Ep 56: Laura Bilazarian: Not You Can, but You WILL Win

Diva Tech Talk was inspired by our interview with former investment banker and social entrepreneur, Laura Bilazarian, CEO and Founder of Teamable (https://teamable.com), an innovative company accelerating any organization’s ability to hire top talent, in today’s challenging environment. Teamable helps companies implement “smarter recruiting through social networks,” according to Laura. “We ‘connect the dots’ between open jobs and human social connections.” As a side benefit of the company’s methodology, some customers have addressed the need for greater diversity: tripling their hiring of women and minorities in leadership and other positions. “It’s easy to find people, but it’s not easy to find the right people for the right team. We are able to find a ‘needle in the haystack’.  We can unlock human potential at an earlier stage” said Laura.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business (https://www.wharton.upenn.edu/ ), the fascinating Laura began her career in investment banking -- and even made her home in Vietnam at one point. Similar to Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates (two notable tech industry superstars), Laura often found her interest in getting great grades in her college courses waning in favor of doing “deep dives” into subjects that fascinated her. “I couldn’t stand attending class,” she said. “But I would read all the required material, and beyond. I didn’t really get it until I began to understand what an entrepreneur’s mind really was. I was curious beyond the structure of getting an ‘A’.  I didn’t do such a great job on tests, but learned stuff that now is in Teamable.”

Graduating Wharton, with a degree in economics, Laura wanted to work at Google. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have the guts to go there without affirmation from my classmates.”  So her first job was at Miller Buckfire (http://www.millerbuckfire.com) an internationally recognized investment bank helping clients address complex transformation including recapitalizations, acquisitions, sales, divestitures, debt and equity financing transactions. “I traveled the world, and ended up doing private equity in Vietnam,” she said.  “I sorta hustled my way into that job, by going door-to-door, looking at mailboxes, to figure out what companies were big in Vietnam. I reached out to the biggest ones.”  

Laura had been a lifelong athlete.  In the early throes of her career, she also played professional rugby, on both a national and international basis. “Kudos for my mom for pushing me into that sport.” Her rugby-playing, on the #1 award-winning national U.S. women’s team, strengthened skills including her ability to work in teams, problem-solve, and a penchant for staying calm under pressure. She discovered: “You make a mistake in rugby, the penalty is damage to your ACL!”  Laura learned a “life lesson” from this period: “What stops you from coming in first is your own mental state.”  She quickly moved to the declarative sentence. “Instead of saying we could win a national championship, I started saying we WILL win.  Everyone was scared to say it at first. But it made all the difference.”

As she got deeper into investment banking, Laura said “at some point, I just felt that the work was meaningless. Being on Wall Street, you get burned out, moving money around, zero sum game. A few people, only, had access to capital.”  

Then, some key occurrences changed her life. “I read Mother Teresa’s letters to God (Where There Is Love, There Is God) and I had a period of introspection.  What is another way I can impact the world?”  The daughter of an Armenian father and Jewish mother, Laura “grew up learning about the Armenian genocide and the holocaust, and that had a really big impact on me.”  Laura’s brother was a news reporter in Armenia, and she was inspired to “do something there.”  She traveled to Armenia, and observed that “tech is a place where you can all win together. We could all use data to connect people to the right work.” She conceived the concept, that became Teamable, and launched a Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com) campaign around it. “What is so brilliant is you can sit there, with your mind, and make something that adds value.”  

In Armenia, Laura was “inspired by the talent there, and wanted to give them something that would bring access to the global market.” She continued to pursue investment banking, co-founding a fund devoted to Armenian companies; and Teamable’s development and data science activities also all take place in Armenia. “Doing the right thing is always great,” she exclaimed. “If nothing else in a small country, they look at you having some measure of success and they have hope. And hope is a more valuable currency than currency!”

While running the Armenian fund, (which she subsequently left) and raising money for her own company, Laura’s investment banking background has been invaluable. She had insight into what investors were looking for and the questions they would ask. “I think that’s something that every CEO should learn,” she said. “Do something, like financial modeling, to really understand ‘where are the levers’ in your business. Not all levers are created equal.”  

