Empowering Women Veteran Entrepreneurs: From Army Nurse Corps to Health Informatics CEO

by US Small Business Administration

Every day, our office works to empower veteran entrepreneurship. To celebrate National Women’s History Month, we highlighted veteran women-owned businesses across the country. From active service members to military spouses, the number of women taking on business ventures continues to rise. In fact, according to the National Women’s Business CouncilDownload Adobe Reader to read this link content, veteran women-owned businesses increased nearly 300 percent between 2007 and 2012. Today, there are more than 383,300 veteran women-owned businesses in the U.S.

Today, we’re highlighting the story of Dr. Caterina Lasome, President and CEO of iON Informatics, LLC. As an Army veteran with over 23 years of service, Dr. Lasome’s journey from service member to business owner is characterized by passion and proactive determination.

Transitioning In
Not Your Traditional Army Nurse Corps Career

Dr. Lasome entered the Army as a nurse, working in direct patient care for over 10 years. A fortuitous series of events involving the first deployment of the Composite Health Care System (CHCS) and a natural knack for reading construction blueprints, resulted in Dr. Lasome’s transition from direct patient care to health IT super user to nursing informatics.

From Walter Reed to Tripler Army Medical Center, Dr. Lasome held multiple nursing and clinical informatics leadership positions throughout the entirety of her Army career. During her time as the Chief of Nursing Informatics at the North Atlantic Regional Medical Command, she worked with the Chief of Telehealth and the Chief of Medical Informatics to develop, guide, lead, and implement the clinical systems strategy for the Army Medical Department.

“I served in this role for three years, and during this time, the light went on,” says Dr. Lasome. “I realized I loved what I was doing, could impact healthcare delivery on a much larger scale, and didn’t ever want to do anything else – so I decided I should get a little formal informatics education behind me.”

Upon completion of her Masters degree service obligation, Dr. Lasome applied, and was selected for, continued long-term schooling. She enrolled at University of Maryland in Baltimore for her PhD in healthcare informatics, completing her dissertation during her utilization tour for the Pacific Regional Medical Command at Tripler Army Medical Center. As the Chief of Clinical Informatics Telehealth and Deputy CIO at Tripler, Dr. Lasome helped Tripler deploy the Department of Defense next generation Electronic Health Records (EHR).

“I actually went over my 20 years here. I had planned to retire, but I realized there were lessons learned from this EHR deployment that were important to share with military health leaders. I also realized frontline users still needed a voice at the highest level – so I ended up taking one more tour,” says Dr. Lasome. “I said, ‘if I can come back to the Washington, DC area in a tri-service informatics leadership role to support frontline users, then I’ll take one last job.’”

With a Masters and PhD under her belt, Dr. Lasome moved into the Federal sphere as the Chief of Inpatient Requirements for the Department of Defense, under what is now known as the Defense Health Agency. She simultaneously oversaw all requirements for medical communications and information systems at a NATO level, and finished her countless years of active duty here.

“I had served over my 23 years on active duty [at DOD] and realized there comes a time when you hit some of those pivotal decisions in your life,” says Dr. Lasome. “I thought this was a good time to retire from active duty and continue my informatics career as a civilian.”

Transitioning Out 
Launching into Business Ownership

Dr. Lasome intended to move into the private sector upon reentering civilian life, however, she was recruited to take the role of Chief Operating Officer at the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Biomedical Informatics and Health Information Technology.  After two and half years, funding for many of the exciting oncology related informatics initiatives began to contract, so  Dr. Lasome began planning her next move.

