According to a recent study conducted by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, women entrepreneurs have started less than 10 percent of the high-growth technology startups. Women are also less likely than men to raise capital through venture capital, private equity, and angel investors; women raised 70 percent less than men when accessing capital through those channels. Desiring a higher percentage of women tech founders is not merely paying diversity lip service. Women-led companies are generally more capital-efficient and have lower failure rates. Thus Vidya Ravichandran, president of GlowTouch Technologies, serves as a great role model of how to succeed as a female tech founder.
GlowTouch Technologies is an information technology service provider whose core services include application and mobile development, technology support, and remote infrastructure management support. They are also venturing into back-end development for new, emerging cloud-based platforms, such as Amazon Web Services. GlowTouch employs 30 people in Louisville and over 900 people in India. In addition to winning the Greater Louisville Inc. EnterpriseCorp Hot Dozen award in 2010, GlowTouch has made it on Inc.’s list of the 500/5000 fastest-growing private companies in America for the past four years.
Prior to founding GlowTouch, Ravichandran was employed as the director of business development at National Processing Company.
“When I joined the NPC team, I knew nothing about payment processing,” said Ravichandran. “It was a completely different world. I ended up moving to five different jobs [within the company] over four years. I moved from webmaster to e-commerce product manager to business development to [mergers and acquisitions] work.”
While Ravichandran was gaining business experience at her job at NPC, she and her husband, Vik Chadha, a serial entrepreneur, were pursuing their initial entrepreneurial endeavors in the evenings.
“We would finish work, come home, and then start working on our companies,” said Ravichandran. “He had one, I had one, and we had one together.”
Although they were unable to turn these early startup attempts into scalable businesses, they learned a great deal.
“We naturally gravitated towards technology and Web-based startups because it’s what we know best,” said Ravichandran. “We tried to do something Web-based in the arts domain. We found very quickly that you have to be a domain expert to succeed.”
When Ravichandran was expecting her first child, she re-evaluated her busy schedule.
“I was already working 60 to 70 hours,” said Ravichandran. “And my regular 9-to-5 job was taking up so much time. I was traveling a lot…I thought it might be a good time to focus seriously on my own startup. My initial target was $2,000 a month. All I wanted was to cover my mortgage. At that point in time, it was not about the money. If I could cover my mortgage, I could quit my day job and spend time raising my child.”
One reason for her early success was fortuitous timing. Ravichandran’s brother, Hari Ravichandran, founded a tech startup in Boston, Massachusetts.
“They had received funding, but had burned through all of their [venture capital] money,” said Ravichandran. “They were looking to get somebody to help them take on the additional work so they could keep costs down and stay alive. That’s when I stepped in. He wanted me to provide tech support to his organization. So I brought on three support people who answered trouble tickets.”
As demand for her services grew rapidly, Ravichandran found herself playing too many roles within her new startup.
“For a long time, I did everything: project management, customer support – I literally was on the phone all day answering customer support questions – account manager, salesperson, finance person, accountant,” said Ravichandran.
So Ravichandran decided to sell her company to another company in town.
“I sold it to them because they had a local team of 10 to 15 employees,” said Ravichandran. “They were missing the scale of development and I was missing a local presence. So we came together. I was with them for about three years as their employee.”
For many entrepreneurs, negotiating the sale of their company is their exit strategy. However, GlowTouch continued to grow and ultimately outgrew the scope of the initial arrangement Ravichandran had negotiated. As a result, she arranged to buy back her company.
“I took private equity to buy my company back,” said Ravichandran. “You do need to find the right private equity partners. That’s challenging, but there are lots of places to go to find information about the reputation of the [private equity] people. There’s probably more fear than is warranted because of a lack of understanding of the ecosystem.”
In May of 2012, Ravichandran negotiated a buyout of the private equity partners to regain full, majority share of GlowTouch.
“Everyone was delighted,” said Ravichandran. “They made their significant return on the investment and we got to keep the company and continue to grow it.”
Ravichandran’s biggest challenge now is finding enough local talent.
“It’s easier to find employees in other places, truly, than it is in Louisville,” said Ravichandran. “And that’s highly frustrating. We have open positions for high-end IT skills that require a lot of hands-on development experience, but also good client management experience. I know it exists. The challenge for us has been these types of people find themselves at well-established companies and they stay there.”
This is a commonly vocalized frustration among local tech founders. One proposed solution is the Code Louisville Fellowship Initiative that provides 30 weeks of free computer programming classes at Jefferson Community and Technical College, 20 weeks of which include paid part-time training with Code Louisville sponsors. The goal is to prepare people for entry level full-time programming jobs.
GlowTouch Technologies is a sponsor of the program and Ravichandran acknowledges that it’s a good start to solving the problem. However, it doesn’t solve her immediate need.
“I think what we need to do is extend Code Louisville to more mid-career people, put the right incentives in front of them, and provide an adequate feeling of security,” said Ravichandran. “There are other cool, stable places to work for.”
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-Grace Simrall, @Greendrv
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