She’s a Soldier and a Founder on a Singular Mission: Open as Many Doors as Possible for Women

PHYLLIS NEWHOUSE HAS THE news on four TV monitors before her desk in a glass office tower. Through the window behind her, beyond the manicured gardens of a mansion once owned by Tyler Perry, a haze hangs over downtown Atlanta. She’s facing the monitors rather than the skyline: Kabul has just fallen to the Taliban, which is of interest to Newhouse not just because she served for 22 years in the U.S. Army. She also runs a 6,500-person cyber­security firm, whose clients include the departments of Defense and State. “There’s a lot more cyber fallout than you’d expect,” she says gnomically.

Her company, Xtreme Solutions, is busy preparing its clients for a potential surge in digital attacks. Newhouse is also on a Zoom call with three women planning a leadership presentation by women veterans to a group of high-net-worth female entrepreneurs. In a moment, she’ll glance down at her cellphone to text the actor Viola Davis, a friend and business partner. She is extremely in her element — so calm that only in hindsight would you call what she’s doing multitasking.

And Xtreme Solutions is hardly her only gig. She’s the CEO of a venture called Athena, which she took public this year, making her one of a very few Black women whose companies are traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and which recently signed a merger deal that valued the company at $2 billion. She sits on the boards of four other companies, nonprofits, and organ­izations. She has managed more than 20 investments in startups, including Airbnb and Peloton, usually by groups within her network, sometimes teaming up with a major venture capital firm. She’s an LP in two early-stage VC funds. She co-founded and runs a nonprofit organization. She formally mentors five young professionals.

Yet Newhouse isn’t merely a super-achiever with an A-list Rolodex. When you dig into her ventures, a mission emerges. The investment groups she manages largely comprise women. The LPs? Run by women. The nonprofit? Founded with the aim of uplifting women. And now she’s looking to deploy the leadership abilities she honed in the military, her mentorship skills, and her financial acumen to achieve something truly radical for women, particularly women of color, perennial outsiders on Wall Street and in boardrooms: Give them real power.

For Newhouse, it started with family. Personal relationships, she’ll tell you, come first. Her childhood was one of hard work, navigating complicated relationships, and finding her own identity as the youngest girl of 11 children. The power of sisterhood was an immense early force, each sister much adored by young Phyllis. Their families are part of her inner circle — and she has 80 nieces and nephews.

That inner circle is dotted with powerful female founders from the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO), politicians, athletes, and Hollywood figures such as Davis — the youngest actor (and only Black actor) to win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony Award; the two co-founded a nonprofit. Newhouse is also pals with tennis great Serena Williams, who is bummed she missed the chance to invest in Newhouse’s first public offering, and Stacey Abrams, the state’s Democratic power broker, who did get in.

And all this is New­house’s second act, following a two-­decade career in the Army, which saw her rise from private to Colin Powell’s choice to start a new command: the Army’s cyber espionage task force. The military was her escape hatch, education, and leadership academy.

Newhouse’s defining skill is subtle and rare: walking into a complex system she doesn’t understand and studying it from all angles until she’s mastered it, as she has done in the disparate realms of the military, government contracting, and late-stage startup investing, a field almost devoid of women of color.

And it is a particularly esoteric, and controversial, financial instrument that Newhouse is mastering now — the SPAC, or special-purpose acquisition company. For the opportunists of Wall Street, a SPAC is a way to cash in on low interest rates and flush investors to back companies that need a boost. For Newhouse, it is the lever she was seeking to lift women like herself. And she would have not just one SPAC, but a whole network of them.

“Phyllis is the hardest working, busiest person I know. Every time I feel like I’m doing too much, she’s doing more.”–Serena Williams

THE HEARTH IS THE PLACE where Newhouse found the force that animates her, and many who are close to her. On any given day, her son might come over and cook dinner. He’s 24 now, and doesn’t need to be asked to lend a hand. That work ethic may have come from Phyllis’s father, a loving disciplinarian who worked on the railways and had a drinking problem, who enforced Saturday laundry day and the bed-making schedule.

Newhouse was close to her father, and the most like him of all her siblings. The group included children of her grandmother, who died in childbirth while Phyllis’s mother was giving birth to her older sister. It wasn’t until age 28 that Phyllis realized what the older girls knew: Some of them were her aunts.

