Okaloosa County, Florida
Vertex Solutions, a woman owned small business, is a leading integrator of extended reality (XR) training solutions. With roots in courseware development, we are known for our virtual reality (VR) flight simulators used in USAF undergraduate pilot training, US Navy advanced pilot training, and helicopter training at Ft. Rucker.
118% increase from 2018 – 2021
155% increase from 2018 – 2021
Tell us a bit about your self and your background.
I have over two decades of operational years of consulting experience. Throughout my career, I have assisted businesses from private equity to Fortune 500 clients, managing growth in scale across the full horizontal of needs and objectives. Before I was the CEO at Vertex, I was the Senior Vice President of Global Operations at a PE backed talent management firm. In the three years that I was there, we were the fastest-growing firm in its industry. There, I was responsible for business operations, databases, processes, and spearheading integrations. I learned how to manage the delicate balance of business growth. But before that, my first taste of the professional world was when I was a corporate attorney for a few years directly out of law and business school. I am also the founder and former chairwoman of the Young Professionals Committee for the Susan G. Komen Greater New York City Breast Cancer Foundation. I started what became the first young professionals committee, which we then rolled out across the United States and even internationally.
Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
It was definitely an evolution. I didn’t know that I wanted to be an entrepreneur or a CEO necessarily. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial mindset – like asking why not, instead of why? But initially, I craved the foundational rigor, the fundamentals, training, and basics I learned and experienced as an attorney which provided me the platform, and skillset, to be creative and evolve more organically and confidentially.
Tell us about Vertex Solutions. What value do you provide your customers?
We’ve been in business for over 25 years and are a woman-owned small business, focused on integrating emerging technology to increase student access to high-fidelity training. Our mission has progressed from web-based training to mobile learning and gaming, and most recently to extended reality or XR simulators. We’re a prime contractor for Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), Pilot Training Transformation, (PTT). For PTT, we’ve delivered 260 Extended Reality Flight Simulators and are training new pilots every day at five U.S. Air Force training bases. Additionally, we’ve adopted the same simulators for the Navy’s T-45 Training Program at two separate Navy training bases. This past year we achieved military and commercial dual use to provide XR Simulators for training commercial airline pilots – which was one of my biggest goals when I first came on board. This is dual-use technology that’s developed for the military and then commercialized, which provides lower product costs by taking advantage of mass economies of scale and mass economies of scope. This successful commercialization of defense technologies can increase the likelihood that these technologies remain accessible and affordable for military use as well.
This year, we were selected by the DIU to develop a reconfigurable multi-place mixed reality (MPMR) flight simulator that will replace the currently fielded weapon systems trainers and save several times the initial fielding, modifications, sustaininment costs and gives greater access to pilot training for students. This means training more effectively and at a lower cost which is addressing the pilot shortage at the same time. It’s a super cool, unique modular simulator that Vertex Solutions designed which can be rapidly reconfigured to different aircraft configurations beyond the TH-1H. The partnership and working so closely with the military were big draws for me to Vertex. We’re helping to train these pilots and our ultimate goal is to protect and save lives. Many of our employees are former military, you see their passion and you see their excitement for what we’re doing and that’s contagious.
What is your competition like? How do you differentiate yourselves?
We’re unique in our space because we have hundreds of pilots who are actively using Vertex XR flight simulators for training which gives us invaluable access to students and instructor pilots that deliver more effective pilot training. There are very few other companies that deliver similar XR Simulators at this scale that also withstand daily use by student instructor pilots. This gives us access to a rich source of user acceptance data.
We’re constantly innovating and looking for new ways to incorporate emerging technology to provide greater student access to higher-fidelity learning. Creating greater access means making training both more affordable and lighter weight, meeting students where they are instead of them going where training is. Essentially, we’re bringing the training to the students. Our simulators are portable, usable, and can be plugged into a standard 110V outlet for a more decentralized training approach. As we’re looking to improve student access, we’ve developed a spectrum of extended reality training devices from standalone XR headsets, that include the computer processor and visual system in an all-in-one form factor for lightweight aircraft simulators to include at a level of fidelity that’s capable of achieving FAA certification. Student accessibility can range from devices shipped to home or devices that facilitate the migration of training from National Training Centers to Regional Training Centers. All of our flight simulators are built on a specific platform that reduces costs for developing an assembly for another aircraft and can be easily applied to previously delivered simulators. In everything we do, we like to be agile, responsive, current, and affordable.
What makes your company culture unique?
One of the things I love most about our team is that everyone is highly involved in the communities where we work, live, and play. Our employees hold positions in local Chambers of Commerce, Economic Development Councils, and a multitude of other professional organizations in the industry. We also support STEM education initiatives and military support advocacy organizations. We have an established history of providing robust internship opportunities, and we’re proud to have several former interns currently serving on active duty.