After founding Teamable, Laura said that at first “I wouldn’t call myself an entrepreneur.  I felt like Super-Poseur.” But like her rugby career, she said “I started saying it, because once you say things you have to make them happen.”  Her three co-founders are all technical whizzes – Armenian data scientists and crackerjack programmers.  “The hardest math we did on Wall Street, they were doing in 5th grade.” The prototype system her Armenian co-founders first showed her was “the perfect predictor of team quality,” she said. “I was blown away.

The same approach to recruiting that they created, based on 15 years of social media interconnectedness, would apply to Wall Street --- getting the right people on the right teams.”  Laura moved operations to San Francisco; met with myriad Silicon Valley denizens including the top analytics team at Google; and continuously began to validate the approach and build the Teamable company and customer base. She pitched a number of times, including her first successful round at well-known Greylock Partners (www.greylock.com/), where they found an angel investor willing to take a chance on Teamable. “I took the whole team with me,” she said. “People who didn’t have a part of the pitch, I put them on ScreenShare, because part of the mission is having access, and I wanted them to see what is was like being in those meetings.”

Highly egalitarian, Laura said that it simply became obvious that, when pitching to investors, she should initially take the title of CEO. “I really don’t know when I earned it,” she said. “Maybe it was with the first money raised, or the first customer signed.” (NOTE:  40-person Teamable has raised over $5 million in its A round of investment, and has over 90 customers, to date.  The company has quadrupled in size since February, 2017).

Besides giving everyone access to as much information, learning, and connections as possible, Laura stresses that “really being honest” in terms of feedback is crucial in the Teamable culture. “I want it to be radically transparent,” she said. “With software companies, you can make adjustments quickly. If it sucks, it’s ok.  We’ll make another plan.”   She also prizes a hard work ethic.  “Everyone’s smart. Everyone’s talented.

Where you make the margin is work ethic.  It’s discipline. It’s going above and beyond.”  Finally, she is creating an environment focused on hyper-growth. “Never feeling comfortable; continuing to challenge ourselves.”  On the personal level, Laura admits that her past two years were unbalanced and “a little dark.”  But she thinks it is the direct cause of Teamable’s current success. “If you maniacally commit to anything, for two years, you will succeed,” Laura said. “I think doing what you love, you cannot have work/life balance at least for 2 to 3 years.”

Laura characterizes that women leaders have “unique competitive advantages that are and aren’t talked about.” In looking at her own advantages, she stated: “People usually trust me.”  But she also sees the well-documented disadvantages women face in raising institutional funds. In true winning fashion, she sees that as a positive challenge.  “You have to be more strategic.”  In terms of Teamable, Laura only met with 5 venture capital firms for her Series A round, because she targeted (“reverse pattern matched”) those who would be the best partners, with the best technical view of, and affinity for, the problem that Teamable was created to solve.

Ever an ambitious learner, Laura is spurred by her technology colleagues and her access to Silicon Valley brain trusts. “I took the whole machine-learning course on Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/) at 2x speed, over a weekend.”  Lean Startup  is a book that Laura would recommend any would-be startup founder reading. “I can’t stand anything that seems like a problem,” Laura summed herself up and affirmed that “It’s super-scary to leave what you’ve done. But you can do it!”

Please feel free to contact Laura at: laura@teamable.com.  

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Ep 55: Theresa Ancick: Possibilities Present Themselves

Diva Tech Talk was thrilled to interview musician-turned-technologist, Theresa Ancick, now Manager, Enterprise Business Intelligence at Beaumont Health Systems (https://www.beaumont.org), the largest health system in Michigan.  Theresa’s predilection for technology is genetic, since her father was a second-level executive at Michigan Bell (acquired by AT&T www.att.com) in the troubleshooting department. “He was a very logical-minded, smart person,” Theresa shared. “I think I inherited a lot of his logic.”  In high school, Theresa took one of the first computer programming classes they offered, and aced it. “The other thing I did well in was total office procedures.  And considering where I wound up in life, it’s interesting those things showed up so soon.”

