Entrepreneur offers tips for newcomers



President of NSI If Oregon is indeed a welcoming place for women entrepreneurs, one can give much of the credit to women mentors such as Sonal C. Shah, president of Beaverton-based Northwest Software.

Shah, the U.S. Small Business Administrationís 2002 Oregon State Small Business Person of the Year, is one of a growing cadre of experienced women business owners in Oregon willing to offer informal support and advice to newcomers.

Itís surprising how many women at business association meetings come up to Shah and ask for guidance, says Sylvia Gercke, public information officer for the Small Business Administrationís Portland district.

Shah, who has a master of business administration degree from the University of Portland and has trained in India as a homeopathic physician, founded Northwest Software in 1988 to offer technology staffing and project services for corporate and government clients. Along the way, she has helped other entrepreneurs.

"I knew I wanted to make a difference," Shah says. "My parents really infused that in us."

The 100 percent owner of Northwest Software offers the following advice for women business owners: To get your foot in the door at potential client corporations, Shah advises, find and befriend the "change agents" within.

Shah, for example, first met 10 years ago with Nikeís director of procurement, a person who was interested in increasing the amount of business Nike awarded to women-owned suppliers and service businesses.

"Itís always been a struggle to really get the attention of the top management of top corporations to really reach out to women-owned businesses," Shah says. "Fortunately, there were a few companies where women were able to get attention."

Getting your foot in the door with potential customers is only the first step toward building successful relationships, Shah says. Once the door is open, women must pour tremendous effort into proving themselves capable of delivering the goods.

"Being a woman and a minority," she says, "Iíve always struggled. Iíve had to work three times as hard to develop trust, establish rapport, establish credibility."

"Innovation is the key to success," Shah says. "Businesses have to use technology and innovation to provide value to customers."

Shah, for example, invested recently in EZRecruit, a software product developed by her husband, Northwest Software Vice President Chetan Shah, to automate high-tech staffing and recruitment functions to lower clientsí recruitment costs. The product has cushioned Northwest Software against the economic downturn and saved jobs. When the companyís clients began to trim back on traditional services, Shah put idle employees to work developing EZRecruit and hired more sales people, avoiding layoffs.

Bend over backwards to help customers, Shah suggests.

At times, Northwest Software has gone so far as to let profits slide to stay within a customerís budget.

"We make more decisions emotionally than logically," she says. "We want to see happy customers."