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'People come first': Michelle Bates draws on 20 years of experience

“The idea of starting my own business came from the standpoint of cloud computing helping large and small businesses,” says Michelle Bates, now chief information officer at Involta. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
“The idea of starting my own business came from the standpoint of cloud computing helping large and small businesses,” says Michelle Bates, now chief information officer at Involta. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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UPDATE: Due to the severe cold this week, the Michelle Bates's Founder Fireside has been rescheduled to March 6.

Michelle Bates believes if a girl from the land of the Amish can understand technology, anyone can understand technology.

The 52-year-old Kalona native is not Amish, but she began honing her people and technology skills working for Hochstedler Insurance, her family’s 55-year-old business.

“I grew up in a community where technology really wasn’t prevalent from an education standpoint,” recalled Bates, now chief innovation officer at Involta in Cedar Rapids.

“When I graduated from the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a degree in accounting, I came back to Iowa. I had determined that I didn’t want to go into the world of public accounting because I liked people more than background checks.

”I share my father’s philosophy that people come first, regardless of the goals of a business.”

Hochstedler Insurance was in the process of installing a computer system and Bates took an active role in implementing the necessary operational changes.

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“We did all of the things that make an accountant’s heart sing,” she said. “We improved operating margins and allowed the business to grow without additional operational expense.”

While reading the newspaper one morning, she spotted an employment opportunity with Applied Systems, the company that made the software her family’s insurance agency was using on its computer system.

“Applied Systems was opening a 60-person call center in Coralville,” Bates said. “I was the only person out of 60 who had ever seen its software solution at that point in time.

“I started with the company as a leader in a call-center environment and was able to grow my career pretty quickly from a leadership standpoint.”

Bates left Applied Systems to work for Freedom Group in Cedar Rapids as a product manager for the compliance software company.

“I was tapped on the shoulder by one of the leaders at Freedom Group to help with the start-up of the technology division of Transcend Software in the Quad Cities,” she said.

“I continued to grow my career and ended up as a leader with HNI Corp. in Muscatine, where I worked on some global acquisitions.”

With a desire to move closer to Kalona, Bates left HNI to become director of information technology architecture services at Rockwell Collins — now Collins Aerospace — in Cedar Rapids, a position she held for about seven years.

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“I was responsible for helping oversee the creation of the cloud technology strategy,” Bates said. “Rockwell Collins was looking at ways to improve global productivity and collaboration across the company and across the world.

“I started working with companies like Google and Amazon Web Services and I had worked with Microsoft through the course of my career.”

Bates said it became apparent that cloud computing was enabling Rockwell to bring in talent from both coasts to help with company initiatives.

“The idea of starting my own business came from the standpoint of cloud computing helping large and small businesses,” she said. “What if I could create a service provider organization here to help companies in the Midwest grow and be relevant in their markets? They could find the talent they needed locally, rather than bring people in from the coasts.”

Synergies

Bates launched BluPrairie Technologies of Coralville in October 2015 as an independent cloud strategy and design partner. The company grew as it focused on helping clients develop a plan to pair the right technologies — mobile and cloud solutions — and the right service providers, such as Google and Amazon Web Services, to harvest business value.

BluPrairie was partnering with Involta, a Cedar Rapids-based national provider of information technology services, to serve some mutual customers. That close working relationship led to Involta Founder and CEO Bruce Lehrman offering to purchase the Coralville company this past fall.

“Like all entrepreneurs, I knew that I would have to face the situation where someone had an interest in purchasing my company at some point in time,” Bates said. “I never anticipated that would happen after just three years.

“We had experienced good growth and we had acquired some great customers. Our work with mutual customers led to Bruce and I having some great conversations about the synergies between our two companies.

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“My customers were asking about 24-by-7, 365-day operational support and his customer base was beginning to ask about cloud services. We went to lunch in late January 2018 and that led to Involta’s acquisition of BluPrairie in October 2018.”

Her relationship with Lehrman predated the time that their companies worked with mutual clients.

“Bruce has been a tremendous supporter of me throughout my career,” she said. “As I started BluPrairie, he was always in my corner, so the synergies between our businesses will now be the future of Involta’s products and services.”

While starting a business later in life is daunting for some people, Bates said she launched BluPrairie after raising a family.

“I started my entrepreneurial journey after my girls graduated from college and were off adulting and doing amazing things,” Bates said. ”The moral of the story is. ‘It’s never too late to start.’”

Bates was prepared for the long hours that launching and growing a business requires.

“Growing up, I was used to my dad not having an 8-to-5 schedule,” she said.

“My career in technology has always been a 24-by-7, 365-day world, so I think I was uniquely positioned to adapt to those expectations.“

• Million cups

Michelle Bates will be the first Founder Fireside speaker in the new format for 1 Million Cups, which will feature entrepreneurs and business leaders facing specific challenges. Subsequent weeks will bring together panels of experts to offer business advice and presenters on topics appropriate for leaders of young companies.

1 Million Cups is free and open to the public, but applications to be presenters and panelists are screened.

The Gazette is a media sponsor of the events.

If you go

• What: Founder Fireside series — Michelle Bates, Involta chief innovation officer

• When: 8:15 a.m., Wednesday

• Where: Geonetric Building, 415 12th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

• Admission: Free, no registration required

• For more details: newbo.co

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.