Von Washington started his company, IDA Technology, 12 years ago and has had plenty of success in defense contracting and diversifying to take advantage of other opportunities.
Along the way, Washington’s focus grew beyond his business ventures to those of others in El Paso, and he has been noticed for that with five awards and recognitions in the past five years.
They include the Texas Association of Mexican-American Chambers of Commerce Corporate Hispanic Business Advocate of the year for 2019 and the SBA’s Texas Small Business Person of the Year last year.
He attributes his success first to his faith and then to his “silent heroes” – wife Gayla, daughter Tamika, who works with him, son VJ, and then to his employees, mentors and friends, as well as the Small Business Administration and other agencies that have helped IDA Technologies.
There’s a special place in Von Washington’s heart for his grandmother, Ida, and it’s hard for him to stop talking about her once he starts. The name of his company is no accident.
Miss Ida, as she was known, came from a family of tobacco farmers in rural Virginia, but headed for New York when she got the chance and returned to become a prominent businesswoman who went on to break barriers, as did his mother.
When Washington’s father died, Ida advised his mother, Louvinia, that with two boys, she needed a good job with benefits. So she applied for a position with the sheriff’s department and became the first female African-American deputy sheriff in Chesterfield County, Virginia, in 1972.
Washington sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about why he went into the Army when he had other plans to start with and why he likes El Paso and chooses to be so involved in the community.
Q: What does your company, IDA Technology, do primarily?
We act as a third-party independent verifier and validator of performance on behalf of the government for weapon systems. So when the government says, “Lockheed Martin, we’re purchasing a system from you,” we act on behalf of the government to do analysis on that system to see that, yes, it performs according to these requirements. We also do IT services and program management.
Q: How many employees do you have?
Well, right now we’re about 86.
Q: Who are IDA’s customers?
Primarily federal government and civilian agencies – chiefly defense, but we’ve got some other federal customers, like the Department of Energy, and we started a corporate housing division here back in 2014.
Q: What is that?
IDA Corporate Living, to provide corporate housing. So if you’re a government or corporate representative coming into El Paso and you need accommodations but you don’t want to stay in a corporate hotel because you are going to be here for three to 12 months, then, we can provide corporate housing.
We’ll rent the apartment for you, furnish it for you, manage all the utilities and everything for you and lease it out for you.
Q: So you’re diversifying.
Yeah, we’ve been doing that for about five years now. There’s so much construction and highway construction activity ongoing here and a lot more to come – and a lot of Border Patrol.
Q: You and your company have gotten some awards from local and state chambers of commerce and the Small Business Administration. They reflect a high level of community involvement. Not everybody who’s successful in business does that. Why do you?
Well, I have to start with my faith. It plays a central part in everything that I do. I trust Christ for all that I have and all that I do. I always believed that the fruit of what I do comes from the seed that I sow.
Secondly, I made a decision to get involved in the community once I started the company. I spent a decade at Fort Bliss just working on the Patriot (missile system) out of White Sands and doing testing full-time.
Once I started the company, I knew that I needed to get involved in the community. So I joined the Greater Chamber and the Hispanic chamber. It really worked with the Hispanic chamber because I resonated with the small business that was just kind of the core of who I was.
Q: How secret is your operation in terms of what you do and the ability to talk about it?
In terms of the actual work, it is classified. But I’m prepared today to talk about the industry and the technology work we do.
I’m really interested in and always high on El Paso, our potential and what’s going on here – the synergy of El Paso and what’s in store for the next decade because there’s some really cool things going on in El Paso.
Q: We have watched North Korea test missile after missile and we’ve heard the Russians boast about their super-fast ICBMs. Without giving away any secrets, of course, what is the state of our missile defense system? Can we deal with those guys?
We can deal with those guys. We always want to improve our posture and know that we have what we call over-match capabilities. If we have any concern, it is that we don’t have the level of over-match that we’d like.
Q: But aren’t they coming up fast because they’ve stolen a lot of our technology?
Exactly. That level of espionage has probably closed the gap for one thing. The second thing is that we’ve been under a level of stress because we’ve been decisively engaged in a conflict when they haven’t, and so they’ve learned.
What we’re really doing is putting up position and posture to be in a stronger over-matched position. Are we significantly concerned? Not really.
Q: Before you joined the Army and were assigned to air defense artillery, you obtained a bachelor’s degree in political science. Did you have a different future in mind then when you started college, and what drew you to the Army?
I did have a different future in mind. I wanted to be a lawyer, and I got accepted to Howard University. And then, unfortunately, my father and my grandfather both passed away. And so it just left my mother, my young brother and myself. Howard was a private school.
