By Phyllis Cunningham Hines
We measure our success in business by the success we create for our customers.
Donna Stevenson, President and CEO,
Early Morning Software (EMS)
“Whenever God is ready to transition me from one level to the next, I experience a sense of challenge and discomfort—God’s way of letting me know there is something better for me,” says Donna Stevenson, President and CEO of Early Morning Software (EMS). After a successful career working at IBM as a large systems engineer, it was exactly that dual sense of challenge and discomfort that lead her to join the start-up software company her then fiancé, Cecil Robinson, founded in 1993.
As a forth generation entrepreneur, Stevenson always felt that one day she would have her own business. “From barbershops to restaurants, I grew up surrounded by a host of family members who were in business for themselves—my grandmother owned a beauty salon, my grandfather owned a record store, and my father owned a construction company. During her teen years and college summers at home, Stevenson worked for her father in the construction industry, where she cultivated the work ethic, commitment and stamina needed to run a successful business. “The spirit of entrepreneurship was passed down to me—it’s been in by blood from day one,” says Stevenson. She goes on to explain, “I believe my transition from working in corporate America to entrepreneurship was created as a part of God’s pathway for me.”
A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Stevenson attended the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) where she earned a dual degree in Information Systems Management and Economics. Her husband and business partner, Cecil Robinson, attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated Magna Cum Laude in Mathematics. For years, both Robinson and Stevenson worked full-time for Fortune 500 companies, but they both eventually reached an impasse in their professional growth—the proverbial glass ceiling—shrouded by a business culture that did not promote the engagement and growth of African Americans in the tech industry. “I liken my husband’s corporate experience to that of a talented player whose coach rarely put him in the game, while his white male teammates were often promoted and always allowed to play first string,” says Stevenson.
During the 1990’s, there were few women, let alone African America women, in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Unwilling to allow her gender or race to become a deterrent, Stevenson looked to higher education as a means to enhance her position as an executive leader and climb the corporate ladder. In 1993, while working full time at IBM, she completed her Master in Business Administration degree from Loyola University in Maryland. Still, Stevenson concedes, “The deck was stacked against people of color working in the tech industry, and as a black woman, it was an especially tough hill to climb. Every day at IBM, I was challenged to compete as a professional in an arena where all of my colleagues and the majority of my clients were white men. I refused to let this unfortunate circumstance become an inhibitor to my productivity and ability to successfully deliver on the job.” Often feeling out of her comfort zone, Stevenson admits while working in corporate America, “I had to show up with my expertise, my confidence, my preparation and determination to succeed, no matter what it looked like.” What she learned over time was to go in well prepared—this was the only way to gain the trust and respect of her colleagues and clients. “You have to be the expert in the room.”
Rather than continuously butt against what appeared to be an impenetrable ceiling, Robinson, who had hit the corporate ceiling years earlier, became a first generation entrepreneur in 1993. A phenomenal engineer and passionate techy at heart, he needed the business side to marry up with his passion and expertise. Finally, he convinced Stevenson to join him in business. In 1995, what started as a two-year commitment as finance innovator and chief executive officer of EMS became a labor of love along side her life partner. “The combination of our expertise made us the dynamic duo. My business acumen and his high tech knowledge were the perfect blend. “If he could make it, I could sell it,” says Stevenson.
Stevenson credits her father with giving her the inspiration that fueled her business acumen and passion for math and technology. “All those years of working in the back office of my father’s construction company, along with my educational background and experience in corporate America, prepared me to be a successful entrepreneur. Those years of training also equipped me with the resilience I needed to bounce back when both my personal and professional life took on a bittersweet, chaotic spiral,” says Stevenson. In 2001, pregnant with her second son, Stevenson’s father became terminally ill. During that time, America’s economy hit an all-time low that nearly toppled the IT industry. EMS lost a million dollars in contracts and for the first time, the company was forced to lay off staff. In spite of the country’s plummeting market, the horrifying tragedy on 9-11 caused an uptick in business defense contracting, which helped stabilize the software market. The following year, Stevenson, once again, began to feel that dual sense of challenge and discomfort—an all too familiar urging from God that something new was on the horizon. Late one night, she was awakened to receive a supernatural download—the ideal product solution needed to meet her clients’ needs—PRISM. She went right to work, hastily writing down its component and sharing the idea with her husband. “You’ve got to trust me on this. This is exactly what we need to do.” PRISM, EMS’s flagship product, is proprietary software that manages corporation’s supplier diversity compliance and spending through a web-based platform. Currently, more than a million client users, suppliers and vendors log into the PRISM system, using it to increase their productivity and operational efficiency.
Over the years, EMS has grown its markets in diversity and inclusion management and is now the largest minority-owned software company in the country, according to Stevenson. “One of the things I am most proud of is that we have been able to bring highly innovative technologies to our clients. We measure our success in business by the success we create for our customers.”
To the aspiring entrepreneur, Stevenson offers this sage advice:
1. Prepare. Go work for someone who’s doing what you ultimately want to be in business for. Master your craft under their tutelage and leadership before you launch your business. “Cecil and I were prepared as professionals—we know our craft inside and out. And given our professional experience, we knew we would be considered experts because we were proven experts on behalf of corporate America,” says Stevenson.
2. Passion. Make sure you’re passionate about your business. When passion fuels your purpose, it will take your success to new levels. Passion in business will get you up in the morning—giving you a keen understanding that what you’re doing is connected to your life’s purpose—your unique reason for being.
3. Product. Clearly define your product or service and what distinguishes you from the competition. In other words, be very clear on your value proposition and establish your ability to deliver successfully to your customers.
4. Productivity. Be very attentive to your internal business practices. You are ultimately the captain of your ship. Make sure your employees understand the business and how you make money.
5. Be aware of your bottom line and remain engaged at all times. Stay on top of payroll taxes to avoid getting in trouble with the IRS.
Over the years, EMS has grown from being primarily a regional software development company, to a regional information technology company, to a global software manufacturer—with holdings across twenty states, Canada and South Africa. This year, owners Cecil Robinson and Donna Stevenson will celebrate their 25th anniversary in business. Their vision is to ignite the tech culture for non-traditional residents of Baltimore. To that end, they have founded the C3ADR Urban Technology Center—a high tech co-work space and education hub. The grand opening and first tour of the Urban Technology Center will be held in September 2018. The Annual COMPASS Conference hosted by PRiSM Compliance Management will be held in Baltimore on September 23 – 27. This year’s Conference theme is Diversity, Inclusion and Beyond and is ignited with current and new Diversity Professionals, as well as new Partners that foresee economic benefits through intentional diversity and inclusion.
“Our business is our passion,” says Stevenson. “I have enjoyed our ability to engineer innovative software and IT services that transform the way our clients do business. Our PRISM Compliance Management solutions are managing supplier and workforce diversity and changing the world. We are proud to be serving construction, education, energy, government, housing and community, financial, manufacturing, transportation and utility clients.”
For more information contact:
Early Morning Software, Inc.