Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part interview.
Profile at-a-glance: www.localtechwire.com/article.cfm?u=3594 Darleen Johns is a pioneer In several ways.
Not only did she start one of the state’s pure “technology plays” with Alphanumeric, but she also was one of the first women to play a prominent role in the high-tech sector.
In a recent discussion with Local Tech Wire, Johns talked about the challenges she faced as a woman in the field. She also stressed the importance of “giving back” to her community and home state.
What challenges did you face as a woman in beginning Alphanumeric?
I think a lot of the challenges I faced as a woman when I started Alphanumeric were related to issues of credibility in that there obviously weren’t a lot of other woman doing what I was doing in the field of technology. I think there was an assumption that to be a real resource to clients in a technical field you had to be a man.
When I first started the business, I’d go in to talk to a client with a male account rep, and I’d take the more “traditional” female position behind the keyboard to demonstrate the product. Back then a lot of clients did gravitate more toward a male sales rep, but I was there to make a sale…which I did…so that was okay with me. Eventually my name became synonymous with Alphanumeric and technology expertise. Some of my very first clients were military bases — and I guess when I was able to convince them that I was the “real thing,” that was a big achievement.
I think it helped too that I’ve always wanted people to do business with me because my product or service is genuinely better than the competitions’ … not just because I’m female. I think that’s critical … you have to be the best at what you do.
Were those challenges similar to what other women faced at that time in IT?
I’m sure other women in the IT field had to face similar challenges in establishing their credibility, but truthfully, there really weren’t that many of us around at the time to make a good comparison. Actually, I believe there were two of us (both in North Carolina) in the country when I started Alphanumeric.
I do think that there are probably a lot of women who faced even more serious challenges than I did in establishing a successful business…things like financing and institutional barriers to entry that I didn’t have to deal with.
With the constant support of my husband Robert, who was always my greatest fan, I was very fortunate … I felt like I could achieve anything I put my mind to, and in many respects I did just that.
How have things changed today–do women still face challenges?
Of course women still face challenges, more so probably in what have been traditionally technical fields. Having said this, tremendous strides have been made for women over the past 20 years. I think there are certainly fewer challenges of establishing credibility in order to overcome a perceived stereotype in the workplace.
I also think that now there are a lot of women in positions of power in virtually every occupation imaginable. If these women are anything like me, I’m sure they work hard to ensure that the women on their teams or in their companies have real opportunities for advancement and growth…both professionally and personally.
I think we’re also reaching a point where nearly everyone in the American workforce has seen the genuine contributions of the women around them, and many sincerely embrace what women are bringing to the table.
What are your secrets to success?
If I had one secret of success, it’s that I really do my work from the heart. I used to say I’ve always tried to treat people the way I’d want to be treated, but in this diverse day and age, I’d change that a bit to say my goal is to “treat others as they want to be treated.”
Making this a reality requires a whole new level of communication between companies and their clients as well as between co-workers in the office. It takes a real commitment to do more than lip service to this type of “relationship culture,” but I’m living proof that it works. Of course it gives you a genuine feeling of satisfaction from having helped people, but those people also have a loyalty back to you…personally and professionally. You can’t go wrong if taking care of people is your primary motivation.
What are you doing now in terms of giving back?
At Alphanumeric, I’ve really turned the reins of day-to-day operations over to Steve Chase, our Executive Vice President. I keep my finger on the pulse of the people though…they call it the “cushy chair” and it’s my version of an open door policy. I have two wing-back chairs in my office and as my employees walk by, I usually call them in to sit down and just chat with them for a minute about how things are going. I want them to know they can come to me, and that if something’s not right, I’ll make it right.
It’s also given me time to devote to the causes I’m involved in both in the community and professionally. I sit on the Executive Boards of North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry (NCCBI) and the North Carolina Electronics and Information Technologies Association (NCEITA), and the boards of Capital Bank, Rex Healthcare, and the Capital City Club. In the community, I’ve been heavily involved with the Pines of Carolina Girls Scouts, the 4-H, the Women’s Club, and was on the Board of Directors for the last Special Olympics World Games…I provided technology resources for that event.
I also spend quite a bit of time giving back to state government. In the past, I’ve worked on the Lieutenant Governor’s Technology Advisory Council, the North Carolina Economic Development Board, the North Carolina Efficiency and Loophole Closing Commission, the North Carolina Legislative Joint Select Committee on Information Technology, and the Historically Underutilized Business Advisory Council. Right now I’m involved in the Governor’s Commission to Promote Efficiency and Savings on State Spending. I keep pretty busy.
Part One: The Founding of Alphanumeric – www.localtechwire.com/article.cfm?u=3583