There aren’t many who accomplish more in a day than Jennifer Skjellum. President of TechBirmingham, executive director of the Angel Investor Management Group’s Birmingham chapter, president and owner of RunTime Computing Solutions, LLC, and a wife and mother, Jennifer stays busy. And did we mention she’s also completed countless marathons and two Ironman triathlons? Jennifer’s can-do attitude is inspiring, and her wealth of knowledge is invaluable to Birmingham’s entrepreneurial and technology communities. We warmly welcome today’s FACE of Birmingham, Jennifer Skjellum!
What brought you to Birmingham? Tell us a little bit about your background.
I was born and raised in California, and went to graduate school in Wisconsin. Then I moved to Mississippi State to take a teaching job in communications, where I met my husband, who also happens to be from California. In 1996, we started MPI Software Technology Inc. as a spin-off of some tech research he was doing at MSU. That’s how I got involved in entrepreneurism and the technology world. The company started to take off and I became the CEO.
Then, in 2003, my husband took a job at UAB as the chair of the computer science department, so we came to Birmingham. We grew the company to about 40 employees with three international offices. Then, in 2004, we were acquired by a California-based company, Verari Systems. As Verari, we provided data center solutions to Fortune 500 companies, including Lucas Films and Wachovia.
For five years, we traveled across the United States to grow that business. Under Verari, we raised $45 million in venture funding, but unfortunately at the end of 2009, the company went bankrupt. Before that happened, we saw the writing on the wall and spun out what we have at Innovation Depot now, which is RunTime Computing Solutions, a small consulting company in the high-performance computing space.
How did you get involved with TechBirmingham? What initiatives are you working on?
When I moved here, I quickly joined the board and got involved with TechBirmingham. We have grown to about 180 member companies and we hold two to three events each month. We’ve started or brought other programs here, including 100 Girls of Code and a Women in Technology group. Now, we’re working on a branding campaign for the city and the region as a tech hub, and we’re spearheading that effort with some nontraditional media ads to try to get outside of the region to help companies recruit here.
What is your dream for Birmingham’s technology ecosystem?
Our big goal at TechBirmingham is to attract some sort of major software company to the region. We want to get to the point where our community is not just recognized as growing and vibrant, but one where we actually have those big-name companies so that graduates of the tech programs at UAB and Auburn are looking at Birmingham as a place to start their careers, versus assuming they have to go elsewhere.
We’re also trying to continue to grow the number of people pursuing tech careers so that we can increase that pipeline. The big challenge there is that people think that if there aren’t enough people to fill the tech jobs, that it’s a tech problem. But, really, it’s a business problem and, even broader, it’s a community problem because technology-enabled fields are where the jobs are and where they’re going to continue to be. So kids coming out of high school and going into college need to be pursing those degrees so that we don’t have a continuing gap between jobs open and jobs filled.
One of the ways you’re working to close that gap is by bringing 100 Girls of Code to Birmingham. What do you hope to achieve through that effort?
With the 100 Girls of Code initiative, we want to show girls that they can pursue careers in tech, because very few technology jobs are filled by women and minorities. We hope to get them to understand at an earlier age that working in tech is a possibility, and they’re not necessarily jobs only for the very brightest. The world has changed, and now, a lot of technology jobs require more general logic skills. We want them to know that it’s a fun field to go into. There are all sorts of things you can do, from media, publishing and games to medicine and curing cancer; all of that has a technology component.
What do you love about working with startups through Birmingham’s chapter of the Angel Investor Management Group?
I grew up in California on a 10-acre farm, and as kids, we’d go around and sell walnuts, so even then I was sort of entrepreneurial. My personality tends to lead me toward wanting to be in charge and make decisions, so if you’re an entrepreneur that’s a benefit, because no one’s going to do it for you. You’re the master of your own destiny. You have to work to get people energized about the mission and lead them toward accomplishing a goal. That’s the fun part.
I love to hear about people’s different entrepreneurial ideas — whether it’s from students, young entrepreneurs or older entrepreneurs — and helping them look at it from a different perspective.
How does your experience enhance the advice you give to other entrepreneurs?
I would say my experience of being in the company when we were acquired was really valuable. For five years after we were acquired by Verari Systems, I served on the executive board. There were 13 of us, and I was the only woman, one of three under 40, so that was really valuable. And having experienced some failure when that company went bankrupt gives me a unique perspective. I can give advice based on that — or at least share my experience with them. And being able to connect them to other people that I meet is more valuable than me simply validating their ideas.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of the fact that we were able to build our company and hire such talented people. We were able to help every one of our employees to take their career to the next level. We put some really smart people in the workforce.
What is your favorite thing about Birmingham?
It’s crazy to see the growth since we moved here in 2003. I’ve had friends come from California and they say the shopping is actually better here. There is all of this stuff to do, whether it’s food, entertainment or shopping, and it’s easily accessible. And I love that there’s still a sense of community here.
What is one hidden gem in Birmingham that every resident should be sure to visit?
Oak Mountain State Park. I’m a triathlete, so I go out there and cycle and go out on the lake.
How do you like to spend your spare time?
I really like cycling with friends and long-distance cycling on the weekends. As a family, we like to go to see movies and read. And sometimes I just like to lie on the couch and watch reality TV.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“Be a student of the industry. Never stop learning.” I heard that phrase from an older CEO and I’ve taken it to heart. I always try to learn or figure out who I can learn from so I can continue to be better.
Name three frivolous or lighthearted things you can’t live without.
Pure Barre, Icebox Coffee and my stand-up paddleboard
Learn more about Jennifer’s multifaceted initiatives and the ways that you can get involved in strengthening Birmingham’s technology ecosystem. Check out TechBirmingham, 100 Girls of Code, the Angel Investor Management Group, and RunTime Computing Solutions, LLC for more details on these exciting groups.
Thank you to Meg McKinney for today’s fantastic photography!
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