Ep 52: Meredith Harper: "We Get Nowhere By Ourselves"

 

Diva Tech Talk interviewed Meredith Harper, Chief Privacy and Security Officer for Henry Ford Health Systems (www.hfhs.org).

With strong science and math aptitudes, Meredith began her tech journey as early as the 2nd/3rd grades, participating in science fairs, math clubs and the like.  “By the time I got to middle school,” she said, “my parents realized they needed to move me to a different environment.  I ended up being bussed, with kids all over Detroit, to a middle school for gifted children. This prepared me to go, nicely, into my college prep, at Cass Technical High School (casstech.schools.detroitk12.org/). “    

Longing to become an architect, (“split between the left and the right brain”) Meredith graduated high school in the top 3% of the Detroit Public School System, and started college at Hampton University, in Virginia. At the end of her freshman year, she lost her father. “So, I moved back home to Michigan,” where she was awarded a scholarship to attend the University of Detroit, Mercy (https://www.udmercy.edu/). Her initial major was architecture but in junior year, she switched to a computer science program, because “I lost the passion for the ‘creative’ side of it all --- the drawing and that kind of stuff. I began to look at programs that would allow me to use that analytical side of my brain, as well as still be creative.”  She picked CIS (Computer Information Systems). “That was the time, the early ‘90’s, we were doing a lot of things with CAD/CAM, and I could transfer credits, over to the school of business which awarded my degree.”

Meredith’s first industry job was on the Help Desk for Budco (https://www.dialog-direct.com ) supporting Ford Motor Co. (www.ford.com) dealerships. She then moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan as a data analyst for The Medstat Group (www.medstatonline.com), where her team provided analytical software and supported in-depth dataset analysis for pharmaceutical companies like Merck, and Johnson & Johnson. Medstat is now a part of Thomson/Reuters (https://www.thomsonreuters.com/) and “even in the early ‘90’s, we were collecting millions of rolls of data,” Meredith said.  Becoming a project manager, she widely traveled to install and support paid health claims systems at client sites, nationwide. “I got a chance at an early age to see different operational environments. That’s when I realized I wasn’t just a technical person. I liked to talk to people; I liked to sell things.”

At the beginning, “I knew absolutely nothing about healthcare,” Meredith said. “So, I ended up going back to school, because I wanted to get insight into the industry.” While working full-time, Meredith received a master's degree in health services administration at the University of Detroit, Mercy, which she finished in three semesters. Meredith credits the person she calls her personal “angel investor,” Sister Mary Kelly at U of D, for pragmatically supporting her early journey.  “She was my program chair for the master’s program.  I was traveling quite a bit, for my job, and she would, sometimes, sit in lectures for me and tape them. She would FedEx them to my hotel, and allow me to take my exams on the weekend.  She really was the catalyst that helped me through that program. Without her, I would never have completed it; I would not be the person I am, today.”  Meredith tells many audiences about Sister Mary “because we need to understand, we don’t get where we are, by ourselves.”

Meredith rounded out her MedStat career by leading project teams, for large clients (“I had a long-time client in New York City, and lived in Times Square, New York City, for 6 months!”).  Then she then moved on as an analysts and junior consultant at Johnson and Johnson (https://www.jnj.com/) doing hospital operating room consulting: “looking for opportunities for cost-savings, operational improvement, and offering software to support those cost-savings.”

Meredith’s next life-changing milestone was marriage, and relocation to Warner-Robbins, Georgia. With a military spouse, she lived on the Robbins air force base. There, she worked as a team leader for an AS 400-based application at the Central Georgia Medical System (https://www.navicenthealth.org/).  “I was the lead for 6 or 7 individuals, only men. I was the only woman,” she said. Meredith benefited from being mentored by director of IT, Kyle Johnson, now a CIO. “She taught me a whole lot about leading teams --- how you traverse this environment primarily made up of men.”  The biggest lesson that Meredith inculcated was that “building positive relationships is important. Sometimes people only respect the relationship they have built with you, not the knowledge you bring.”

