Channeling Power: Women Band Together in the Microsoft Partner Ecosystem

By banding together, women IT executives hope to drive new opportunities for themselves, the next generation-and the entire partner community.

At a time when finding, developing and retaining IT talent is critical to the future of the solution-provider community, women channel leaders are sending a strong message to their peers: Why draw on only half the deck when you could be working with the whole thing? More importantly, these influential executives are backing up their talk with action.

The Women in Leadership & Technology (WIL&T) network, an offshoot of the International Association of Microsoft Certified Partners (IAMCP), offers resources, expertise and support for women already in the Microsoft partner "ecosystem" as well as encouraging a new generation of younger women to consider IT careers. WIL&T was launched at the July 2007 Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) in Denver, Colo.

Meanwhile, Women in Channels (WiC), a membership organization that champions the advancement of women in the IT channel, accomplishes its goals through education, networking, recognizing excellence and promoting leadership. The organization, which was incidentally founded about the same time as WIL&T, is the brainchild of Angela Trillhaase, a 25-year IT veteran who notes that, for many years, she herself "went with the flow in a man's world."

WIL&T and WiC appear to be rooted in the same soil. Both cite goals of enriching opportunities for women in the channel, which, in turn, enriches the entire partner community. Both groups offer a variety of resources, such as best-practices information, white papers and blogs. Both offer a range of activities, including live events, webinars and mentoring opportunities.

Trillhaase, who previously held management positions at Meridian Group International Inc. and IBM Corp., among others, recalls once being at an IT seminar where most of the other attendees were men. As she watched them methodically work the room, she realized that women in the industry don't use their professional affiliations to help themselves or other women as well as men do. That realization eventually led to the founding of WiC.

Elisabeth Vanderveldt is co-founder and owner of Gold Certified Partner Conamex International Software Corp., a strategic consulting and IT solutions company based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She saw a big problem brewing in the partner community: finding staffers with the required skill sets around fast-growing technologies such as SharePoint and newer products such as Microsoft's RoundTable and Response Point.

"In the meantime, women are leaving IT and are not coming back, and we're not doing a good job of attracting young women to the industry," she says.

Vanderveldt, who sits on the IAMCP's international board and also serves as global chair for the organization's corporate citizenship committee, thought: "Enough." Rousing support from women channel leaders such as Allison Watson, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Group, she helped establish the first WIL&T panel session at Microsoft's 2007 WPC.

Today, both groups are blossoming, continuing to garner strong support from both women and men in the channel. WiC has about 125 members nationwide, while WIL&T is open to all 4,000 IAMCP member companies. Based on the positive response to WIL&T over the past two years, the IAMCP is now working on creating a formal membership mechanism for the group, says Donna Hegdahl, IAMCP's marketing advisor.

Stepping up to the Plate
With job roles that cross the spectrum of the IT channel universe-from technical gurus to CEOs, from project managers to sales and marketing executives-women channel leaders say it's time to raise awareness about the value that women IT professionals add to the organizations they work for. And, it's time to help companies looking to attract and retain these highly qualified professionals.

It's no surprise to learn that women channel leaders driving these efforts tend to be mid-level professionals and executives who have toughed it out to succeed in their own careers and are now driven to encourage and mentor other women in IT.

"Our job is to embrace women who are in the channel so we can grow together, to bring women back who left the channel to start families, and to figure out how to drive young women to the technology world, which is filled with opportunity and is a great place to be," says Allison Bowden, international chair of WIL&T and senior brand manager for Microsoft Volume Licensing at Dell Inc. "It's also important that we work with technology companies to create a women-friendly work environment that allows them to have fulfilling careers in technology and do other things they like to do in their lives."

One channel woman with a passion for leadership is Laurie Benson, co-founder and CEO of Inacom Systems Inc., a Gold Certified Partner headquartered in Madison, Wis. Benson, a member of WiC, believes in modeling the way for both men and women by creating a shared vision and enabling others to act.

"As far as balance goes, learning to delegate is so important. The more power you give away, the more you have," says Benson, who has headed the company for 24 years. Living and breathing a core philosophy based on the Golden Rule-treating others as you wish to be treated-she's a firm believer in putting the needs of the organization first, even when that's difficult to do. Benson did just that early on, when the company seemed to be growing too slowly. "I offered to step down from my role as CEO if the shareholders thought someone else could do a better job," she says. But Benson kept her position; the board instead suggested revising the company's business plan. Soon after, revenue doubled-from $21 to $42 million-in a single year. Today, Inacom boasts $80 million in annual revenues.

Speaking Out
It doesn't take long for women channel leaders to use their voices once they've found the right platform. WIL&T did that at its WPC panel sessions in Denver in 2007 and Houston in 2008.

