Laura Neuman grew up in a home of modest means.
She worked hard, moving out as a teenager to make her own way without finishing high school.
She faced adversity in her personal life. With a pillow over her face and a gun to her head, she was raped while in her own apartment, but she forged ahead. Finally, after years of perseverance and several entrepreneurial successes, she found herself with a proven track record, a solid set of skills, an MBA and a job offer with a $450,000 salary.
What did Laura Neuman do?
“I turned it down,” she said, laughing.
“I went to a bankrupt startup that could not pay me a salary. They were two weeks from going out of business. I paid my mortgage on a credit card.
“Isn’t that crazy?”
If it were crazy, it was in the so-crazy-it-might-just-work side of crazy. And, it did work.
She was able to raise more than $15 million in venture capital and when Neuman left Matrics, Inc., the owners were able to sell their company for $230 million.
“And that’s how I live here,” she said, sitting cross-legged on a plush leather chair in her home in Annapolis, where she lives with her husband and two young children.
Neuman, 46, will be relying on her business experience and work ethic in Howard County as the new CEO of the Economic Development Authority. She was brought in because of her experience in the private sector, particularly in the technology sector.
“I was looking for someone who understands what it takes to start a successful business,” said County Executive Ken Ulman, who selected her as a candidate for the position. Neuman, he said, “really speaks the language of the 21st century… I found what I was looking for and then some … I like people who are non-traditional.”
On Her Own
Neuman said she’s had business at the forefront of her mind since she was young.
“When I was 7 I remember having a lemonade stand and thinking that was the greatest thing ever because I was earning money,” she said.
She attended Notre Dame Preparatory High School in Baltimore but did not graduate. Instead, she supplemented her education at the public library, an institution she mentions repeatedly as important when she talks about the quality of life in Howard County.
“At a very early age I decided I was going to live a very independent and a different life,” she said, “so that really was my plan from the earliest years. I just didn’t know what that meant.”
She moved out of her parents’ Patterson Park row home at 18 and rented an apartment, waitressing, bartending and taking some classes at Essex Community College. “I was anxious to take on the world on my own,” she said.
But her momentum was stifled on an October night in 1983, just six months after she had moved out.
“I was at my home alone and I was raped,” she said. “In my apartment. Not my parents’ home, in my apartment, out on my own ….
“When it happened I was asleep, so the person came through a window while I was asleep and covered my face so I wasn’t able to see them, and they had a gun, so the combination of your face being covered by a pillow, a gun pushed to your head, you will not do anything but comply.”
Eighteen-year-old Neuman came to the realization that the police did not believe her story. She sat alone in a hospital bed as different police officers came and went.
“It is a very surreal moment,” she said. “You’re not there, but you are there.”
She followed up with police, going to the department to see the evidence room, calling to find out if there were any leads but, she said, “there just wasn’t any interest in it.”
She carried on in a circuitous path. She tried to return to college but wasn’t able to get the financial support she needed.
“ 'What do I need to do to create a life for myself?' ” she said she asked herself. “I was really just trying to create an opportunity, but the truth is for a couple of years I really never came out of that fog.”
In her early 20s, without a college degree, she made call after call and was eventually able to talk her way into an interview at T. Rowe Price.
“I didn’t even know what T. Rowe Price was, but I knew it was a serious business so I called and applied,” she said. She made a good impression and was hired as a part-time employee at 23.
Neuman knew she had what it took to be successful, but without a degree, without the right contacts, she also knew she had to work hard to prove it.
“My differentiator has always been that I’d just work really hard. I don’t complain about it. I just do what I need to do and get it done,” she said. “I always look for opportunity. If there’s a project that someone’s not willing to take on, I’ll take it on.”
People noticed. A contact she met during a business meeting later approached her on behalf of then-Loyola College, now Loyola University. The school thought she would be a good candidate for its MBA program.
Neuman scheduled a meeting and shared her personal story. The school made an exception and admitted Neuman, without a high school diploma and without an undergraduate degree, to its MBA program.
She decided that her contribution to the business world would be best made as a CEO. “I’m not really the person who follows the status quo,” she said of her decision. “I’m the person who comes in, looks at everything and says, ‘OK, let’s come up with a great plan going forward.’ ”
For her career, the plan involved finding areas of need and jumping in. It also meant looking for smaller, start-up companies in which the CEO didn’t need a Harvard Business degree and a Rolodex filled with the names of important people.
After being promoted to vice president of sales and development at CAIS Internet, she brokered a deal with Hilton Hotels and an endorsement from Microsoft that helped the company to later complete a $1 billion IPO.
She continued working in the business world and found the successes she set out to prove she could accomplish.
She was enrolled in the Stanford University Graduate School of Business Executive program and raised $100 million in venture capital and financing for a business of her own. For some, her success might have climaxed when the girl from Patterson Park was offered a job at a tech company that paid $450,000 a year.
But not for Neuman.
She bet on the owners of the startup, former NSA employees, who were down to the wire financially. Their wives had given them a deadline to make their company, Matrics, work – and they were in the 11th month of their final year.
They couldn’t pay her a salary, so she charged her mortgage.
“It was crazy, but I wanted to improve myself, right?” Neuman said. “I really felt like I could do it, so I signed up for the bankrupt startup. Crazy.”
