In high school, Carmen Ortiz Larsen gravitated to physics, a subject many of her peers largely ignored. She entered Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1969, the first year women were allowed into the general college, and was among the first female physics majors to graduate from the College of Arts and Sciences.
“I liked finding out how things work,” said Larsen, CEO of Bethesda information technology company Aquas Inc. “It really helped me later, when I started my business. In college, I learned how to look at problems and break them down into small pieces. I was able to sit back and then figure out how to solve the problem piece by piece.”
Along the way, Larsen has been involved with a wide variety of business and community organizations, including as a leader of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Montgomery County and a member of the Maryland Governor’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
She and her company have won numerous awards, such as the Woman-Owned Business Contractor of the Year from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a state of Maryland TOP 100 Minority Business Enterprise Award and a SmartCEO Brava! Award.
“I do not know anyone else with the same enthusiasm and dedication in working for the small business and Latino community in Montgomery County and Maryland,” said Jorge Restrepo, CEO and founder of Rockville marketing research and analysis firm EurekaFacts. He has worked with Larsen both professionally and through organizations such as the Hispanic chamber.
“She is an outstanding entrepreneur who gets things done, is customer-focused and community-oriented,” Restrepo said.
Born of Ecuadorian immigrants in Rome, Italy, Larsen migrated with her family to the United States when she was 16 years old. “My father was an agricultural economist, and we moved when he transferred to Washington, D.C.,” she said.
One of her initial jobs was at Georgetown University Hospital, where Larsen worked on a pilot program for a CT scanner put together by the late physicist Robert S. Ledley, who was credited with inventing the first full-body CT scanner.
“It was very interesting and groundbreaking work,” Larsen said.
Then came some “computer geek” positions, as an information systems specialist for Pan American Health Organization, an international public health agency in Washington, and manager of customer support for former high-tech company American Management Systems.
In 1979, she started Aquas, which stands for Automated Quality Applications and Systems. The business has won a variety of public-sector and private contracts, from testing Dulles International Airport passenger trains and designing systems processes for the U.S. Veterans Health Administration, to developing biotechnology standards and health care information technology applications for private clients.
Aquas added 26 employees last year to reach 56, with almost half in Bethesda. Other employees are in Linthicum and Northern Virginia.
Aquas has obtained a good number of private contracts, along with state and local work, and has not become dependent on federal budgets subject to sequestration cuts.
The company also has been branching out to seek work internationally. That includes South American nations such as Peru, Colombia and Ecuador.
Learning languages is one of Larsen’s passions. She is fluent in Spanish, Italian, French and English, which helps in working with companies overseas. She is presently learning Mandarin Chinese.
“It’s important to reshape what you do in times of economic challenges,” Larsen said. “You have to reassess what your positions are periodically and know how to change.... It’s a cliche, but you have to think outside the box.”
Besides the work with chambers and state commissions, Larsen has worked with the U.S. House Small Business Committee to support legislation affecting businesses. She has done stints on the Montgomery County Gang Violence Prevention Task Force and as a mentor for students at Gaithersburg Middle School. The Hispanic chamber also has a program to mentor students.
“We give them an understanding of what it takes to run a company,” Larsen said. “That exposes them to something different than what they might be steered into, and helps them develop peers and mentors to advance their careers.”