Power Entrepreneur Saman Dias: From Sri Lanka to Silicon Valley

When Saman Dias was growing up in her native Sri Lanka, she could often be spotted with a first aid kit, tending to others. Noticing her caring nature, her family urged her to study medicine. But as microcomputers began entering Sri Lanka, she discovered that she had a knack for computer technology.

While technically minded, that other side of her personality—the part that loved helping people—still needed to be fed, leading her to a career in computer training. She began working at a Radio Shack affiliate in Sri Lanka, and ultimately caught the attention of her company’s CEO. When he decided to launch a new start-up company in the U.S., Saman was one of just four employees he handpicked—and the only woman—to go.

Saman eventually founded her own firm, AIM Computer Training, ultimately building it to a multimillion-dollar global training program. She received Working Woman magazine’s Entrepreneurial Excellence Award for General Excellence and Innovative Solutions in 2000 and its Entrepreneurial Excellence Award for Customer Service in 2001. San Francisco Business Times named AIM Computer Training a Top 100 Women-Owned Company (six consecutive years) and a Fastest Growing Privately Held Company (three consecutive years). The company was acquired in 2004.

 

In 2006, Saman joined NorthPoint Financial Group as Executive Vice President, where she built and managed the company’s business development program. In 2008, she helped form a successful e-business concept for delivering analytics and investment ratings for residential real estate. One year later, a venture-funded company was spun off as SmartZip Inc.

Today, Saman is using her vast experience to help up-and-coming entrepreneurs navigate their way to success. She leads the Entrepreneurs and Small Businesses Coalition for Carly for California, and is also an advisor for Astia, a global not-for-profit whose mission is to foster the full participation of women in entrepreneurship and as accelerators of high-growth companies fueling innovation and driving economic growth

Diversity Woman: When you look back on your childhood in Sri Lanka, do you see any influences that might have helped you to become a successful entrepreneur?

SD: I was raised in a family of three girls and no boys. My dad was a military officer and he said, “I may have to go to war, so I need to teach these three girls to do everything independently.” So he sent me to karate classes when I was eight years old. I would play with my cousins and get beaten by the boys and come home crying. And my dad said, “Next time, you don’t come home crying. You hit them back.” And so next time, I did. (laughs) I think that was my first lesson in competing.

 

 

DW: How did you get interested in computers?
SD: I was actually studying to become a doctor. But in Sri Lanka, there’s an entrance exam to go to medical college, and for the life of me, I couldn’t pass it—three years in a row. I just don’t like sitting in one place and memorizing. I was getting really frustrated and was trying to figure out a way to get out of this.

Microcomputers were coming into the market, so my aunt said, “How about computers?” I had no idea what that meant. But I said, “Sure, sign me up!” That got me into technology. I studied and became a programmer and a systems analyst, and I did really well because math was a very natural thing for me. I just loved it.

DW: And then you began teaching others. How did that happen?

SD: I didn’t like just sitting in front of a computer to write programs, because I love people and I love helping. My family is almost all educators, so I think teaching is a natural thing for me.

I worked at Radio Shack, and I started studying software applications. Back then, just getting a call to the United States (for tech support) would take hours. There was no e-mail. I learned software applications, studying and troubleshooting on my own. Very soon, I became the expert internally on these software applications and then I started teaching internal staff.

I also started building a computer training school for children after work hours and on weekends. I was only 20 years old. I taught children computer programming languages by using a CPU with a keyboard, called a Sinclair computer, which you connected to a TV. I later developed it to an adult computer training center.

DW: What was your first career success?

SD: I was one of the first women to join Sales Support and Training, and I ended up building it into a profitable business unit.

I kept hearing from the executives of the company that this was a cost center that was eating into profits. The reason was that the support and training was bundled as part of the computer sale, not realizing and that you can’t commit to providing free support forever, because that’s going to eat in to your profits.

I established a policy that the customer would get training for the first 30 days or 60 days, but after that, if they hired new employees, they’d have to pay for the training. I couldn’t get the company to fund for me to hire trainers, so I recruited trainers from other departments who had a good understanding of the applications and had skills to train, and I had plenty of people signing up because I came up with a way to compensate the staff. I paid the staff from the profits. And once I proved the model, the executives said, “We see what you’re doing. You can hire (external) people.”