As a military family, “every couple of years, we were moving somewhere else,” Meredith said.  She had roles in Biloxi, Mississippi and Langley, Virginia as project manager in the IT departments of the air force bases’ hospitals.  Then moving to a base in Ohio, “the regulatory side of my world began to pick up.”  At Children’s Medical Center, in Dayton Ohio, (https://www.childrensdayton.org/), she worked indirectly as a project manager for her first female CIO, Beth Burdette. “We had made it through Y2K without the world blowing up,” Meredith laughed. “And we moved to the next regulatory ‘thing’ which was HIPAA (the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act). We were trying to figure out --- what were we going to do with this?  Children’s Medical Center wanted to know what they could do to comply.”   Meredith made it her mission to show them. She led the gap analysis for all the health systems IT and operational areas. “I had to sit down and read the entire 1100-page document to understand exactly what the implications were going to be. It was our job to understand how HIPAA was going to help or harm our operations and our patients; then we prepared our remediation and implementation plan.”   Meredith moved back to Michigan and began to work Health Alliance Plan (www.hap.org) to establish their HIPAA plan.  “From that point forward, 2002, I haven’t been able to get away from HIPAA since,” she laughed.

Henry Ford Health Systems, who owns HAP, asked Meredith, in 2003, to become their first Chief Privacy Officer.  “We found as we became more mature as a program, and as the security rules evolved, we had to start thinking differently about what investment Henry Ford was going to put in their program to ensure they could comply with these regulations, long-term. I got a unique chance, over those next 8 years.” Originally embedded in the compliance department, separate from IT, “I became the first Privacy and Security Officer because we felt those two areas needed to be married. We needed to be governed by the same rules. We needed to have the same leader.”  In 2012, HFHS “went into a massive evolution.”  Meredith proposed “radical changes” to the system’s Chief Operating Officer, including the combining of departments, and moving the privacy responsibility into technology.   One of the personal benefits to Meredith is that she began to report directly to Henry Ford’s first female CIO: MaryAlice Annecharico (Diva Tech Talk Episode 24).  “She’s been an advocate for us. We have been able to build a team of 53 amazing people, who are very passionate about the work that we do, as it relates to network security -the perimeter of our work and how we secure it; information security - the governance, forensics and cybersecurity part of our world; the information privacy team, which consists of our trainers, educators, policy developers, privacy investigators --- those who touch the patient the most.  We have an IT audit and risk management group. And the last group we brought onboard is our identity and access management group.” Meredith is fascinated by all the disciplines she leads.  “Data is king around here.  The more we can control access to data, the more we can control our risk.  Our biggest vulnerability is the group we don’t think about --- the 29,000 individuals who work for us!” So HFHS latest strategies revolve around protecting and training for the operational movement of data down to the employee level.

“I love this stuff,” Meredith exclaimed.  Talking about her team, she said “We live and breathe it.  It’s not a 9 to 5 kind of job. It’s 24 x 7.  The bad guys have gotten really savvy; they are not operating from 9 to 5. So we have a 24 x 7 operation where we’re monitoring the environment, and managing to decrease that risk for the organization.  We have to put as much money into training and education as we do into technology.  We trust but we verify.”  Meredith also acknowledged “I’m having a ball because I am one of the few women in the country who do it, at this level!”

Meredith’s personal strengths are her math/science aptitude combined with strong communication skills; a propensity to take calculated risks and stay flexible; intellectual curiosity; emotional intelligence (“I think I have the ability to be able to be calm, when needed; the capability to see things for what they are, and move the organization methodically to get things to the end”); and coalition-building (“I believe that you can’t do this work by yourself.”). Ever the eager student, Meredith is enrolled again in a post-university masters (“I just can’t stop going”) in jurisprudence in health care law at Loyola Law School in Chicago, a prerequisite for their J.D. program she plans on entering, next.  This doctoral program offers students the same mass of knowledge as offered to a would-be attorney.  But Meredith will not become a lawyer. Instead, she intends to take her doctorate and teach on the university level. “So, I get that legal spin without having to take the bar exam.”   Among her ambitions is not only to teach, but to write the specialized textbooks for her classes.

As an African-American woman, in a male-dominated field, Meredith said “I think it’s more challenging for other folks than it has been for me.  They have to get used to the idea of women being at the table.  I don’t. I think I have helped them understand that women can play in this space. It’s not relegated to one gender or the other. I don’t think it has negatively impacted me,” she said matter-of-factly. “I think I have just had to overcome some things. I have chosen to take those opportunities as learning experiences for the other individual ---- maybe they have just not had an experience with a woman leader, in the way they need to.  And maybe it’s my job to teach them that.”

