As Featured in Twin Cities Business Magazine February 2012
Woman With a Plan
Ideal System Solutions
Headquarters: Minnetonka // Founded: 1997 Employees: 40, 10% minority
In technology, an industry dominated by white men, Elise Hernandez is a rare Latina. Asked whether being a woman or Latino presented the greater challenge, Hernandez retorted unequivocally: ” A Woman.”
Hernandez, 46, is the president and co-founder of Ideal System Solutions, Inc. a fast-growing company that provides information technology (IT) services to companies and government agencies.
“Sixteen years ago, there were very few women-owned technology companies,” says Hernandez. “Even today, I can be in a group of people, and someone will only address my male employees.”
She learned responsibility early. The daughter of a Mexican immigrant father and a Mexican-American mother, Hernandez”s parents divorced when she was young, and her mother raised four children on welfare. When Hernandez was about 10 or 11, her mother went to school to become a registered nurse and then joined the military when Hernandez was still at St. Louis Park High School. “When my mother was gone for extended periods in boot camp, I took over the house,” recalls Hernandez. “My mother instilled in me independence at a young age. I had to make lots of decisions on my own.”
“I always knew I would go to college,” Hernandez says. “I did not want to end up like my mother, relying on the welfare system.” After putting herself through college at the University of Minnesota, she enrolled in the MBA program at Metropolitan State University. Her master’s thesis was to develop a business plan for a start-up technology company.
“While going to school, I worked for small technology companies that didn’t have a plan,” says Hernandez. “They didn’t have a strategy. In those days, it was easy for anyone to be successful in the business. You didn’t need a strategy, but I knew that would be short-lived. I knew the industry was changing, becoming more competitive.”
Business plan in hand, Hernandez and her husband, John McGuire, launched Ideal System Solutions, Inc. in 1997 with $1,000. At that time, the company was a value-added reseller of technology products from IBM, Cisco, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, and others. Hernandez was aware of the advantages that being a women- and minority-owned business offered and sought out the Small Business Administration to become an 8-A (socially and economically disadvantaged) certified business, which allowed her to bid on government contracts. “It was a nine-year program that opened doors for us,” she says. “We have graduated from that program.” Customers include Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Army and Navy, and the Department of Energy.
For the first 10 years, Ideal System Solutions remained a reseller of technology products, but the industry started to shift again, becoming more commoditized with smaller profit margins for resellers. “Five years ago I began building out technology services: Communications and IT consulting,” says Hernandez.
To do that, she made two strategic acquisitions, Minnetonka-based Excel Systems in 2010 and Minneapolis-based Creative Vision Technologies in 2011. Excel Systems specializes in unified communications, putting together voice, video, and data, while Creative Vision Technologies focuses on consulting services and solutions.
Hernandez used the sluggish economy to focus on strategic planning. Now, she says, “Business is good.”
“People can’t hold off any longer. They are spending money. They are upgrading their technology infrastructures. We’ve been awarded numerous contracts. I’m seeing expansion from both the commercial firms and the public sector. Demand for both technology products and services is increasing simultaneously.”
Today, Hernandez’s husband plays a much smaller role in the business and a larger role at home with the couple’s children, while she keeps an eye out for the next industry shift.