultural divide among the races; in fact, just the opposite. “I still didn’t see the world in terms of color. I didn’t see Mexican and White. I completely related to the American worlds I saw on TV,” says Williams. “When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see a Mexican girl – I saw an American who was not so different in terms of dreams and actions than the Marcia Brady character on TV.”
Well-educated in a Catholic, middle class family, Williams was nurtured by a schoolteacher mother and businessman father who both loved literature, opera and great works of art. She was also coddled by three, unmarried, great aunts, “who were like my surrogate mothers,” says Williams. “We celebrated our holidays at their home. One of them would usually pull us aside, take a nickel out of her bra, and whisper, ‘You are only one I am giving this to,’ although we knew she did it for all the kids.”
From Shy Student to Public Speaker
Williams claims she was extremely shy as a young girl and could have easily disappeared in her writing and pencil drawings, at which she excelled. However, her choice to get onstage eventually was the catalyst for her “big voice” to come out.
“Being so shy, spending PE all by yourself and praying no one would talk to you, I also knew I had lot to say, but had no conceivable idea of how that would come out. I went into theatre in sixth grade (which is why I care so much about the Long Center now) and one of my teachers knew I had a creative bent. I had a choice: ‘Will I sit in my room or let that charismatic side of me come out?’ I chose to audition for the play Heidi and won the part of Fräulien Rottenmier, the mean governess,” she recalls with a smile. “The outspoken Irene was born!”
Rachel Manautou, Williams’ mother, who is a retired grade school teacher of 30 years, remembers the day she and her husband first saw Williams on stage. “She was attending a private grade school, Incarnate Word Academy, in Brownsville, and was Mistress of Ceremonies for a program. She was talking and, then, she sang. We were enthralled, it was so beautiful, and she was so unafraid,” recalls Manautou.
Little Miss Sunshine
For Williams, it all happened in that moment when she “was given permission” to be her true self on the stage. Her next journey, literally a road trip to Corpus Christi to share her winning essay, How a Child Can Change the World, opened up slightly different doors in her life.
“You remember Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine? That was my story. I was chosen from my seventh grade to read my speech at a statewide conference, so my family had to figure out the same critical things as that character had to – such as, ‘Who will take off work?’ ‘What car can we take?’ We ended up going in my brother’s friend’s car and the guys were thrilled – ROAD TRIP!” Williams cheers, with a laugh. “I just wanted to arrive in one piece and focus on my speech.”
“When I got to the ballroom, it was another Oz experience. Since we didn’t have the money to buy a new outfit, I wore this polyester, bright, baby blue dress that went to my ankles, with suede, dark blue shoes, which doubled as my PE shoes. I walk in with my teenage brother and his skulking friend, and all the other children are there with their suits and beautiful gowns – and, their parents,” she says.
Facing her panic head-on, Williams read her essay and won second place. “It was such an upset in the competition. There were kids who had competed for years and were very practiced. It was clearly my written message that moved the judges,” she says. From out of the crowd of indignant parents and young adults, one of the female judges approached Williams. “She asked where my parents were, because she wanted to tell them that I should be a writer, my work was so wonderful,” she recalls. “I often think about that woman and it inspires me to do that for someone every day, because she had such an impact on me and how I thought about myself.”
A Different World
Her love of writing took her on a path to study journalism at The University of Texas at Austin. After working hard to pay for her Catholic education as a young adult, Williams was on her own to figure out how to pay for college. At UT, however, her experiences “blew open the doors” to her ethnic differences.
“I discovered the world did not see me as anything remotely close to an all-American Marcia Brady character. They saw me as something else.” She routinely fielded the question, “What are you?” and would sit alone for hours watching people in the student mall, marveling at the diverse population and wondering what her place could be in this bigger world. The first time her college roommate invited Williams to her Northwest Texas family home, Williams’ Anglo boyfriend asked, “Does her family know what you are?” Williams remembers wondering, “What am I? Short? A journalism major? What is he talking about?” He cautioned her that many people did not like Mexicans, especially in that part of Texas, and she needed to be careful.
“I was dumbfounded. I don’t know if I was blind to prejudice because of my upbringing or because I came from a place where almost everyone is Hispanic. But hearing someone I loved define me that way was startling,” says Williams.
Williams notes that, although she loved writing and acting, talents that gave her a “format for my big voice,” her practical side kicked in when deciding on her degree studies. So, rather than “heading off to Hollywood,” a journalism degree won out. During her time as a Daily Texan reporter, Williams experienced an a-ha moment. “I realized I didn’t want to be writing about others’ stories; I wanted to be the story!” After graduating with a B.S. in Journalism with Highest Honors in 1984, she went on to pursue her J.D. from UT’s School of Law, mostly because her parents had always encouraged her to achieve a better lifestyle than they had had.
From Legal Eagle to Globetrotter
But, for a young woman with a passion for the stage, the written word and a world full of great art, being a lawyer zapped her creative side. “During my law practice, I would think, ‘I am crushing my spirit. What am I fighting for? I am writing every day of my life, but this is not my voice.’ Ultimately,” she says, “if you love something, you will find your way.”
Williams’ way, in the pursuit of her career path over the next 20 years, is as diverse as her multicultural upbringing. It spans Fortune 100 companies and start-ups around the world. In her ongoing quest to combine her creative and rational, business side, she spent a year each in the Middle East and Asia; first, representing foreign governmental claims before the United Nations, and later, as a foreign consultant for an internationally renowned law firm in Korea.
She also worked for Sony Pictures Entertainment as their business and legal affairs executive on the west coast. Williams remembers one particular day her boss walked into her office. “He said, ‘Hey, Texas!’ before assigning me the task of negotiating the remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie, because I was from the state,” she says.
