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Monday, May 16, 2022

No Such Thing as Women’s Work

When Annie Safoian came to the United States in 1987, she had never seen a personal computer. But within about a dozen years of settling in Los Angeles from Armenia, she had founded SADA Systems, an information technology firm in North Hollywood now focused on the growing industry of cloud computing. Safoian started her business the way any of her many male counterparts might: buying a computer. “I started out of home. We didn’t have couches or any other furniture, but we had a brand new computer,” she said. “When I hear about Google and Amazon starting out of garages, I think of SADA Systems. We started there too.” And the company has been growing, hitting $28 million in revenue last year, up about 50 percent from 2012. The company has 96 employees and counts the Los Angeles Unified School District, Chicago public schools and Ixia, a publicly-held technology firm in Calabasas, as its clients. SADA Systems is No. 8 on the list of Women-Owned Businesses, which is ranked by employee count. SADA Systems’ success underscores a growing number of women owning businesses in fields you might not expect. Long known as proprietors of shops, professional service firms and other “typically” female businesses, women in the greater Valley region are running everything from civil engineering firms to architectural glass manufacturers. Among others on the list is No. 11 Perillo Industries Inc., a Newbury Park manufacturer of power supplies; No. 19 Wagner Engineering & Survey Inc., a Northridge civil engineering and land surveying firm; and No. 21 UltraGlas Inc., a Chatsworth architectural glass manufacturer. In all, there are about 15 women-owned businesses operating in fields traditionally dominated by men – or roughly a third of those on our list. There are a variety of reasons for women growing into these fields. But for the most part, it’s just a natural evolution, said Darya Allen-Attar, founder of Broads Circle, an L.A.-based women’s business networking group. “All of these successful businesses are individual stories, but you have had a generation of women getting involved in a broader range of things and gaining comfort,” she said. “It’s an evolutionary change.” Access to capital One reason women have had trouble breaking into male-dominated industries is a lack of access to capital, including difficulty in obtaining loans from commercial banks. While starting the business was relatively inexpensive for Safoian, who spent about $3,500 on a computer and other equipment, certain industries require far greater capital investment to get off the ground. Jane Skeeter, founder of UltraGlas, remembers the challenges she had in 1987 when starting her company. “It was difficult at the time. Women couldn’t finance things,” she said. “When I started UltraGlas I needed to borrow money, so I had my husband co-sign.” UltraGlas evolved from a company she previously ran that produced architectural art glass and glazing, and it grew rapidly from garage beginnings to leasing up about 5,700 square feet in Northridge by 1991. Skeeter took the leap to buying a 25,000 square foot building in Chatsworth in 2001. She declined to discuss acquisition costs, but did say she was able to take out a loan for the purchase. UltraGlas now manufactures and works in all facets of glass use, including walls, windows, doors, showers, flooring and more. The company’s revenue last year rose more than 25 percent to $1.9 million. Much of that revenue increase came from a single job: the installation of a 250 foot long glass wall made to look like molten lava in the Honolulu International Airport. Stephanie Wagner, founder and president of Wagner Engineering, graduated from Nicholls State University in Louisiana in 1977 with a civil engineering degree, the first woman to do so. “There are a few more now, but still not much. It’s very perplexing. Not enough women know about how good an opportunity civil engineering is,” she said. She started her company in 1990 after quitting her job at now defunct Engineering Technology Inc. in Sherman Oaks. Financing was indeed a challenge. “I did everything they tell you not to,” Wagner said. “I quit my job and I used my 401K as seed money. And that was very little – about $18,000.” It worked out being that she now has 22 employees. Wagner would not discuss detailed financial information aside from noting last year’s revenue was about $3 million. While starting a business in any industry is a challenge, there are mixed-feelings about whether it’s any harder for a woman. Safoian, who owns SADA Systems and is listed as chief financial officer, runs the company with her husband, Hovig Safoian as chief technology officer, and her son Tony Safoian, as chief executive. She scoffs at the very notion that being a woman has made owning a business more difficult. In fact, she sees it quite the other way. “I think women can be even more successful than men. We are more organized and better managers,” she said, adding that being an immigrant also is an advantage. “There are things about immigrants, like work ethic and desire to succeed.” Different standards Skeeter wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s been easier or harder as a woman, but she does believe females are judged differently. “In the ‘80s, I would show up at a job site with glass on my truck and be the only woman around,” she said. “But I think where being a woman has really helped is opening doors for me. People have been curious to see who I am and what we do. But then you’re held to higher standards.” Mina Trujillo, executive director at the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, said more women could be joining Skeeter in running manufacturing businesses soon, as women are more interested at an academic level. “More and more women are coming out of college looking at construction and architectural fields,” she said. “That’s a new trend and I expect it will continue.” For UltraGlas, business is on the verge. Skeeter said the future for her firm may be in building-integrated photovoltaic glass panels for building exteriors. These panels work much like solar panels seen on the roof of single-family homes, but also function as window glass on large commercial structures. Skeeter said the new glass could mean a quantum leap in revenue for UltraGlas this year, as the company expects to receive a large contract for the exterior of a hospital overseas. Wagner Engineering is focusing on the transportation industry to fuel future growth. “I see transportation as good for me because it’s one of the major problems here,” Wagner said. “Civil engineering is very economy based. When things are bad, all the private clients close up.” For Safoian, revenue isn’t about bidding for jobs, but more about retention. Most of SADA’s business is renewals, such as with its first customer, All Valley Dealers Auto Auction in North Hollywood. It has been maintaining the company’s IT and infrastructure since 1987. And with the growth of cloud computing, Safoian believes this year SADA Systems could hit revenue of hit about $40 million. “Cloud technology is growing so fast and companies are willing to spend to keep up,” she said.

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