Interview with Saman Dias
Saman Dias is a person who "sees windows, not walls." She thinks her success as an entrepreneur has been due in part to an unwillingness to take no for an answer, and her ability to always find a way to get from A to Z.
Saman Dias embodies the American entrepreneurial spirit. Upon exposure to the nascent, fragmented San Francisco Bay Area computer training industry in the late 1980s, Saman realized the opportunity for potential growth. In 1992, Saman founded AIM Computer Training, focusing on the lucrative large-scale business training market segment. Through determination, hard work and the successful implementation of a unique business plan, AIM Computer Training became one of the most respected and leading training companies in the Bay Area. Along the way, Saman pioneered numerous innovative business practices, fostered a healthy work environment for her employees and created the AIM Computer Training Global Strategic Alliance to expand AIM Computer Training’s operations around the globe. Her multimillion dollar global training company, which serviced the needs for Fortune 1000 companies, was acquired in 2004.
In 2006, Saman joined NorthPoint Financial Group as Executive Vice President. She built and managed the company’s business development program and its corporate training program. In 2008 she aided in forming a successful e-business concept for delivering analytics and investment ratings for residential real estate. A year later, the venture-funded company was spun off as SmartZip Inc. Saman’s experience also includes successfully leading fundraising, recruiting, public relations and social media efforts.
Drawing on 20 years of success in business, Saman now holds board positions with many startup companies. Having experienced the challenges—and joys—of launching a new business, she gets great satisfaction from helping entrepreneurs navigate the venture capital world, raise funding, market their businesses, and develop growth strategies.
Saman is an advisor for Astia, an innovative global not-for-profit organization whose mission is to foster the full participation of women in entrepreneurship and as accelerators of high-growth companies fueling innovation and driving economic growth. She also is an advisor to Plug and Play Tech Center and US Market Access entrepreneurs, Silicon Valley incubators that assist local and international entrepreneurs expand their venture in U.S. and exposure to venture capitalists.
She received her Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Saman received Working Woman Magazine's Entrepreneurial Excellence Award for General Excellence and Innovative Solutions in 2000 and its Entrepreneurial Excellence Award for Customer Service in 2001. The Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award chose Saman as a nominee and finalist in 1998. She also received the 1998 National Association of Women Business Owners Adopt–A–Business award and was honored for East Bay Business Times Women if Distinction Award for General Excellence. Saman has been featured by the San Francisco Business Times, Contra Costa Times and USA Today. Her company, AIM Computer Training, was named as San Francisco Business Times Top 100 Women-Owned Company (six consecutive years) San Francisco Business Times Fastest Growing Privately Held Company (three consecutive years).
An Interview with Saman Dias Co-founder, AIM Computer Training
Date: October 28, 2010
Larry Nelson: This is Larry Nelson with NCWIT, the National Center for Women & Information Technology. And, we are very excited about this series of interviews. We're talking with fabulous female entrepreneurs and women who have started IT companies in a variety of sectors all of whom have had fabulous stories to tell us about being an entrepreneur. With me today is Lee Kennedy who is also a serial entrepreneur and founder of Bolder Search. Welcome.
Lee Kennedy: Thanks, Larry, it's great to be here.
Larry: Yes, this is really excellent. I am excited. My wife and I have started 12 companies over the years.
Lee: Only 12.
Larry: Only 12, and we really have enjoyed these various interviews. And, today we're interviewing Saman Dias who's an award winning entrepreneur who recognized the value of enterprise scale business technical training when she founded AIM Computer Training. Now, that's the global company which was acquired in 2004. And, Saman went on to lead other successful entrepreneurial efforts in real estate and social networking. She is currently staying quite busy as, among other things, an advisor to entrepreneurs, I can't wait to hear about that, at different companies including ASEAN Incubator. We're really happy to have you here today, Saman.
Saman Dias: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much. That was a fabulous introduction, thank you. I'm delighted to be here.
Larry: You've got a great reputation. So, let's get into the questions. Saman, could you tell us how did you first get into technology, and as part of a carry on to that is what technologies today do you think are cool?
Saman: Yes. It's kind of an interesting way that I got into technology. I'm sure this happens to many folks. But, I originally studied to becoming a doctor and I was studying for the medical college entrance exam. I'm not sure if that's familiar to the U.S. entrepreneurs, but I'm originally from Sri Lanka and that's normally the process before you get accepted to the medical school. And, I had a hard time passing my entrance exam. And, I was getting frustrated and I found that my sisters would be going to college and I would be, too, studying for the medical college exam. And, my uncle said how about computers? And, I had no idea what it meant. This was in the early 1980's. And, I said, "Sign me up." And, that's how I got into technology.
Lee: That is so interesting. Well, the follow along question is that's how you got into technology, why is it that you're an entrepreneur and what is it about being an entrepreneur that you find so exciting and makes you tick?
Saman: Yes, why are you an entrepreneur? I feel that you can create your own destiny. It gives you the independence. It gives you the opportunity to create wealth and be your own boss. And so, I love that.
Larry: Those ideas, I think, would turn a lot of people on.
Saman: And, what about entrepreneurship makes you tick I think is the follow on question you asked? Today, looking back, it makes you tick I feel like you can really make a difference. You feel like you contribute and make a difference, not only for yourself, but also to the community, to the company. And from there, taking that, you make a difference to the world because you are helping to create work, you are helping to create jobs, you're helping to create a new innovation. So, that really is huge as far as feeling that you are making a difference in a meaningful way.
