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Technology

On top in tech

Few women work in the tech sector, and fewer lead the companies. Five female tech leaders in the bay area talk about issues that include patronizing attitudes, isolation and balancing career and family.

By DAVE GUSSOW
Published May 7, 2006


[Times photos: Cherie Diez]
Leigh Haller leans on Brightness Acuity Testers, produced by her company.
Jana Wiggins, president and CEO of Document Advantage Corp. of Tampa.
Janet L. Kumpu, CEO and president of Fortress Technologies of Oldsmar.
Pam Kauten, founder and president of PEAK Connections Inc. and Florida CareerLINK.com.
Pat Dominguez, president of Triage Partners of Tampa.

Pat Dominguez still boils when she tells the bank story.

Out of town and with a secured line of credit, Dominguez, president of Triage Partners, needed to transfer funds to make payroll at her technology staffing and services company in Tampa.

The bank hit her with what she calls a hefty charge. She complained when she got home.

"(The banker) looked at me (and said), 'We don't manage your checkbook for you,' " Dominguez said. "Do you think he would have said that to a guy?"

For Dominguez, it's just one example of what women who work in the tech sector face. But it is not the only issue: unfriendly corporate cultures, professional isolation, juggling careers and family responsibilities. Few women work in technology, and even fewer rise to the top at tech companies.

The Tampa Bay region is no exception. An informal survey found a baker's dozen companies led by women.

Some female tech executives who lead their companies are entrepreneurs who happened to find opportunity in technology. Others always had an interest in technology. All have faced challenges in a male-dominated industry.

According to a study by the University of New Hampshire, female-owned companies account for 8.7 percent of those seeking angel investments, though a third of those were successful.

In 1989, Carolyn Leighton started Women in Technology International (WITI) because, she says, women were going through agonizing experiences in their jobs. Some things have improved, Leighton says: a tight information technology job market that is creating opportunities; more mentoring, including corporate programs; more awareness about how much women contribute to a business' success; more networking.

The Tampa Bay Technology Forum, for example, has 150 participants in its Executive Women's Network who gather to hear presentations on issues of interest and to network.

WITI, whose motto is "build, empower, inspire," began as an e-mail networking organization for women in technology. It has more than 100,000 members. And even with some progress, many of the same issues that confronted women 17 years ago still exist.

"With our knowledge and capabilities and our talent, we don't have to feel like or be victims," Leighton said.

Five women who lead technology companies in the bay area shared their experiences and thoughts about women and technology. In an interesting side note, those interviewed were not aware of some of the others in the region.

* * *

Pam Kauten, founder and president of PEAK Connections Inc. and Florida CareerLINK.com of Clearwater

Pam Kauten views herself as a pioneer, but not because she's an executive in the technology field.

Kauten was an early organizer of career fairs when she worked for others, then decided she could do better on her own. That led her to start Florida

CareerLINK, which she initially considered just a job center. "We're definitely a tech company," said Kauten, 47, the president. "We're one of the dot-coms that have not failed and that keep producing and have been around for nine years."

One thing hasn't changed: Kauten sees neither advantage nor disadvantage to being a female tech exec, except when it comes to money.

"I used my own money to start the business," she said. "I have noticed there is an issue being a female trying to get money for second stage."

She has had to juggle work and personal life, including running a company while her husband was terminally ill.

"When I look back in my rearview mirror, I can't believe I did that," Kauten said. "How did I handle the stress?"

After her husband died, it made her reassess priorities. Kauten had wanted to take CareerLINK national, but scrapped those plans to focus closer to home.

"I had dreams of being a public company," she said. "When I saw this young man die, life is very important to me. You just look at what's important."

Kauten considers herself a compassionate boss, but quickly notes that she has worked for men who were just as caring about their employees.

"I make sure that family comes first and then the company comes next," Kauten said. "That's very important to give my employees the flexibility."

* * *

Pat Dominguez, president of Triage Partners of Tampa

Pat Dominguez had more than one bad experience with a banker.

It wasn't the only slight at the hands of a banker. Another one kept looking at Dominguez's male chief financial officer for answers during a meeting. It's part of how Dominguez, 56, says she has had to deal with the gender issue in the technology field.

In the '80s, when she started, she was mistaken for a staff member or secretary. The field was -- and still is -- dominated by men.

"I think it's changed," Dominguez said. "But when I talk to people, I don't think it's been as significant as it should have been."

Not including contract workers, Dominguez has five employees. All women. "One guy said to me, 'You have all women working here,'" Dominguez said. "I told him, 'You have all men. Do you get the point?' So why is that so odd? No one thinks it's odd if (a company's) all male with one woman."