After high school, Theresa sang in a band, and traveled around the Midwest. “I had a lot of fun.  But my friends were graduating from colleges and getting married.  I went ‘oh my gosh, I think I might be a loser’ and decided to get off the couch and try and get a life of some sort.”  That new career life began with a brief stint as a waitress, “while I tried to figure things out.”  Then Theresa selected a job “specifically in computers” at Electronic Laser Forms, a now defunct company in Fraser, Michigan, that focused on producing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage forms for prospective home buyers.  She made a financial sacrifice to do that to learn more about computers “because I felt it was going to get me farther in life, ultimately. It was a big risk for me. I was a lot more fearless back then.”  Theresa used that first job to learn everything she could.  “I dove into every nook and cranny of the program, of the company, and soaked it all in.”  

Next, Theresa was hired by Gentry Machinery Builders, in Troy, Michigan to automate that small company’s accounting system.  “They had a complete manual accounting system. So, I started automating the accounting, even though I had no experience with it. Then I started gaining my confidence. I started having really big results.”  Theresa learned everything she could about Gentry’s accounting system (payroll, accounts receivable, accounts payable, general ledger) as well as how to quickly computerize all the functions and reports.  “And I was installing modems, and small networks and things like that” she said. “Tony Robbins (https://www.tonyrobbins.com)  talks about discovering what your passions are; when you get involved with something and lose track of time. I remember getting on my computer at home at 11 PM, and then looking up and …omigosh…. it’s 4:30 AM in the morning! I was in such focus. I loved it.  It was like putting puzzles together.”

This quickly blossomed into Theresa’s first entrepreneurial venture, when the vendor who sold Gentry their computers (Michigan Computer Solutions: http://michcomp.com/)  recognized her talents; suggested she provide the same services to other companies in the machine industry; and referred her to her first new customer. She proceeded to automate that first customer’s accounting systems, but the owner was initially alarmed and gruff.  “The first month it didn’t balance,” she lamented. “Then I figured out that his CPA had miscategorized something. I pointed it out and stayed positive. He was so thankful that he sent me to every one of his friends! Within two weeks, I had to quit my ‘day job.’ “

Naming her consulting company, Accura Business Services Corporation, Theresa did not look back, (“it was a wave that took over me”).  She created a template that included both an external audit trail, and an internal audit trail.  She could modify it according to her client’s needs, and give them a workable system to use “I was very popular in the tooling industry but I also served landscape companies, libraries, restaurants, you name it.  I served over 200 companies, with their CPAs.  It was an education I would not have gotten at Harvard.  I saw companies that were wildly successful, and I saw why.  The inner workings of a company --- it’s a fascinating place to be.  I learned so much.”  

Theresa gave up her own company after the birth of her daughter, who suffered from the very rare “Caffey disease:” infantile cortical hyperostosis.  No insurance company would cover her daughter, so she accumulated significant debt.  To qualify for family health benefits, she took a job at the Help Desk at Macomb-Oakland Regional Center (https://www.morcinc.org ).  This turned out to be another karmic opportunity, since MORC had just become an official nonprofit, and was struggling to adhere to nonprofit financial requirements, and deal with Medicaid billing.  Theresa dove into their billing system, based on her recent experiences and her penchant for “just figuring things out.”  In 9 months, they stabilized the MORC processes; moved from their antiquated tape-to-tape system; and became the one of the first mental health non-profits in Michigan to fully automate their billing system. These advances helped MORC achieve $4 million above projected annual billings that year, due to the efficiencies built into the new program.

