| Eye on Innovation:
NSI Leads the Pack with Focus on Excellent Service
Sonal Shah, president of Northwest Software, Inc. (NSI), is accustomed to the limelight. Since establishing her own high-tech consultancy and software development business in 1988, NSI has received numerous accolades. From making the Portland Business Journal’s fastest-growing private companies list to recognition by the U.S. Small Business Association and the Northwest Minority Business Council – Shah has led the company to double-digit revenue growth over the years.
NSI earned the distinction of being first-to-market with an innovative software offering, EZRecruit – a software system that automates the process of human capital procurement for Fortune 1000 companies. Leveraging almost two decades of experience and knowledge in staffing services, NSI designed the product in order to streamline the recruiting process. Product development started in 1999, and EZRecruit took about three years before it was launched to the market. Today, the product is being used by Fortune 500 companies including Farmers and AFLAC.
"Innovation is what helped us in addressing the goal toward differentiating our service and delivering customer value. We invested in research and development, and that helped us stay ahead of our competitors,” she said.
Shah, born and raised in India, grew up with a strong female role model: Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister at the time. “When I was growing up, my dad always told me, ‘If others can do it, why not you?’ Since we were a family of seven sisters and no brothers, my father always reinforced that women can do what men could. I can still remember his words. ‘If you cannot be the sun of the world, try to be the moon.’ That was the guiding principle for me. If others can do it, why can’t I?”
Placing a high premium on education, Shah said that her parents made sure than she and her sisters did well in school. "They saw that the world was changing, but at the same time, they were not naïve. They knew that as women, we have to survive in whatever environment we were in."
Shah moved to the United States in 1986 to join her husband, who was working for Intel at the time. With her background in the medical field in India, she secured a job at a leading pharmaceutical company and subsequently as a product manager for a medical instrumentation company. She began attending business school at the University of Portland. “Although I always had that entrepreneurial spirit and drive, I wanted to complement that with structure. I wanted to understand all aspects of business such as finance, marketing, human resources, sales, processes. Getting an MBA broadened my perspective and helped me become more aware and knowledgeable about a more structured approach to business.”
Soon, she decided to launch her own company. “I wanted to make things happen faster for me,” she said. “That was a main decision factor in starting my own business. I had the strong desire not to have a ceiling, that the sky could be the limit,” said Shah.
Several business ideas were on the table when Shah began the process of developing plans for her new life as entrepreneur and business owner. She and her husband collaborated on narrowing down some of the decisions. “Together, we saw a need for consulting for Software Development and Information Technology and project solutions in the marketplacce. We saw that many companies wanted to get their product out the door sooner. We saw that we could augment their teams and core competencies in order to help them get the product out the door sooner. Northwest Software started out providing consulting engineers to complement customer’s project teams in releasing new products,” she said. Today we are a full solution company offering staffing, project solutions and EZRecruit’s talent acquisition software products.
Although companies were vulnerable to the cyclical nature of business, Shah acknowledges that the late 1980s was a prime period for high-tech growth in the region.
“The economy was different, and there were a lot of industries that were doing very well. Looking back to that period, especially after year 2000, you could see that those were the times when companies were taking more risks, and they were growing more,” she said.
For NSI, a focus on innovation, differentiation and diversification was the key to success in weathering the downtimes and exceeding revenue goals during periods of plenty. “It was important for us to diversify our risk and always anticipate change. For us, what drives our decisions is meeting and exceeding customer needs and demands. We didn’t want to be a ‘me-too’ player. In any industry, there are lots of competitors. So you always have to think about what differentiated value you can provide to your customer. Back in the early 1990s, we decided to exploit technology to be productive, and to innovate, either with processes or with products.” As a result, today we are not only a leading staffing supplier to several large and small organizations, but also deploy EZRecruit to streamline customer’s internal staffing processes.
NSI’s ability to sustain growth also sets it apart from the pack. A sing-minded focus on excellent client service is the company’s paramount goal. “We’re always thinking about what can we do to make our customers look good, and it’s important not to compromise on responsiveness and the quality of services. To deliver speedy results, you have to exploit technology to your benefit, because that will allow you to respond to customer needs in an efficient manner.”
Being able to anticipate and adapt to changing business environments is a chief differentiator for NSI. “Not only should one anticipate change, but one should prepare for change. Change is inevitable: corporations have to change processes to stay competitive. To be effective as a service provider, you need to learn how to align your processes with what customers are going toward."
What’s the most gratifying part of being an entrepreneur? For Shah, it’s simple: "I enjoy working in a team of great people and achieving a vision that continues to enhance customer value."