Two decades ago, as the World Wide Web came on the scene, Jeanette Hernandez Prenger saw an opportunity and started an information-technology consulting business in Kansas City, Mo. Today, ECCO Select employs more than 180 full-time IT staffers and posts more than $21 million in annual revenue. Clients include Fortune 1000 companies and public-sector agencies, including the General Services Administration. Along the way, Prenger has won numerous accolades, served on many boards and was invited by Speaker of the House John Boehner to attend last year's State of the Union Address.
Edited interview excerpts below.
The Story Exchange: How did you come up with the idea for your business?
The Internet was evolving and technology was rapidly changing how we do business. As a systems engineer and manager in IT, I saw a need for talent that truly understood the emerging technologies and were able to apply their skills in an expedient manner to help the business. As a manager, I grew high-performing teams because of my ability to identify talent. I also had a large professional network. I knew that I could provide the same type of technical specialists that large consulting firms used, at a much better price point. That was the basis for my business model.
The Story Exchange: How did you win your first client?
I actually met with a former employer and asked him to review my business plan. He was excited about the value proposition and asked how I would go about helping them modernize old legacy systems. After discussing several options, he asked if I would be willing to come back and lead the effort to update those systems. As a result, I was my first employee. Within a year we had 12 consultants working on projects throughout his organization.
The Story Exchange: What's the biggest mistake you've made (in business) -- and what did you learn from it?
After 9/11, most of our project work was canceled. It took me over six months to do the inevitable: lay off associates. The majority were smart, hardworking and loyal. I felt a responsibility to continue their employment, even though most of them did not have enough work to be productive. It was a huge burden, financially and emotionally. Instead of looking at my responsibility in keeping the company financially strong, I tried to keep people motivated and look for ways to leverage what they could do. I could have saved a lot of money by rightsizing the company as soon as it became apparent that the recovery would not be immediate.
The Story Exchange: Who is your role model?
The first is my mother. She is an immigrant [from Portugal] with a limited education and a very heavy accent. She has inspired me by the way she goes after what she wants. I've seen the way she has leveraged her own strengths to overcome what others would perceive as weakness. She instilled in me a strong work ethic, good values and the confidence that I could be anything I wanted to be. She's been my rock and because of her and my father, I was able to build a career with the support they provided in helping me with my children.
The second is actually a conglomerate of successful men and women I've had the honor of knowing. They've had different attributes that I've admired -- from being business savvy to possessing strong negotiation skills to building virtual empires from a single idea. Many of them are very humble and all of them are generous. I surround myself with these people because of their ethics, integrity and willingness to help others.
The Story Exchange: What's your best advice for other women who are starting or growing businesses?
Surround yourself with people whom you trust and admire. Have an open mind, especially with constructive feedback. Be open to new ideas. Be willing to learn. And above all, deliver.