Dad called her “little warrior.” He wasn’t in favor of her joining the military, but the pull of sisterhood brought her there. As a teenager, visiting an older sister stationed at Pope Air Force Base, Phyllis was taken by the jumpsuits women wore at the flight pad, and awed when her sister informed her they weren’t fashion: Those were the women who had been flying the big planes. “Wow, what the hell!” Newhouse recalls thinking. “I had never seen women with that level of command and authority and power and confidence. I was blown away.”

She enlisted in 1978, and never suffered the standard-issue culture shock. “Have you ever washed pots and dishes for 11 kids?” she asks. “It was a piece of cake compared with the military camp I was coming from.” An entrepreneurial streak emerged early: Fellow privates paid her to make their beds to pass inspection.

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Today, Newhouse divides her two decades of Army life into three phases. The first: learning to build a perfect profile. The institution was in flux, converting to an all-volunteer force. She passed aptitude tests to work in data security; it was under the purview of White House Communications, which gave her visions of a life in Washington. At Fort Stewart, Georgia, she continued to bust expectations. Hearing that women don’t get perfect 300-point scores on physical aptitude tests, she set out to ace them. She succeeded, every single year.

Phase two: shaping her profile as a leader. “I didn’t want to be a good leader. I left that to other people,” Newhouse says. “I wanted to be a great leader” — and this in the wake of the Tailhook sexual assault scandal and the debate over women in the military. She was stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, and took assignments all over Europe, including NATO command in Belgium. She developed a network of mentors and coaches. She studied every general and ranking soldier she encountered. From the rotten ones, she defined who she would not be. The leaders she admired, she kept close.

In 1996, she began the final leg: assuming actual leadership. She flew to Washington to interview with General Colin Powell for a post that would oversee the country’s cyber espionage — essentially, to build a department linking the security communications apparatuses of all branches of the U.S. military. She says Powell told her that she wasn’t the most qualified applicant, but he also advised her to “never look at the qualifications on a paper. Look at the greatest potential in a person and you will always get the best person.” She got the job.

It was an entrepreneurial endeavor: standing up a new command, the staffing, the networking. Then came her biggest challenge: plotting her exit from the military. She started 24 months out, plenty of time to do what she always did — learn the rules of the game before you play. Her plan was to start a company. In every minute of free time, she’d interview entrepreneurs, particularly veterans, about their challenges and their path to post-military success. “Strategy, training, planning, focus, mission. That’s all I’ve done for 22 years,” she says.

She left her post as a command sergeant major in 2000 and called her cyber­security venture Xtreme Solutions. (The name comes from military slang for ­extreme; acing the physical aptitude test would be “xtreme fitness.”) Failure was not an option, but it lurked around every corner, in signs Newhouse planted in her bathroom, on her nightstand, all around her home: “FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION.” “I had it as a constant reminder. ‘What is it, Phyllis, you’re working for?’ ” she says. “And that was a successful company.”

She figured her Army cred might help win government and military contracts for I.T. and cybersecurity work. She would hire as she signed each deal. She just needed the deals. And in that, she opted for boldness. On a spring day in April in 2001, Newhouse walked into AT&T’s headquarters on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta and asked at the lobby desk for a meeting. Fifteen minutes later, she had the ear of both a cybersecurity and a research-and-development rep. Within hours, she had a contract and an urgent need to bring on six employees. “People say, ‘You’ve got to know somebody.’ Nah. I beg to differ,” Newhouse says. “You’ve got to get in whenever you can.”

What her new partners at AT&T had no way of knowing was that her life ­outside those doors had crumbled. She’d left the only job she’d ever had. She was divorcing her husband, and about to become a single parent of her 2-year-old son. Failure was not an option there either. “I could hear my dad’s voice, egging me on to fight good and be tough and hunker down and get through it,” she says.

Within a month, Newhouse had signed her first federal contract, a small cyber­security operation that would employ more than two dozen. Within a year, both it and AT&T had ramped up demand. By the 18-month mark, Xtreme Solutions was a 200-person company. It grew by at least 42 percent for eight straight years, branching out into the automotive, banking, and retail industries. It landed on the Inc. 5000 for the first time in 2013. The WPO lauded Newhouse for running one of the fastest-growing woman-founded companies in the country. Ernst & Young named her Technology Entrepreneur of the Year in 2017. Today, Xtreme has employees in 46 states, embedded in companies large and small and in multiple government and military operations; 31 percent of the employees are veterans.

