Kim deCastro does not back down.
The owner of Wildflower International Ltd. in Santa Fe developed her company from a one-woman operation out of her daughter’s bedroom into an 83-employee firm, and she did it in part by taking on one of the federal government’s biggest contractors.
It happened in 2008 when Wildflower was scrapping for work after the national laboratories changed how they awarded projects “and completely locked us out,” deCastro said. The largest order the 10-person company had received to that point was worth $8,000.
DeCastro turned her sights to Washington, D.C., and started traveling to the nation’s capital to get her foot in the door for small-business information technology work.
“It was sort of like a thing where Kim goes to Washington, and I was made privy to and discovered some things that were horribly wrong,” said deCastro, now 61.
She couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t winning more of her company’s small-business bids with the Department of Homeland Security until she stumbled upon a piece of evidence in a wayward email showing that her most formidable competitor was actually a large corporation that was hiding behind small businesses so it could qualify for the government’s set-aside program.
There was more. DeCastro was at the agency’s office in Washington to file a bid protest as a meeting was under way to kick off the project her competitor had won.
“There was a sign-in sheet out in the lobby, and after they all went into the conference room, I went and looked at the sign-in sheet and they were all from this big company,” she said. “Nobody was from the reported small business. Not one.”
DeCastro took a photo of the sheet with her cellphone, and it became evidence for a formal protest, ultimately resulting in Wildflower instead winning the $180 million contract.
The Small Business Administration temporarily suspended work with the company, GTSI, after a Washington Post investigation but lifted the action after the company agreed to stop the practice, according to reports at the time. Two top executives stepped down, and three others were suspended.
The episode set Wildflower on a path that emphasized “a sense of fairness and of doing the right thing,” deCastro said. That spirit is still reflected, for example, in the way the 83-employee company marks the holidays. Instead of sending out costly greeting cards, the staff picks 25 people who have made a difference in their lives during the past year and sends them a letter thanking them and explaining, “You did this for me, or it was amazing when you did this and I want you to know.”
Money saved on the card purchases, as well as the company’s community service efforts throughout the year, are generally dedicated to a women’s shelter in memory of deCastro’s sister, Victoria.
“That’s what Wildflower brings to the table,” she said. “We’re something a little different here.”
What do you do in your free time?
I’m an avid gardener. It’s very grounding for me. And I have a very strong yoga practice. I also do Olympic-style weight-lifting. I do squats and snatches and clean and jerks. … One of the reasons I enjoy it so much is because I’m very much in my head. I support a lot of people, both my customers and my employees, and it’s very, very mental. There is so much involved in the technique of defying gravity to make 80 pounds seem like it’s 20 pounds that I forget about work.
What inspires you?
My mom and dad were in business for themselves. My mother’s family was in business in Las Vegas (N.M.). My grandmother had a photography business in Santa Fe, my grandfather had a jewelry store. Also, I believe in service leadership as opposed to any other kind of leadership. I feel like I’m here to serve both my staff and my customers and my daughter in her lifetime. That inspires me.
Do you have any pet peeves?
People not being accountable is a huge deal for me. You know, lying about what happened. But, really, I’m so easy to get along with. You’d have to push my buttons pretty hard for me to say you can’t be here anymore.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
I am a huge introvert. Have you ever taken one of those silly personality tests? When I took that, I don’t want to call it the worst, but less than 1 percent of the people are as introverted as I am. It’s probably why I live out in the middle of nowhere. I come to work, I do my stuff, I try as hard as I can, I interact with people all day long, I do it well and then I go home.
Did you ever think this is where you and the company would end up?
Not in a million years. That’s not how it started. But there is a magic about this company that is undeniable, and I guess under my care it has thrived and so here we are. It was not my vision. I can tell you that now I do have a vision, and I guess it just came from doing it forever and seeing that we were successful and starting to understand that it matured to the place where I should have a vision for these people (employees) and that it couldn’t just be sort of bumping along in the night, which is what I was doing for a long time. I do have an outcome in mind now, and it’s a billion dollars with 150 employees.
What are your revenues now?
Significant, but we’re still far away from the mark. This is one of the things that makes it fun for me to come to work is that I believe that that a billion dollars is on one piece of paper, and that I just haven’t found it yet and that it’s not any harder to find than a million-dollar piece of paper.
So just one contract?
What’s your best business advice?
This is something that I say all the time in work or anywhere is that “no” doesn’t mean “no.” Always investigate the “no.” Is it, “No, not today?” “No, not this color?” “No, not right now?” Because usually when somebody says “no” to you – I don’t care if it’s an employer, your customer, your grocer, – we so quickly accept that and don’t question it. I have always gone back and said, “Well, tell me why.” And then they’ll say something, and then I’ll go, “OK, let’s talk about that.” But I always question the no because we get it so often and we say it so often, and I believe it seldom is what it appears to be.
Any hidden talents?
I’m an artist. I am just starting down the road of photography, and I feel that’s a developing talent for me.
I love to cook out of my garden. I love Mexican cooking, but a lot of that is heritage from my father. I feel like I make the best tacos in the world. Now, my (parents) are gone and they’re not here for me to care for them. It might seem kind of silly – my daughter (27-year-old Jenna, a Wildflower employee) certainly doesn’t think so – but I make her lunch every day because I just want to care for someone.
Describe yourself in three words:
Driven, introverted, optimistic.