Meredith recommends that women aspiring to achieve tech leadership roles:

  • “Acquire thick skins.”

  • “Recognize that you will fail. Spin that failure into a ‘life lesson’ you can use, moving forward. Learn from it; move on to the next thing.”

  • “Communicate what your needs are, but also be able to translate what the organization or the individual on the other side of the table needs.  Talking and listening, decipher their needs.”

  • “Know that you can do this.”

Giving back to her community, Meredith is active in MCWT (www.mcwt.org). There she is on an operational compliance team, has been a speaker at one of the summer 5th through 8th grade Camp Infinities, and has recruited other women to support the camps.  She is also active with both her former high school and grade school, by adopting classrooms and individual girls to “show them they can begin to be what they want to be.”  In addition to her busy agenda at HFHS, she also chairs the Michigan Healthcare Cybersecurity Council; is active in HIMSS (the Health Information Management & Systems Society); and is a faculty member for the security boot camp fielded all over the country by Clearwater Compliance LLC.  She credits her husband and family for helping her achieve balance, and retain energy. “I lean on them a lot. Sometimes, I can say things to my husband, and he provides a listening ear.”  Since her spouse extensively travels, as does she, “we take advantage of every holiday, and every weekend. Church and our spiritual life is huge. We spend time, on Sunday, level-setting, and getting prepared for the coming week.”  Among her more than 20 recent professional awards, Meredith recently received the University of Detroit, Mercy “Spirit Award,” (and “my husband was very excited to see me get that!”)

According to Meredith, every woman leader should “dare to be different!”  Please feel free to contact her at Meredith.harper@hfhs.org.
 

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Ep 51: Kirsten Edmondson Wolfe: Tech Is The World Change Catalyst

 

Diva Tech Talk was delighted to interview Microsoft (www.microsoft.com)’s Senior Director, Industry Product Marketing, Cloud & Enterprise, Kirsten Edmondson Wolfe.

At a young age, Kirsten was passionate about politics. She graduated from the University of California, Davis, with an undergraduate degree in International Relations and Asian History, and then moved to Washington, D.C.  “with every intention of joining the State Department.”  Her first formative job was at an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) “whose job it was to help build democratic institutions in newly non-communist countries.”  

Kirsten’s memorable watershed moment came in 1997 when she was “standing at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Aryaduta in Jakarta, Indonesia while the Suharto government fell.”  She “watched the students use technologies to film what was going on in the streets, and to text each other to avoid where the military was.” They sent their recordings to CNN and other news outlets, and Kirsten observed “these students bring down a totalitarian government, using cell phones.”  She said to herself: “Wow, I need to get into technology because if I’m going to truly change the world, it’s going to be through tech, not through politics.”  Kirsten resigned her job; went back to Thunderbird International Business School, obtaining an MBA in business marketing; got a job, at the height of the “dot.com implosion” at a large Massachusetts-based consulting company, SETA; and subsequently was offered a position in D.C., in 2003, at Computer Associates, now CA Technologies (www.ca.com).

Kirsten’s initial role at CA was in technology consulting as it related to international relations, focused on “how do we have the U.S. government invest in technology in developing countries so that we can bridge the gap.” Knowing that she always harbored a passionate “desire to change the world,” (as she termed it: “that is my ‘North Star,’ it drives me every day”), Kirsten then recruited “a fantastic team” whose goal was to take what CA was already selling to the U.S. government and “make it more impactful to their mission.”  Since cybersecurity was a strength of the CA portfolio, and recognized as essential to federal technology implementations, Kirsten’s team stressed the safety aspects of the mainframe.  “It almost never went down” except in the case of natural disasters, so the team emphasized that “if you want a trusted partner in safeguarding the mission-critical data you hold, there is no better partner than CA” for U.S. government agencies.  Over a relatively short period of one year, Kirsten is justifiably proud that CA “went from not being in the Top 20 vendors in security for the U.S. government to #3, behind Symantec and IBM.”

As a leader, Kirsten said “I learn every day.  I learn about my leadership, how I can do better, how I can change.”   At CA, “the first thing I learned was that ‘all boats rise together’. It is about collaboration. I succeed as a leader when my team succeeds.”  She mentioned teaching and learning from her teams, pushing her teammates, and “giving them the freedom to fail. Getting the right people on the team, and then empowering them to be impactful.”   

