Wing builder: Carol Craig

Carol Craig
Today, Carol Craig is the founder and owner of a successful aerospace company. But there was a time when this risk-taking entrepreneur was too timid to even make the jump into freshman life at Illinois

Sitting at her desk, the writing on the wall is visible every time Carol Craig, ’90 ENG, lifts her head. About 30 feet away, along the office’s main corridor and high enough so it hovers over the cubicles like a lodestar, the words are next to purple and black wings—purple and black being Craig’s favorite colors.

“Sometimes you just have to jump and build your wings on the way down.”

Craig smiles.

“I love those words,” she says. “The first time I read them, I said, ‘That’s me. That’s so me.’”

It wasn’t always her, however.

There was a time when 18-year-old Carol Bovard was afraid to jump into freshman life at a major university, much less jump off of anything. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she’d been accepted, seemed too big, too intimidating, too far away from home, even though it was only two hours away from where she grew up in Galesburg, Ill. So instead of opting for those two hours, young Carol settled for two miles and enrolled at nearby Knox College, a liberal arts college college with 1,400 students.

“Sometimes you just have to jump and build your wings on the way down.”

Funny that she didn’t know those words when she was 18, because they were penned by her favorite author while growing up—Ray Bradbury. Perhaps she wasn’t ready for those words then.

But now? Now Craig, 50, employs more than 400 people as CEO of her own company, Craig Technologies, which generates $48 million in annual revenue. Founded in 1999, and operating out of Cape Canaveral, Fla., Craig Technologies specializes in aerospace engineering, technology, manufacturing and software.

Now it seems as if all Craig does is jump and then grow wings. But it took years for that tepid 18-year-old to transform into an intrepid entrepreneur.

It hasn’t been a straight line from point A to B either. Life seldom is. But Craig’s life eventually took her to Illinois, then to the workplace, then into the Navy, where she became a Naval Flight Officer. From there, she moved into the private sector as a consultant and now a business owner, which she operates around her family: she’s wife to an airline pilot, the mother of two children (one of whom is a special-needs child), a member of her church choir, an accomplished pianist and a trustee on more boards than she can count on one hand.

Reading her exhaustive résumé can be exhausting.

And yet, for a time, her world was a small liberal-arts college, where Craig broke records running track, excelled in the classroom, gobbled up computer classes, and in her words, found it “cool to be a big fish in a little pond.”

Until she became bored, that is.

“I love Knox College. I sit on the board there,” Craig says. “But after two-and-half years, it was like, uh, this is killing me.”

She was ready—ready to grow some wings.

The Illinois advantage 

At Knox College, she learned about a dual-degree program in which UI and Knox College partner to allow students to earn two degrees in five years. Craig went for it, pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in computer science from Knox and a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science engineering at Illinois (now known as the Electrical and Computer Engineering program).

Craig would like to say she was a good student at Illinois, but she doesn’t like to lie. Classes were challenging, sure. But what was even more challenging was the knowledge that she could either make $10 an hour writing computer code or go to class during that same hour. The lure of $10 an hour often won, while her grades simultaneously suffered. Graduating was not guaranteed.

“I actually had to call my parents and tell them, ‘I don’t have this one last grade yet, so don’t make plans to come to graduation until I let you know what I got,’” she says. “I ended up getting a C in [the course], which gave me exactly a C average. I think my GPA was something like 2.00000001.”

She laughs.

“Fortunately, I never had to put my GPA on a résumé,” Craig continues. “I got an engineering degree from the University of Illinois, and its engineering program was what, something like No. 3 in the country at the time? So my grade point average didn’t matter. I’m just lucky I got the degree.”

But there were two other important things that also happened in Champaign.

Craig worked for a retailer called Berger Enterprises, one of those fanatics  stores that specialized in university paraphernalia and alumni items. “The guy was a real entrepreneur, and that was my introduction to what it takes to be an entrepreneur,” she says.

The second thing Craig learned is that she had a lot to learn. “There were a lot of people who were a lot smarter than me,” she says. “I learned how to leverage others—and  how to operate in a man’s world. In one of my engineering classes, there were about 300 guys and five women. Realizing I wasn’t [that] smart, I learned how to work with other people, how to learn from other people and how to work as [a member of] a team.”

