Sunday Sitdown: Joanna Sobran, former waitress, clerk now heads Chicago tech firm
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Joanna Sobran is the founder, owner, president and CEO of MXOtech, one of Chicago’s few woman-owned tech companies.
She came to the United States at 11 when her mother immigrated from Poland, not knowing a word of English. She waitressed at the Ruth Lake Country Club in Hinsdale, then spent years working for physician-group tech companies before starting her own.
Sobran’s fast-growing business has $4 million in yearly revenues, its web portal used by every physician group affiliated with one of the nation’s largest health insurers.
An edited transcript of an interview with Sun-Times reporter Sandra Guy follows.
Question: You grew up in a Communist country, yet your vivid memories include watching a Pope John Paul II speech in a piazza across from your mother’s parents’ home in Opole, Poland, as well as having to wait in line to buy food with allotted stamps. What was your response to suddenly being moved to Chicago?
Answer: A complete shock. I had never seen so much abundance, so many options, so many items in the stores. I had never seen a person of different colored skin except in books. I had never heard other languages. On top of it, I didn’t speak any English.
I didn’t know my family. My younger sister (who had spent the previous three and a half years at the Shriners’ Hospital for Children in Chicago) had grown up a little bit. My mother had changed. There was no warm and fuzzy and love when I got here: Here you are. You go to this school. You have a new stepdad. We have to go to work. We have to make money.
Q: You credit Pat Arnold, an entrepreneur who ran a 401(k)-planning company, with convincing you to stop waitressing and take a lesser-paying job at a woman-owned physician-group management company.
A: Pat told me why I needed to take that pay cut — that someone was giving me an opportunity. I started as a clerical person at SNI Management in Hinsdale, and I got to work for two of the most wonderful women business owners — Linda Nottingham and Joan Bailar.
I saw them take an idea and make it very successful. They took over the market as one of the first companies providing managed-care services to physician groups.
They hired really smart people. They spoke well, they looked great, they were successful, they were respected.
I watched them and said, “That’s what I want to be.”
Q: The next stage was as a recruiter with Tech Alliance and moving into sales.
A: You get a job somewhere at a big corporation, and the salespeople have certain territories. I didn’t have any of that. If I wanted to do my own recruiting, that was OK.
I loved learning something new.
I was 28 years old and making $150,000 a year with no college education. But I didn’t care about the money. After giving birth to my first daughter, Hannah, in 2005, I wanted more out of life and to fulfill my dream. Hannah’s sister, Abby, turned 4 years old in June.
Q: Your family thought you were doing a foolish thing.
A: Mike, Hannah’s dad, came with me and became the network administrator. Brian Connelley, who is with me to this day, was the programmer. We started by helping a large health-insurance company transition to a new data-submission system for re-insurance revenue-tracking.
We went from that tiny project to being the portal for every physician group for the entire insurance company. We have more than 1,200 users.
Q: Why do you have your “core values” everywhere on the walls, as constant reminders?
A: My team worked for six months, meeting for 15 minutes every week, to come up with words that had meaning to us. They are: clarity, inspiration, trust and accountability.
When we were generating $1 million in revenue yearly, we had five employees. It was easy to manage things. Now, we are at 28 employees with revenues of $4 million. As the team gets bigger and processes get more complicated, you have to have a methodology to follow.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: For Christmas, I went to Australia to visit my sister. For two weeks, I took the kids to Australia.
We’ve gone to Disney World and to Wisconsin.
Sometimes, I just go downtown. We get a hotel, and the girls go swimming.
I love spending time with my good friends. We go to each other’s houses. We cook and explore restaurants.
I love making Asian-style food, cooking with curries.
I love romantic movies. I just went to Arizona and the film festival. I love independent movies. Sedona — it’s so spiritual, so zen.