by Rob Enderle

How the Women of Dell Are Humanizing the Tech Giant

Dec 14, 20126 mins
Computers and PeripheralsFinancial Services IndustryInnovation

At this week's Dell World, the company proved to be unique among tech companies in several ways. CEO Michael Dell shared the stage with his smart, sharp wife, while entrepreneur-in-residence Ingrid Vanderveldt shared some valuable lessons for startups. (Oh, and Bill Clinton was there.)

Dell is one of the few companies from the golden era of technology still run by its founder. However, like most technology companies, over time, Dell (the company) has lost its small-company charm and become largely another faceless giant.

While this has been an unfortunate change, two women at Dell are taking the lead in reversing this outcome. One is Michael Dell’s wife Susan and the other is the company’ entrepreneur-in-residence, Ingrid Vanderveldt. Together, they are Dell’s Angels.

OK, I clearly watched too much Charlie’s Angels when I was younger, but the point is that their unusual efforts of these people are giving Dell its friendly face again. In the process, the Dell brand is becoming far friendlier and far more strategic.

Bill Clinton Hints at Susan Dell’s Role, Influence

While I’ve followed and been impressed by Vanderveldt for some time, Susan Dell’s efforts weren’t as visible until Bill Clinton personally thanked her on stage for significantly helping with his efforts to fix the world.

Bill Clinton at Dell World 2012
Bill Clinton delivers the keynote at Dell World 2012. (Photo courtesy of Mashable .)

Clinton, like Jimmy Carter before him, has been a huge force for good after he got out of politics. Some may recall that had his programs remained intact until now,we’d likely be out of debt, or nearly out, rather than at record national debt levels. The reason I know this is that Clinton pointed this out several times during his fascinating keynote presentation at Dell World 2012.

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It was clear that Susan Dell was instrumental in getting Clinton to Dell World. Of the events I’ve attended from the Tier 1 solutions providers, the former president is by far the most powerful of the guest speakers. While this may seem like a little thing–when Dell can clearly eclipse its older and generally larger competitors in anything–it’s big. Dell basically threw down the gauntlet with regard to sustainable energy and smart technology—meaning, technology used to make children more competitive, businesses more successful and the environment safer and better to live in.

Tying the Dell brand to this effort helps the brand to appear more attractive to both consumer and corporate buyers. In addition, since Clinton is arguably the most respected of the living former U.S. presidents, the connection to Dell and the obvious affinity that Clinton and Michael Dell held for each other was a powerful, subtle image-enhancing tool for the company.

Meanwhile, I’ve often felt that CEOs with sharp spouses don’t use those assets very well. By ignoring them, they often end up having issues such as Mark Hurd at Hewlett-Packard, where they forming unfortunate attachments that can damage the company and their own happiness. Watching Michael and Susan Dell collaborate, on the other hand, warms my heart and, I think, should be a best practice. More CEOs should attempt to get their spouses involved in the business. This effort reflects well on Michael and Susan Dell, and Dell as a company, and I hope other CEOs learn from it.

Ingrid Vanderveldt: Helping Dell Plant Seeds of Innovation

One of the most powerful efforts at Dell, from a strategic standpoint, is also one we seem to talk the least about. This is their effort to assist small companies, often led by women. One success story is Current Motor, led by the equally impressive Lauren Flanagan.

Vanderveldt helps these small companies get funding, set strategy and leverage Dell resources to better assure their success. (Current Motor, a startup I follow closely, makes electric scooters. I’ve tested two of their products and reviewed them favorably. They are a ball to drive.)

Vanderveldt’s roundtable brought together several entrepreneurs who shared insight into how to get both crowdsourced and traditional funding, what problems to avoid (though I took exception to one piece of advice) and how to identify the common problems that cause startups to fail.

The exception I took: One panelist said you should only ask for the money you need, because if you ask for more you’ll likely mismanage it. This advice focuses on a common symptom of the real problem, poor financial management skills, and missed another common problem, which is being underfunded. Either can cause a promising startup to fail. You have to address financial management early on, or else you’ll fail anyway.

Another piece of advice, however, was right on the money. If you think all your problems will be solved with more money, then you have likely not figured out what your problems are, and you’ll waste the money if you get it. Thinking money is theproblem is a huge warning sign that something is seriously broken in your business model. Find that problem and fix it, and the money problem will likely fix itself.

What makes Vanderveldt’s efforts very strategic is that helping a company get started makes that company one of your most loyal and outspoken customers as it grows up. Creating a strong base of loyal customers, and refreshing that base with new, young customers, can go a long way to assuring you’ll be around next century.

Dell’s Angels Ready for Their Next Mission

While there are an impressive number of women in key positions to help Dell assure success, it’s Susan Dell and Vanderveldt who stand out in positions that are, unfortunately, unique. Every CEO with a competent spouse, man or woman, should be engaging that skill, both to improve performance and to strengthen their marriage and their company. There are few you can confide in as deeply as a spouse, and few partnerships have the ability to last as long. Too many leaders simply don’t get this. It warmed my heart to see Michael Dell get this one right and set an excellent example.

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Vanderveldt’s efforts to create seed customers is unfortunate because it is unique to Dell. If every company worked as heard to create young companies that would later become large, loyal customers, every company would be far more strategically successful. Having an Entrepreneur in Residence, as Dell does, is another best practice.

In the end, Dell’s Angels are successfully enhancing Dell’s image in different ways. Now all Michael Dell needs is an intercom so he can grow his team and send it on ever more interesting missions.

Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Enderle writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.

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