Vanderveldt sat on the 2007 "Call to Action" panel discussion, alongside Margo Day, vice president of the West Region for Microsoft's Small and Midmarket Solutions & Partners group; Tami Reller, corporate vice president and chief financial officer for Microsoft's Platforms & Services Division; Aino-Maija Fagerlund, CEO of Frends Technology Inc., a Gold Certified Partner based in Vantaa, Finland; Sharon Healey, solutions architect at Ascentium Corp. a Gold Certified Partner based in Bellevue, Wash.; and Judy B. Rosener, researcher and professor emeritus at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine. More than 800 people signed up to attend the session.

And the work began. "We learned about women's career goal issues such as how to fast-track your career, being successful both on and off the job, and challenges such as balancing work and family," says Healey, a 17-year IT industry veteran and serial entrepreneur who created and sold several IT companies and who also serves as the vice president on the executive council of IAMCP's Canadian division.

Women in attendance also talked about each other's businesses and how they work with customers, she adds.

A year later, with a more cohesive understanding of channel women's concerns, WIL&T offered a more targeted track called "Women in IT: A Competitive Advantage" at the WPC in Houston. Leading the charge was moderator Gail Mercer-MacKay, a 25-year IT veteran who's now president of Mercer-MacKay Solutions Inc., of Burlington, Ontario, Canada, a newly established company providing sales and marketing services to Microsoft partners.

"Research indicates that organizations that put women in leadership roles are likely to be more profitable," says Mercer-MacKay. She referenced a 2007 study by Catalyst Inc., a New York City-based research and advisory organization that focuses on opportunities for women in business. Catalyst's research shows that companies with more women on their corporate boards reported better financial performances than those with fewer women directors. The correlation remained steady across a range of industries, researchers said.

"Research indicates that organizations that put women in leadership roles are likely to be more profitable."
-- Gail Mercer-MacKay, President, Mercer-MacKay Solutions, Inc.
Photo: Nadia Molinari

WIL&T's 2008 session also addressed other potential advantages of supporting efforts to boost women's standing in the channel: expanding the range of expertise and skill sets, boosting motivation, improving job satisfaction and increasing employee retention.

Lisa Eyerkuss, president and co-founder of Corporate Training Group Inc., an Iselin, N.J.-based Gold Certified Partner, believes that the 2008 WIL&T session kicked off a great opportunity for the IT world. She plans to launch a Pink SharePoint Boot Camp sometime this year to educate women about SharePoint-related work opportunities such as programming and administration.

"SharePoint technology represents a great opportunity for women who have been out of the industry to get some training and get back in. And you don't need to be in an office five days a week to do your job," says Eyerkuss, who's also president of the IAMCP's New Jersey chapter.

Bottom line, says Eyerkuss: "There aren't many women in IT. We need them. And it's critical that we look at the workplace and make it attractive to women." That last item includes emphasizing the fact that this is an especially exciting time in a fast-paced, quickly changing industry.

Change is something Eyerkuss knows about. Five years ago, customer demand for consulting services led to the creation of a consulting division at Corporate Training Group. More recently, her company added training services around Java, Oracle and Linux to its lineup, which, for many years before that, had been Microsoft-centered. "Companies need to change and strive to grow. You can't be afraid to try something new," she says.

Giving Back
Many women channel leaders emphasize the importance of not only increasing their visibility in the channel, but "giving back" through mentoring and other outreach efforts. They're on the right track, according to Heather Foust-Cummings, director of research at Catalyst.

According to Catalyst's February 2008 report, "Women in Technology: Maximizing Talent, Minimizing Barriers," women cited a lack of role models, mentors and networks as major hurdles to moving ahead in their fields.

"In the meantime, women are leaving IT and are not coming back, and we're not doing a good job of attracting young women to the industry."
-- Elizabeth Vanderveldt, Co-Founder and Owner, Conamex International Software Corp..
Photo: Norm Edwards

Industry veterans such as Vanderveldt agree that the visibility of women in IT works to everyone's advantage. "Microsoft, for example, did an excellent job of making women like Allison Watson, Margo Day and Tami Reller omnipresent," Vanderveldt says.

There was a time, not too long ago, when clients would ignore Vanderveldt, who did everything from running cable and installing network cards to training and software-development testing, speaking instead to her male colleagues. These days, that's less of an issue in general as the industry sees a greater number of women in high-profile situations-for instance, leading seminars and teaching classes at Microsoft's TecháEd conferences.

"It's an important change, because the issues we're seeing in the channel around the need for skills are general and impact all of us who must meet the needs of our clients," she says. It's the same message: The more people who are available to offer to meet customer demand for those skills, the better off the whole channel will be.

In the past, executives say, companies bought technology. Today, the emphasis is on building relationships that happen to include technology purchases, but also require a partner to develop a deep understanding of where the customer's business will be in five years and how to enable its employees.