So with two breadwinners in the home gone, I took an ROTC scholarship and went to Virginia State University, which is our hometown university. I literally grew up across the street from Virginia State. My mother’s the one that convinced me and said, hey, go to ROTC.
I said, “Mom, I don’t want to go to ROTC.” But she said, “Do it.” I got an officer’s commission and went to summer camp and saw the air-defense artillery display at Fort Bragg. I knew then that’s what I wanted to do.
Q: The El Paso area’s not known for high-tech work but does have UTEP’s tier-one research rating, not to mention Spaceport America just 100 miles away. Do you see a growing technology industry sector in El Paso’s future?
I do. (Former UTEP President) Dr. Natalicio did a phenomenal job establishing that platform, and it’s growing. They’ve got national prominence for the work that they’re doing in the small satellite arena, in their composite materials arena.
But we also need to foster small businesses so that they can grow here, so that we can keep some of those engineers here. What happens is they grow, they gain experience, and then you’d be surprised at how many of those engineers are being hired by the Lockheed Martins, by the Raytheons, and they’re not staying here.
Q: That’s been the problem for a long time.
We have an opportunity if we grow our small business base to keep and retain some of those engineers here. And I think that’s important.
Q: What are some of the technology programs and advancements in the region?
There are other network programs and there are other analysis activities that are ongoing in this area in response to programs out at White Sands that companies like mine are doing here. Take what UTEP is doing.
Q: With its NASA MIRO Center for Space Exploration program?
Exactly. So when you think about what’s going on in our area, it’s significant. Then, there’s the medical community and the fact that Tenet has its largest hospital network here in El Paso. And think about what’s going on with the Texas Tech medical center.
Tech probably has the most advanced medical school in the country because they’re only a decade old. We have 60 federal agencies here in El Paso, and some of the technology that they’re using here on the border is significant.
There’s a lot of activity ongoing here on the border that just kind of gets lost, and the way that we are portrayed in the media and on Capitol Hill is just a slap in the face.
Q: Sounds like you have become an El Pasoan.
I am an El Pasoan. I got here as a lieutenant, age 21, and I came from Virginia. So, you know, I got here just like everybody else. I said, OK, I’m going to do my time here and get out of here. Then, it becomes hard to leave and you fall in love with the city, the culture, the people.
Folks ask me now, because probably 60% to 70% of our business is outside of El Paso, why don’t you leave El Paso? Why do you stay here?
Because this is easy living, and it’s a great community.
Q: What do you mean by easy living?
It’s stress free. It’s just a quality of life.
Q: You named your company Integrated Defense Applications, doing business as IDA Technology, after your grandmother, Ida Merritt. She must have been something special.
Ida Merritt was just a remarkable lady. She was just a thin, strong, wiry little lady growing up. She was a third child of six and was the only girl. She grew up in Dinwiddie County. Her dad was a tobacco farmer and stump puller.
When she was 19, she decided to leave and move to Petersburg where she worked in a Brown and Williamson tobacco factory. She did that for two years and realized that’s not what she wanted to do. So she went to New York and was trained as a seamstress and furrier.
She came back to Petersburg and went to work for Lubman’s Clothier, a high-end shop. She worked for him for several years and thought she wasn’t getting paid what she should have been paid.
She talked to him, and he didn’t want to increase her salary. So she quit, moved about four blocks around the corner and opened her own seamstress shop. There were no seamstresses in that area and six months later, he started bringing his work to her because all the patrons were going, “Where’s Ida?”
She ran that seamstress shop and a barber supply, and had five employees. My dad had started that with her, and then when we moved to Norfolk, he opened one there. She ran the shop in Petersburg for 50 years and was an icon in the community.
She was just a special lady. Everyone called her Miss Ida. She was the first bonded female trustee in her church, which was kind of unheard of in a male-dominated Baptist Church.
Q: I take it she became a well-to-do woman.
She was, and a positive influence on my life.
Q: What was growing up like in Virginia?
I was a country boy and grew up in Chesterfield County on 10 acres of land about 30 miles south of Richmond. Then my parents moved to Norfolk, Virginia, and my dad was a merchant and had a store there. We lived there until I was about 10th grade. Then grandfather got cancer and passed away. My father passed away shortly after that.
Q: They were probably Chesterfield smokers.
“Tobacco and hogs are king” is the saying, and everybody smoked, that’s right.
Q: Did you have big ideas is a kid?
I was fortunate. My mother and my grandmother were just big influences in my life. I was the oldest of all the grandchildren, and they just made you believe you could do whatever you wanted to do. I came from an entrepreneurial family, and I always knew that I wanted to be in business.