When Sonal Shah arrived in the U.S. in 1986, she could not have imagined the stir she was going to cause. 2002 has been a good year for her; she was awarded the Oregon State Small Business Person of the Year award by the U.S Small Business Administration.

It is another achievement for a person who has worn many hats in her life. Shah graduated in Homeopathy from Bombay University. After her marriage to Chetan Shah, who was based in U.S, she relocated and acquired a Master’s degree in Business from the University of Portland. She followed that up with stints in a pharmaceutical company, Merck Sharp and Dohme and later as a marketing

Her career switch amazes Shah herself. “Homeopathy to software consulting is quite a change of career. Both my husband and I come from an entrepreneurial family and we decided that we would start a business, and I would prepare for this transition. At the time, we did not know specifically what business—so after reviewing several ideas, our respective strengths and several debates we decided on Northwest Software.”

In 1988, the Shahs started their home-based business, Northwest Software Inc. (NSI), with an initial capital of $1,000 from their savings. Factors like NSI location in Oregon and Women’s Business Enterprise National Council helped (WBENC). Oregon, the mini-Silicon Valley or so-called “silicon-forest” is an encouraging state for small businesses while WBENC helped in networking. NSI has come a long way since that humble beginning. Currently based in Oregon but serving 30 states nationwide NSI offers two kinds of services—staff augmentation and project solutions. NSI has also developed EZRecruit, a new patent- pending product that automates the entire recruiting for temporary and full-time employees.

According to Shah, her gender has helped her, yet in the same breath she adds, “Woman-owned or diversity status gets the bid, but ability to do the work gets the business.”

Shah stresses that goodwill and trust are a function of high quality service and customer satisfaction and not simply her background. She should know. Good business practices have helped NSI establish itself in a firm position in business information technology services by aligning itself with major customers such as Hewlett Packard, Intel, ADP, among others. One reason they have been able to make inroads in such large corporations is because a lot of larger corporations embrace diversity, to incorporate different perspectives in their company’s way of doing things. Truly, small business in America is “big” business.

Shah’s take on overcoming cultural barriers? Simple, she says. “Try to do things the way they are done here. Build and develop relationships and most importantly, accept the fact that you are different. You accent will stay the same; yet all these external differences should not deter one from believing that one can make a difference.”

Another NSI strategy is partnerships with consulting companies to complement its inherent strengths. Three years ago NSI made the strategic decision that in order to scale up and enhance customer value, it would partner with an organization that makes an enterprise recruiting automation product. The vision was that once the job was defined, the system should find the best candidate automatically and which uniquely integrating recruitment automation with applicant tracking. Thus EZRecruit.com was born. There is a very tight and synergistic partnership between the two organizations.

Shah’s company has not been unaffected by the slump; yet they have tried to tide over it by positioning themselves as, a total human and capital acquisition company not simply as an IT company. NSI, with its 14 years domain experience in recruiting, has diversified into assessing the customer’s human capital acquisition systems and processes and has made value-enhancement recommendations.

In the year 2001, the American Staffing Association reported industry revenues of $66 billion in full-time and contract labor. With EZRecruit NSI plans to enhance customer value by bringing a unique commodity approach to many parts of the human capital acquisition process, both for full-time and contract labor. EZRecruit is a unique technology and competes nationally with about 30-40 national suppliers. It is not meant to be a total replacement of the hiring process. It actively sources (with the help of artificial intelligence) candidates from a lot of free and paid sites on the Internet, where job seekers have put up their résumé’s. As it automates a lot of preliminary processes, this leaves the hiring manager free to talk to the shortlisted candidate. EZRecruit is not meant to be a standalone technique; nevertheless it provides vital support in assisting recruiters and managers. NSI has an office in Bangalore, which undertakes product development. Depending on the success of EZRecruit within India, expansions to other locations may take place.

Shah’s tips for budding entrepreneurs include: “Network, learn, and build an image. Have each success fuel others. Emphasize indirect marketing both within your current customer base and also with your targeted prospects: publish articles about any innovations or differentiators you provide in trade magazines, participate in industry speaking sessions to discuss industry problems and suggested solutions. Enhance your firm’s credibility and garner respect for track record and innovations. Get attention through your special status and look for change agents in large corporations. Look for people who are in a position to empower you.”

Her parting shot was some good old-fashioned advice, “Focus on delivering top quality work and the rest shall follow.”

Radhika Sharma writes from Milpitas, CA.