One Female Tech Entrepreneur’s Unconventional Path to the CEO Suite

Don Tennant
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Think about the typical tech entrepreneur story: A bright young person graduates from the likes of MIT or Stanford, settles in Silicon Valley, and eventually transforms an innovative idea into a lucrative business with customers all over the world. Now, turn that scenario on its head. Welcome to Matrix Integration

Matrix is not in Silicon Valley. It’s in Jasper, in the hills of southern Indiana, with locations up in Fishers, Ind., and in Louisville, Ky., on the other side of Hoosier National Forest. It was co-founded by Brenda Stallings, whose early ventures — a music store and a Radio Shack franchise — blossomed into a computer business and a communications business that merged in 1997 to form Matrix Integration. Stallings, who has only a high school education, is the CEO. Today, Matrix, a family-owned business, is a Certified Women’s Business Enterprise and a successful IT services provider in the region.

In an interview last week, Stallings spoke about her unconventional path to the tech CEO suite, an unconventionality that is reflected in her LinkedIn profile. In the “Education” section, Stallings cites her “Degree of Life Experiences & Success, Entrepreneurship, Lifetime,” awarded by the “School of Life in Entrepreneurship.” I asked her about that fictitious degree and institution, and she explained the significance of it this way:

I have been told so many times in my career that my way of thinking is different, and when I explained that I don’t have a college education, everybody would come back and say a college education only gives you some parameters — it doesn’t make you a success. I guess I finally concluded that my life experience in growing a company, from the time I was 19 years old till now, that is my college. That is the schoolbook from which I’ve learned — the vendors, the clients, and all the other people. So I feel it’s those life experiences that have made me a good entrepreneur. It’s about hard work and dedication — my education is my life and entrepreneurship.

Stallings’s career path merged early on with that of Dan Fritch, the co-founder and now the COO of Matrix. I found it interesting that Fritch has an associate’s degree in business administration, in that neither he nor Stallings has a technology-related academic background. So how did the two of them gain the IT knowledge and skills that enabled them to start and lead a successful IT services company? Stallings said it all has to do with an appreciation for processes and a passion for learning:

I’ve always believed that you have to hire people smarter than you are — you have to have good people and good processes. We’ve never gone down the ISO 9000 path, but I’ve been told that the way we handle our processes, with the documentation and so forth, we could be ISO 9000-certified. I grew up in a family of 10 kids living on a farm, sharing and helping each other, and with that many kids, we had to have a process — certain people have to do certain things. I learned more from that than I ever realized early in my career. Dan and I just had a passion for learning and working hard.

The fact that I have a high school education didn’t keep me from learning. That desire to always want to keep learning is what has driven me, and Dan, as well. It’s not just about the money — my goal has always been to build a team, to empower people so that if something happened to me tomorrow, the business wouldn’t fall apart.

I asked Stallings if she could have one do-over since co-founding Matrix Integration, what it would be. She noted that it has only been in the last two years that she’s had an outside advisory board, and that she should have had one long before that:

It doesn’t have to be a full-fledged fiduciary board, although it can grow into that. As a family business, we’re part of the Family Business Center affiliated with the University of Louisville, and they’ve asked me to sit on their board. They brought up the idea of an advisory board six years ago, but I really didn’t get it. Now, I would tell anybody to have an outside advisory board — not your CPA or your lawyer — people who really understand business, who understand your industry, the markets you serve. I wish I had done that way back, 20 years ago.

Finally, I asked Stallings what challenges she has confronted as the co-founder and CEO of a family-owned business. She said her perception early on was totally different from reality:

I guess as a founder, you think differently than the next generation. It’s important to start early to have family discussions. What is the family vision? What does the family want out of the business? It’s totally different from what I, as the founder, wanted out of the business. You have to be on the same page, because at some point there’s an exit strategy. But your kids are sometimes working with you 15 or 20 years before you exit. So putting together a family council, and having those family discussions to talk about the business early and often, is important.

And also setting down the guidelines — your code of conduct. I think the biggest thing in the family is their behaviors. The behavior of family members can be different from the behavior of other employees. So you need to set down that business behavior, and you need that code of conduct to keep everybody level-set. And you need to talk about it early, before you bring them on. The outside advisory board helps that a lot.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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