Satellite communications company owner Mary Ann Elliott isn't usually one to blow her own horn, but sometimes she just can't help herself. Listening in 1998 to an aerospace exec bragging that his boss had just been named one of the 40 most influential people in the defense and aerospace industry by a trade journal, she blurted, "I think I'm on that list." His reaction? "He pulled himself up to his full height and looked really skeptical," Elliott, 58, recalls. They checked the list, and there she was—the only woman other than then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to be cited. "The look on his face," she says with a laugh, "was priceless."
Elliott doesn't have to prove herself anymore. In February her Falls Church, Va.-based company, Arrowhead Space & Telecommunications, Inc., shared a $2.2 billion government contract—the largest ever given to small business by the Department of Defense—to arrange satellite services for government agencies. In a field dominated by men with Ph.D.s, the onetime beauty queen, who dropped out of school in ninth grade, has earned the respect of the industry. "She's an articulate, dedicated professional," says Lt. Gen. Harry Raduege, director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, which divided the contract between Arrowhead and two other firms. "She impressed me with her economic and technical skills."
But then Elliott has been defying expectations all her life. The only child of William Edwards and his wife, Mary, she was brought up on the family's tobacco farm in Lumberton, N.C., and in Newport News, Va., where her father worked in a shipyard to earn extra money. "Everybody worked, and everybody was poor," says Elliott. When she was 11, after the family had settled in Virginia, her father suffered a debilitating stroke. While her mother, a nurse, worked the night shift, Elliott cared for her dad—who died in 1965—and, she says, "raised myself."
She grew up fast. At 13, tall and raven-haired, she won a local beauty contest and met James Ray Elliott, 23, a railroad worker. "He didn't know about my age until it was too late," she says. They eloped six months later when Elliott was two months pregnant.
Elliott, who eventually earned a GED, worked as a substitute teacher and sold encyclopedias door-to-door. When her husband died in a 1975 traffic accident, she was 32, a single mother with three kids (J.R., now 43 and a NASA scientist; Daniel, 39 and chief financial officer of Arrowhead; and Sharon, 35, a homemaker) and only $10,000 in the bank.
In 1976 she interviewed for a sales job with Motorola, but the regional manager, she recalls, "told me how he had 10 married men working for him and didn't know how their wives would feel about me working in such close proximity." After applying again—this time straight to the company's chairman—she was hired to peddle two-way radios and took home top honors in an annual sales contest. Her prize? Three men's shirts, a jogging suit and a pair of men's sneakers. "In the entire program they had no provisions for a woman winning," says Elliott, who demanded a cash prize instead and took home $200.
Frustrated that her male colleagues were also getting paid more to do the same work, Elliott moved on to a satellite communications company in 1981 and founded her own company 10 years later. (The name Arrowhead pays tribute to her Native American ancestry; her paternal grandmother was a member of the Tuscarora tribe.) In the first year she took no salary and brought in just $60,000 in revenues. Focusing on government contracts—such as providing the satellite links that allowed U.S. soldiers in Bosnia to phone home—Arrowhead has since grown to employ nearly 100, with annual revenues of $10 million. Elliott, who never remarried and lives alone in a three-bedroom condo in Falls Church, outside Washington, D.C., now pays herself $120,000 a year. Says her son Daniel: "Just through guts and determination she's come out on top."
And the top is where she plans to remain. "Closing a sale is like climbing a mountain," she says. "On the final assault I always lead the charge, and it's always a thrill."
Julie K.L. Dam
J. Todd Foster in Falls Church
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