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Profile: Catherine Tabor, Founder of Sparkfly

Women in Tech: “There are opportunities for remote work women could tap into”

Chris Stewart
women in tech

Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Three years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Catherine Tabor, Founder of Sparkfly.

A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Three years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Catherine Tabor, Founder of Sparkfly.

Today’s Woman in Tech: Catherine Tabor, Founder of Sparkfly

A technology pioneer and digital visionary, Catherine is a seasoned entrepreneur who has founded and scaled several businesses over the last 20 years.

Her entrepreneurial career kicked off while in school at Georgia State University, where she started a house sitting and dog walking business. To her surprise, Coca-Cola found her business and invited her to bid on an RFP to manage their employee discount program. She won the business, left school, built her first website and started calling on other companies. Under Catherine’s leadership, the business successfully grew to serve more than 1 million employees at 150+ companies.

Sparkfly evolved after Catherine began investigating options for tracking digital benefits against employee usage. Unable to find suitable technology to do so, she saw the gap in the market and acquired a company for the technology that would become the foundation of the current Sparkfly (spinning off the original company as Sparkfly Perks).

Catherine and her team were one of the first to develop connectivity between media and the point of sale and invented two issued patents related to tracking mobile media and store loyalty. She believes that mobile offers can be the unifying force between mobile media and the point of sale and was named one of Mobile Marketer’s Mobile Women to Watch.

Leveraging this new groundbreaking technology, Sparkfly continues to grow and develop innovative technology to solve real business problems and create real results for its clients.

Catherine also served as the chair of the marketing committee on the Woodruff Arts Center board of directors and is currently a member of the Board of Visitors at The University of Georgia.

She enjoys spending time with her husband Matt and their 13-year-old daughter at their home in Atlanta, GA.

What first got you interested in tech?

Early in my career, I was running a corporate employee discount program/website for large employers and I wanted to show usage and value in that business. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a way to connect digital coupons at an item-level, in real-time, to the physical in store point-of-sale.

My interest in digital technology allowed me to expand existing technology to develop that capability. This platform is now helping an entire industry of marketers better understand and increase the return on investment (ROI) on marketing campaigns. My interest in digital technology was more about problem solving rather than an interest focused solely on technology.

How did you end up in your career path? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

I’ve started several companies throughout my career, but I had a bit of a humble beginning. I started my first company while attending Georgia State University. As a way to earn extra college money, I started a concierge business running errands for my clients. My husband’s internet design firm built a website for this business. Simultaneously, the Coca-Cola Company was internally managing an employee discount program where they would offer employee discounts on tickets to the movies, Six Flags, and various other products. Coca-Cola’s HR department decided to outsource that employee discount program, so they conducted a national internet search. I had no idea what SEO was at that time, but my concierge business in Atlanta came up in that search. They called me and did not tell me the company name, but I had caller ID and knew it was Coke! They actually talked to a lot of big firms in the process, but I won the contract to manage that employee discount network for Coke and all of their employees.

I quickly realized that many large employers had similar discount programs for their employees. This initiated the founding of my second company. Winning the management of the Coca-Cola discount program led to the need for venture capital. At the age of 26, I had to overcome many stereotypes of what or who a “business owner” or “entrepreneur” should be in order to raise this capital and grow my business. I have now successfully managed corporate discount programs for over 20 years.

In my first business, I saved time for my clients by physically running errands. In my second business, I managed discount programs for large corporations; providing discount tickets or coupons for employees. My third business, Sparkfly Inc., connects digital promotions/discounts/coupons to the physical point of sale. Our digital technology was developed specifically for this purpose. The main obstacle for Sparkfly Inc., was inventing something that was brand new. The perception in the market was that point-of-sale was, and still is, very fragmented and difficult to integrate with. I was told over and over this was a futile effort, but we created the technology to successfully connect the dots between digital coupons and the physical cash register.

At the age of 26, I had to overcome many stereotypes of what or who a “business owner” or “entrepreneur” should be in order to raise this capital and grow my business.

Did you receive support from your family and friends? Do you have a role model?

My parents have always believed in me, supported me, and have been touchstones for me. They are people of great character who have modeled how to approach life and work with integrity, honesty, and humility. When I first started my errand business and won the contract with Coca-Cola, I knew that this business model could scale and grow to other organizations. When my initial efforts to raise VC failed; I walked through my plans with my parents. We talked about my need for startup capital to fund the technology development and my business expansion. My parents, both school teachers, believed in me and took out a $5,000 loan against their Honda Accord, which became the seed money for my business.

I have a number of business role models too. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had many people who’ve been helpful along the way, so I’m not sure I can name just one person in particular.

Role models aren’t always the people you know, they may also be the people who give you hope. As someone who’s a champion for women, I gravitate towards women who have found a way to persevere, and I tend to follow their careers and businesses with great interest. Social media has helped disseminate stories of women who have been where I am at various stages of my business. These stories encourage and empower others, like myself, and make us more aware that women can be successful in prominent business leadership roles.

Did someone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?

Of course. Thousands of times. When you are attempting to disrupt an industry, there will always be naysayers.

During the early days of experimenting with the technology that would eventually revolutionize this industry, one venture capitalist looked at me and said, “Catherine, sometimes you just have to know when to quit.” He simply didn’t believe that I could build a technology platform to rapidly evolve technological solutions in the point-of-sale space. This interaction has stuck with me throughout my career.

Another venture capitalist said, “No point-of-sale company will ever integrate with you before you have a customer.” And I proved that to be untrue as well.

