Successful Entrepreneurship: A Conversation with Ernst Volgenau

Ernst Volgenau, a master entrepreneur and founder of SRA International, sat down with School of Business and College of Engineering students recently for a heart-to-heart on the lessons he’s learned throughout his distinguished career.

Ernst Volgenau spoke candidly with business and engineering students.  Photos by Evan Cantwell.

Ernst Volgenau spoke candidly with business and engineering students. Photos by Evan Cantwell.

Volgenau, an engineer, author, U.S. Air Force veteran and the chairman of the board of SRA, a Fairfax-based information technology consulting company he started in 1978, told students there are four things to remember if they want to become successful entrepreneurs:

■  Pick a good market and have a good market edge to set the company apart. Pursue that edge with great fortitude. Want to win.

■  Hire good people and treat them well.  Good people are attracted to a company that stands for something.

■  Have a set of ethics and culture that supports company’s views.  Pay careful attention to these values over time. 

■  Treat customers well.  Be honest with clients, even when at times it means losing business. Gain their trust and the satisfaction that comes with doing the right thing.

These seem like mundane things, but they are fundamental to success, Volgenau said—and upper-level management sometimes forgets these things.

Enduring values

While his company grew rapidly in its first five years and went on to be named one of the Top 100 Best

Places to Work for 10 years, there were mistakes made and times when they didn’t remain true to their values and company views, he said.

The company drifted away from their culture and values in 2007 when the acquisition of another company turned out to be a bad idea.

“It was a lemon,” he said.

The acquisition was well-intended by the CEO at the time, but SRA International didn’t know anything about the business it had just bought into.

Learning to lead

He encouraged the students to never stop learning, even if they become successful entrepreneurs.

“Leadership is a continual quest, not a destination,” he said “I am still trying to learn how to be a good leader.”

Volgenau is the author of the recently published “Geeks, Mush Heads and the IT Revolution,” the story of how SRA International achieved success over nearly four decades.

Story by Jamie Rogers (

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Janet Palmisano

Janet Palmisano is a member of the Recruiting and Admissions team at the George Mason University School of Business.

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