Thursday, September 08, 2005

Perseverance Pays, a Life Lesson

Mary Ann Elliott has a story she likes to tell when she speaks to women’s groups.

When Motorola first established a policy opening jobs to women and minorities, she applied for a job selling wireless phones. But she faced tough resistance from the regional manager in Norfolk responsible for hiring.

At the interview, he laid out reasons why she would not be a good hire – he’d never hired a woman for this position before, and he was not sure women could handle calling on customers at client sites he thought were inhospitable to women. Finally, when he said he had to worry about what his employees’ wives would feel if their husbands worked so closely with a woman, “he had dug at me enough to where I got up out of my chair and I got right in his face and I said you can’t hire me or any other woman on the basis of what your employees’ wives will feel. And then I sat down,” she declares, obviously enjoying the memory.

“I learned a valuable lesson. Is your objective to win the battle or the war? …I won that battle, hundred percent, but I lost the war, because I didn’t get that job.”

She reapplied and was rejected again. Refusing to give up, she wrote to the Chairman of Motorola’s Board introducing herself and describing her dismal experience in applying for a position with Motorola and trying to get hired.

She got that job.

That was in 1978. Mary Ann was a widow in her early thirties with three children and an 8th grade education. Her previous job was selling World Book Encyclopedias door-to-door.

Now, she is President and CEO of McLean based Arrowhead Global Solutions, Inc., which she founded in 1991, an industry expert in mobile satellite and international private satellite networks who has received many awards and serves on numerous boards, and a grandmother.

Arrowhead, spread across 13 US states and three international locations, started out providing satellite and terrestrial telecommunication networks, and diversified into information technology and professional services. “Today, Arrowhead focuses on the convergence of telecommunications and information technology,” says Mary Ann and caters to both the government and the private sector.

With a diverse workforce of 200 and $66 million in revenues in 2003 (and a revenue goal of $100 million for 2004), it counts among its clients the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, and the Defense Information Systems Agency, and was recently named a winner of the Fantastic 50 Award instituted by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

Her determination and “bull-headedness”, as she describes it, an abiding love for technology, her business acumen (inherited from her father who ran a roadside mini-supermarket and extended credit to the community), and a “quitter never wins and a winner never quits” attitude (instilled by her mother), have been major contributors to her success.

After three years at Motorola, she realized that promotions were going only to the men. So she quit and successfully started a small business, but sold it after nine months, unable to manage it and care for her three young children and her foster children.

She joined a satellite communications company and worked at several other companies thereafter, constantly expanding her knowledge of technology – from radio technology to satellite communications and navigation to global positioning systems. She traveled the world, training dealers in the technology and was soon considered an expert. “When you’re on the cutting edge of technology, there are not a whole lot of people who can challenge you,” she says with a laugh.

Although she was successful at each company, “I also realized … that without a degree, I was always going to hit the glass ceiling. I was in a man’s world and I lacked the formal qualifications that senior management liked to see in people.” She survived five mergers in eight years, but no matter how high she had managed to rise in her previous company, in the eyes of each successive management, “I was just a nobody again. So…I just decided, well, I’ll go try this on my own, not knowing how hard it would be….”

With a $20,000 investment, and no salary for the first two years (she only drew out expenses), Mary Ann founded Arrowhead (named in honor of her Tuscarora Native Indian heritage), in the basement of her home, to provide satellite communications to the military following Operation Desert Storm. The company introduced the military to the commercial satellite marketplace and enabled it to bring voice, data and video communications back into the US.

Although now, 98 percent of her business comes from the federal government, the toughest obstacle she faced when she started was that she did not understand the federal acquisition rules. “I made so many mistakes and the lessons were painful and very expensive.”

She talked to other businesswomen in federal contracting, eventually figured out the marketplace and pursued the lost bids. She learned the rules, lobbied to have portions of the contracts reserved for small businesses, and when they came up for bid again (in one case, almost nine years after she had first lost), she won the contracts. “That was a real crowning achievement,” and one of the best memories of her 13 years with the company.

Along with these achievements, there also have been painful episodes such as the time Arrowhead had to reorganize and let people go.

Even with these ups and downs, “the thrill of the conquest of winning a major program,” her daily bible reading and exercise, and being acknowledged for all the things Arrowhead has achieved, keep her wanting to come to work everyday.

She also relies on inspirational stories – of former prisoners of war and missionaries who defeated incredible odds with their belief and hope in something beyond themselves – to survive the tough phases.

They help her understand when she’s having “problems on a bad day, it’s just another day. The sun will come out tomorrow.”


This was one of five articles on women-owned businesses that I wrote for my local newspaper in Northern Virginia, The Springfield Times.


Anonymous said...

Hi Sujatha. Your posts are becoming compulsory (compulsive?) reading for me. This story of Mary Ann Elliot is nothing short of inspirational! Also, being a latent entrepreneur, I pray such stories will provide sufficient motivation for me to make the following saying come true "The worm turns!" LOL! Seriously, I went through Arrowhead's Executive Team and felt momentary pride, if justifiable, that 2 of them seem to have Indian connections! Great story...more, more, more!!!!
PS: Mrs. Sudha Murty was the first lady executive at TISCO ( or was is TELCO?) you know and she had to similarly convince Mgmt to appoint her. Eshtu co-incidence, allva?

Sujatha Bagal said...

Ravi:Thanks. Yes, I am aware of that Sudha Murthy story. Stuff of legends, their guts and perseverance. I plan to post the other 4 (one of them was a state-of-women-owned businesses type of article) at intervals in the future.

Uma: Welcome!

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Yes, I do know Rashmi Shetty. She left for Chennai just as I started. Thank you for pointing out her blog to me.

gawker said...

Ah. So you are a professional writer. I should have guessed.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Freelancing is more like it Gawker. Purely as and when I find time type of things. But I will take it as a compliment.:))

Lubna said...

Hi Sujatha
Nice post, very nice blog. Even today such discrimination takes place. Why? Because the employer believes that once a girl will get married she will quit the job. And I am talking about entry level jobs in professional services firms. There is a lot of hesitance. I am sure if there are two candidates both of which are equally good, the male candidate wins.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Hi Lubu,

Welcome! Thanks for visiting and commenting. I think firms are now beginning to move away from that kind of thinking. The problem is very far away from being fixed though. Unless firms start thinking about the larger social issues (motherhood, parenting pressures, childcare, etc.) rather than just about their bottom-line, this will continue happening.