Theresa worked at MORC for 10 years, eventually becoming its Director, Applications and Data Management. Along the way, she became aware of data warehousing and its intrinsic benefits to any business or non-profit operation.  “It was this intriguing thing on the horizon,” she said. “I kept my ear to the ground.  Groups were forming. Very exciting time in technology!  Things began to emerge with the Data Warehouse Institute.”  To further explore that technology, Theresa moved to work at Oakland County Community Mental Health (https://www.occmha.org/ ), where new data warehouse initiatives were starting.  “I worked with one of the best database administrators ever,” she said. “He took on the ETL and programming piece.  I took on the mapping and definitions.  And then we incorporated dashboards and reports, and started delivering business intelligence to Oakland County.”   She saw this as her “perfect job,” a place where “we had fun, and worked hard.  There was a lot of respect; we became aware that the more we built each other up, the better we all were.  We were all successful.”  Simultaneously working as a consultant, Theresa took on a similar project at Saginaw County Mental Health, where she triumphantly demonstrated she could produce a single interactive report that comprised all the data requested from 12 different reports. Theresa was extremely complimented when the remark was made: “She gave me a report that I didn’t even know I could ask for!”

Eventually Theresa led an 11-person team responsible for state-of-the art business intelligence and billing systems for OCCMH.  After her daughter made it to her healthier teenage years, Theresa also went back to school at Baker College for her degree. “I have such fond memories.  It was exciting to be 48 years old, and immersed in college with a bunch of 20-year olds,” she said.  

She left OCCMH, (“it was time”) and enjoyed a period of “bopping around.”  As a contractor, she worked for Blue Care Network, an arm of Blue Care/Blue Shield of Michigan (https://www.bcbsm.com/ )  and then for Sun Communities (www.suncommunities.com ) , concentrating at both companies on business intelligence projects.  She migrated to Credit Acceptance Corporation (www.creditacceptance.com) as Manager, Data Warehouse (“they have a very sophisticated system; I was always learning.”).  From Credit Acceptance, she just recently moved to Beaumont Health System: “I feel like I am moving to an opportunity that was meant for me --- the impact for data analytics to have a positive effect on human lives.”

Theresa did experience a certain measure of harassment during her career. Because she was a contractor, “I had to learn how to manage misbehavior in a way that the perpetrator would still see me in a positive light. As I got older, I got more comfortable being a woman, as my professional expertise and reputation grew.  Sometimes, I would just wait for someone to get more comfortable.  I learned the art of demonstrating my capability.”

Theresa’s entrepreneurial advice to others considering starting businesses is multifaceted:  learn to delegate, “think bigger,” stay in learning mode, when you need to know something ask for help, and “when you hire somebody to do something, get out of their way.” Along the way, she saw companies falter because “they tended to micro-manage and they couldn’t get into the next thing.”  In addition, for any career, she strongly recommends that everyone get a variety of mentors to assist and guide them; and “learn how to speak with dignity and respect at all times. You can put exactly what you want out in the Universe fearlessly, and the possibilities present themselves.” Theresa is very emphatic about the importance of human cooperation.  “Collaboration skills are not identified or taught. How you frame things are so important to me.  I grade my staff on how well they collaborate.”

A consistent giver, Theresa does food drives for the Gleaners Community Food Bank (www.gcfb.org/ ).  As an open mic host, she also organizes two major fundraising events per year for multiple sclerosis.  Additionally, she works with the St. Vincent and Sara Fisher Center (https://www.svsfcenter.org/ ) to provide GED testing for people who cannot afford it (“a cause very dear to my heart”). Theresa defines her vision of perfect happiness as being with her grandchildren, and her guitar in a house on a lake (“surrounded by rainbows and unicorns”).

Please feel free to contact Theresa Ancick at tancick@gmail.com or on Twitter @DivaoftheData.

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Ep 54: Rita Barrios: Managing Massive Projects a Byte at A Time

Diva Tech Talk was honored to interview Dr. Rita Barrios, Chair for the Department of CyberSecurity & Information Systems, and Associate Professor, at the University of Detroit, Mercy (http://www.udmercy.edu/). The program graduates approximately 150 trained technology professionals each year. “When I first started, we only had 15 students,” Rita said. But her efforts have expanded the department to 10 times that size, over the last 3 years.  She accomplished that in a one-to-one sales role: “Hitting the pavement.  Going to high schools, and having ‘visit days’; talking with associated schools; passing out the business card at churches, and baseball games.”