After a change in her CA role (moving “out of the government space, into the partner space”), Kirsten decided, in 2009, to move to a smaller ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software company:  Deltek (www.deltek.com).  What attracted the change agent in her was that the newly-minted CEO was “recruiting folks from other software companies to make Deltek more of a ‘player’ in ERP.”  But, Kirsten learned what she called “a really good life lesson: don’t jump too quick.”   She said “I was so enamored of myself that I believed absolutely everything from the recruiting process and the interviewing process.  I did no digging, whatsoever.” However, since the company was owned by private equity interests, “there was no chance that we were ever going to be able to do what we wanted to do. I realized, about a year in, that I needed to find a company that I could be happy at. You have to find that company that is consistent with your values and your culture. You have to find a company that is in a location where you can be happy and successful.” So, Kirsten moved to Microsoft to “a smaller part of that company,” (www.microsoft.com/dynamics) concentrated on business applications, where the President of her Microsoft division allowed colleagues to “push the envelope.”  At Microsoft “when Satya Nadella became CEO, in 2014, I saw his speech,” she exclaimed. “And I said ---  this is where I want to be for the rest of my career.”   

Her Microsoft team works with engineering to “infuse industry requirements into the Microsoft platform.  I can fundamentally change where we go, as a company.  It’s opened a whole new set of opportunities.   This is the one company that if we can stitch all of our stuff together, we can do fantastic things in society.” Kirsten is having a great time.  “It’s a driven culture.  ‘Cloud’ never takes a day off.  You must constantly update your software; you must constantly innovate. The environment is exciting.”  

Kirsten has never thought that being female affected her career.  “With my singular focus on my goal, I have not noticed it.  There are times in my career, where I thought I was going in one trajectory, and I had to change it.” But for Kirsten being a woman in IT was not a challenge.  She said her biggest struggle is staying patient.  “I have a clear vision of where I want to go. I just see it.  But what motivates me doesn’t necessarily motivate anyone else.  You have got to have patience. That’s the biggest thing.”

Kirsten offered other key words of advice to leaders:

  • “Surround yourself with great people.”

  • “Listen.  Learn from other people.  Acknowledge that you don’t know everything.”

  • “Admit when you are wrong, and that you screwed up.”

In her philanthropic life, Kirsten is most dedicated to children’s issues.  “I want all children, everywhere, to have access to IT, have access to skills, have access to learning, have access to food, and grow up in safe environments. This is what gets me up every day.”

Kirsten avails herself of an organization called Donors Choose (https://www.donorschoose.org/) that works in concert with Microsoft and their October “Month of Giving.”   “It is an online network of educators,” she explained. Through it, “I help fund some innovative education programs in less successful school districts. My son and I just picked one, yesterday.”

Speaking of her family, Kirsten acknowledged the difficulty of achieving life balance.  “That is where the gender roles come in,” she said. “My husband is a stay-at-home Dad. He’s focused on getting R.J., our son, the best education he possibly can. But you get to school, and they look at us and think ‘Why’s the Dad here? Where’s Mom?’ Or they have programs at 10:00 AM in the morning, and I can’t be there. My son getting teased at school,” she lamented, “that I hadn’t anticipated. But you do the best you can. You try and get things on your calendar. There’s a lot of non-traditional communication,” and use of innovative technology to make it all work.  She also commented, “at the end of the day, you have to be willing to shut off the laptop, and go for a bike ride!”

Kirsten’s biggest personal challenge, currently, is that she is a quintessential “workaholic (I got that from my parents).”  So, she is “learning to walk away. I think gender roles, over the last 20 years, is allowing us to put the laptop down, and do things with your family.” Kirsten ended the interview by sharing strong words of inspiration. “Keep the faith, keep driving. There has never been a better time to be a woman in tech.  We can actually, fundamentally change all of it.”

Please feel free to contact Kirsten Edmondson Wolfe @ kiedmond@microsoft.com.  