"Being able to see the larger solution, engaging in the relationship sale, that's a place where it's easy for women to succeed," says Bowden.

A Tough Sell
Still, despite increased opportunities in the industry, many women still shy away from IT. Based on their experience in the field, channel leaders say that many younger women still view IT as too geeky, too male-dominated and too limited in opportunity.

Those channel leaders are determined to get the message out that times have changed. They're talking to students at high-school career days, and they're encouraging young women to participate in the DigiGirlz Day and DigiGirlz high-tech camps that Microsoft offers to educate and inspire girls by introducing them to opportunities and careers in the high-tech industry.

Channel leaders are particularly encouraged by a younger generation of women who are essentially growing up online, with social networking and other technologies at their fingertips.

One way to get that younger generation of women into IT is establishing mentorship programs to provide them with a support structure that enables them to successfully develop their careers.

"Getting them actively involved with IT is what really gets them excited," says Benson. She's seen that enthusiasm firsthand in working with middle- and high-school students in Wisconsin, where seven of the 10 fastest growing careers are in information technology.

Enthusiasm and the resulting confidence are contagious. Says Foust-Cummings, of Catalyst: "Women who work with great numbers of women perceive fewer barriers in their careers."

Career Roadblocks

Despite an actual increase in opportunities, the numbers of women in certain technical fields have remained flat or have declined since the dot-com bust, according to Catalyst Inc., the businesswomen's research and advisory organization.

Catalyst Research Director Heather Foust-Cummings attributes that fact largely to two areas of concern for many women IT professionals: dissatisfaction with their supervisory relationships and the sense of not having a "voice" in their companies.

Businesses that fail to address these concerns will lose, Foust-Cummings warns. "For younger women and mid-career women in particular, if they don't see an opportunity for advancement, they'll leave."

Meanwhile, in its February 2008 survey of 471 women IT professionals, Catalyst found that the following percentages identified certain barriers as affecting their career advancement to a "great" or "very great" extent. Among them:

  • Lacking role models similar to themselves: 38 percent
  • Lacking a mentor, sponsor or champion who can report accomplishments to higher-ups: 34 percent
  • Being excluded from key decision makers' networks: 32 percent
  • Having a limited number of important assignments: 27 percent
  • Failing to understand their workplaces' "unwritten rules" or norms: 21 percent
  • Failing to receive sufficient feedback for performance improvement: 20 percent

The research indicates that while women IT professionals have come a long way, there's still plenty of room for improvement. -- LH

Having the good fortune of knowing successful women who took her under their wing has had a strong and positive impact on Amy O'Neill, director of marketing at GreenPages Technology Solutions, a Gold Certified Partner based in Kittery, Maine.

Among O'Neill's mentors: channel veteran Jane Cage, who co-founded her own company in 1985 and is now chief operating officer of Golf Certified Partner Heartland Technology Solutions of Harlan, Iowa. Says O'Neill: "Jane taught me that it's not about the job, it's about having a relationship with the people you work with and being happy with yourself at the end of each day." As a result, O'Neill now views herself being in a partnership with her company. "It's not just about me taking home a paycheck; it's about how I participate," she says.

She's also learned that having a roadmap for success is a must. "You can't wait for opportunity; you have to find it," she says. Now, as a WiC member, O'Neill is planning to help other businesswomen while continuing to learn herself.

Mercer-MacKay also describes being inspired by other women in the channel. Sitting in the WIL&T 2007 session and hearing how other women were out blazing their own trails gave her the momentum that she needed to start her own business. "Before that point, I never had the courage," she says.

In no time flat, Mercer-MacKay gained recognition not only for her professional achievements of aligning Microsoft partners with the right people and programs, but also for giving back with efforts that earned her a 2008 Microsoft Impact Award for community leadership.

In 2007, she helped initiate an Ontario-based pilot project called A Woman's Right, which involves teaching women who are in addiction and treatment facilities how to use Microsoft technologies so that they'll be better prepared to find jobs when they return to their communities. At this writing, A Woman's Right has assisted more than 100 women; plans call for taking the program nationwide.

A New Roadmap
The channel partner business is anything but stagnant. Smart channel partners will always be asking: "What's changing? Where is the tide shifting?"

Leadership organizations such as WiC and WIL&T are striving to help provide the entire channel address those questions by ensuring that everyone has the same access to tools, training, and business and partnering opportunities. Says Benson: "Only when you move out of your boundaries do you let in room for new ideas."

More Information

Women in Leadership & Technology page
International Association of Microsoft Certified Partners

Women in Leadership & Technology blog

Women in Channels Web site

"Women in Technology: Maximizing Talent, Minimizing Barriers"
February 2008 report, Catalyst Inc. (summary on Web; findings downloadable as PDF)