In talking about her personal development, Rita said “My Dad was always my biggest supporter.” (She fondly thought of him, a military professional, when the hashtag #HeForShe recently prevailed in social media).  The 7th child of 8 siblings in her “very strict” family, Rita admitted that she was “a little on the geeky side” in her high school years.  She entered the Detroit College of Business, now a part of Davenport University (https://www.davenport.edu/ ‎), specializing in accounting, but decided on information systems as a second major, on the advice of an academic counselor. “I liked programming, and even the punch cards,” she laughed.  Rita soon dropped the accounting focus, and concentrated on her growing love of software and technology.  “I grew up in the field,” Rita simply stated. In her junior year she got married, and gave birth to a daughter during her senior year of college.  

Rita’s several internships during that senior year (when her daughter was 6 months old) were at the Grand Trunk Western Railroad (gtw.railfan.net/), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Canadian National Railway (https://www.cn.ca/).  After graduation, she became a full-time employee of the railroad, as a junior programmer.  Grand Trunk’s IT department was eventually bought by Compuware (www.compuware.com), and Rita was immediately promoted from junior programmer to project manager (“a huge leap”).  “As a young person coming out of college, you are taught about project management but you really have no experience,” Rita said, “managing humans, time, resources, and all the moving parts of a project.”

Rita’s first large challenge was a two-year international EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) project among three cross-border entities, automating the manifest for U.S. Customs to enable trains to cross borders without stopping. With no experience, Rita “just sort of figured it out.  I read a lot of books; I found a lot of people to help me; I asked a ton of questions. I was on the ‘bleeding edge’ of that, sitting on the board with the American Association of Railroads, and U.S. Customs.”  She credited her immediate management for empowering the leap into this next phase of her career. “My immediate supervisors were so good at lifting me up, and just throwing me into situations; letting me flounder, but letting me figure it out.  Anything we needed, they made sure we had.”  The secret to success was Rita’s penchant for digging into the details rather than becoming overwhelmed by the totality of the undertaking. “You don’t look at the mass of the project.  You look at what I need to get done today; what I need to get done tomorrow. I took it a bite (byte) at a time!”

Rita’s next step was as a Compuware contractor to Ford Credit (https://www.ford.com/finance) to maintain their legacy information systems as they rebuilt IT infrastructure. “I was only supposed to be there for a year, but I ended up being at Ford Credit for 14 years,” she said, operating under a variety of senior leadership teams and going from programmer to database analyst (DBA) to senior DBA, on both mainframe software and server software.  “We were a well-oiled machine,” she said. “Everybody knew their jobs, their roles, each other. There was trust.  If you could have the ‘poster child’ of a team, that would be it.” Rita continues to have a very strong admiration for mainframe implementations. “It has power and capabilities that I cannot get with a server-side system.”

During this timeframe, Rita obtained her Masters of Science in Information Systems, Software Assurance at the University of Detroit, Mercy; then later completed her PhD in information science, with a focus on security assurance and cybersecurity at Nova Southeastern University (http://www.nova.edu/), an innovator in online advanced education.

“An opportunity came where I could move to academia,” Rita said.  “Me being me, I said ‘sure, why not?’ That’s how I landed at Detroit, Mercy.”  Additionally, she received certifications from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg University, School of Public Health in data specialization, and a certificate in criminal justice and law enforcement from the FBI Detroit Citizens Academy.

A single mom for the last 14 years, (“there was no child support; there was nothing; it was all on me”) Rita is justifiably proud of her two children. “I have a daughter, 26, now working on her PhD in Material Engineering. And I have a son, 19, going into digital media and graphics arts.”   She acknowledged her influence on her progeny: “When you put a high value on education, and following your path, that is what you end up with. My daughter is a rocket scientist, who works for NASA and just had her first project launched to the International Space Station.  And my son is a fantastic artist.  He is already building Websites and Webpages, way beyond what I think I could ever do.”