Lee: So true.
Larry: Absolutely. Along the way you've done a number of different things. Who are some of the people who influenced or supported you, in fact, maybe a role model or mentor?
Saman: You know, originally it was my father. He gave the freedom to the limit and I think he paved the path to help me to, example, come to a place like the United States and to achieve what I have achieved today. But, I was not really fortunate to have a mentor. And, that's part of the reason that I am today helping many other young women entrepreneurs to get there. I learn really on my own. But, perhaps, following other success stories such as Bill Gates, Pierre Omidyar, Meg Whitman, [indecipherable 05:12] , some of those stories were inspiring to me, but constantly following other successful entrepreneurs and learning from all of those people has helped me.
Lee: That's wonderful. Well, you know, we all know and have heard the story being an entrepreneur is not exactly easy. So, if you think back about your career, what was the toughest thing you had to do?
Saman: I think the toughest thing getting started was taking that risk. Taking the risk of perhaps leaving a full time job that you had your comfort zone and walking away from something and then starting a business with no revenue and living off of your credit card to get you off the ground and build your revenue. And then, along the way, doing the business and running the business, one of the toughest things I had to do was sometimes walking away from a client who's either giving revenue to you or wanted to give revenue and that you felt it wasn't thing for the company. That was difficult.
Lee: Yeah, I can definitely see that. And, yeah, the first point you made about the risk of leaving a secure job or employment, I think that is one of the toughest things. You've got a great job and to be an entrepreneur, like you say, you're leaving all that behind and with no money coming in and putting stuff on your credit card.
Saman: Yep. And, I think many entrepreneurs can relate to that because there's a huge risk factor. And, entrepreneurs are you have to be risk takers, not just when you first started the company, but as you grow the business, every step of the way there's a risk element that you take. That is the hardest thing is take that risk and make that decision to move to the next step.
Larry: Well, with your background and experience, and if you were sitting down right now at the table or over your desk and there's a person who's talking about entrepreneurship and looking into it, what advice would you give them?
Saman: I would give them follow your passion. Follow your heart. If you have a passion or an idea for any business, take that and follow your passion. But, do know and understand that when you become an entrepreneur, there is putting in hard work. And, you can continue to keep working hard and making your business successful if your passion is about what you're doing. Then, it doesn't become a chore. It doesn't become oh, I don't want to get up in the morning and go to work. You will do everything that you can possibly do to achieve that dream if you're excited about it.
Lee: It's so true because if you're excited about what you're doing, it makes all the difference.
Saman: Yes. And, entrepreneurship is hard. Starting a business is hard. Keeping it together is hard. There are a lot of obstacles that you have to go through, but then at the end you have tremendous reward. And, you're not going to see that reward right away. And, once you make that decision, there's no way of going back. You want to keep going forward, and you can do that if you have something that you're very excited about.
Lee: I agree. Now, earlier we were talking about being an entrepreneur, there's a lot of risk involved, and other characteristics. What would you say are the personal characteristics that you have that have given you advantages as an entrepreneur?
Saman: Yeah. For me personally, I'm really creative. Some of my staff used to say that Saman always sees windows and not walls. In other words, I will always find a way to get from A to Z than giving up. And, I think that has tremendously helped me to succeed that you are creative and I don't take a no for an answer. And, I'll always figure out a way to get it down or a way to make it happen or a way to hire somebody or a way to get through to a customer. So, I have been able to take advantage of that particular character that I have.
Larry: Well, let me ask this question. You've done a lot, you're doing a lot and you're working with other people helping them along the way. How do you bring balance into your personal and professional lives?
Saman: I bring balance by not only working and running a business, but really getting involved with activities. I love different types of competitive sports. Specifically, I play tennis and I compete. I play for the USDA tennis team. And, I'm always constantly learning a new sport. Recently, I started learning how to do stand up paddle boarding and I can barely swim. So, I'm learning how to swim and doing paddle boarding in the ocean in Hawaii. So, I constantly look for outside activities that involve either a competitive sport, as well as I do a lot of work related to giving back and helping others. And so, that also brings a balance because it allows you to give back your knowledge and share your knowledge, as well as learn from others.
Lee: That's wonderful. And Saman, it's clear you've given back, you've achieved so much in your career so far. What do you think is next for you down the road?
Saman: Right now that's really a good question. Next for me down the road I see myself being involved in advising start up entrepreneurs and helping them to grow their business and be really involved in that process. I've never had that opportunity. So, I'd really enjoy being able to share my knowledge either in a advisory capacity or as a board member and keeping my eyes and ears open for something creative, another business, a business idea that may come along, or perhaps to lead another company as an executive down the line.
Larry: I have a feeling you're going to do a marvelous job with a bunch of companies.
Saman: Yes, I love that. I love that.
Larry: Well, I'm going to thank you, Saman, for joining us today. Lee Kennedy and I have enjoyed this. We always like talking to the successful entrepreneurs.
Lee: Thank you so much, Saman.
Saman: Thank you so much
Larry: And by the way, you listeners out there, you know you can go to ncwit.org or w3w3.com and listen to this interview and other NCWIT interviews 24/7 it's on a podcast. And, pass this interview along to others that you know would be interested.
Saman: I will definitely do that. Thank you so much.
Lee: Thank you.
Saman: Goodbye. [music]