I’ve had another person refer to me as, “the ultimate underdog” in the Atlanta Journal, which I believe translates to “the least likely person you would think could actually be successful.” It’s a back-handed compliment, at best.

Competitors, partners and even customers have tried to leverage our intellectual property or use our methodologies, workflows and processes to attempt to go build a similar platform. It’s not always just negative comments. There have also been attempts to steal my intellectual property. This is a huge risk when you are a first-mover in technology.

A day in Catherine’s life

I have a closely-knit team that communicates with each other with unprecedented transparency and collaboration. We start the day as a senior team with a “stand up” meeting where we have a very open flow of communication around the opportunities that we’re working on, challenges that we need to overcome, and our prioritization. As a tech start-up, it’s easy to get distracted; it’s essential we are all continuously aligned on priorities.

I spend a good part of my time deciding how I can better enable and expand our sales and marketing efforts and open doors for our sales team. For our customers, I consider the best way to bring our strategic insights to them and how our platform’s capabilities can be leveraged to bring them value.

I also focus on the business operations to ensure we are meeting our goals, projections, and the commitments we’ve made to our customers, board and our investors.

I am certainly a coach and I spend time working with the Sparkfly team members. I help them understand that the word “no,” a lot of times just means “not right now,” and I make sure to emphasize that there’s always a solution to any challenge.

I tend to have a lot going on at all times while overseeing the business. To stay organized and focused, I say constantly ask myself, “What is the highest and best use of my time?” to remind myself to focus on the most important and strategic items to move the business forward.

Now that the Sparkfly team has grown I am able to delegate more. I work with an amazing group of people around me that I trust. I love to watch the team prioritize their tasks, think through challenges, work closely together and act on their judgements and instincts to complete projects.

Something I know very absolutely, after more than 10 years of running Sparkfly is that the team, coupled with the technology, are the only way to ensure we will continue to scale.

What are you most proud of in your career?

What I’m most proud of is that we successfully built and implemented the Sparkfly Offer Management platform. We did the very thing that, for 10+ years, everybody told me was impossible to accomplish.

Why aren’t there more women in tech?

I think women are catching up. Although it seemed elusive for a long time, perhaps because it was long believed that men were simply better than women at math and science. I feel like those paradigms are (slowly) shifting and there are more women entering into the market.

Today, there are organizations like Girls Who Code or Code With Klossy, that are visibly encouraging young women to be more proactive in technology. My hope is this momentum continues to build and grow.

Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?

Sexism. This idea that women simply aren’t as good as men. I’m the mom of a 13-year-old daughter and there’s still this perception for young women that math, science and technology are ‘guy things’. I think there’s truly a stigma that men are better in all of these areas. That men are better coders, stronger at math, and natural disruptors.

It’s disappointing some employers still believe men are just better at tech because of the folklore associated with testing at some long-ago point in time that ‘proved’ men are more predisposed to excelling in math and science. Men make up the majority of the new hires in tech positions.

Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?

We’re all aware that men and women have very different communication skills. I believe the same is true for problem-solving skills; the approach is different. If more women worked in STEM, we would likely see a more balanced approach to issues and outcomes. Every environment benefits from more diversity, so it would be positive to have an ecosystem that was more diverse in STEM.

Also, from an economic standpoint, there are opportunities for remote work women could tap into. These are well-paid jobs that don’t necessarily demand in-person, day-to-day reporting. I think that could provide more economic opportunities for women who may live outside of major cities.

Every environment benefits from more diversity, so it would be positive to have an ecosystem that was more diverse in STEM.

The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?

While there are a lot of conversations concerning diversity, I think the turning point is when we begin to see larger percentages of women on development teams, women sitting on more boards, women on executive teams, and generally more women with technology careers. While my company is hiring developers right now, I don’t see many female resumes. We need more women in the hiring pool!

I’m honestly encouraged for my daughter since there are more examples of successful women in STEM in front of her, including her own mother. In my generation, our mothers were teachers, nurses, or secretaries, (all noble professions by the way). Becoming a tech entrepreneur was never something I thought about growing up or considered to be a potential opportunity for me. I had no idea these possibilities existed. This current generation of women are growing up very confident that they can be and do anything they choose. Hopefully this entire generation of young women are growing up with the same mindset of, “why not me?”

Today this is more visibility and awareness of women in leadership roles, but at what point in time will this conversation translate into jobs, executive roles, and board leadership? I don’t know how long that will take, but I hope not as long as some believe, especially if this generation of young women really does feel more empowered.

What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career?

The first thing every young woman should ask is – Why not me? They should also be aware that anything is possible, of course they can!

The industry is going to be hard. There’s adversity out there, but there are plenty of women enjoying success too. It’s all about perseverance and hope. Women need to know that they’re going to hear ‘no’ many more times than they can imagine. I heard ‘no’ thousands of times, but I also heard ‘yes’ from time-to-time as well. They need to be resilient and get back up, brush themselves off, and move forward. If you’re working towards something that you truly believe in, you should never give up.

One of my hopes is that more women who have already navigated the tech world will be willing to truly give their time to mentor our youth and those still learning. I strongly believe that women can benefit from mentorship and should seek this out early in their career. I encourage anyone and everyone to be open to gaining experience from those who have been before them, and to not be afraid to seek out a mentor. It was extremely helpful for me to have people out there that I could turn to when I had difficult decisions to make. A mentor is also a shoulder to lean on when you’re unsure, when you’re frustrated, or any time you need support or advice.

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Author
Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart is an Online Editor for JAXenter.com. He studied French at Somerville College, Oxford before moving to Germany in 2011. He speaks too many languages, writes a blog, and dabbles in card tricks.

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