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Ep 50: Linda Daichendt: Mobile Trailblazer on The Move

 

Diva Tech Talk was thrilled to interview busy Linda Daichendt, CEO and Founder of the Mobile Technology Association of Michigan (MTAM)  (http://gomobilemichigan.org ), CEO of Strategic Concepts Inc., executive producer for Michigan Mobile Musings (an audio broadcast focused on the connected technologies industry), and Board Member for the Michigan STEM Partnership --- a statewide, non-profit collaborative that positively impacts economic development by bridging gaps in educational STEM curricula.

Linda was not an early technologist.   “I loved technology as a child but I was discouraged from going into it.  It’s not that I wasn’t good at it. They automatically assumed I wouldn’t be good at it! I was encouraged to go into business, which I did.”   So, she started out as a marketing leader in the retail industry.  “I ran marketing departments for shopping malls and retail corporations for the most part” in her early career. Having worked as a senior consultant at Strategic Marketing Concepts Inc. in the 1990’s, she segued into leadership roles at notable retail giants Roberds Furniture and Appliances, Murrays’ Auto Parts, and BoRics. In 2002, she  formed a new MIchigan firm, Strategic Growth Concepts (http://strategicgrowthconcepts.com). The company provides Marketing and Operations consulting services such as marketing and business plan development, marketing plan implementation, media audits, media planning/negotiation, strategic planning, operational audits, systems planning, outplacement, and employee recruitment.

Along the way, Linda found herself falling in love with mobile technology, which was dramatically changing the face of the U.S. economy in the early part of this century.   In 2006, she became the national director of marketing for a country-wide chain of wireless retailers (Wireless Toyz).  “This was right before the iPhone launched,” Linda said. “I became fully entrenched and  learned everything I could about what was going on in the industry.”   After Wireless Toyz was acquired, Linda focused solely on Strategic Growth Concepts Inc., and added expertise in connected technologies to her consulting practice. “It set me on this new path. What I found was I  ended up doing a lot of education during what were supposed to be sales calls.   People didn’t really understand all the mobile and connected technologies that were out there.   It became obvious to me that we needed to get information out.  And as I was building up my  vendor relationships, I couldn’t find vendors in Michigan – that was a problem I wanted to solve.”   Finding no connected technology networking groups nor associations in Michigan to fill the gap, Linda decided to start one!

To date, MTAM is unique:  it is the only statewide trade association, in the entire country, dedicated to ‘connected technologies.’ It began by gaining the local (Michigan) rights to an international program called MOBILE MONDAYS, essentially meetups for those interested in mobile and all connected technologies. “There was a high demand for it.   Nobody else was putting out information on the topic.  Attendance was very, very high. We decided we were going to have to establish multiple chapters of Mobile Monday.” Beginning in Ann Arbor, Linda and her team took MOBILE MONDAYS to Detroit, and quickly to 2 other locations for a total, today, of four chapters across the state. After 9 months of fielding MOBILE MONDAYS, Linda saw many other needs that those interested in mobility had.  “There was need for referrals, access to training, and all these other things,” she said. So, the non-profit statewide trade association was born, and the four Mobile Monday Michigan chapters are now a subsidiary of MTAM.  MTAM helps everyone having interest in, or working with connected technologies, according to Linda.  Broad MTAM membership consists of “people who are providing connected technologies, and people in every  industry, utilizing the technologies.”

Moving far beyond the cell phone, MTAM is “about everything that ‘connected technology’ means ---  from IoT (Internet of Things) to autonomous vehicles to augmented (virtual) reality.” Having worked in the mobility space for a decade, Linda sees much positive upside in the field (“IoT is definitely something that is starting to capture the imagination of companies”) but also some challenges. “We have probably moved too fast in some areas,” she said. “Today, connected technologies are being used in every industry. But companies have not paid enough attention to security. We are taking all these devices into our homes and our businesses, and they are not as secure as they need to be.   And we are not educating people about how to update all those devices. Those are issues.  They put people in danger.”   

Linda is passionate about connected technologies because “I think it can change people’s lives. I think it can change our state’s economy, make it much more diversified. I think it can help Michigan attain a leadership role, nationally and internationally.”   She also noted that she and her Board have contemplated taking the association nationwide, in the future due to inquiries they’ve had from other states.

Linda’s personal leadership traits include:

  • Constancy and tenacity (“I am tenacious.”)

  • Dedication (“Work is pretty much all I do.”)

  • Focus coupled with collaboration (“But I don’t always see the forest for the trees. So, I  often ask others for their opinions.”)

