Meet Jeri Wait, Global Business Advisory Board Chair and Co-founder of OrcaWave, a globally oriented software company providing revenue assurance solutions for telecommunications companies in the USA and across five continents.
How did you become interested in the telecommunications business?
Actually it was rather by chance. When I was in high school, I was looking for a summer job in which the working conditions would be pleasant, and I could learn something new. The previous summer I had been a hotel maid, which was very hard physically and not the best working conditions. (But to this day I can make a mean bed!) I had heard AT&T was hiring high school seniors to be telephone operators, sounded good to me! My luck was with me, as they not only hired me, but placed me in a college program that allowed me to work around my upcoming university class schedule. The program I was hired in was targeting high potential incoming college freshmen, that had tested well for future management jobs in the telephone business. It was a wonderful college job and ultimately career, first beginning as a telephone operator and then later working with a networking group assisting with analysis and managing special projects. By college graduation, I already had four years of service with the company and had some solid experience to draw upon as I entered the management trainee program. My accelerated program prepared me well for management roles at the age of 22, and also allowed me to career track to the technology side of the business. At the time, I was one of the youngest managers as well as one of a handful of women who managed traditional male jobs. I must admit it was challenging, but some of the best days of my early career.
By the time I left the phone company, I had experienced over a dozen different positions, including the role of Vice President of major business accounts, responsible for $600M of annual revenue as well as leading a national development effort for a new business unit. It was quite a ride and provided me a solid basis from which to co-found my own business. Not only did I leave with a wealth of knowledge about the business and managing teams, I also was fortunate to have graduated with an Executive MBA (Class 6) from the University of Washington.
What is it like to be the co-founder of a company? What do you find most challenging and most rewarding about the experience?
Entering the entrepreneurial world as a co-founder of a company was quite a change from the bureaucracy of a fortune 500 company. The phone company had surrounded me with training, procedures, outstanding team members and staff support. For years, I had a personal assistant taking care of all of the little things. Launching a new business that was initially self funded, required a change in my thinking and learning new skills. I now had to be responsible for everything, with very limited time and resources. No longer was there staff to back me up, or to even make my flight reservations. The overwhelming responsibility of managing employees who were dependent upon me and the other co-founder for their salary and well being, was an awesome task. In my corporate career, I was proud of my ability to mentor and assist my employees with their career development, but owning my own business now made that commitment to employees so much more complex. After more than 12 years of co-owning my own firm, I continue to enjoy mentoring my team but also never cease to forget that their jobs and livelihood are dependent upon our mutual success as a company.
On the other hand, being an entrepreneur is exhilarating, wonderfully fun and addicting. The first company I co-founded was a telecom business providing long distance solutions to telephone companies on a global basis. Ten years ago, we founded a new company providing the software for the management of telecom solutions. This is a global company, with customers on all continents. The opportunity to learn a new business, software was intellectually stimulating and challenging. I have traveled extensively to places that never would have made the family vacation agenda but have enriched my life in so many ways. Every day, we are challenged by doing business in different cultures and time zones. Although, from my perspective I always think we can do anything , time of day or culture should not create barriers to working together. I think this is the American optimism exuding from me, however my customers can get very frustrated with the differences, so my challenge is to constantly be alert to the signals that will tell me there is more we need to do as a business to be successful in a global market place.
You have to think hard every day as a business owner. You can never let your guard down, or think you have it right. There are always multi faceted issues that present themselves daily. Cash flow is probably the biggest challenge and requires close vigilance to assure the business is healthy. The balance between having enough cash and not diluting mine and my business partner’s hard earned equity consumes me on some days. However, I would never give it up, not for one minute. It is my life and my passion.
And one last thing regarding co-founding a business, I have a great partner! I was so fortunate to have traveled down this professional path with someone whose skills complimented mine, is intelligent, business savvy and has an optimistic outlook. Other entrepreneurs that venture into new opportunities will tell you this same thing, it is absolutely essential to move forward with partners, one or more. I am convinced the synergy of partnerships leads to better businesses and long term success.
How did your experience at the Foster School prepare you for your career in global communications?
My Executive MBA absolutely prepared me for the leap into an entrepreneurial career path. The solid foundation built on accounting and economic principals has been drawn upon daily. I was also so fortunate to have had such outstanding professors including Rocky Higgins, Karma and Bob Bowen who bestowed upon our class their broader vision of how their particular expertise was applied to the global marketplace. I was also exposed to 40 classmates from 40 different corporations who shared their challenges, how they problem solved and their formulas for success.
What I see in today’s program that is so meaningful for success is the global perspective and the real life business models expressed through business case presentations and sometimes competitions. They closely align to the current business client and challenges that I see today.
Can you tell us about a person or experience that has influenced you in your career decisions?
This may sound corny but my parents encouraged me to dream, excel and never did they discourage me in following my professional desires. Also, I had many wonderful mentors along the way. Early in my career I had individuals that identified me as someone they wished to invest time in, providing training, career path counseling and sounding boards for new ideas and problem solving. These individuals will be held dear to me for all time. I use them as my role models, as I mentor UW students and my employees.
What would you tell current business students, both undergrads and MBAs, about the world of global business?
Global business is an integral part of our world and is as much main stream as the domestic U.S. business was 20 years ago. However, never take the cultural differences for granted. Learn from each, and take the time to understand how your business actions are perceived. Be open to others’ differences and views and enjoy those unique characteristics. Be willing to step back and accept the culture you are working in even though it is not how you would manage if at home. Enjoy global business, it will enrich your life!