Free Leadership: Q&A with Jessica Irwin of SEEK Arizona

Jessica is a leader in services to individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their families in the Southwest (www.seekarizona.org).

Q: Why did you decide to start your company?

A: I worked as a provider for several other companies and I was struck by how frustrated the families were with the system. I frequently found myself scribbling my plan of how to do it better on beverage napkins over dinner. My friends asked, “how hard can it be?” and it was clear I needed to pursue my own dream.

Q: Any favorite stories from the early days?

A: With very little cash and working out of my home I hired my first 15 employees, held initial training, fingerprinted them and even had a BBQ, all on one very hot Saturday in August 2003. They were all very patient and we had a lot of fun together, including hotdogs and hamburgers! Then I had to turn in my first billing to the State of Arizona on September 1st and wait 10 agonizing days to get paid so we could make payroll. Today we have grown and added many different services, but I still treasure the beginning.

Q: Has it been challenging to be a woman in an executive role that is perceived to be dominated by men?

A: There are women at just about every level in our marketplace so I don’t think it has been very negative. However, when I deal with men in other businesses it can be quite amusing. Recently, the manager of a company we have considered for acquisition focused his 45-minute sales pitch on our VP, who is male. Suddenly, he turned to me and said, “wait, you’re the CEO!” After he recovered we had a very good conversation. The other issue that often comes up is that men think I am more focused on appearance than cost effectiveness. They’re wrong.

Q: What is your biggest challenge for the future?

A: When you have a business with a solid reputation, it’s easy to get caught up in chasing every opportunity that comes your way. Before you know it, you have spread yourself too thin as you try to accommodate new payers and capitalize on new business relationships. We spend a lot of time continually refocusing on quality and this has helped us to grow in a more controlled fashion.

Q: Any last thoughts?

A: We formed a non-profit, The Foundation for Exceptional Kids, to help families navigate the system of care that has been diminished by the recession-era reductions in funding. We’ve helped quite a few families access services in cooperation with a number of local organizations and individuals.

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