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A Woman Mastering the Machine

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Men -- and, let's face it, a lot of women -- don't equate math, analytics and technology with women.

They obviously haven't met Sheila Talton.

The founder and CEO of Gray Matter Analytics, a Chicago-based company that builds data analytics capabilities for health care and financial organizations, Talton started out in sales after college, selling hardware and software for a few data companies in Chicago. In 1987, she took a leap of faith and founded her own company, Unisource Network Services.

It was unusual for a woman at that time to take the tech path, but what led her there was foresight. "When I was in college, I thought, 'Okay, what is the area that is really booming and if you're really good at it, you'll always be able to get a job?'" she said.

At that particular time, it was technology, so that's really what prompted me. I also took a programming class in Fortran when I was in college, and I got hooked. I just was fascinated with instructing the machine to do work.

She began Unisource, a support services company, when she saw a niche that needed to be filled after the breakup of the old AT&T.

That went on for more than a decade, until she joined Ernst & Young as a vice president, and then Electronic Data Systems as a president. In 2004, she became a vice president at Cisco, where she remained until 2011. Then, she struck out on her own again and founded Gray Matter Analytics. She was drawn, she said, to the allure of "Big Data" and the rapidly growing demand for data analytic services.

"Big data is one of the hottest areas in technology," she told me.

When I think about my background... I started out in hardware, then software, then I moved from software to services and Big Data takes all of those particular components of building a solution to bear. So I had an application software background, but I also had a relational database background, which is the foundation of Big Data and the Hadoop appliances.

That probably sounds like Greek to a lot of non-tech people -- male or female -- but to Talton that kind of talk is second nature. Having killer smarts -- and letting people know it -- is one way she persevered as an African-American woman working in a field dominated by white men.

"The way I've overcome that has been to show my intellectual capability and, more importantly, how I can apply my intellectual capability to critical problem solving," she told me.

In business, you're always tested and tested and tested -- I have found that to be true as an entrepreneur and working inside large corporations -- so for me it's always about being able to show my capabilities and critical thinking.

She attributes these qualities to the influence of her father, who worked for Sherwin-Williams in Cleveland, and who she said had a great impact on her growing up.

"My father was a deep and critical thinker who encouraged me to always think logically," she said.

He also reinforced to me that you can never prepare too much. So I don't go into meetings, and I don't go into launching businesses without really, really preparing. That doesn't mean it's a flawless execution, but it does mean you understand what you might be facing.

Talton says part of that preparation is looking for the right kind of people to hire. She looks foremost for people with very high integrity, transparency and a strong desire to work in teams.

She also believes in diversity -- of gender, nationality, ethnicity and mindsets. "I build teams that look like the U.N.," she says, less because of her own experience as a minority and more because it just makes good business sense. Having spent a lot of time working internationally, she learned the value of different leadership styles and what works in certain cultures and how to adapt. As much of her business centers on global companies, she has tried to instill this one-size-does-not-fit-all mindset into her workforce.

She also, of course, seeks diversity in gender. Talton said she believed that stereotypes against women were harmful to men too. "Rigid gender role stereotypes have hurt men as well as women, because people are people first," she explained. "I actually believe that as women are more accepted in leadership roles, and their leadership style is more accepted, that will be a benefit for men, too, to have very different styles... Men want to join our team because they pretty quickly get a sense that our culture is not one that is very aggressive and filled with high testosterone," she says. "They see that it's not about the individual, but about the team."

Teamwork is important to Talton, and she closed with several tidbits of advice for women wanting to succeed in the manly world of tech:

  • "Understand the value of a team from the inside out. Young girls should seriously consider joining a sports team."
  • "Figure out the rules of the game and play by the rules so that you can get to a point where you have the power and position to change them."
  • "Never let anyone else define who you are or what you can do."

Whether you're in the technology industry or not, those are rules well worth mastering!

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