Sonal Shah Shines Like The Moon

Publishe 5/21/2002
Stephanie Basalyga

When Sonal Shah was growing up in India, her father gave her a piece of advice: "If you cannot shine like the sun, at least shine like the moon." Shah has put that advice to good use as sheís built her company, Northwest Software Inc., into one of the brightest stars thatís emerging on Oregonís small business horizon.
Started in 1988, the Beaverton business has managed to gain a toehold among large employment companies like Kelly Services and Volt Service Group, emerging as a top provider of temporary information technology consultants.
Recently recognized as Oregonís Small Business Person of the Year, Shah points to family roots as the starting point of her entrepreneurial success. Even as a child growing up in a country where women often must put aside career goals for domestic responsibilities, she held the belief that women could have it all.
That mindset was fed by her father, an entrepreneur who often steered Shah toward strong female role models like former Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her mother, who held a degree in economics. "Many women in India only begin working after their kids go out of the nest," Shah said, "but my parents basically said, íYou can do both.í" Shah decided she would turn her parentsí prophecy into reality. She earned a degree in natural medicine and worked an internship in a hospital before immigrating to the United States, where her future husband, Chetan, had been living for five years. "I was eager and ambitious and I wanted to immerse myself in the (American) culture, so I started working and did not look back," Shah said. By day, Shah worked in sales for a pharmaceutical company. But at night, she attended school and earned a masterís degree in business administration from Portland State University.
Eventually, she accepted a job as a product manager for a company that made software for cardiac monitors. It was in that job that Shah began to notice a common factor among companies jockeying for positions in the fast-growing field of high-tech.
"I saw companies itching to get ahead and they didnít want to wait for employees to get up to speed," she said. She decided to build a company that offered temporary workers who could feed on-the-spot demand. At the time, it was an untapped market and Shah soon moved her company into a leading position. Although serving a high-tech field, she turned to tried-and-true business practices to build her company, providing strong customer service with the goal of establishing trust with her clients. "Itís not just providing quality for the first contract," Shah said. "Itís year after year, each and every piece of work you do for a client has to be impeccable." The standard helped keep Shahís company at the forefront, even as longstanding major companies that specialized in providing temporary help began building their own information technology divisions.
In order for her smaller company to stay competitive, Shah tapped into an innovative piece of software technology created by her husband. The software, called EZRecruit, allows her company to hire information technology consultants from around the country on a 24-hour-a-day basis, which has allowed Northwest Software to expand beyond Oregon to meet the needs of businesses anywhere in the nation. But even strong business practices couldnít provide a buffer from the grasp of the economic turmoil thatís rocked Oregonís business community, and the country, during the past year. Many of Northwest Softwareís longstanding clients tightened their budgetary belts by cutting back on the number of consultants they used.
Instead of responding by cutting back her own hiring, however, Shah added sales people and sent them out to tap into new industry areas. The move was part of her push to expand her marketing, at a time when her competitors were cutting back to save costs. "Companies are prone to let go of (marketing) functions first, but itís very important to stay on them and continue to make those sales calls, even though it doesnít look like there is any light at the end of the tunnel," she said.
"Nothing stays the same. This is a classic example of when there is adversity, you think of an opportunity to change." Although the countryís economy is still sluggish, Shah believes the course her company is following is solid and says the current year already is showing promise for an increase in profits. An economic upturn is coming and she plans to be ahead of the pack when it arrives. For small business owners wondering if they can hang on until then, Shah offers encouragement: Itís not too late to turn the current slow business period into a brainstorming session that can bring future rewards. "Companies have to develop strategies," she said. "They have to constantly be thinking. Anticipate the changes in your industry that are going to come and how you can align your company."