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Soft landing: James Garrett took a leap of faith and found security.

When James F. Garrett decided to go hang gliding, he wasn't preparing to jump off a cliff. Instead he left the security of a government job and a guaranteed pension for the free fall of starting his own business, Sentel Corp. (No. 82 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list), an engineering and software services firm that provides homeland security devices and other services.

To Garrett, hang gliding meant "preparing for a safe landing." Before he started his business, he investigated all possible options. "Before you go into something you need to have a way out," he explains.

Regardless of how much you prepare, being an entrepreneur is a full-time job, as Garrett, CEO and president of Sentel, discovered. Before deciding to start an engineering firm, he tried out a variety of businesses including a mail-order business, a real estate business, and a seminar company, all of which ultimately failed.

"I was trying to hold onto my job and do something else halfway without putting my whole self into it." Many people could not believe that Garrett would leave a stable government job for the uncertainties of entrepreneurship.


Then in his mid-40s, Garrett made a list of 10 things he wanted to accomplish in his life. "I would look at that list, and think if you don't do it now, you're probably not going to do it."

Garrett finally realized that what wasn't on that list--retirement. "A light bulb went off in my head," he says. And he thought, "Why am I concerned about giving up something that isn't on the list of what I really want to do with my life?"

In preparing to fly solo, Garrett drew upon the wisdom of others. He came across the story of baseball pitcher Jim Koch, who was given some invaluable advice from a coach, "Just work on your best pitch, just your fastball. Don't work on anything else." Then Garrett read about Booker T. Washington who said, "Cast your buckets where you are."

These two quotes would be part of the process leading up to the start up of Sentel. The company, formed in 1987, with three employees in Alexandria, Virginia, now has more than 300 employees and 10 offices nationwide. Revenues in 2002 were $37.5 million, and this year revenues are on target to meet $40 million.


Sentel has established itself as a leading provider of homeland security with its Remote Data Relay system, which is used primarily by the United States military. The RDR system provides a remote perimeter of defense in areas where there might be a threat of chemical or biological attacks. Sentel's wide-area network integration system lets users control the detection of up to 400 sensors from one single command site, to reduce the need to send soldiers and citizens into harm's way to check or activate sensors. Garrett says the RDR system could lodge a wide variety of sensors, including weather, particle counters, metal detectors, and motion detectors.

Sentel has been developing and providing biological defense systems since the end of Operation Desert Storm. Garrett says that the true importance of his company's work was brought home on Sept. 11, then with the threat of sniper attacks. "From that standpoint, I have a personal understanding of what it feels like to be terrorized," he says.

At 61, Garrett has no plans to retire, and he attributes his success to having a stable family life with his wife Joyce and his two children, Rodney and Melanie. He also explained that his background growing up as a sharecropper's stepson and working with his stepfather in tobacco fields around the South made him realize that nothing is insurmountable.

The experience of doing backbreaking hard labor also provided him with a drive and a solid work ethic, and has given him perspective. And Garrett has no plans to stop anytime soon. "If you think I'm working hard, you ain't seen nothing yet," he says.
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Title Annotation:Black Digerati
Author:Gair, Cristina
Publication:Black Enterprise
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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