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Sullivan ’01: Working in the Gray Area

Kelly Sullivan '01: Why I VMI

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Kelly Sullivan ’01 boasts an impressive resume: She is Blue Stream Fiber’s senior vice president of network construction and program management. When she graduated from VMI, she decided to take a well-deserved breather and postpone her job search. In just four years, she became part of VMI’s first class of women, earned a mechanical engineering degree, captained the Institute’s track team, lost her mother, and gained a new family.

When she received an invitation to an Atlanta, Georgia, VMI alumni event, Sullivan decided to go. She knew she’d be the only alumna there. During her cadetship, she “had a list of people who took care of me.” Among them were Jan and Joan Abernathy ’67 and Hal Dayhuff ’59. They would also be at the alumni gathering. It was a little awkward when she arrived—she had to explain that she was a VMI graduate. The Abernathys and Dayhuff soon found her and introduced her around.

The gathering included a speaker, and he asked Sullivan to come to the front and say a few words. She did, and “at the end, I just threw in that I had a mechanical engineering degree, and I was looking for a job.”

The audience, in true VMI fashion, got the network rolling immediately. “I had so many people come up and say, ‘I’ll hire you tomorrow. Just send me your resume. I’ll get it around to people,’” Sullivan said. She sent out her resume the next day. “By the end of the day, I had 60 emails in my inbox offering me a job without even looking at my resume. And just saying, ‘We know who you are. We know where you come from; come work for me.’”

Her first job was at Pepco, which provides energy to customers in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. She worked for Mike Maxwell ’87, a fellow VMI alum. After about three years on the job, Maxwell steered Sullivan in another direction. He needed someone to manage a $70 million project. It was new territory for Sullivan, and she learned the balance between leading a team and relying on each individual’s expertise.

“It was very much like VMI. You have to depend on the person next to you to put you in a position where you can be successful,” she said. Under her leadership, the project finished three years early, preventing brownouts and improving D.C.-area electric system stability.

Kelly Sullivan standing with arms crossed

Kelly Sullivan ’01 was one of the first women who matriculated to VMI. She majored in mechanical engineering and captained the track team. She’s currently Blue Stream Fiber’s senior vice president of network construction and program management.—Photo by Christian Heilman, VMI Alumni Agencies.

After Pepco, Sullivan moved on to more leadership roles and larger budgets with other companies, including Time Warner, Comcast, and Google, before beginning her current position with Blue Stream in 2019. She loves working for Blue Stream and enjoys what she does. She’s on the ground “in the mud, in the dirt,” maintaining “all field operations from construction to technical operations and project management.”

Another tremendous positive is the company’s chief executive officer. “He exudes honor and integrity,” Sullivan said, explaining that her boss puts customers above financial gains. “He’s a firm believer in doing what’s right— because it’s right and not for any other reason. And that’s what I learned at VMI.”

At VMI, Sullivan also made many good friends. The women in her class—VMI’s first to enroll women—keep in touch. The “bond is still intact,” Sullivan said. They talk to each other using VMI terms and “in the same way we would at [age] 19 or 20.”

“They’re so established, so smart, so generous … and so incredibly … gritty and strong,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful thing to see because we all saw each other at our lowest, our absolute lowest.” Today, the accomplished group contains executives, field-grade officers, lawyers, and doctors.

It’s been 25 years since Sullivan matriculated. She accomplished a lot and changed a lot. So has her alma mater. One thing she has learned is what she calls “working in the gray.” Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III ’62, VMI’s 14th superintendent, talked to her about this. The “gray” means not thinking everything is strictly one way or the other but working with people and resources on hand to accomplish a mission. This, Sullivan says, is how the real world works. “Sometimes you have to give, and sometimes you have to compromise. It’s more about understanding who you are as a person and how you’re going to deal … with overcoming obstacles.”

In the next quarter-century, she’s “excited to see the citizen-soldiers that VMI prepares and releases into society. Because I think now more than ever, we need VMI graduates. We need people who have integrity; we need people who understand discipline and who have empathy and [an] understanding of that gray area.”

Join us Sept. 9-10 as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of women at Virginia Military Institute.

More Information
  • Christian Heilman

    Christian Heilman Director of Digital Content

    The director of digital content is responsible for creating original video and multimedia materials, as well as developing and editing web and digital content. The manager is responsible for platform coordination and troubleshooting, to include the VMI Alumni Agencies’ primary websites, digital newsletter and other digital platforms.

    Molly Rolon

    Molly Rolon Editorial Specialist

    The editorial specialist assists the editor-in-chief in various tasks relating to the production of quarterly and monthly publications, as well as prepares written materials for publication.