DW: How did you end up coming to the United States?

SD: Someone came to me and asked if I would teach our CEO to create spreadsheets using MultiPlan, the first menu-based spreadsheet application. The CEO was the first person to introduce microcomputers to Sri Lanka, so I was thrilled. I was this 22-year-old girl running around teaching computer applications. I studied very hard to be really good at it in a short timeframe and I taught him Multiplan. That created an opportunity for me to get to know him, and I made a good impression.

He was remodeling his home and was living in his vacation home, which was close to where I used to live. He would pass the bus stop every day during the remodeling. In Sri Lanka, there are hundreds of people running to the bus, and in all of these people, he spotted me, and he gave me a ride every day until his remodeling was completed. I had the opportunity to get to know him personally.

He wanted to start a software development company, and he transferred four of us to start this new startup venture in San Francisco. I was the only woman. In Sri Lanka, it’s unheard of for somebody at that age—22 or 23 years old—to move to U.S. to start a company. They don’t even leave their home until they get married. When somebody hires people at the early stage of a company, they want the best because they’re risking their money. He took a risk by selecting me, a young woman, to help build his startup.

I didn’t even know he was planning to start a company in the U.S. When they asked me if I would teach the CEO, I could have said, “No, it will take too much time. I have to study. It’s not within my 8 to 5.” Instead, I said sure. Going beyond what your (regular job requires) and taking on the challenge of teaching the CEO can really take you places.

DW: What was it like to move to a foreign country and launch a new company in your twenties? How did you make it work?

SD: It was a tremendous opportunity. We were launching an application, and my responsibility was to provide support and training to customers who purchased it. I was counting the days (until the release), but it was taking a lot longer than we anticipated, which is common in the software development world. The parent company in Sri Lanka was funding this venture, and if we ran out of money I would have to go back to Sri Lanka.

I told myself, “I’m not going back. I’m going to make this happen.” So I got contracts to provide training and support services to customers. We didn’t even have customers because we didn’t have a software application ready for consumer use. By providing training and support services for off-the-shelf software applications, I started generating revenue, and I single-handedly funded the company. The advice I give to entrepreneurs is to be determined, be innovative, and don’t quit.

Then the CEO came to me and said, “Well, it looks like you’ve mastered this. What do you think about starting a training company?” So while the software project was going on, I helped found a company called Training Alternatives (acquired by Heald College in 1992) to provide training and support services to corporate customers. I was training seven days a week to generate revenue to continue to fund the company and to have the opportunity to stay in the United States. I must have taught every PacBell and AT&T employee!

DW: You ultimately launched your own business, AIM Computer Training. What were the biggest challenges you faced?

SD: When you’re brand new, there are all of these established companies out there. How do you compete? That’s always a very difficult thing.

I made sure the company was credible. Image and experience was a big piece. You need to be able to tell the story and have a credible marketing presentation to ensure that people take you seriously.

DW: The tech industry is still fairly male dominated. Do you think being a woman has generally hurt you, helped you, or both?

SD: It was definitely difficult for me at both companies—Training Alternatives in the mid-’80s and then AIM Computer Training in the early ’90s—being a minority woman from Sri Lanka. Especially in the mid-’80s, there weren’t that many women in technology, and there definitely weren’t that many women from that part of the world. People would look at you like, “What the heck are you doing here?”

It takes determination. Also, you have to be really knowledgeable about what you’re doing so you can build credibility. You really have to prove yourself. It might take you four times as long to get from Point A to B.

But there are also many advantages for women, so I turned it around. I got my company certified as a woman-owned business and a minority-owned business, and I used that to build my initial customer base. It helped me bring in customers like PG&E and Cisco Systems, which was huge. Many companies now have supplier diversity programs. I didn’t necessarily have to use that throughout my career, but I did use it as a steppingstone.

DW: What is your philosophy of business?

SD: My underlying philosophy is that the world is so connected, and it’s really important that you continue to receive and give. If the receiving and giving doesn’t happen, it will come to an end. The more you get out there in the world, the more connections you make and more business you do. And that’s not just because you exchanged business cards. It’s because two people have connected beyond business interests. I strongly believe that if we keep helping each other in mind, then the pieces will come together.

 

DW: Is there an example that you can share?