One of Williams’ longtime friends, Karen Brodkin, now senior vice president, business and legal affairs, Fox Sports and Fox Sports Net in LA, first met Williams when they were interning and rooming together at a law office in California. “We were fascinated by each other – she was this girl from a very traditional background in Texas and I was a Berkley girl. We thought we were so different, but we were very much alike,” says Brodkin. “We are both close to our moms, for example. Citing Williams’ ability to balance her family, work and community “like no other women I know,” Brodkin says Williams is the “quintessential woman all wrapped up into one package.”
Despite her impressive resume and experiences any top executive would envy, Williams cherishes her other titles the most, as mother to Rachel, 11, and Ethan, 8, and wife to Robert. She and her husband of 12 years work side-by-side at home and at the office, where he serves as vice president of product management at 21CT. Even though Williams and Robert both hail from Texas, and attended the same college at the same time, they met in the most unlikely of places – Kuwait. After the first Gulf War, both were drawn to the Middle East by careers each felt would be life-changing. Robert was working for Texaco rebuilding its war-torn IT infrastructure and Williams was documenting history-making UN claims as a lawyer. While there in 1993, Williams attended a party that Robert threw at his house, complete with Bedouin tent and lamb schwarma.
“My first Robert-sighting is an image seared in my memory. He was intensely debating a group of Arabs and expats. For romantics, maybe you’d call it love at first sight. But I just remember instant amusement, curiosity and liking his handsome profile,” recalls Williams.
Her family’s support today is the reason she can achieve so much in her CEO position.
“I am always amazed that I found a husband who supports my crazy energy, drive and opinions. And, I just lucked out with my wonderful, brilliant and creative children who don’t freak out when I forget about random school holidays,” she says.
Beyond the Biz
Like most women, she carries a filled-to-capacity schedule and readily admits she doesn’t do it right all the time. Her days are packed tight with corporate meetings, high-level strategizing with her managers or government clients; traveling around the country; and spending quiet time at home with her family. She is in demand as a speaker for many civic and state organizations, imparting her expertise on subjects, such as “Staying Solvent through a Tough Economy” and “Homeland Security Issues.”
And, if that’s not enough, Williams continually gives of her time and talents to endless volunteer efforts, serving on the Boards of the Long Center for the Performing Arts and Las Comadres, a community outreach group for Hispanic women. She is also a co-founder of the Women’s Leadership Council for the Long Center, which gifts tickets and offers outreach programs for underserved segments of the community.
Cliff Redd, Long Center executive director, says, “Irene Williams has been a true hero to me and the Long Center … She gives of herself tirelessly to make Austin a better place for us all. We are so very lucky to have her and her husband, Robert, here. And beyond all that, she’s a great lawyer and has the best shoes of any woman I know,” says Redd.
Never forgetting her early mentors, who encouraged her to be her best and speak her “voice,” Williams perpetuates that positive thinking and “can-do” attitude with her staff at 21CT. A typical “Meeting with the CEO” luncheon, held around the conference room table with Chinese food brought in, provides a forum for open and honest conversations among Williams, management and staff.
“Our mission is so empowering. Every day, I wake up knowing that our people, ideas and technology can actually help make our country safer, smarter and stronger,” she says. “And, there is a lot of creativity in this job – the notion that you are creating something in the world that wouldn’t exist without you. A livelihood for a lot of other people; an environment they can come to every day; a safe place where they can be creative and add value to the world. I get to experience that every day.”
At the end of each day, Williams adds, she measures if it’s been a good one by a simple philosophy: “I realize my best day is a combination of work, community effort and being with my kids. What a day that is!”
A Woman’s “Change the World” To-Do List
Modeled after her award-winning seventh-grade essay, How a Child Can Change the World, Williams believes these tenets are timeless:
• Live every day as if it’s your last. Adopting this approach to life makes you bolder in your decisions and you spend time with the ones you really care about.
• Do one thing every day that makes someone feel good about herself. It causes a chain reaction of positivity.
• Do one brilliant or creative thing every day. Just one.
• Do 10% more than you planned to do. One more customer call. Run one more block.
• Find your passion. It lies in something you’re already doing every day and it’s your job to discover it.
• We can’t do this alone. We need our husbands and kids to support us, and friends and co-workers who believe in us.
• Friends do matter. Make them, nurture them, keep them and be one.
• We all have something we are good at, so craft your life so a big part of your day is focused on that.
• Be a mentor. Find someone who needs your counsel. You learn so much more than what you teach.
• Forgive yourself for the mistakes you are about to make. As fabulous as we are, there’s just going to be stuff we mess up.
Technology Tips for Women
1. The Internet keeps us connected professionally and personally in ways that were unfathomable years ago. Use it.
2. Be smart about how you use it. The internet is global and permanent, and if used wisely, can define how the world sees you in a positive way.
3. Regardless of your age, use social networking – Linked-In, Facebook, blogs and Twitter. There is a place for you, BUT, see Rule #2.
4. Use technology to maximize beauty and joy in your life wherever you are – I love that I can listen to a Led Zeppelin song, scroll through new pictures of my kids, and watch the Sneezing Panda video five times on YouTube, all while waiting to board a plane.
5. Technology has created a world of transparency. To survive in this world, we need to be open, honest and focused on “doing the right thing.”
6. As a parent, encourage your daughters to study math, science and technology.
7. This is the future and we need women leaders in that future.
8. Be a role model for showing our kids that technology is cool. After you go to a football game or a Taylor Swift concert, take them to Robotics competitions and video game design classes.