By 2020, and the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Newhouse had a strong network outside of the cybersecurity world. She decided to take some time away from Xtreme Solutions to pursue her most audacious project yet.

“She’s gotten to the top of her profession, and she has a ladder back down for others to follow her.”–Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals

OVER THE PAST YEAR, SPACs have gone from obscurity to the front of the business section. This funky financial concoction is essentially a corporate entity with lots of funding, and a (hopefully) sturdy leadership team, but no actual operations. Essentially, a company that could make great widgets, minus the widgets. The goal of a SPAC is to raise a bunch of money by going public on a stock exchange, at which time it has up to two years to woo and merge with a great widget maker. If it doesn’t, or investors don’t think the widgets are great, they can get their money back.

If this sounds a little like a reverse-merger, or the blank-check companies that earned bad reputations in the 1980s for frequently defrauding investors, that’s because it is a blank-check company, with a few more federal protections in place. But one aspect is still the same: SPACs shield founders and companies from the extensive and sometimes-painful disclosure process mandated by traditional IPOs. They’re also quicker, which is handy during a potentially volatile market. Say, a global pandemic.

That aspect of the sleek funding vehi­cle has motivated hundreds of midsize and fast-growing companies otherwise content to stay private to merge with a SPAC and — poof! — become public. This year, more than 400 blank-check companies filed for IPOs in the U.S. as of August (on one day 15 of them), up from 248 in all of 2020, according to SPAC Research, a Chicago-based market-research firm. They now make up about 70 percent of all IPOs, reports Dealogic. Companies such as DraftKings, SoFi, and Hims have gone public via SPAC. The vogue has extended beyond Wall Street. Earlier this year, Jay-Z launched a cannabis SPAC (his title: chief visionary officer), and Shaquille O’Neal’s SPAC took WeWork public. Ciara and Paul Ryan have SPACs too.

In 2018, Newhouse had never heard of SPACs, but she began getting cold calls from private equity types throwing around the term. Turns out, they were scouting for a cybersecurity company to merge with. She Googled SPAC, with an eyebrow raised. But she liked what she saw. “Who wouldn’t want to do this?” she thought. Newhouse got a dozen more calls that week. None were from women.

So she asked her bank to search for women-run SPACs that could be potential partners. It found just one. (Currently, only 3.2 percent of SPACs have a female chair or CEO, accord­ing to SPAC Track.) Newhouse called an investor she’d met through the WPO, and they stewed about the lack of women willing to take a risk on this new financial vehicle. Newhouse set down her phone, both incensed and fascinated. “Dammit. I’m going to do this,” she vowed. “I’m going to learn everything I need to be dangerous.”

She wanted women to be part of the action this time. The boom in leveraged buyouts; the creation of hedge funds: Who benefited? Almost entirely affluent men. “Women show up 20 years late to the party, and almost everything is gone. And then we get the leftovers,” Newhouse says. “If we understood the game well enough to play it early on, then we get to decide when the party ends.”

SPACs were ideally suited to her purpose. Their open structure meant that she could influence the leadership composition of the companies she created, and diversify company boards across industries as her SPACs took them public. She could also empower a varied slate of women to invest. In short, Newhouse could decide how the game was played — and by whom. She would study the markets and create a SPAC herself.

She learned fast. Over 60 days, she leaned on her network to master the language of Wall Street and how IPOs and trading worked. “It was like an MBA on steroids,” Newhouse says. She got on the phone with Isabelle Freidheim, co-founder of financial search-engine startup Magnifi and investment firm Starwood VC. Freid­heim also lamented the lack of women involved. “When the hell do we start?!” Newhouse said.

Together, they created Athena Technology Acquisition Corp., a SPAC with an all-woman board of impeccable credentials. It would include USA Network’s founder and former CEO Kay Koplovitz; ActOne Group founder Janice Howroyd, the first Black woman to build a billion-dollar business; Judith Rodin, the first woman president of an Ivy League university; and attorney and former SEC commissioner Annette Nazareth.

Then Newhouse sought to bring in her investors. She approached Stacey Abrams and laid out her vision for a company funded and founded solely by women — something entirely new, to prove it could be done, and to lay a path for other women to follow. Abrams was immediately enthused. “That opportunity was incredibly important to me,” Abrams says. “Black women are not often included in the more sophisticated financial deals.”