SD: When I was 19 or 20 and trying to get my foot in the door in the computer field, I was working for an insurance company. I was taking microcomputer training classes and I passed as one of the top students. The company was outsourcing to the UK—developing software for the UK market—and I was chosen, so I went to the interview.

When I was working for this company, I made a connection with a lady in the lunchroom—much older than I was—and I was telling her that I was going to school in the evening. She was very impressed that I had a goal. She was very intrigued by how determined I was. I was excited and I told her about the interview.

The next time I saw her at lunch, she asked me what happened. I said, “I don’t think I got selected.” I was very disappointed.

She said, “Well, I didn’t want to tell you, but my brother heads that company. Let me make some calls.” I told her, “I don’t even want a salary. I just want to get my foot in the door to do something with computers. I just need little help to get in.” She called them and they arranged another interview. They said the reason they didn’t hire me was because they didn’t think I’d give up such a good salary to work as a trainee. That’s where I met the CEO who gave me the opportunity to come to the U.S., and look where it took me. It all started from that one connection in the lunchroom.

DW: Do you think that there’s anything in your Sri Lankan background that has shaped the way you do business?

SD: I think that when you’re an immigrant, you don’t take it for granted that everything is given to you on a silver platter. You know you have to really work hard for it.

I also think about everything from a cost-effective point of view. I am always thinking outside the box to make things happen instead of hiring so many people or spending so much money to get things done. I’m always thinking of alternatives—innovative methods to make things happen.

DW: A study just came out showing that, at tech companies in Silicon Valley, men are 2.7 times more likely to be promoted to high-ranking jobs. What advice would you give a woman who wants to succeed in tech?

SD: You need to be connected so you’ll know the people who can open the right doors for you. It takes effort and it has to be part of your day-to-day business life.

People often say, “Let’s get together for lunch,” and 98 percent of time, they don’t follow through. How in the world could you say something and not even bother to respond to an e-mail or to a phone call? Women are really good at making relationships, and we should take advantage of that. If you follow through, you’ll really shine.

Also, women tend to not think as big. The large corporations want you to think bigger, take risks, and have the courage to follow through. When I met my (then) fiancé, he had come from IBM and he always talked in millions, and I couldn’t comprehend it at that time. I remember telling my friends, “Everything he talked about was in millions.” I didn’t know that I would end up becoming a millionaire. (laughs)

DW: Now that you’ve sold your business, you’re helping other entrepreneurs who are just starting out. You’ve come full circle.

SD: I’ve opened a new chapter in my life. I’m doing a lot of volunteer work in entrepreneurship on a global level. I am consulting entrepreneurs for a fee or for equity as well as nonprofit work.

I’m involved with Astia, which helps women-founded and led companies get funding. I’m an advisor and I get calls all the time from people who want advice. I love working with entrepreneurs. It’s very satisfying and inspiring.

I had the greatest experience very recently. I was at the Plug and Play Tech Center. It’s an incubator in Silicon Valley. They bring in local and international entrepreneurs who want to learn and to get inspired by other entrepreneurs. They get exposure to VCs and get an opportunity to intern for tech companies. I got to interact with entrepreneurs from Indonesia, Singapore, Denmark, and China. I got the opportunity to tell my story. They were inspired. I had a long line of people waiting to talk to me.

A Silicon Valley leadership group had a program called Silicon Valley Leadership Summit 2010, and women executives shared their stories with young girls. More of these events need to take place, and we as women need to find the time to get involved to share our stories and inspire the younger generation.

TIPS FOR SUCCESS FROM SAMAN DIAS

  • Never give up. “This requires hard work and determination. If you quit, no one will ever want to give you money to start a business.”
  • Hone your competitive edge. “You have to like to compete in the business world and outside of the business world. I play tennis and I vigorously compete.”
  • Have no fear. “I’m not embarrassed to make a fool of myself to learn something new or to take on a new challenge.”
  • Think big. “This is something that comes very naturally to men. I’m sure Cisco and Google had a big idea when they started, even though they weren’t big at that time. If you don’t think big, you won’t be able to break into those big companies or raise funding in the venture capital world.”
  • Connect and find ways to give. “Deepak Chopra says that in the cycle of giving and receiving, giving doesn’t just mean giving money. It means giving time, sharing your stories, and making an impact with little things. It could be just sharing a compliment. If everybody realized the power of giving, the outcome would be amazing.”

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