“I had always wanted to start a business,” says Dr. Lasome. “I had an excellent network, good ideas, and knew there was a need across the government and commercial healthcare markets for clinical informatics professionals. If there’s ever a time to try it, what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen? I would have to go back and pass meds on night shift – I have a license, I can do that. So in July 2011, I gave myself about 6-7 months to  lay the groundwork for my business. Using nights and weekends, I gave myself this time to set up my business infrastructure, get PCs and scanners, establish the business, and begin strategizing about potential markets and customers. “

In January of 2012, Dr. Lasome left the National Cancer Institute and hit the ground running with her new health management and informatics advisory consulting firm. Within three weeks of leaving the National Cancer Institute, she acquired three contracts for her new business, iON Informatics, LLC.  She characterizes her transition to business ownership as a logical transition, considering she ‘bootstrapped it,’ had her own funds, and was ready to take on work.

To navigate the complexities of business ownership, Dr. Lasome utilized a number of entrepreneurial resources, beginning with SCOREVeteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (V-WISE), and most recently, Boots to Business (B2B). While these programs helped Dr. Lasome master the foundations of business ownership, she still faced the challenge of understanding government contracting and its complexities. With this challenge in mind, Dr. Lasome applied for, and was accepted to, procurement-specific training through the Veteran Institute for Procurement (VIP) in June 2015.

“On the commercial side, you deliver services someone wants and you invoice for it. It’s a pretty clean process. But trying to get into government contracting comes with an especially steep learning curve – from understanding the different contract vehicles to learning government-specific accounting and teaming – I was woefully unprepared,” says Dr. Lasome. “That’s what started my journey of leveraging resources from SBA and other programs I had heard of through my veteran colleagues who had also taken on business ventures of their own.”

Attending VIP played a critical part in developing her business, Dr. Lasome says. It allowed her to identify personal and company weaknesses, then develop an effective plan to address those gaps. Armed with a better understanding of her weaknesses, and a newly expanded network of veteran colleagues and faculty mentors, Dr. Lasome increased revenue by 32% in the year proceeding VIP enrollment.

While VIP provided an overview of the many facets small businesses undergo during startup and growth, especially as applied to government contracting and procurement, Dr. Lasome felt the course presumed a lot of knowledge on behalf of attendees. She was asked to participate in curriculum development for an introductory level course, now VIP START, as a result of her own experience going through the program.

Today, iON Informatics continues to win government contracts, both solo and in collaboration with other veteran-owned small businesses she has met along the way.

If You Have an Itch, You’ve Got to Scratch It
Advice for Other Veteran Entrepreneurs

For veterans seeking business ownership or self-employment, Dr. Lasome offers the following advice:

  • Be fully prepared…and have a backup plan. Make sure your life is in order before you make the actual jump, whether that means setting aside money or mapping out a plan for your first year in business. Just like any other military operation, smart preparation includes having a backup plan. Courses like Boots to Business teach transitioning service members how to develop a full-fledged business plan, including guidance for leveraging resources.
  • Don’t be afraid to tackle business ownership. The skills required to grow and run a business are learnable, especially for veterans. “Military veterans are just wired to be successful,” says Dr. Lasome. “We’ve been trained and educated in a military system that prepares you for business ownership: leadership, decision-making, discipline, structure, agility, flexibility, creativity, teamwork, and mission success.”
  • Take advantage of your resources. Instead of struggling to figure things out on your own, leverage your network in the early stages of the business ownership process. Contact your local Veterans Business Outreach Center to connect with the different local, regional, and national programs.
  • Network, network, network. Attend entrepreneurial courses and local meetings to expand your network, especially with other veteran business owners. From contract partnerships to resource entry points, your network becomes a lifelong resource.

To learn more about the Veteran Institute for Procurement, visit: www.nationalvip.org. Or for more information on veteran entrepreneurship – from counseling and training to financial assistance – please visit: www.sba.gov/ovbd.

OSD CEO & Executive Director Glenn Banton is an appointed member of the Advisory Committee on Veteran Business Affairs (ACVBA) providing an independent source of advice and policy recommendations to the SBA administrator, SBA associate administrator for the Office of Veterans Business Development, Congress, the President and other U.S. policymakers on programs affecting veteran-owned small business from all segments of American society.