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W.L. Mellon Speaker: Darryl Britt steps out of his comfort zone, finds his niche

Darryl Britt, MSIA ’90, founder and president of of Apprio, advised students to develop flexibility and perseverance.

Darryl BrittAs a business school student — and, in fact, for several years afterward — Darryl Britt was a self-described “wallflower,” comfortable with his technical skill sets, but reluctant to self-promote.

In 2008, when he started thinking about the best way to grow his business, he broke free of that persona, learned to work outside his comfort zone and really hit his stride as an entrepreneur.

“I’m an introvert,” Britt told an audience of Carnegie Mellon University students as part of the Tepper School’s W.L. Mellon Speaker Series. “I think a lot of us who come to this school with a strong technology background are introverts by nature.”

But Britt, MSIA ’90, was determined to expand his company, Apprio Inc., beyond its early roots as a technology solution provider for federal disaster relief programs. At the time, Apprio had just one client and a handful of employees, and Britt knew he needed to start selling its services and diversifying revenue streams.

He urged students to move beyond self-perceived boundaries and force themselves to talk to friends, teammates and clients: “All those things are what it actually takes to build and grow.” And while Britt had an admittedly late start — and recommended that students begin earlier — his transformation from wallflower to gregarious entrepreneur was nonetheless successful. Nine years later, Washington, D.C.-based Apprio has about 25 clients and 300 employees nationwide with strong revenues.

It was a circuitous journey for Britt, who entered graduate school at CMU’s Heinz College immediately following undergraduate graduation. It was there that he took a summer internship — that turned into a six-year job — in Northern Virginia’s county government. His role was to support the expansion of the county’s technical infrastructure at the dawn of the personal computing era in the early 1980s.

Britt loved the job, but his boss urged him to return to graduate school and find his true calling. In hindsight, Britt views that moment as a turning point in his career.

“It’s those points of diversity that really kick you in gear,” he told the audience. He returned to Carnegie Mellon and enrolled in what is now the Tepper School. When he graduated, he took a job with Deloitte, working as a liaison to a private health care company. In the mid-1990s, he joined that client’s firm and started a series of companies in Pittsburgh; but by 1997, Britt was feeling the entrepreneurial urge. He consciously changed his journey, leaving his job and launching Apprio the following year.

Britt attributes his company’s success to its ability to deliver a niche service: working as a government contractor at the intersection of health care and homeland defense. Apprio’s customers offer medical support — including food, generators and medical supplies — in the field when disasters occur, such as hurricanes. Between 50 and 60 percent of the company’s work involves top-secret clearances for the federal government, so its reputation is a clear leverage point.

As for his advice to students, he urged the audience to develop flexibility, perseverance, dedication and rigor, saying a successful entrepreneur is facile in all of those skills, as well as in hiring the right people to fit the company’s culture. Britt offered his insight with “Remember: Being successful ... [is] all about doing things that few other people are doing.”

The W.L. Mellon Speaker Series enables students to interact with global leaders, CEOs and management experts in student forums that encourage insightful and lively dialogue.

See more photos from Darryl’s presentation