Within the first couple of weeks, Neuman was able to raise a few hundred thousand dollars. Then came venture capital. Ultimately, the company raised more than $15 million.
Matrics was ultimately voted Venture Capital Deal of the Year by Washington Business Forward in 2001 and was later sold for $230 million.
Across the Country and Back
By any measure, Laura Neuman, a self-professed “goal-oriented” person, had achieved most of the goals she set for herself.
“But I had this one issue hanging over me which was very personal … I realize it’s because of the rape so many years before.” So, in the same way she called T. Rowe Price, she hit the phones, calling the police daily until she heard back.
“It’s a good sales technique,” she said with a smile.
She finally reached Det. Bernard Holthaus, who agreed to take on the 19-year-old case.
“Three days later,” Neuman said, “it was solved.” Though the rape kit that investigators had taken was mysteriously gone, fingerprint dustings remained. They had been in the database for years, but never run through it.
“A-L-P-H-O-N-S-O Hill,” she said, spelling out his first name. “Forever etched into my memory.”
Hill confessed, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in September 2002.
The night before Hill was arrested, "I made a pact with God," Neuman said. "I said 'if I can have this, I will do anything I can to help other people who have had this experience.'"
She made good on her promise and went on to found the Laura Neuman Foundation. Initially she wanted to fund the testing of rape kits, but legal obstacles kept her from doing so. Now she works with rape victims, advocating for their rights and supporting them through the emotional and legal process.
Neuman took a year off from work and, with her husband (whom she met the evening after Hill’s arraignment) and family, took another characteristically less-traveled road – the northern route across the country to California.
“We bought a 40-foot motor home and a Jeep,” she said, “and we hitched the Jeep to the motor home and just set out across the country.”
She had always wanted to live in California. To get her husband to go along with her plan, she agreed to spend half time in Colorado, where she learned how to ski.
“In Baltimore city, there’s not a lot of skiing," she said of her latest venture, which, again was circuitous.
While living in the west, Neuman got a call that Hill had been charged in a half-dozen additional rape cases. Eventually police connected him to a case as early as 1978 and one as recent as 2000.
The family came back to Maryland so she could attend his hearing and eventually his sentencing. The hearing was postponed; the family went back to California and then returned to Maryland a second time. Neuman was able to convince other victims who were hesitant to testify.
“They both said later that it was the greatest experience of their life,” she said.
“I don’t think [rape] gets the attention it needs and deserves,” she said, “primarily because we’re afraid to talk about it … Until we stand up and say we won’t accept it anymore, it will not change. That’s my mission right now.”
Nearly 126,000 people reported being raped in 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice statistics. The Bureau also reports that just 55 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to the police.
Everything to Prove
Neuman often says she wants to prove she can accomplish her goals, professionally and personally.
“I have a lot to prove,” she said. “There’s no question that I am motivated by proving I can get something done.” But it’s a theme, she said, that did not emerge from the doubts police raised about her rape.
“Growing up in a situation where you’re trying to break out of where you were, you have to work hard to prove yourself,” she said.
If police had believed her, and the case had been solved in three days in 1983, she likely would have taken a more familiar path, she said.
“I probably would have made more of an effort to stay in college. It would have been more of a traditional path,” but “I’m always up for an adventure and trying something new.”
Her latest adventure brings her to Howard County, where she will be acting on behalf of the public sector.
To be honest, she said, “I’m not sure that any economic development position would be appealing to me.”
This job was appealing, she said, because it was Howard County and it was Ulman. In fact, when he contacted her, Neuman was “far along” in talks with – no surprises here – another start-up. In fact, it’s a company run by the founders of Matrics, Inc.
“It’s such a great idea, in a new area, and they’re really incredibly talented entrepreneurs,” she said. “I was excited.” So she told Ulman she was interested but getting involved in something else.
After meeting with the board of the Economic Development Authority, however, and spending time with the Columbia Revitalization Plan, she became more interested. She went through the interview process with EDA “and they said, ‘You’re very candid.’ And I am," she said. “I’m an open book. If you can talk about being raped, you can talk about anything.”
The board approved her appointment unanimously.
“I’m excited about it,” she said, “and obviously a little nervous because it’s all new.”
Neuman has had some experience in the public sector; she played an instrumental role in getting legislation passed in Maryland that requires DNA samples be taken from anyone arrested in connection with a violent crime. She also served as a board member and interim executive director of the Chesapeake Innovation Center.
Looking ahead, Neuman says she sees a huge opportunity for business in Howard County.
“If I was going to start a start-up tomorrow, I’d put it in Columbia.” She sees lifestyle issues – schools, parks, libraries – as one of the biggest draws to the area.
She said she’s interested in attracting a new, younger demographic. “You want multi-level buildings,” she said. “There’s energy that comes with being together –an accumulation of people, especially young, educated people. It’s very energizing.”
Neuman said she thinks Howard County is a great place to do business and she’s going to prove it.
Although Monday, April 11, was her first official day on the job, she’s been meeting with business owners and for the past week.
As she talks about the future, she also makes clear that she will continue to work with rape victims through the Neuman Foundation. “I do that more as a way of giving,” she said, “not for any monetary value.”
“I will continue that work,” she said. “I will not stop.”