Elliott looks back on a career built on innovation
When Susan Elliott first took an 11-week orientation class with IBM in 1958, they eventually got around to covering electronic devices – in the 10th week.
“They told us about computers but said the average person wouldn’t need to know more than that,” she said remembering the brief lesson with a wry smile, “because there weren’t going to be that many.”
If IBM’s half-century old assumptions about the future of technology markets seem quaintly humorous to modern eyes, they might be forgiven. The next big thing can be hard to predict.
That’s something Elliott knows all too well. Sitting in the “LaunchPad,” a comfortable sunlit conference room with dry-erase markable wallpaper and door placard that announces “where ideas take flight,” the 75-year-old entrepreneur has made a career out of technology and innovation. As chair of SSE Inc., a Westport-headquartered software and technology business, the native St. Louisan has had a front-row seat for the PC and internet revolutions as well as the hidden opportunities they brought.
The story about IBM is a prime example. Elliott notes that they were so preoccupied with mainframes, they nearly missed the potential of personal computing that would come to define the last half of the 20th century.
“When I’m speaking to groups of business leaders, I remind them it is about change,” she said. “My mantra is that nothing is as constant as change. You have to, as a business leader, reflect on change, understand it and embrace it, probably when you are right at your highest point of success in your business.”
Moving the world
Elliott first touched a computer, a room-sized IBM vacuum-tube model, for the first time in 1959 on Washington University’s campus. She liked her work as a programmer at IBM where she spent the early part of the following decade developing a numerical coding method to help Monsanto index its technical library. The method, which allowed long chemical names to fit on an 80-column card, was later adopted nationally. By 1964, IBM had promoted Elliott to advisory systems engineer.
But two years later, she was pregnant with her first child and she said IBM had a policy that women were not allowed to work past the sixth month of their pregnancy.
“First National Bank downtown wanted to hire me,” she recalled, “but they had the same policy. So my husband, with his new law degree, incorporated me. (The bank) felt protected that they could hire a corporation, not a pregnant lady.”
Thus, Systems Service Enterprises (SSE) was born. Though she kept the name, the small, one-woman company was largely in a holding pattern for most of the 1970s, after which Elliott resumed her work with the bank.
In 1983, she and her husband went to an auction and emerged with a then-rare personal computer – at a cost of $4,000. Elliott went to work for herself in the couple’s basement.
Aside from the expensive new toy, the accommodations were sparse.
“There was a light bulb in the ceiling, a washer and dryer and a piece of plywood as my desk,” she remembered. “I said ‘OK, here I am, now what do I do?’”
What she did was become an arm of IBM’s “marketing assistance program,” which supported their emerging retail operation. For the first time, smaller businesses were getting a taste of the computing giant’s wares. SSE was there to install the machines and provide technical support.
“I had a screwdriver in my purse and there were times I was reading the manual in the afternoon so I could go out the next morning and install the software,” she recalled.
By the mid-'80s, SSE was out of the house with its own office and some new hires. Business was growing as well. Clients such as Emerson Electric, Anheuser-Busch, Southwestern Bell, Ralston Purina and Enterprise Rent-A-Car all began using the company’s training services. By the end of the decade, Elliott’s basement-born venture was breaking the million-dollar mark in revenues. The company weathered the recession easily and then caught the wave of the following tech-based economic boom. In 1999, Elliott would be named “Most Influential Business Woman” by the St. Louis Business Journal. The same year, SSE redesigned its logo to its present look, a seesaw design based on Archimedes’ saying, “Give me a fulcrum and a lever, and I will move the world.”
Today, Elliott is still very much a part of the company, but everyday operations have transitioned to her daughter Elizabeth Elliott Niedringhaus who took over as president and CEO in 2004. SSE continues to have a strong focus on educational software and is now looking ahead to try and pioneer delivery of e-learning over smartphones and mobile devices.
“The theory is that if you deliver learning in chunks and nuggets of information over an extended period of time, the retention is much greater than the old fashioned sit in the class for eight hours a day,” Elliott said.
Elliott feels the key to SSE’s success was to welcome change. She thinks that’s something St. Louis has been increasingly receptive to.
“We have probably been slow to embrace the startup concept and the importance of it, but I think we are getting there slowly but surely,” she said noting flourishing organizations like Innovate St. Louis and Arch Grants. “If we can put the money behind those startup concepts, our universities are basically turning out the talent. Now, we just have to keep them.”
As for Elliott herself, she she’s still looking ahead, though that’s also entailed some looking back. She recently authored a book about her experiences entitled Across the Divide: Navigating the digital revolution as a woman entrepreneur and CEO.
As she took in the scope of her career, she began thinking of the realities envisioned by Moore’s Law, which states that the number of computer transistors on a chip doubles roughly every two years.
“I didn’t realize how much that drove the changes in my business and drove my success and drove me forward,” she said. “In the hindsight of writing my book, I realized that because our clients always wanted the new thing in technology we were staying on top of that so we could deliver it.”
“The fact that we are all instantly in touch all the time is dramatically changing our way of life, and businesses can communicate around the world instantly,” she said. “There are no barriers, no distance, nothing. What’s the downside of that? You don’t have time to stop and think and make a business decision. You’re flooded with information.”
That can also mean being flooded with innovation. Elliott said she’s learned something from all the transitions in her career, noting that her time at IBM was the best experience she could have had. Large companies can be great proving grounds for small startups.
“I have a philosophy that life is a mosaic and at different times in your life you are doing different things based simply on where you are in your circumstances,” she said. “When you finally pull together and you are driving forward with a passion of what you really want to do, all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. They have armed you for going forward.”