Linda stays current in her field by “constantly, constantly reading, listening to podcasts, watching videos, attending Webinars and attending events. It’s literally ‘information overload’ every single day. But things are changing so fast, there is no other choice.”   She recommends both THE MOBILE MARKETING HANDBOOK, by Kim Dushinski, and MOBILE MARKETING FOR DUMMIES by John Arnold & Michael Becker, for anyone who would like to begin their immersion in  Mobile Marketing specifically.  Linda is also a big fan of “hack-a-thons” which she defines as “creativity marathons.” To support diversification, she advocates hack-a-thons focused on women only.

Linda has frequently fielded a key question about her personal technology and nonprofit leadership: “They say ‘You’re a woman.  How did you get involved in leading this organization?’ Because I’m a woman, it’s assumed that I can’t possibly have the interest or the knowledge in technology! That assumption has always kind of fascinated me,” she stated. The good news to Linda is that “It’s not as noticeable as it used to be. There’s a lot more attention these days to the fact that there need to be more women and more minorities brought into technology. But there’s no doubt when I go into the room, it’s still going to be 20% or less women.”  

To help further the cause of diversity, Linda observed “We need to focus on bringing people along with us.”  To achieve that, Linda volunteers on the board of the Michigan STEM Partnership.  “I work on a lot of programs to bring women and minorities into technology.” Linda was fortunate, early in her career, to have a woman supervisor who emphasized how important it was to be a good role model and to groom other women for leadership. “That stuck with me. I have always felt it was very important. So, in every job that I have had, if I could have interns, I would try to make sure I could teach them something, give them responsibilities. Providing opportunities is something we should, all, be thinking about doing, on a regular basis.”  

Linda is eager to spread the message to parents and educators: “encourage young women to pursue technology in their education and their careers.”   She is thrilled that she is in a technology-driven role now.  “Somedays it drives me crazy. But I have said to many people, this is what I was meant to be doing. I have the potential to be able to change the world in some small way. I think girls, when they see the power of what technology can do and how they can use it, have the ability to become someone who can change the world.”

Please feel free to contact Linda Daichendt at linda@gomobilemichigan.org.

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Ep 49: Nicol Pasuit: Controlling the leap from Intrapreneur to Entrepreneur  

Diva Tech Talk enjoyed interviewing start-up founder, and entrepreneurial leader, Nicol Pasuit, CEO of TechStak (www.techstak.com), a company created as a key intermediary bringing vital technology assistance to small and medium-sized U.S. businesses. 

Raised on a working farm in mid-Michigan as the only girl in a family of 8, Nicol was always interested in problem-solving and embraced a strong work ethic early in life.   She began her college education initially as a journalism major but quickly switched to audiology and speech sciences, where her first exposure to data, analytics and technology began.

Her job, while still at Michigan State University, was in the pediatric rehab and NICU departments at Sparrow Health Care.  After graduation, Nicol took an entry-level position working in “outcomes assurance” and referral management at Concentra Medical Centers (https://www.concentra.com/) while simultaneously pursuing her MPA (Masters in Public Administration) at Oakland University. “I was behind a computer all day long!” she said.  Promoted in 4 months, Nicol oversaw a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week, Concentra healthcare clinic, for which she had full profit and loss responsibility.  “Running the business: that’s where I found my strengths.”  Within several years, Concentra offered Nicol an expanded challenge, and she built and managed the company’s specialist services program throughout the Midwest, and then nationally. “That was a fantastic experience.  For 12 years, I traveled coast-to-coast, and led cross-functional teams throughout the country.”  Nicol grew as a strong leader, “building a high functioning, productive team” --- a majority of whom were women.  Nicol also led the development and project management of many operational tools and software.  It was “huge exposure to technologies and what we needed to support the daily operations of a large nationwide business unit.”

After one more major promotion, Nicol left Concentra in 2015, as it was acquired by Select Medical.  “I had an opportunity to take a next step, going from being an ‘intrapreneur’ to becoming an entrepreneur --- using my skillset of business development, product development, product management, and scaling business services across the country.”   Seizing that pivotal opportunity, Nicol founded TechStak.  “It’s one of those things where you look at the moment in time, and you have to be able to take a risk --- living in uncertainty.”    Among other things, since she has “self-funded” her venture, Nicol sold her car to take the plunge into the risky world of startups.

