This article is posted from the St. Louis Post Dispatch and can be accessed here.
Matina Koronis-Koester is president and founder of Digital Partners Inc. in Clayton.
The 20-year-old firm sells and services products made by a wide range of technology companies, including Apple, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco.
Koronis-Koester was three years out of college when she started the company in 1994 on a shoestring budget in space rented on the upper floor of the building still serving as the company’s headquarters.
“I had nothing. No money. I was in no position to sign a lease,” said Koronis-Koester, who initially paid rent in cash on a month-to-month basis.
Today, the company, which has 12 employees and an office in Los Angeles, sells tech gear (including computers, printers, storage and software) to a wide range of companies, including Hallmark Cards, Anheuser-Busch and Brown Shoe.
Central to the company’s mission has been a strong relationship, since its beginning, with Apple. And while the Cupertino, Calif.-based giant focuses most of its energy on retail sales, there are times when Koronis-Koester finds her company going head-to-head with the company for larger corporate deals.
“Competing with them is so odd. It’s almost like dirty pool in a way, Koronis-Koester said. “They know who our customers are. So it’s complicated.”
What Digital Partners offers, she said, is a stronger level of after-sales support and training than what a company can typically expect through Apple.
“At one point we lost Hallmark and they decided to go direct to Apple,” she said. “And they came back to us because they missed that extra level of service.”
The Post-Dispatch recently interviewed Koronis-Koester about her experiences in the technology sector. Here is an edited transcript.
You started your company in 1994 and connected with Apple Inc. during a particularly dark time in that company’s history — a couple years before Steve Jobs returned. What convinced you that a relationship with Apple was the right move?
I had no intention of being in sales or selling computers. I went to Drake University, and we were one of the first schools that had all computers rolled out and it was Apple all across the campus. I hated computers and avoided them. But I taught myself how to use the Mac and really loved the product. When I graduated, the job market was pretty depressed. And really, the only positions available were sales positions. I remember saying to myself that if I had to go into sales, I could only sell something I really believed in — like a Macintosh computer. So I ended up finding a job selling Macs right out of college. I liked it and built up a clientele. The company wasn’t run the best. So I left after a couple of years and started my own business. Even though Apple wasn’t doing that great at the time, we still had a healthy clientele of creative users and their businesses relied on it. So that’s why we went that direction.
What challenges, if any, did you face while seeking a foothold in the male- dominated tech industry.
Quite a few. From meeting with banks to signing a lease. Those were just initially some. I would go to Cisco or Apple workshops, and quite often I was the only woman in the room. I had comments made about how people thought I was an assistant. It was hard to be taken seriously. It was challenging for a while. I felt like I constantly had to prove myself. I was really fortunate that I had a few people at Apple who were helpful to me as well as a few other people in the industry. I think without a few people looking out for me, it would have been much, much harder.
Do you think it would be any different if you were starting over today?
That’s hard to say. There seems to be more support now. There are a few more sort of senior women in the industry now than when I was there. So maybe. If I were to do it all over again, being back at that age, there’s probably more support available. And more encouragement.”
What needs to happen to persuade more females to explore and choose careers in high tech fields?
I think the biggest thing is positive mentoring. I’ve got someone who’s been a strong mentor in my life. But whether it’s encouragement from other women or from men in the industry it doesn’t matter. Just having that level of encouragement, saying you are doing the right thing. Sort of a having that level of encouragement to back you up — it goes for miles and miles. I almost never have a woman apply for a systems engineer position. But when they do get into the field, they are wildly successful. Men tend to have more mathematical, scientific brains than women do. So they are more interested in the techie sort of things than maybe women would be naturally. You see women going into the medical field and things that are equally difficult. There are lots of really smart women out there.
What do you see as the biggest issues facing businesses today when it comes to computer systems and office technology?
I think there is so much marketing coming at companies that it’s very difficult for them to decipher what is best for them. Companies put a lot of effort into marketing. They don’t care so much about whether it really works for your or not. In general, users need to be more knowledgeable about what they are using and why they are using it. People need to have a
general awareness of what it is they are doing before they buy a system. Is this really going to work for our environment? And I think people don’t necessarily want to take the salesman’s word for it. Do your own research. Because there is a ton available. There also is a tremendous amount of hacking going on that people have no idea about. My biggest piece of advice is make sure that you have a good firewall.