Rita is very excited about her own cybersecurity field. “We teach is how to do investigations, how to do digital forensics/hacking. We cannot teach somebody how to protect the system, until we teach how it is broken into.  We partner with the Criminal Justice Program because you cannot have a crime without some digital piece to it, these days, and look at it from the criminal point of view. We also partner with the law school, talking about cyberlaw. We have the physical world laws, but a lot of the physical world laws don’t necessarily translate to the cyber universe. “

Rita’s specialty has spun off into a side business. She runs an IT training and education consultancy, RitaBarr LLC (www.ritabarr.com) specializing in corporate IT training, and she also partners with Mackinac Investigators on digital forensics investigations.   “At some point, I would like to grow the business.”  Ever-ambitious, Rita is looking forward to also moving to the “business side” of academia, at some point.  

Rita attributes her success to a few characteristics:

  • Workaholism: “I never shut it off.  I always have something cooking in my head.”

  • Being present at all times.  Balancing raising a family with her career, she learned how to partition mental challenges, and stay in the moment. Then “I give it a rest.”

  • Most importantly she said “I love watching people grow.  Mentoring is a strength.”

Along the way, Rita said that “I have always been the only female in the room.” As an example, “I presented research at the Department of Defense to a bunch of military people, who were all guys. It was intimidating. But my Dad gave me the tools to deal with that. Coming up through IT, I was the only female, but I have never felt like the only female. I was never discriminated against.” This feeling changed though “when I went to the University.”  There she experienced “over-talking, interruption, all of it.” (More about the “manterruption” phenomenon can be accessed here: http://www.lawjournalnewsletters.com/sites/lawjournalnewsletters/2016/01/31/at-the-intersectionmanterruption-redux/).  “I have been told by my colleagues that I better ‘know my place, young lady, ’ she lamented.  Rita recommended her approach to deal with this negative phenomenon. “I am very professional. I go into a very robotic mode, very stoic. I lay out the facts with no emotion. I plan what I am going to say.“

Rita’s focused leadership lessons/advice currently include:

  • “Spend time to get to know people. Find out their strengths, and where they belong.”

  • “Bring the best people around you; then get out of their way.”

  • “Stay flexible.”

  • “If you think about it --- that the project’s too big --- you will not achieve what you want to achieve. So, whatever comes, just take it in.”

  • “There is nothing you can’t overcome; nothing is impossible.”

And summing up: “There are no shortcuts.”  For Rita, success is always about hard work.

Finally “The best advice I can give a young person is to be open,” said Rita. “Don’t plan your path.  Let things happen to you.” She pointed to her own evolution. “I was blessed to find what interested to me. Opportunities come about.”

Please feel free to contact Rita Barrios at rita.barrios@udmercy.edu.

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Ep 53: Natalia Petraszczuk: Find a Need and Fill It

Diva Tech Talk hosted creative entrepreneur, Natalia Petraszczuk, founder/CEO of the new tech-empowered human-enhancement venture, VizBe (www.vizbe.com).  Natalia calls herself “a product of the Ukrainian community” in metropolitan Detroit, Michigan. “When you see hardworking immigrant family members bend over backwards to give the next generation opportunities, you begin to appreciate all the sacrifices and efforts made,” she exclaimed in homage to her grandparents and parents.

Focused initially on political science, Natalia’s undergraduate degree, from Michigan State University, was in International Relations.  Along the way, she worked with lobbying groups, on behalf of nonprofit organizations. Then “the political arena shifted a lot for me. I became less and less interested in that line of work,” she said.  In college, she took some basic computer skills courses, “because I wanted to stay competent” but “in a million years did not foresee myself in technology,” she said. “All the business skills that I learned had to be ‘on-the-job’ training.”

Natalia fed her own entrepreneurial urge through observation: “As I got older, I began to see more and more examples of people taking the plunge,” she said. “It appealed to me. My father always said: ‘When it comes to capitalism, you have to find a need and fill it’.  So, I kept my eyes open for opportunities.”  For the decade spanning her mid-twenties to mid-thirties, Natalia became “really passionate about self-development work --- learning skills and best practices that help you be the best version of yourself.”  What she realized from that intensive period was that “there was a big gap with technology as it related to self-development work.”

Since she is an expert in personal development, Natalia shared three progressive lessons:

  • “The answer is always within you.”  (Ignore external validation.) “Center yourself; look within.”