“I have to give credit to my husband,” Nicol said, discussing the genesis of TechStak. “He would talk to me about his technology business, and being able to land new clients.”  A light bulb popped over Nicol’s head: “There are so many small businesses (28 million in the U.S.)  that need technology. Every small business needs technology to function, and remain competitive.”   Nicol’s initial target market is 5.9 million small U.S. businesses with 10-499 employees.  “I came up with the idea of TechStak to help those companies find providers, like my husband’s company, to help them. They don’t know where to start.   They don’t know what questions to ask.   They need a way to connect to the right technology provider.  One size doesn’t fit all.”

Nicol has made it her mission to ensure that “those technology services that were only affordable for large companies” can found and used by small businesses.  “There’s no Angie’s List for technology,” she exclaimed. “But TechStak can connect these businesses to the right tech providers.”  The company’s 2017 goals include “being completely scaled up in Michigan, having the right number of providers on board and being able to have businesses connect to those providers.”  In 2018, Nicol intends to take TechStak out of state to the next new market.  “Our plan is to be dominating in the Midwest,” next year, she said.  And after that?  “How do we move east and southeast before we go west.”

TechStak relies on internally-created proprietary “matchmaking” technology, which Nicol continues to iterate to “change it up, using machine learning techniques” as the company grows.  Nicol’s initial key hires were in marketing, business development process-mapping, and database administration, supplemented by technology services firms, working under contract, to build out TechStak’s solutions. Like many entrepreneurs, when discussing her leadership and operational roles at TechStak, Nicol says: “What don’t I do?  I wear many hats.”  From the HR function to business development to service and product development, Nicol has been managing it all.  

Nicol characterizes herself as “a control freak.”  She credits her propensity for “being scheduled, and planning things” as contributing to high productivity.  “Having the big vision, but knowing what are the actions required to execute, to meet your goal,” she said, “is the secret.”    She also credits the fact that she is “very good at compartmentalizing things.”  She “shuts things off” at the end of each business day; and can “focus on which things need the most intention.”  She balances her family of two boys (“who I learn from every day”) and her supportive spouse (“also learning from him; I am trying to be a sponge”) by scheduling relentlessly and consistently.

Being a woman never slowed Nicol down as she pursued her career to date. “I have never been told ‘you cannot do something.’ There were high expectations, growing up.  If I want something, I am going to go after it.”  After TechStak is successfully launched and has met its growth goals, Nicol is interested in becoming a coach for other women entrepreneurs. “I am interested in helping other women build their businesses.”   

Outside of her company, Nicol is involved with Automation Alley, a nonprofit association (www.automationalley.com), and CompTIA (https://www.comptia.org/)  and its committee on advancing women in technology.  “They actually do a lot of talks about getting women engaged in tech.”  Her lessons/advice currently include:

●      “Ask questions.”
●      Be a good listener.   Listen to feedback.  “I watched other women in high positions, and observed their behavior.”
●      Connect with people who can help you.
●      “Step outside your comfort zone.  That will get you very far.”
●      “Surround yourself with people who bring different views, perspectives, talents, and who are smarter than you.”
●      “Find a mentor, someone who can help you navigate the waters, and be a ‘devil’s advocate’. You will be amazed.”

Please feel free to contact Nicol at her email address: npasuit@techstak.com.  

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Ep 48: Dusty Welsh: Connecting for a Cause

Diva Tech Talk was inspired by Dusty Welsh, co-founder of Cause Activators (http://causeactivators.com), a Web-based company that connects corporations/businesses with tangible nonprofit opportunities, making it easier for those organizations to support their local communities, and empower their team members to do good.  “For nonprofits, the value is clear,” she said. “You post your opportunities online, to be in touch with donors. For donors, the value is enormous savings of time and having a platform to cut through all opportunities, to clearly identify those that align with your business.”

