Women Business Owners Series: Lilly Harris, President and Owner of Man-Machine Systems Assessment

by Julie Rutherford

As part of our series on Women Business Owners, we recently sat down with Lilly Harris, CEO and Owner of Man-Machine Systems Assessment (MSA), to learn more about the company’s founding, Lilly‘s commitment to social responsibility — and her advice to other women who are thinking about starting or owning a business.

Headshot of Lilly Harris
Lilly Harris

TorchLight: What prompted your family to start MSA and for you to get involved, grow the business, and ultimately become owner and CEO?

Lilly: My father, Calvin Harris, founded the company after a long career in the Navy, followed by consulting work with large government contractors. After years of working for various companies, where he felt like just a number, he founded MSA in El Paso, TX on Jan 24, 1990.

I was 10 when my parents founded the business, and I grew up working with my parents on the weekends and summers. It was a fun way for me to feel part of something and help my parents, but never something I considered for my career. I was determined to be a doctor. After a few years of pre-med, I ultimately decided medicine wasn’t for me, and I was at a crossroads for what was next. My parents encouraged me to give the family business a try. After graduating from Texas Tech, I moved to Virginia to work from our East Coast office and learn about the business from one of our business partners.

After a few years with the business, I realized something was missing. My passion wasn’t in it, so I took a few months away and enrolled in an extensive film production certificate program at NYU film school. It was a great summer filled with learning, creating, and producing films. I wrote screenplays, directed movies, and had to think about how to bring a film to life. Working in film awakened the entrepreneurial spirit that I had when I was a kid. I returned to MSA with fresh eyes, and I was excited to build our team and bring our brand to life.

Since 2002, I’ve worked in every aspect of the business, starting with marketing and sales, HR, and eventually accounting and finance. I was promoted to president in 2008 and CEO in 2010 when my mother retired.

TorchLight: MSA offers a range of services. Can you tell us more about the types of services you provide or the primary ones?

Lilly: We specialize in evaluating Ballistic Missile Defense Systems (BMDS) and Counter Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) for military clients. We also have a long history with Human System Integration for military research labs. The goal is to ensure that the systems we evaluate are suitable for combat.

We also help local, state and federal government agencies develop emergency and continuity plans. We help our clients ensure that they are in a ready state in the event of a disruption, like a pandemic

TorchLight: Client service is clearly a core part of the business. How do you ensure that clients receive top-notch service and are satisfied with your solutions?

Lilly: We aim to WOW our clients. We roll up our sleeves and do what needs to be done. We try to hire employees with this same work ethic. We also hire great people who are experienced and take pride in their work. I aim to provide them with the environment and resources they need to deliver excellent customer services and deliverables.

TorchLight: Can you tell us more about your philosophy and how you make sure all your employees – including those placed in client locations – are engaged and feel valued – and ultimately stay?

Lilly: We have a large remote workforce with employees all over the country, so we can’t do those traditional fun office activities like happy hours or lunches with our entire team.

So, we focus on finding ways to make them feel appreciated, like delivering Georgetown Cupcakes to welcome new hires to the team. We also hire employees who are passionate about our mission and helping our warfighters – many of them are former military and military spouses. This shared sense of purpose helps keep our people connected.

TorchLight: MSA is a mission-driven company – the desire to give back to the community and support our military communities is very clear. How does social responsibility factor into your business?

Lilly: I lead the charge for social responsibility, volunteering my time to various causes and encouraging our employees to do the same. Last year, we used charitygiftcertificates.org to allocate company funds for employees to donate to causes they support. Every year during the holidays, we sponsor a wreath to be placed on a grave at Arlington National Cemetery on behalf of each employee at through Wreaths Across America. We also invest in various grassroots organizations passionate about K-12 STEM education and nonprofits promoting mental wellness and confidence building through participation in youth sports.

TorchLight: What is your favorite part of being an owner? What’s the most challenging part?

Lilly: My favorite part is the ability to be part of variety of things – I have never had the same day twice. I also enjoy giving back to the community and being of service to my clients and employees. I like to create and shape the company’s future. Owning my business also gives me the flexibility and means to do the things I love. I have a great team and my trust in the team allows me to do things I love, like traveling or coaching my daughter’s soccer team. My daughter will only be young for so long, and I am grateful that my business allows me the freedom to enjoy this time and be present for her.

The most challenging part of running my own business is keeping up with all the regulations and managing my stress. As a small business owner, I wear many hats, and it’s important to remember to keep focused on all the areas of the business, not just the areas I enjoy. There is also lot of responsibility for the well-being of your business and your employees. There can be significant financial risks when you gamble and try something new.

TorchLight: What advice do you have for women thinking about starting or owning a businesses?

Lilly: Here are 3 important things to consider:

  1. Take time to really think about the life that you want. Dream big, set goals, and find a profession or set up a business that can give you the money and flexibility to make your dreams a reality. If you’re not plugged into your passion, you’re not going to be happy – running a business is hard, so it’s not worth it if you’re not doing something you love. 
  2. Set up a good support team who believes in you and what you do. Find a banker, lawyer, accountant, and mentor committed to your success. A team that will cheer you on when the times are good and willing to roll up their sleeves and jump in when you need them.
  3. Know your strengths and weaknesses, and hire people who will balance you out. Surrounding yourself with diverse points of view is critical. Being able to embrace different perspectives will help you make smart, well-rounded decisions—people who can help you take the long view and keep your eye on the whole business.

TorchLight: What are your plans for MSA in the future?

Lilly: Expansion! 2022 will be our best year in company history; we just landed a new client and partnership, and I want to see where that goes. We have been in business for 32 years, but it still feels fresh. We continue to reinvent ourselves and are committed to continuous improvement. The future looks bright.

Learn more about MSA here.

Click here to read about more inspirational women business owners like Lilly Harris.

Posted in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion