Spotlight: Freda Porter

Business can be messy, but Porter Scientific, Inc. (PSI) doesn’t mind. In fact, it thrives on fixing such big messes and knotty problems as soil and water contamination, air pollution, and wastewater management. Based in Pembroke, North Carolina, the environmental services and consulting firm does more than get its collective hands dirty, however. It also provides site assessments and IT support for clients ranging from banks to the military.

Indeed, as the business world becomes increasingly conscious of environmental issues, it is a great time to be an expert in the field, a fact backed up by Porter Scientific’s 30 percent revenue growth in the past year (and estimated 2007 revenues of $3.1 million). Not that success has come easy for founder and CEO Freda Porter, 50, a Lumbee Indian with a PhD in applied mathematics from Duke University. Since launching Porter Scientific in 1997, she has encountered—and overcome—her share of obstacles. Diversity Woman asked her about her switch from academia to the private sector, and how her business is finally, well, cleaning up.

Diversity Woman: Traditionally, girls have not been encouraged to study math and sciences. Did you have a different experience growing up?
Freda Porter: Math has always come naturally to me. I grew up on a farm on which my parents were tobacco sharecroppers. My dad once said that he could sense that I looked for ways to make the hard work on the farm easier. He always relied on me to help him pay his workers, so early on I thought it was exciting to be part of a solution.

DW: How did you translate a love of math into a business?
FP: After graduate school, I knew I couldn’t work in math theory. I was always an “applied” person: I had to find a problem to solve. I also had a love of nature and an affinity to water. At a conference I attended, a gentleman from the Environmental Protection Agency talked about how contaminants flow underground and propagate in the soil. He was dealing with important issues—oil spills, gas spills, hazardous chemicals—and it was just fascinating. I was very attracted to the problem of water quality and worked on it for probably seven or eight years [in research] before I ended up at the helm of the company.

DW: How much culture shock did you have, switching from academia to the private sector?
FP: I was fortunate to have had good teaching from my father. When he hung up his full-time farming hat, he had started a waste-operations company before he passed away. We were very close, and every week I had been interacting with him one way or another, helping him with the company. So I knew the fundamentals of running a business—with the exception of the political side.

DW: What did you need to learn politically?
FP: People want to do business with people they know. In other words, networking is very important, and everybody wants to see you giving back. So I had to rethink my approach. I knew that I gave back on the educational front, but I found that I had to apply that same philosophy to business.

DW: How much of an issue was your gender or race?
FP: In grade school, a very small percentage of my peers were girls, which was hard. In academia, they didn’t distinguish that I had brown skin. When I got the PhD, I thought I’d done all the right things and that everything would be equitable. But it wasn’t, and that was even more the case when I got into business. It was very hard to get opportunities because, number one, I’m a woman. Then, when I presented myself, my brown skin proved to be another mark against me. I felt that I was seen as somebody who wasn’t going to be able to do the work. I could flash around the PhD, the EPA research I’d done, but it didn’t matter.

DW: So how did you convince them?
FP: You do it one at a time. You don’t win the masses, but they gradually realize you’re for real and that you have a lot to offer. A lot of our customers are military, and so I serve on an advisory commission for military affairs. We try to recruit from that arena, too, and that includes both military people and their spouses. You make those inroads, and the word starts to get around—that’s the way change happens. Hopefully, when true change happens, your color goes away, and your gender goes away, too.

DW: You said that you give back on the educational front. How are you doing that?
FP: One way is by serving on the Board of Trustees of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. We have a wonderful opportunity to bring more education to the reservations and to rural areas, especially in math and science. Right now, American Indians are at the bottom of every [educational] statistic and that’s a shame. It’s a real honor to be on the board.

DW: What two books are you reading?
FP: One is Become a Better You, by Joel Osteen. He is a pastor, and I’m so inspired by him. I’m missing my father still—he was my greatest support person—but Osteen writes that he wants to be [the reader’s] support person. That really struck a nerve. The second, Leading Through Change, is from the Harvard Business Review. We’re going through a lot of changes at PSI, and I have relied on these “change-management” topics. DW

Katrina Brown Hunt, based in San Diego, has written about personal finance and business for SmartMoney, Fortune Small Business, and the Seattle Times.

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