Dusty is highly family-oriented.  As a girl, she was stimulated by her grandparents who were very active in key nonprofits like Meals on Wheels (https://seniormealsonwheels.com)  and their local community center. In college, Dusty began working with many large nonprofits like Leader Dogs for the Blind (http://www.leaderdog.org), and found her passion in life.  She moved to Colorado (“where I had the adventure of a lifetime”) and spent time there “doing a lot of nonprofit work.”  One of those nonprofits was a national wildlife center, where Dusty worked on community programs for children and conservation education, while she also sat on the Board of Directors.  “There I learned about politics; it was eye-opening for me,” she said. Subsequently, she returned to Michigan, (where she “saw a need to support Detroit in its resurgence”). Staying continuously close to her family, Dusty co-founded Cause Activators with her stepmother, human resources expert Dr. Mary Welsh. “I really just wanted to make the world a better place.  Before starting Cause Activators, I coached and worked with over 125 nonprofits, helping them operate almost like a business.”  

Originally, Dusty never intended to be a technology leader.   “Technology really became part of my focus when I realized that nonprofit organizations and business donors were coming together in a very antiquated way.”  She observed “nonprofits chasing businesses who were not aligned with them; businesses putting up firewalls to keep nonprofits at bay. I realized it was a very time-consuming process on both sides of the equation, and that technology could really bridge the gap and bring this process into the 21st century. Similar to what Amazon has done for shopping, Cause Activators has brought nonprofits and businesses, together.”

Prior to the company’s inception, Dusty acknowledged that there was existing task-oriented software, but stated that “there were not a lot of tools available, in the way of local community engagement, enabling a company to see all the opportunities out there.”  Sitting on the Board of Specs Howard School of Media Arts (http://www.specshoward.edu/), Dusty had expert resources and skills, at her fingertips, for Website development, as well as direct personal experience with crowd-sourcing fundraising since 2008.  “I took those and married them with the skills of my stepmother and we created the Cause Activators technology platform.”  

Launched in October 2016, that platform is based on “the same algorithms as a dating website, but we match companies and donors instead of guys and gals! It’s high level ‘matchmaking.’  We ensure that recipients and donors are matched on over 25 points of interest, hitting the goals of both recipients and donors.”  She designs and manages the front-end user interface of the Cause Activators system and additionally supervises the back-end development team for the platform.  She also is the company’s primary community engagement professional, working to capture as many requirements as possible to continually refine the system to address all the needs of this market.  Dusty is also “the face” of Cause Activators at conferences, events, prospect visits, customer sites and media interactions, where she articulates “a keen understanding of the challenges faced by businesses looking to get engaged” and deep understanding of the needs of nonprofits, themselves.

Dusty’s personal strengths include “a gift of gab;” having the ability to “motivate people;” and a strong skill in “connecting and uniting people around a common goal.”  With her heightened sensitivity to the needs of underserved populations, Dusty acknowledges that “it can be a heavy weight on your shoulders” when you examine social ills.   “Many nonprofit leaders face these as well.  But all we can do is offer our very best.”

As a female entrepreneur, Dusty said the #1 challenge she faced, like other women founders, is funding. Because Cause Activators is a true social impact enterprise, the difficulty is compounded. The company is less attractive to most traditional funders like venture capitalists, bankers or many “angels.”  To overcome this, she looked for non-traditional funding sources.   Cause Activators won a Michigan Woman’s Foundation Entrepreneur New Business Plan and Pitch competition in 2015, and received a technology grant.  The company has also gotten over $100,000 in pro bono tech support from various companies, and a $150,000 technology subsidy through the Microsoft BizSpark program. 

In addition to being resourceful, one key lesson that Dusty has learned along the way is “I always ask anyone and everyone for help.”  Additionally, her major leadership tips include:

●      Maximize your strengths.

●      “Surround yourself with key leaders who elevate your leadership abilities” and complement your team with strengths you don’t have.

●      “Learn to become a better listener.”   Step back and reflect what someone has said to you.   Take notes.

●      “It’s so important to be positive and encouraging….” to keep team members motivated.

●      Don’t be afraid of failing. “Each time, I’ve been knocked down, I gain more courage.” 

For entrepreneurs, Dusty’s strongest piece of advice is “I cannot stress enough the importance of doing the research to make sure you are developing something that the marketplace will want to buy.”

Dusty is passionate about the strong future potential of Cause Activators. “Helping one nonprofit at a time, we can only do so much.   But the Website can make impactful matches 24 hours a day, with 1000’s of matches a week, across the country.”  With ambitious plans to go nationwide, soon, Cause Activators offers current internships for university/college students. Please feel free to contact Dusty at her email address dusty@causeactivators.com or via Twitter @causeactivators 

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