Atlas Research’s Robin Portman’s Zigzagged, Indirect and Unconventional Journey to CEO

Robin Portman, president and CEO of Atlas Research. 

Robin Portman is the president and CEO of Atlas Research, but one look at her resume and it’s clear: the path she took to a top leadership position hasn’t been the most traditional one.

“My mantra has been, if it looks like a great opportunity that’s going to bring me joy and be fun, let’s give it a go. And so that’s what I’ve done. I have never honestly regretted any of those decisions,” Portman told WashingtonExec.

She started her career as a high school teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland, after graduating from the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in education. She then worked as a civilian government employee for the Department of Navy.

“This was back when there was a big [Defense Department] buildup in the intel world,” Portman explained.

So, she became a scientific and technical intelligence analyst for the Navy while attending night school at UMD to obtain her technical master’s degree in management information systems.

Once Portman got her degree, she parlayed her new knowledge into an opportunity at the David Taylor Research Center at the Carderock Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Potomac, Maryland. At the time, the center was getting into cutting-edge research, like neural networks and analysis, and modeling and simulation for outer air battle around an aircraft carrier.

And there she was — a green programmer and data analyst — but completely intrigued by the work at the center. Portman said she had a blast being a part of it and getting into the latest and greatest technology and research at the time.

That experience led Portman to her next opportunity with TRW — an defense and intelligence contractor now owned by Northrop Grumman. TRW was then a firm renowned for its work in the aerospace industry, computer science and software engineering.

“So, I packed my bags, went out to California for a couple of years, and that was my first foray into government contracting and engineering,” Portman said.

She worked at TRW for several years, mostly in the IT space, starting in intel and expanding into civil work using her education and experience in management information systems.

It’s Whom You Know

Like most greats, Portman had a mentor — Pamela Lentz — a former senior program manager at TRW who would later recruit her to Booz Allen Hamilton.

“This is another lesson in mentors can be great,” Portman said, because after Lentz went to Booz Allen, she recruited Portman to join her from TRW as a senior program manager. Portman got her start at Booz Allen in its intel business and expanded from there.

And before reaching corporate status, Portman worked on the health team helping to build out that business — it is worth noting when she joined the health team, it was one of the company’s emerging businesses.

“Within a very short period of time, several of us were able to really kind of exploit the opportunity out there to bring what Booz Allen had with regard to technology and consulting, bringing that to the new health clients that we really hadn’t penetrated yet,” Portman said.

And when she became Booz Allen’s chief growth officer in 2012, Portman started the company’s very first centralized business development organization.

The defense business at the time took up about 80% of Booz Allen’s work. A decision was made that the company couldn’t be sustained through “a thousand points of light,” and needed centralization. Portman said they built this centralized business development organization in a way that fully integrated business development with the fabric of the actual business, and it was successful.

Portman looks back on her 22-year career at Booz Allen as phenomenal.

“It’s an absolutely incredible company,” she said, “but I had been there for a very long time . . . and I just reached a point where I was ready to kind of say, ‘OK, what’s next in my career now?’”

Portman decided to retire as chief growth officer. She wanted to try something completely different. She had developed longstanding industry relationships during her time at Booz Allen that resulted in one of those zigzags in her career path — Dr. Ryung Suh, owner and co-founder of Atlas Research, and his co-founder Mark Chichester.

Suh was also the department head for the Health Systems Administration in Georgetown University’s School of Nursing and Health Studies, and he was interested in standing up more of an innovation angle in the curriculum.

Knowing Portman was retiring from Booz Allen, he asked her to consider joining the university, and she agreed. Portman went on to teach one of the first intensives in business innovations for the graduate course in Health Systems Administration.

“And I stood up the strategic innovations group, which is sort of a focus on health innovations across all of the different departments within the School of Nursing. And from there, I developed a relationship with Dr. Suh and Mark (Chichester),” she said.

And the Rest, They Say, is History

Suh and Chichester, at the time, were also trying to grow Atlas Research. They didn’t want the company to remain a small business and knew what got the company to $60 million wouldn’t necessarily get it to $300 million, according to Portman.

So, they convinced her to join Atlas Research as CEO.

“And so, that’s how I’m here,” Portman said, but she’s still an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. “I don’t want to let that go because I really did get a lot of joy out of doing that . . . but I’m here at Atlas, and it’s just a completely different experience.”

The Path to Health

Falling into and sticking with the health systems realm paired well with Portman’s information systems background and the nearly 10 years she spent as part of the health business team at Booz Allen.

“That experience really prepared me for continuation in the health business once I joined Atlas,” Portman said, “but also the corporate experience at Booz Allen sort of gave me the fearless attitude of being able to build. I’m a builder. I love to build things.”

During her last years as chief growth officer for Booz Allen, Portman and her team worked with an innovation group focused on the possibilities and potential of tomorrow.

“What are those signals out there on the horizon in terms of new things that are coming down the pipe, not just for technologies, but across the board?” she explained as their focus.