Having a strong culture is equally as important as business fundamentals. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. The only way to create something like that is to do it together. Everyone here celebrates each other, it is crucial that our employees are properly incentivized, and we empower them to collaborate, innovate, and be creative. As CEO, every single person in the company is important to me. Whether you’re a tech or in accounting, everyone needs to lead by example. Each person is a leader, and each leader needs to know how to be a follower, too.
What we do is serious, but mistakes are going to be made. When mistakes happen, realize it’s a learning moment. Pause, reset, and move forward.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced as CEO?
When I first came on board, one of my goals was to explore our commercial opportunities. At the same time, I was in a brand-new industry. I was learning about the DoD, the military, and getting my security clearance – things outside of my usual wheelhouse. I had to be sure that the company was ready to act and deliver on new opportunities.
It was a balance of seeing potential and opportunities for airlines and other categories, but not putting too much pressure on the team, that was a learning experience. You must have the right amount of healthy anxiety. In the beginning, I had my moments of saying, “Well, why can’t we do this?” At times, I was outpacing the healthy pace of my team. Not because they weren’t capable, but because we didn’t have the right resourcing and alignment on how to execute outside of what we had previously known. That was my own moment of personal growth – understanding where we’re at, where I could push, and where I need to pause until we could do the job, with the right amount of healthy anxiety!
There’s no handbook for being a CEO. Who did you turn to for guidance?
Thinking of people that have helped me along the way, the first and easy answer is my parents. My mom was born in Puerto Rico, never went to college, and grew up in the Bronx. She is a constant learner; she encouraged my ambition but allowed me the space to make mistakes and accept that ‘good’ is sometimes better than perfect. I also grew up with a father who is incredibly entrenched within the business. He’s been my touchstone and advisor; the benefit of his counsel and leadership has been invaluable. I am fortunate as well to have my business partner within Vertex; while we are unafraid to disagree, as with any healthy relationship, we know how to move forward shoulder to shoulder. And, I would need to mention Nancy Brinker, the founder of Susan G. Komen and former ambassador to Hungary. I’ve known her for decades; she is a woman who has taught me to look through the lens of “why not?” Her fierceness in what she does is also mirrored by the fierceness in which she loves.
Additionally, our president and CEO Dennis Wikoff, who has Herculean patience in terms of educating me with the military, DoD, government contracts, and government pricing, is an exceptional leader and partner. And of course, our CTO, Andrew Palla. Andrew put everything in this industry in terms that have allowed me to learn, or to learn enough so I can then make sure I am out of the way for Andrew and the team to do what they need to do! Since the beginning, the team has been protected me, and vice versa.
How do you hope to see your company grow in the coming years?
What’s so interesting is that we’re at this once-in-a-lifetime moment where this type of revolutionary pilot training technology coexists with this near-crisis level pilot shortage for both military and commercial industry sectors. As a leader within XR aviation training for the military, we are working tirelessly to take advantage of the natural synergies that exist between the military and commercial aviation markets. The military is willing to invest in new technology and willing to provide R&D funding to mature technology while commercial aviation wants proven solutions. Adoption by commercial aviation provides a path to certifications that build the credibility and enthusiasm in the military, resulting in more R&D that develops and advances for more complex combat missions. This additional military investment benefits what commercial airlines have adopted that create a cycle of ongoing improvement to aviation training across the board. That’s why we’re so excited about our recent milestone where we received a contract to provide simulators to a commercial airline. In the coming two years, we’ll be working with airlines and the FAA to have our XR Simulator at a certifiable level to allow for flight hour credits. With the pilot shortage, we’re in a place where that’s something we can address and we’re in a sweet spot to do it with commercial aviation and the military. It would be a win-win-win. That’s where we’re headed in the next few years.
Do you have a proudest moment so far?
I’ve had many proud moments over the years, like when we recently received our first commercial contract or that we’re moving into the multi-place mixed reality simulator space – those are both huge. But I would say my proudest moments are watching the team make mini miracles happen on a daily basis. For instance, when we visit various schools, I get to see the techs talking with the pilots and the students working through different scenarios. Next, that same tech is talking to an Admiral of the U.S. Navy at a conference. Every day I am more and more impressed with the caliber of people we have on this team. It is all these mini moments that allow for bigger moments to happen.
What does it mean to be selected as an Honoree this year?
It’s a testament to the hard work and dedication of all our employees. I am so proud of our entire team and what they have accomplished. They all work hard for each other and the company, but also for the promise we’ve made to succeed in the military and commercial industry. It’s incredibly rewarding for the team’s efforts to be recognized at a statewide level. For me, I’m able to draw back the curtain of the Vertex stage and allow them to truly shine and let them play their lead roles. Powerful moments like these are filled with a lot of emotions – humbleness, empowerment, and gratitude.
There are going to be times when you’re going to have to make hard decisions. At times you’re going to have to look at yourself in the mirror and be okay with not being okay. Running a business won’t always feel good but it is rewarding, sometimes unexpectedly, and when everything comes together, it is awesome. This awesomeness however is the exception rather than the rule, this is sweat, literally and figuratively. You must be comfortable with being uncomfortable.