Dominguez has consulted with women who have approached her for information because of her position. "I have not done it in a formalized fashion," Dominguez said. "Now I'm feeling guilty."

* * *

Leigh Haller, president of Haller Industries of Tampa

Leigh Haller puts her middle name, Ann, on her business card to avoid any confusion.

"People assume I'm a male," said Haller, 37, president of Haller Industries in Tampa, which manufacturers electronics for other companies.

And they react to the idea that she's a woman running an electronics company. "Even in a room full of women (during introductions), everybody kind of looks at me sideways. They just don't know what to do because it's so unusual."

Growing up, Haller always had an interest in science and attended an all-girls school from kindergarten through 12th grade. "I was never told I couldn't do anything," Haller said. "It was a very encouraging environment for girls."

She initially studied engineering in college, but later changed to geology, another male-dominated field, when she didn't think engineering was right for her.

Haller says she probably handles her job differently than her father, who had to relinquish the top job at the company he started because of health problems. He still works with her.

"I feel I do a good job getting to know my customers a little bit better," Haller said. "My dad didn't spend much time on developing relationships. I think very differently than he does and approach things differently than he does."

The company has 14 employees, many of them women, which is coincidence, Haller says. And she's working with a professional women's group to help mentor girls and women.

"I think it's really important to have people to emulate and also to discuss career choices with," she said.

* * *

Jana Wiggins, president and CEO of Document Advantage Corp. of Tampa

For Jana Wiggins, it's the look she gets when she tells people that she runs a software company.

"When I'm networking, when I'm meeting people for the first time and they ask what I do, it is very obvious that they're surprised," said Wiggins, 43, chief executive of Document Advantage Corp.

With an MBA from Tulane, technology was a business opportunity, not a calling for Wiggins. She's in charge of the vision and strategy to sell clients on the idea of electronic document management. Her husband is the chief technology officer.

As a couple, working 80 hours a week, they share personal and professional goals. If they were working for different companies, she's not sure it would work.

Because of her gender, Wiggins thinks she has to work a little harder to gain the credibility she needs for herself and her company.

"You have to prove yourself and prove you can lead a company as well as your male counterparts," she said.

Access, or lack thereof, comes up repeatedly as an issue: access to mentors, to information, to policymakers, to investors.

The company normally has eight to 11 employees, including two other women. Wiggins recently hired a woman for one of her development teams and offered to give the woman a separate office, which she declined.

"She really thrives on being an equal with them," Wiggins said.

Wiggins will take mentoring and advice from any peer she can find.

"The ideal networking opportunities are not there, so you make the best of what you have," Wiggins said. "I think it will be a long time before there's an actual networking group of women CEOs in technology."

* * *

Janet Kumpu, president and CEO, Fortress Technologies

Janet Kumpu planned a day of golf with three men when she worked in the United Kingdom. But she didn't get past the rules: No women allowed on the course.

Kumpu lost that round, a problem she says shows up more in international situations than in the United States. But she has maneuvered the minefield of the tech industry to become president and CEO of Fortress Technologies in Oldsmar.

"It probably was more of a challenge getting yourself into the good ol' boys network," Kumpu said. "In any business or industry, relationships are extremely important … in how successful you can be."

Kumpu, 41, spent 10 years at Digital Equipment Corp. before moving nine years ago to Fortress, which specializes in security for wireless systems. The opportunity at a smaller company (not to mention Florida's mild winters) outweighed a corporate structure with less room to grow.

Of Fortress' 95 employees, roughly 10 percent are women. They have a monthly luncheon with Kumpu to talk, part of Kumpu's open management style where she encourages people to speak freely. "I think I always have a desire to see other women succeed," Kumpu said.

Gender isn't the only issue women may face as they move up in their careers. "There are still a lot of folks who feel if you're not 50 with gray hair, you shouldn't be leading a company," Kumpu said.

As the mother of an almost 4-year-old daughter, and dealing with the added responsibilities of being promoted to CEO this spring, Kumpu tries to balance work and home responsibilities. One recent week, she flew from Tampa to Washington, D.C, to Arizona, and home within four days. She arrived home at 2:30 p.m. and was at her daughter's first dance recital at 4:30 p.m. and later spent more time with her.

"I've always considered myself something of a workaholic," Kumpu said. "I really try to minimize the work I bring home at night and on weekends. That's a balance I didn't have before I had a child. As a parent, you'd love to spend all your time with your children. You have just a few hours."

[Last modified May 10, 2006, 16:51:33]


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