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Laura Neuman: Harnessing power and perception

Laura Neuman remembers exactly what she was wearing the night she was raped -- down to the pinstripes on her pajamas.

She remembers the night so vividly that when she talks about it there is a visceral quality to the story. It happened when she was 18.

She had come home late from waitressing to an empty apartment; she remembers falling asleep, only to be awakened with a pillow over her head, and a gun aimed at her right temple.

On that night, Neuman was raped by a stranger, a man who took away her innocence and instilled in her a lifelong fear of the night. At the time, she says neither the police nor her parents believed her story. “It’s horrible,” Neuman, now 46, recalls. “I was so alone.”

Neuman has since turned the terror of her experience into an example of what one person can do to change the system.

Nineteen years after her rape, Neuman insisted her case be reopened. Within three days, through the Maryland fingerprint database, her case was resolved. Her rapist’s fingerprints had been in the system for years.

“Unfortunately it is a part of my life forever,” Neuman says. “But you have to continue to move forward. The alternative is to do nothing.” 

The perpetrator has since been arrested, convicted and sentenced to a lifetime in prison. In the meantime, the perpetrator has been indicted in eight additional cases. 

From victim to advocate

Neuman has shared her tale across the country and with state legislators in their deliberations over DNA law. In addition, she founded the nonprofit Laura Neuman Foundation (www.lauraneuman.org) to raise awareness about rape and to help victims get their cases resolved.

When asked, she talks about the rape in public to drive home the point that rape should not be a label of shame. 

But the story of Neuman’s advocacy is not where her tale of achievement ends. It is just one part of her story of overcoming life’s obstacles to achieve success.

Neuman, a woman who didn’t finish high school and who grew up poor in a row house in East Baltimore, is the CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, a high-ranking position she started a year ago.

She got the public sector job after spending years in the private sector turning companies around for millions. She’s been the CEO of three high-tech companies, including the Howard County-based Matrics Inc. When Neuman took over Matrics, it was nearing bankruptcy. Through her efforts, she helped sell it for $230 million.

In recognition of her corporate successes, Neuman, who lives in Annapolis, has been dubbed a “trailblazer” and one of the Top 100 Women in Maryland by the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs.

At a recent event, Neuman looked every bit the part of the successful businesswoman that she is -- her quick smile charming the business leaders who clamored for her attention. She spoke about the future of entrepreneurship in Howard County. Her talk was extemporaneous, and littered with anecdotes about her life and how she hopes to turn the area into a haven for technology businesses.

“We’re in a period of transition; I’m going to talk about opportunity,” she told the crowd. “If you’re not at the top, you have to be creative.” 

That line is symbolic of her own career path, which started with her applying to a part-time customer service job. A knack for entrepreneurship and willingness to take risks have helped along the way. “I think the hallmarks for success are initiative and hard work,” says Neuman, who despite only having a GED early in her career went on to complete Loyola University’s MBA program and Stanford University’s executive program.

‘Choose your own path’

A mother of two, Neuman admits that she is somewhat of a workaholic (sometimes working up to 70 hours a week). Her iPad calendar is a colorful mosaic of scheduled meetings and events. She says she rarely sits down but loves what she does. 

“I have a great life. I am very fortunate,” she says. “But it didn’t start this way. It was hard; it is still hard.”

She credits an “undeniable belief” in herself with helping her achieve her goals. “You don’t have to accept what was given. You can choose your own path,” she says. “I’m willing to try things, to challenge the status quo.”  

But when it comes to how she overcame the internal scarring from the rape, Neuman says she still suffers from the past. “The fear never goes away,” she says. “I think any rape victim would tell you that.”

By using her platform as a business leader to share her story, she has gone through her own catharsis. “Speaking out is very freeing,” she says.  

Linda Kelly, a forensic nurse examiner and the clinical program manager of the Greater Baltimore Medical S.A.F.E. (Sexual Assault Forensic Examination) program, calls Neuman an inspiration. 

“She overcame so many obstacles to become so successful. … I think that’s such a wonderful model,” Kelly says. “She hasn’t let those scars impair her ability to become the person that she is, which is an amazingly successful and strong individual.” 

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