Craig had no idea how those two experiences would later serve her, nor was she interested in what the far-off future even held.

Naval flight officer training 

“I’m ultimately lazy,” Craig says. “After I graduated in 1990, I interviewed with one company and got that one job offer, and that was it. It was with Cummins Engine Company in Columbus, Ind. They offered me $35,000 a year to write COBOL software programs, which meant I was making more than my dad. So I was like, cool, I’ll take it.”

Once again, as with Knox College, a feeling of “Is there something more?” eventually settled in.

“After six months or so, it was, uh, this is killing me,” Craig says. “It was very boring. I started looking for jobs, and I found one at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Indianapolis … [developing] mission software for Avionics. It [required] more of an engineering mindset, which tapped into my degree and experience at Illinois.”

Although she’s not especially fond of the reference, Craig likens the experience to becoming Charlie—i.e., the Kelly McGillis character in the 1986 movie Top Gun.

“I was working on the human factors side of software development,” Craig says. “I had aviators in front of me, and I was telling them, ‘Here is the code we developed and here are the changes to your cockpit.’ And they were telling me, ‘That’s not going to work because you have too many button pushes. When we’re flying in combat, that’s not going to work.’ And then I thought, you know what, I wonder if I can get accepted into the Navy flight program?”

“Sometimes you just have to jump and build your wings on the way down,” she says.

Well, not quite. Not yet, at least.

“I always had a love for the military,” Craig says. “But it was more like, ‘I wonder if I can get accepted?’ I applied and got in. Then I panicked. I went back to my recruiter and turned it down and the guy said, ‘You’re a moron if you turn this down. This is a great opportunity.’”

So in the spring of 1991, Craig opted not to be a moron.

Perhaps the best thing she learned in the Navy was how to bridge the disconnect between end users and software developers. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” she thought, “if you had somebody who understood both perspectives? I thought about that a lot when I started my own company.”

But that was still years away. Craig spent three-and-a-half years in the Navy. After being accepted into the Naval Flight Officer Program, her career was on track until 1996, when in SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape) School, she injured her knee. The surgery was botched and her knee was never the same, which effectively ended Craig’s Navy career. The good news, though, is that it led her to meet her future husband, John Craig, who was a lieutenant commander.

John spent several more years in the Navy while Carol worked in the private sector, eventually gravitating toward consulting work. One of her primary clients was Amerigroup, which at the time was a fledgling health insurance company, soon to become a publicly traded corporation in 2001. She saw firsthand the struggles of a young company—the proverbial man behind the curtain—and it was revelatory.

So when Craig decided to start her own company in 1999, she wasn’t expecting immediate results. Even still, she found herself maxing out eight credit cards, taking out a small business loan and struggling for years. It wasn’t until her fourth year in operation that she took her first paycheck.

“I don’t think I slept for three years,” Craig says.

At the time, her husband was a pilot with Comair, making only $25,000. Son Danny was born in 2001, and eventually diagnosed with Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic disorder that produces, among other challenges, autistic-type symptoms. Daughter Gillian, healthy, came into the world a year later. Craig’s husband wanted to jump in and help build the company, but Carol wouldn’t let him.

“I commend anybody who starts a company and doesn’t have a spouse with a job,” she says. “It was a heck of a lot easier for me to say, ‘I’m going to try and start this company’ because I still had insurance from John. He wanted in the company so bad, but I kept telling him no. If he’d seen the financials, he wouldn’t have slept either.”

Landing a NASA contract

Craig leveraged any advantage she could, whatever might get her foot in the door. Being a woman-owned business certainly helped, especially when it came to bidding for government contracts. Adopted when she was 3 days old, Craig always knew she was of Cuban decent, so she could check the minority box. Same with being a disabled veteran. Getting your foot in the door, though, is one thing. Getting in the room is another. And staying in the room—well, if you’re unable to do that, you not only find yourself on the outside again, you find yourself out of business.

She knew right away that Craig Technologies would not only have to deliver to important clients, but also answer to important people.

