Michelle D’Souza, President and CEO of Unified Business Technologies based in Troy, started her professional career as a stockbroker working at a company with very few other women stockbrokers (she recalls only one). In fact, at that time – 1994 or ’95, by D’Souza’s recollection – there were few women stockbrokers in the industry at all. She remembers it being a particularly unfriendly working environment for women – several former employees, all women, were suing the company over issues of discrimination; the company also did not pay its few women employees any base salary, though they did pay such salary to the men because the men, according to the company’s logic, were the ones with wives and families to support.
After working in this environment she swore to herself that one day she would own her own company and she would emphasize hiring women. Now she does own her own very successful company, and she does hire a large number of women – in the male-dominated nature of the many sectors that her Unified Business Technologies spans, including (but not limited to) information technologies, manufacturing, engineering, and construction.
It was while she was still a stockbroker in the mid-’90s that D’Souza was inspired to go out on her own. A client of hers, a doctor with a few million dollars in his retirement fund, was told by her bosses to buy K-Mart stock. The company had a lot of K-Mart stock to offload and they knew the stock was going to tank, so they pressured their brokers, D’Souza included, to get rid of it.
In a meeting with her boss, she informed this client to buy this soon-to-be-worthless stock in order to appease her boss and avoid any professional repercussions. Immediately afterwards, she called him privately and told him not to buy it.
“Life has been good. I’ve always tried to do the right thing. You don’t have a quick gain when you do the right thing; it’s more of a long-term approach,” D’Souza reflects.
Through her experiences at this company and conversations with the client she just saved from a potentially ruinous investment, in 1997 she decided to go out on her own and start Unified Business Technologies.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of money, maybe few hundred dollars in my pocket, so I decided to do some staffing work because I didn’t need a lot of initial capital for that,” she says. “I did some tech staffing then engineering, but I wanted to do something in the manufacturing field. I knew there was no money in it and people kept saying don’t do it, but I said, ‘Well, let’s just try it.”
So, in 2013, she set up a circuit board manufacturing and cable accessories plant and further expanded the reach of Unified Business Technologies into various industries. Now UBT does electronics manufacturing, information technology, and offers engineering support services. They specialize in cyber security support services for the Department of Defense. They also have a group of professionals and programmers who are experts in the field of artificial intelligence dedicated to bringing their AI expertise to customers to create more efficiency in financial and human capital costs.
UBT has also developed two custom software products: CERTA, created for the telecommunications industry, and Pubmaster+, a tech manual publisher for the military. The company also does prototyping of different electronic technologies to be used in connected and driverless cars. “We have an excess capacity and a tremendous talent of engineers and manufacturing women,” D’Souza says.
True to her original intentions, D’Souza has a tendency to hire women, despite these being historically predominantly male-dominated fields.
“If you look at our manufacturing facility, it’s 85% women,” she says. “They do a great job. They’re very responsible and very dependable.”
But, she says, she doesn’t discriminate against men in her hiring practices; the managing director of the facility is male, an “extremely intelligent guy” whom she says always does the right thing and hires the right people.
“My goal has always been to hire people smarter than me who know more than me,” she says. “I think that’s to everyone’s benefit!”
The difference with UBT is that they don’t exclusively recruit people with industry experience or specific kinds of education.
“We recruit people who have the experience but we’re also willing to give people who want to learn an opportunity,” she explains. “A person has to be a self-starter and they have to be willing to learn. If they have those two combinations we’re willing to spend the time, money, and effort to teach them and give them a career. We’re not a company who wants to babysit anybody, so we look at people from all ranges to bring ideas and value to the company.”
One example she uses is a when they hired a seamstress and turned her into a cable manufacturer.
“We know a seamstress can stitch and has an eye for detail to make sure something is made correctly or fixed correctly, so we took her and turned her into a cable manufacturer. She can build an electronic cable assembly because she really has an eye for detail and can terminate a cable better than anyone.”
She points out that there really aren’t many jobs for seamstresses anymore in America when almost all of the mass-produced, major label clothes are being made in other countries. But that doesn’t make people with such skillsets unemployable in a new economy.
“That’s why we’re very particular about who we hire,” says D’Souza. “I do believe you can teach anybody a skill; it’s the attitude you have to have. I cannot teach attitude, the desire and hunger to learn, or the willingness to do a job.”
Another service UBT provides is real property asset management for the Army. This basically means they evaluate and inventory every square inch of land on an Army base, from buildings to parking lots to ponds, and make sure all of it is accounted for on the Army’s custom database. Finding people with the specific skillsets required to do this work, however, is “next to impossible.”
So, they hire people with real property asset experience – people who know how to measure a building and can do simple math – and invest time and money into training them. “One of them was a carpenter,” D’Souza remembers. “My team thought I was crazy that I wanted to hire him but I just said, ‘Jesus was a carpenter’ and they said, ‘Yeah, we guess you’re right,'” she laughs.
Today, D’Souza says, UBT has “an army” of men and women – but again, more women. Again recalling her days working as a stockbroker in a firm with only one other woman, D’Souza remembers that promise she made to herself to focus on hiring women.
“Women sacrifice a lot to become moms; they leave jobs and when they decide to go back to work years later all they hear is, ‘Sorry, you don’t have the experience.’ We have a division that does construction work and I always say, ‘If you want to be a quality construction monitor you need the skills of a mom.’ We have a woman doing it and she’s doing great. You need human factor skills that you really can’t get from a school, but the construction field is still dominated by men. But if you can be a good mom or dad and hold people accountable then you’ll do just fine.”
D’Souza holds herself just as accountable as she holds her employees. “We have a very high work ethic at UBT, but I like to be the last person who leaves the office. Even during the rough times, like when we had the dotcom bust, I never gave anyone a pay cut. I went without pay for two years; I had never gone without pay before.”
But, she says, during that team her family learned to live lean and they got through it, and the company is stronger for it too. “[That period of time] taught my kids the difference between needing and wanting,” she says, like a true mom – a mom whose personal ethics and life skills have enabled her to build a successful company that plans for the long-term.