Editor’s note: Each Tuesday, Local Tech Wire features either an interview with an executive who has demonstrated glass ceilings in the tech business can be broken or examines issues confronting women and minority entrepreneurs. This week, Jennifer Tilden interviews one of the region’s better known female executives, Susan Acker. Susan Acker has just returned from an eight-day sailing trip to the Florida Keys as prepares to talk shop with a writer. But this was no relaxing executive vacation.
Acker spent her time working in very close quarters with 25 other women as a crew member aboard a sailboat. She selected this trip as a component in her personal learning and development plan — something she has set for herself after being awarded the William C. Friday Fellowship for Human Relations last fall.
“Becoming a good leader is an ongoing process – you never arrive. When you think you’ve arrived it’s a warning sign,” Acker says.
So why would the chief executive officer of a company (Blue 292) want to play sailor?
“I am in a constant struggle for balance,” she says. “After 2 Â½ years engaged in building a high-growth company, I haven’t had any time for a vacation.
“I wanted the experience of servant leadership. I spent a week in no leadership role at all, simply serving as a crewmember.
“I also wanted an experience that would keep me completely disconnected from the day to day stuff and give me some time for reflection. And, I always wanted to learn how to sail.”
She also hopes the trip will improve her own leadership skills.
“Becoming a good leader is an ongoing process – you never arrive. When you think you’ve arrived it’s a warning sign,” she says.
But Acker says they were too busy during the excursion to have any time for sitting and reflecting. “We had several service projects throughout the trip-like going to various islands where we had 15 minutes to stop and visually clean as much trash as we could before setting sail again.”
Renewing her commitment
And, ironically, Acker says the trip made her feel more connected to her work.
The company’s name, Blue292, is the technical designation for the color of the unpolluted sky. Its logo is an idealized earth, covered with clean water, and surrounded by clear blue sky, so it is no surprise that after seven days in market her company’s technology services, Acker feels a deeper sense of purpose for her business.
“I was out in the environment the entire time. I was experiencing the water and marine life of the Florida Keys, sitting under the moon, the stars and the blue sky. I was very connected to my environment and it made me think about the connection to Blue 292. Environmentalists have this vision of cleaning up the world and our technology is related to that, but I realized what we do just a fraction. There’s this personal human commitment to keeping the planet clean and this experience was a good reminder for me that our work is not done. It also reminded me that the work we do at Blue 292 is powerful.”
Blue 292, which acquired competitor Caribou Systems in January, develops enterprise applications and services for environmental health and safety.
Acker says she returned form the trip “extraordinarily rejuvenated, balanced and soul nourished”, and from the business perspective she felt “very clear about my work and raring to go.”
Lemonade out of a lemon
The past year has been replete with learning experiences for the pleasant but hard-driving CEO. After securing several marquis clients and raising close to $20 million in venture capital, Acker says she made some “very strong decisions in early 2001 to hunker down and ride out the storm” that pummeled high tech. When it passed, Blue 292 had survived but had lost (or rather, cut) 55 people along the way, while also managing its burn rate and its customers as well as developing its products.
In addition, following the tragedy of September 11 of last year, Blue292 responded with the initiation of “Operation Safe Plan”, which allows select airports and airlines access to its cutting-edge emergency planning and response management application. The company offered the technology free of charge.
“Last year was very arduous and difficult”, says Acker, “but we are very pleased with the maturation of our company and its products. I think we took a lemon of a year and made lemonade. We validated that we were a real business and now we can back up why we raised all that venture capital. This year, we are focusing on generating revenue, building the business and merger and acquisition opportunities. Our two main goals for this year are to become cash flow positive and to be very client focused. ”
Acker also sees evidence of sunnier skies and smoother sailing are ahead.
“The phones are ringing again for the first time in about 14 months with top investors inquiring about us. We’re not seeking to raise any money before the end of this year, if at all but it feels good to see the activity. Our focus now is on proving ourselves and our product.”
Her business advice?
“There’s nothing harder than getting that first client, but once you have, you need to always remember how much you invested in getting them. Build your technology, then service the heck out of your clients. By getting them on board, you not only make a company commitment, you make a personal commitment. Never forget how important the customer is.”
Her thoughts on leadership?
“To use the sailing analogy, in business, the winds change direction quickly and storms roll in and out unexpectedly. You have a responsibility as a leader and as a part of the crew to keep things together and moving forward — the same as when the wind as at your back. You always need to be able to move and change quickly.”