This group would look for the innovations it should bring to its clients in DOD, civil and commercial. And working with the strategic innovations group and developing an entire corporate development group that also focused on mergers and acquisitions, as well as business development, marketing and communication, were critical for building a new organization.

And because joining Atlas Research felt like a startup to Portman — not because it is one, but because of the sheer difference in company size compared to Booz Allen — that experience was also crucial.

“Being able to leverage all that experience and infusing innovation and transformation, which is what Atlas is really all about, and being able to focus that in the health transformation arena and the clients that we’re serving in DOD, Department of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services . . . that all kind of tied nicely together at Atlas,” Portman explained.

And one of the main differences is being nimbler and moving quicker than in a larger organization. If the company sees a trend it needs to focus on and drive toward a specific innovation, like high-reliability organizations in health and health transformation (which is critical among government clients now), Atlas Research is able to pivot its focus, develop the capabilities quickly and pull in the right people and partners to do so.

“We can quickly pivot to places where we know we want to zero in on,” Portman said, with no organizational bureaucracy or legacy work to maintain.

At the end of the day, Portman was able to blend her technology bent with her health experience, corporate business development experience as chief growth officer and her time teaching at Georgetown University to lead Atlas Research.

“Put all those things together, and it prepared me well for this chapter,” she said.

The Here and Now

Well into the pages of her chapter at Atlas Research, Portman is focusing on digital and using evidence-based processes for ensuring technologies are working the way they should be in an organization.

“It’s not just technology for technology’s sake but using implementation science to ensure that we have the evidence that this is going to work,” she said. And she’s doing that by exploring digital, analytics and big data.

Portman also helps organizations develop an innovation ecosystem and diffuse those best practices across the organization. Atlas Research is doing some of this work with HHS and VA

“Innovation and modernization and health transformation, that kind of bucket is a big emphasis for us as well as digital, and that will just continue to be a driver,” Portman said.

And the potential of this innovation and modernization is crucial, especially for the health industry, which Portman said is notorious for being slow to accept and bring in new ideas and innovations.

“I think this is a very exciting time because our clients are open to it. They are establishing organizations and parts of organizations that specifically target innovation and new technologies or new processes or new ways of doing business,” Portman said.

And because they’re open to it, it has become very opportunistic for Atlas Research.

But it doesn’t stop there. In 10 years or so, Portman sees Atlas Research as a transformational company in the health industry.

“If it’s a gnarly, tough problem that really cries out for a solution that may not exist today . . . if it’s a hard problem in the health industry, Atlas is who we’re going to call and bring in to help us think through these challenges,” she said.

And that’s ultimately what she wants Atlas Research to be known for: solving the most vexing challenges by bringing in innovation that will impact new challenges. “As you can tell, I’m really excited about our future here,” Portman said.

Shedding Light on Success and Giving Back

Portman has been recognized for her drive and ability to lead and grow a business. In 2012, she was named to the Washington Business Journal’s list of “Women Who Mean Business.”

“It meant something to me because the emphasis of that award wasn’t just that you were a kick-butt driver or leader in the business, but that you cared about the communities that you were doing business with,” Portman said. She appreciated being recognized for giving back and being involved in communities she did business with.

One of those communities is the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, an organization that advocates for military families and veteran caregivers, and one Portman holds much respect for. She was doing some work with Easterseals of MD|DC|VA, which serves children, adults, veterans and their families with services to address their special needs or situations, when she received an unexpected phone call one day.

“My phone rings, and it’s Sen. Dole on the line saying, ‘Would you please join us, join the advisory group and help us on our mission?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is the best phone call ever!’” Portman said.

She now chairs the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s National Advisory Board, as well as the board of trustees for Easterseals Serving MD|DC|VA. She also is the vice chair for Service Source Inc., a national nonprofit focused on employment and services for individuals with disabilities.

“We did a lot of work with the Dole Foundation at Booz Allen Hamilton, and of course, when I came here to Atlas, we’re continuing our work with the Dole Foundation, and I have tremendous respect,” Portman said.

And her passion for giving back doesn’t stop there.

Portman loves to ski, and was able to tie in a personal hobby with her eagerness to give back earlier this year when she, her husband and many Atlas Research colleagues took a trip to Colorado for the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.

The five-day event from March 31 to April 5 is sponsored by VA and Disabled American Veterans, and gets 400-plus veterans participating in activities like skiing, rock climbing and sled hockey.

“It’s amazing,” Portman said. “So, that was incredible. When I go out there, it’s a very inspiring event, but just as important, I get to ski a lot.”

Portman also loves to hike with her husband and dog and is very into music — all kinds of music.

“I love Blues Alley as much as I love the National Symphony,” she said.

And while attending performances reminds Portman of just how much more she needs to do so, being a CEO with several passions and involvements fills quite the schedule.

Simply, “there’s not enough time in the day to do all that stuff,” she said.

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