It wasn’t lost on Newhouse that not all women have capital hanging around to invest in a risky-sounding deal. Democratizing investment was her next challenge.

“When she talks about shouldering up, it’s not just about women linking arms. It’s about standing next to one another and creating change together.”–Cate Luzio, founder of Luminary

BY 2018, NEWHOUSE’S motivations had shifted. Her son had grown. Failure no longer lurked around corners. A year before, she’d attended an awards cere­mony pairing honorees with celebrity speakers for private lunches and found herself at a table with Viola Davis. They shared personal stories and discovered commonalities not only in their upbringings, but also in their goals of helping women on entrepreneurial paths. In 2019, they teamed up to found ShoulderUp, a nonprofit aimed at educating and empowering women.

The way Newhouse made an ally of Davis over lunch, just as she won a contract from AT&T on a cold call, illuminates her charisma when she gives it flight. In her orderly home office, with little plants and books stacked just so, Newhouse is measured and reserved. She is not entirely comfortable with publicity, though she’s a local celebrity, friendly with Atlanta’s mayor and power set. But her cyber­security role, and some of her military past, means she can’t disclose the scope of her counterterrorism work. Her company’s size and its contracts are classified. She doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.

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When in her element at Xtreme’s offices, though, she is animated and ebullient. A youthful 59, Newhouse uses her deep voice deliberately, her mild drawl fluid and comforting. Tall and commanding with a smart pixie cut, her allure is such that people are quickly drawn into her circle, and she becomes at once a friend, an adviser, and, as Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals refers to her now, an aunt. He was so taken with her elegance when he encountered her at a 2019 Super Bowl event in Atlanta that, he says, “I just went right up to her.” He simply had to know who she was.

In the two years since its founding, ShoulderUp has morphed from an inspirational vehicle into a financial one. Mentorship and financial-literacy initiatives help young women, particularly women of color, get into investing early. And ShoulderUp Ventures is creating investment opportunities usually beyond the reach of people of color by taking a small slice of a big pie — say, $5 million or $10 million out of a $300 million round of funding for a company like Coinbase or Pinterest — and opening it up to Newhouse’s network.

ShoulderUp does not exclude men; they are fundamental to the effort. It will invite young women college students to its pre-IPO investing seminars, but sports stars like Fitzgerald might be there too, learning to vet deals themselves. Part of shouldering up is having a community of men to support women as they make deals, climb ladders, and chart courses.

Now that she’s taken her first SPAC public, Newhouse is putting it to work according to her vision. In July, just months after Newhouse rang the bell on the NYSE, Athena merged with the innovative solar-energy outfit Heliogen. Newhouse and its founder, Bill Gross, are assembling a diverse new board of directors. “It’s not just for equal opportunity. It’s actually better for business,” Gross says. “Phyllis has set that example for me.” He says he knew merging with Athena was right when he got a note from one of Heliogen’s young engineers saying the all-woman team excited and inspired her.

Newhouse’s two new SPACs, extensions of ShoulderUp, will focus on plays in entertainment, sports, media, and cyber­security. Her work with the broader ShoulderUp organization will entail leadership and investing courses, and, she hopes, a network of mini-SPACs that she can nurture and advise, rather than helm. She wants to mentor, network with, and, hell, push young women according to Powell’s dictum — that people with the greatest potential rather than the best résumés deserve leadership positions.

One of them is only 20 years old. Maya Penn, founder of Maya’s Ideas, a clothing company she started at 8, is a ShoulderUp ambassador, bringing young entrepreneurs into the fold. She also mentors and makes seed grants to young women founders. It’s people like Penn whom Newhouse wants to see ring bells on stock exchanges. “I’d love to put together a SPAC of women under 30,” Newhouse says. “Why should Maya have to wait until she’s 50 to have that opportunity?”

As her friend and investment partner Nina Vaca, founder of Pinnacle Group, puts it, Newhouse is driven by lifting others. “The places her feet have walked, alongside celebrities, military leaders — she could be reaping that just for herself,” Vaca says. “But she has a plan to replicate that success and bring it to others. That’s her integrity and her leadership.”

Newhouse doesn’t just invite people to the table. She learns how to build the table, and then teaches others to make their own, and then a feast, and a family.

From the October 2021 issue of Inc. Magazine

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