Four years ago, Irene Kinoshita found herself jobless after the Orange County computer company she worked for went bankrupt. She had put together a marketing strategy for the company but never got to put it into practice before the firm went bust.
Convinced nevertheless that her strategy was a good one, she decided to start her own company, Alliance Infonet/ValCom, in 1988.
In doing so, she entered a relatively uncharted field for female entrepreneurs. “When I started my company, I didn’t have a role model,” Kinoshita said. “There are not many women running their own high-tech service business.”
Today, Kinoshita herself is something of a role model for women in the high-tech business. Alliance, which specializes in linking computers within an organization, is among a handful of women-owned, high-tech companies in Southern California that are prospering in what has been a male-dominated industry.
Kinoshita’s success points to “a natural evolution” of working women, said Anne Kimbell Relph, president of the Enterprising Woman, a Laguna Beach educational and training program for female business owners. Just as women ascended to management positions in financial institutions in the 1980s, she said, they will play increasingly important roles in the maturing high-tech industry during this decade.
“We saw more women getting engineering and business degrees in the last eight years than ever before,” Relph said. “This translates into more women going into areas such as high-tech, and many will eventually branch out into owning their own high-tech businesses.”
Kinoshita, who holds a graduate degree in management, started Alliance with just four employees. The firm registered sales of about $3 million in its first year in business. Last year, revenue topped $10 million and, based on current contracts, the company projects sales of about $15 million this year.
Alliance’s clients, about half of which are located in Orange County, include Baxter Healthcare Corp. in Irvine, TRW Information Services in Orange and FHP International in Fountain Valley.
Kinoshita not-so-modestly credits part of her success to that “terrific marketing game plan” she put together years ago. Instead of marketing a prepackaged computer system with the latest technology, Alliance works closely with management to tailor the equipment to the company’s needs, often finding that older technology will work just as well. The approach is very time-consuming for Alliance’s staff, Kinoshita says, but can pay off by cementing a long-term relationship with customers.
Several customers said a major reason why they like working with Kinoshita’s firm is the company’s stable work force.
“We’re in an environment where we can’t afford any downtime on our network systems, and because they don’t have a lot of turnover in their technical and support staff, this gives us a sense of security and continuity,” said Deborah Nichols, computer operations manager for the Orange County Transportation Commission.
A third-generation Japanese-American, Kinoshita has also tried to blend her knowledge of Western marketing practices with Asian management techniques, which place great emphasis on customer service. Another Japanese technique she has adopted is trying to encourage employee involvement in the company’s management.
“We spend a lot of hours in meetings because we want our employees to participate in shaping company decisions,” Kinoshita said.
Dan Will, a technician who is one of Alliance’s original employees, said the meetings make him feel like he has more say in how the company is run. This is particularly true, he says, when management acts on a suggestion.
“What I like is I don’t have a manager who breathes down my neck and tells me what to do all the time and how to do my job,” Will said.
Another big factor working in Kinoshita’s favor is her company’s status as a minority-owned, small business, which means Alliance has an edge when bidding for contracts with companies that do business with the government. Federal regulations require companies that do work for the government to award a percentage of their work to minority business owners.
“I owe my success to Uncle Sam,” she said. “Companies have to fill their quotas on minority business to win contracts, and that helped me out a lot.”
Entrepreneurs like Kinoshita are still “a distinct minority” among women business owners in the nation, said Thomas Gray, chief economist at the Small Business Administration in Washington. But this could change in the years ahead as women’s wages rise and more go into management in high-tech and other industries.
“It’s become easier for women to start their own business in the high-tech industry because more women are in management positions and banks and other lenders are taking women business owners more seriously,” said Janice Yates, president of McAboy Yates Corp., a Garden Grove software developer. Women seem to excel particularly in the service industry because they tend to pay closer attention to details than men, she added.
Tim Elliott, a vice president at the American Electronics Assn. in Irvine, adds: “Women are holding more management positions in the high-tech industry in the last 10 years than ever before, and starting their own high-tech business is a natural next step.”
Kinoshita, who plans to branch into computer software development, said that while more female entrepreneurs may enter the high-tech business in the years ahead, the going could be tough.
“More service companies and new technology are entering the market,” she said. “Unless you keep abreast of trends, you can lose your customers very quickly.”