One of them is Bob Cabana. A former astronaut, Cabana is director of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center. He first interacted with Carol and Craig Technologies when the space shuttle program ended in 2011. NASA needed a company to perform the functions of its Supply Logistics Department, which refurbished space shuttle parts, maintained equipment and repurposed it for other applications. When the shuttle program ended, NASA didn’t want its equipment to fall into disuse. Craig Technologies entered into a five-year Space Act Agreement with NASA, and the company invested $5 million to maintain the equipment and develop a 160,000 square-foot aerospace and defense manufacturing facility, which now supports companies such as Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co., SpaceX, Siemens and Pacific Scientific, as well as the U.S. Dept. of Defense.

It was the first of many contracts Cabana now recalls Craig Technologies delivering for NASA. Through the years, he’s been consistently impressed with Craig and her company. “She’s a hard-charging, dynamic person who has a vision that she works hard at,” Cabana says. “Bright, energetic. Carol sees where she wants to be and makes it happen.”

And with good humor, too.

“Oh, she’s got a great sense of humor,” Cabana says. “She takes what she does seriously, but not herself.”

Although Craig is unapologetic for using the facts that she’s a woman, a minority and a disabled veteran to help her company get noticed, she bristles whenever it’s suggested that it stops there.

“I remember being up in Washington, D.C., in front of customers, and I’m thinking: If they remember me because I’m the only female in the room with a bunch of old white guys, that’s fine,” Craig says. “But I am going to deliver. And they will recognize that too … because you only get one shot.”

She snaps her fingers.

“And then it’s gone.”

Difficult decisions

It’s not herself Craig worries about most. It’s her employees. Maybe she doesn’t take herself too seriously, but she does take seriously the lives and livelihoods of the people who work for her. The turnover ratio at Craig Technologies is low, and invariably she hears back from former employees that their job at Craig Technologies was the best one they ever had. But even when somebody leaves, no matter how good or valid the reason, it still gnaws at her. Imagine then, how she felt when she had to lay off about 25 workers from her 450-plus employee workforce last year. It came when her five-year contract for NASA’s space shuttle equipment ended, and Craig wasn’t comfortable with the terms of their new agreement.

“Before that, I never had to lay off anyone—ever,” Craig says. “It was hard. I didn’t sleep or eat for a month straight. When I hire someone, I assume he or she will stay forever. I became even more conservative with my company after that, and I already consider myself a conservative entrepreneur.

“In my industry, you always have timeline challenges, especially when you’re dealing with government contracts, and I know that,” Craig continues. “But I realized that I couldn’t work hard enough to mitigate those inherent timeline issues, and I had to make the hard decision to ‘right size’ and make a course correction. The whole experience taught me to accept setbacks and, of course, to monitor my company cash flow better.”

Her company growth is back on the upswing again, thanks to Craig’s reputation for delivering quality work on schedule. Craig Technologies’ space shuttle experience has made companies such as SpaceX, Siemens, Harris Corporation and Pacific Scientific regular clients.

Today, Craig Technologies has employees in 38 locations in 16 states nationwide, including Alabama, California, New Mexico and Texas.

The company recently partnered with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space to establish what is calls “Space Development Acceleration Capability.”

As a result, Craig Technologies will provide rapid development and testing of space hardware, using additive manufacturing technology in a weightless environment. It also means that the Craig Technologies name will be affixed to the International Space Station.

Keep it simple

It’s heady stuff in a short time frame. Craig Technologies didn’t win its first government contract until 2004. A year later, the company saw $1 million in annual revenue. Since then, annual revenue has grown an average of $4 million yearly.

Craig has learned to keep it simple, focusing on the basics.

The biggest things are “making payroll and growing the company,” she says. “I want to take care of people. I think that’s inherently who women are. We take care of people.

“I’m always busy, always trying to find that balance,” she adds. “Right now, I’m juggling a lot of balls. But somebody once told me that it’s okay to drop balls as long as they’re the ones that bounce. I can’t be perfect, as much as I try. Something is going to drop. But it better not be my daughter. It better not be my son. It better not be my husband. And it shouldn’t be payroll.”

Juggling all those figurative balls, just as it would be with literal ones, means focusing on the now, living in the present.

“I don’t have a bucket list,” Craig says. “If I want to do something, I’ll do it. If I want to jump out of an airplane, I’ll do it.”

She smiles.

“But trust me, I have no desire to jump out of any real airplanes.”