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Women Bisnow
August 7, 2008

Women in Defense

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By Karin Tanabe for Bisnow on Business

Don’t be fooled by appearances. The woman behind the Buffalo MPCV, an enormous Star Wars-worthy mine resistant vehicle, is Pillsbury partner Joël Van Over. Representing Force Protection Inc. and a slew of other companies who develop state of the art technologies to defend our troops, Van Over is going where very few women have gone before. “I can’t remember ever being in a meeting with another high-level woman in the intelligence field. This will change as women move further and further up the ranks, as a lot of government contractors hire former military.”


Where is your Outward Bound instructor today? She could be in a courtroom rather than kayaking the day away. Former Outward Bounder Van Over still takes it to the great outdoors when she can.

Starting her career in juvenile justice, running a pre-trial diversion program for non-violent first time felony offenders in New Mexico, Van Over decided to go to law school when she was 28. Doing litigation in the government contracts arena for Steptoe & Johnson in DC, Van Over had a yen to get into court and didn’t feel like she was going to have the opportunity. “I moved to Swidler Berlin and within the first week of arriving, I was in court,” says Van Over, who then moved to Pillsbury wanting more depth and support in government contracts.


Reading college science textbooks cover-to-cover, enrolling in GW law school for an LLM in intellectual property for a patent litigation case, Van Over knows about going the distance. “The maze of government statutes and regulations is mind-boggling. It’s a challenge for a company to navigate and not be overwhelmed by the regulatory pressures. I like to help companies focus on what they do best.” A first chair trial attorney since 1991, she’s finishing her LLM thesis in Martha’s Vineyard this summer. “Large companies have always had R&D, now our government is working with younger companies,” she says. “Though war exacts a horrible price, it has really spurred state of the art new technologies to protect our soldiers.”

1500 Employees!

Has the boardroom become passé? Seems so many good ideas are born in a basement these days. After earning a master’s in library science, Michelle Lee, CEO of professional services company STG International, was working as a contract librarian for the EPA when she realized that all she had learned about government contracting could be used to start her own company. “I never wanted to say I didn’t try. English is not my first language—my Chinese is 100 times better, but look at me. I have a real no fear approach.” 11 years later, the company has gone from zero to $110 million in revenue and Lee hopes that in five years they will be at $500 million.


Lee has expanded into occupational health and medical services for federal clients. Over 50 percent of STG’s 1500 employees in 34 states are women. “I think the reason we attract women is that we really pay attention to the work/life balance. “My family wants to have dinner with me and I think that’s important,” she says.  She also mentions STG’s work with the Early Head Start program, working principally in regions 4 and 9, the most poverty-stricken corners of the south and the Pacific territories. “These people are not in it for the money; they want to make a difference. It brings me back to my library days. No one ever became a librarian or got involved with Head Start to make money.”

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