  • “You (your mind) are your biggest obstacle. Our brains are constantly on ‘overdrive.’ You have to consciously stop, and become aware of where you are focusing yourself. At least half the time, it’s negative or protective. That is usually not serving you. Create a habit of focusing on the positive.”

  • Then “Take time to truly connect with the best version of yourself.”  

Natalia endorses meditation, and envisioning a future ideal.  She recommends journaling, and creating a vision board, to focus on long-time goals, as practical tools in this endeavor. Taking those steps further, Natalia used them to establish VizBe.  “VizBe has pivoted a few times,” she said, “which is totally normal in the startup space.”  

Initially focused on consumer-oriented solutions, Natalia observed people manually crafting vision boards, and thought “why aren’t people using technology?” to build them. VizBe’s first product concepts were Web-based and mobile applications to facilitate vision board creation. By extension, Natalia conceived an eCommerce extension “where you could print the vision board to a whole host of products --- like your coffee mug, or your journal cover.” She also foresaw a person “having a regular engagement with that image.”  This would eliminate the issue of forgetting about the vision you created, and maintaining the discipline to use it, consistently, for self-motivation.

Based on market research, Natalia eventually determined her best primary audience for these products was not the individual consumer but companies and organizations, who could use VizBe solutions to enhance the lives of their staff members/employees. So VizBe launched as a “software and services company that helps engage employees through a goal setting program.”  The company also offers account management services and coaching support to ensure goal achievement and measurable self-improvement for an organization’s team members.  

As the non-technical founder, of a technology-centered company, Natalia had some revelations. “All technology’s not the same, all coding and development is not the same. There is a big difference between ‘back-end’ and ‘front-end’ development,” for example. And “the biggest challenge with technology is that it is always changing.” She is encouraged by the fact that “there’s a lot of resources, now; even boot camps that non-technical founders can take.”   First using a single coding expert to develop its prototype applications, VizBe eventually outsourced development to bigger firms to scale solutions to meet the needs of the B-to-B market.  Natalia also engaged in constant competitive analysis.

VizBe’s solutions are applicable to all vertical markets, according to Natalia. “We work with employers to have their employees set goals for the next 10 years of their lives --- not just professional goals, but goals for their ‘whole selves’.  The platform helps draw out their answers, and helps create action plans and accountability within the workplace. It creates relationship-building; it creates loyalty to the company, because you are treating the employee as a whole person. When you shift that conversation, it results in tremendous loyalty, and retention, as well as higher productivity.”

In summing up VizBe’s value proposition, “ultimately what it comes down to is truly adding value to people’s lives,” she said, “helping them get clarity on their future; helping them stay connected to that.   A lot of us set those New Year’s resolutions, have goals inside our hearts and minds.  But what happens is we get really distracted. “  Moving forward, Natalia’s goal is for VizBe to be acquired by a bigger entity, in the future. “We’ve been bootstrapping. And I have gotten some investors,” she said. “But it’s been really scrappy. I would love to see us expand nationally. We also have intentions to pursue the B-to-C market for the consumer.”

She commented on being a woman in the startup world. “It’s clear that there’s a ‘gender gap’,” in the entrepreneurial community,” according to Natalia.  “I end up working with mostly men.” As a woman start-up owner, she said that “there are times it opens up doors. But people are used to being comfortable --- whatever the norm is for them.  Obviously, we know that male business leadership is the norm that most people have grown up with.  Sometimes people shy away,” she said, referring to female leaders.  “I try not to take it, personally. I choose to focus on what’s important to me and just persevere.”

To nourish women-led startups, Natalia recommended regional programs for budding women entrepreneurs, including those offered by Inforum (https://inforummichigan.org/), and The Michigan Women’s Foundation (www.miwf.org).  Natalia’s advice for other women leaders is “keeping focused and simplifying is a key part of success.”  And remember to persist. “There are days you are not going to want to get out of bed, but there will be other days when it will be the best day of your life!   It will an emotional rollercoaster if you follow the entrepreneurial path, but you are not alone.”

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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.”

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.”

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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