Sunny Lu Williams - TechServ
Michelle Brandriss: Welcome to, From the Basement Up. My name is Michelle Brandriss, and in today's episode we are meeting Sunny Lu Williams, president of Techserv based in Chicago, Illinois. Sunny is a third generation woman- owned business that was developed to lift underserved communities. Techserv has focused on community impact programs for the last 30 years in areas of healthcare, corrections and education. So welcome Sunny, welcome to From the Basement Up.
Sunny Lu Williams: Thanks for having me.
Michelle Brandriss: Yes, absolutely. Welcome. Talk about Techserv and really kind of the background of the company and how it is helping underserved communities.
Sunny Lu Williams: Yeah. So it's a great story that I actually just recently unearthed. So we are a project management consulting firm and we started back in 1992. And what I recently unearthed was that it was actually my grandmother that founded the company back in 1992. Reagan's administration had several years prior to that allowed for a federal policy, an act, that actually federally allowed women to own businesses for the first time. So it's literally in our generation that we've seen this progress movement. And I was floored when I first realized that it was just that recent, in the mid-'80s.
Michelle Brandriss: inaudible. Yes, I can't believe that. I did not know that. I did not know that, wow.
Sunny Lu Williams: Yes, I mean prior to that a woman buying a car, buying a home had to have co-signers and certainly couldn't own their own businesses. And so my grandmother who has always just been this real plucky, wonderfully strong woman, she survived escape from China during the communist regime to Taiwan. She became one of the first police women in Taiwan and she had, just with my grandfather, had a series of entrepreneurial efforts. And when they came to the states she wanted to continue that business building, really that community building. And she has three sons and a daughter and her three sons were all in computer science. So she's looking at this incredible opportunity to own a business for the first time. And she's like, "Well, I think structurally we have a lot to learn. I think that industry wise we have a lot to consider, but history rights your way." So the only reason we were able to come to the United States was at the time the United States had immigration quotas to fill that were specific in technology applicants and building up the United States to have more computer science background degreed individuals. So there was a huge migration of folks that had a computer science background. And so following that direction, my grandmother had said, "Well we need to do something within this space, and since we have the talent within the family to understand what that looks like, let's support that." And so my family had the great benefit of being supported by many, many Black-owned businesses in Chicago that really paved the way for immigrant businesses to understand, how do you do business with the state? How do you do the business with the city of Chicago? And so my grandmother to her credit, just started building relationships and her daughter- in- law, my mother, has an accounting background and so we just kind of formalized all these different resources, both in friends and family. It's a very immigrant story. So basically everybody that you trust it's like, "What are your skill sets? Can you help?"
Michelle Brandriss: This is great... It's all hands on deck. And what is your grandmother's name?
Sunny Lu Williams: Her name is Judy Lu, and her Chinese name is Yao Xuéwèn. And I love sharing her Chinese name because Yao Xuéwèn, Yao is the family name and Xuéwèn literally stands for one that pursues education. And the last character wen is the character for word or scholarship. And so my grandmother has always been this phenomenal role model to me in that she has always strived to understand the process and strived to be educated on how to do it. And I'm a little embarrassed to share this particular story, when she first came to the states, her grown children at the time said, " Oh, you don't need to learn how to drive." Or kind of tongue in cheek was like, " Okay mom, sure you can go get your US citizenship." This is well before she founded the company. And so she's kind of a, " Well I'll show you mentality." And got her US citizenship, went through and signed up for seniors classes down at the local community center and learned how to drive. And if it weren't for her, really her tenacity and her spirit to say, " I will learn this." And also with a little bit of competitive, I will show you, we wouldn't have had a Techserv start because it was quite a several years before between that act and the incorporation of Techserv. And I like to share the story that during that time it was because my grandmother was studying for her citizenship and trying to practice her driving hours.
Michelle Brandriss: She's amazing. She's-
Sunny Lu Williams: She's an amazing woman. She's an amazing woman.
Michelle Brandriss: Awesome.
Sunny Lu Williams: So being the next, or rather second generation after that, I have a lot of shoes to fill and also quite frankly a legacy to really carry on. And so my grandmother and subsequently my mother focused very much on school corporations and delivering technology to education systems. And I recall during my days at Purdue University I would organize and schedule my classes and then actually drive back to Chicago to literally help install computer labs at Chicago public school systems.
Michelle Brandriss: So that must be so rewarding too. I mean, that's-
Sunny Lu Williams: Oh, absolutely.
Michelle Brandriss: ...fantastic. So as far as building it out then, did you have to help teach everything as well? So the hard wiring and getting the computers there, but then as far as the computer classes, were you all involved with that as well?
Sunny Lu Williams: We weren't in the early days, because at the time the procurement process was you deliver hardware, you're an installer or you're professional services. And it was difficult, and I would say a bit of a language issue for us to have done the training for teachers. Again, I was an undergrad at Purdue, I was not available full time to train on the technology licensure or the use of traditional school management systems. And our contracting really was in delivering the hardware, installing, doing test and turn up and supporting that component and other professional services firms really came in to deliver the educational component. But Michelle, that's such a spot on question because that is actually what our firm now does, which is professional services, the technical assistance and the delivery on the training application towards business process and fundamentally greater efficiencies in public health, public safety and public education. So I like to say that that foundation really paved the way over the last 30 years for more participation specifically in the process and instructional design, which is my background, I am not a computer science major. And so that it was very helpful for me to really bridge the way that we participate with our systems and institutions, which is, it's no longer a I buy this product type of environment, it's really, I need to buy the comprehensive program to enable me to maximize the utility on that product, otherwise I've brought something that will just sit in the corner and not be utilized by my organization. So over really the very short last five years, we've transitioned to almost 95% professional services revenue.
Michelle Brandriss: So thank you, because the story of your grandmother's amazing and I want to get to your mother as well. But now I want to hear more about you too before we get into that. Because I know that you know went to Purdue, then I also found out you went to the London School of Economics. So I love your background as well. So if you don't mind kind of talking about your background and then we'll merge back into Techserv again.
Sunny Lu Williams: Yeah, happy to. So I was born overseas, I was born in Taipei, Taiwan, which is very normative for immigrant families. My father came to the states to study while I was raised by my grandparents. So that may seem a little odd to those that are not necessarily familiar with the multi- generational family raising in immigrant families, but I had this wonderful tutelage under my grandfather and my grandmother from a very, very young age to understand really what it means to have good community economic development. So imagine you are with your five- year- old child or you're with your five- year- old grandchild and imagine showing them two different currencies. So my grandfather placed a hundred dollars new Taiwan dollar and a hundred dollar US dollar bill in front of me. And I remember this very poignantly because he goes, " This is a hundred dollars new Taiwan dollars, what does that buy? This is a hundred dollars US dollars, what does that buy?" And because of my formative education by serial entrepreneurs, at five, I could answer that question, because I have seen and participated in everything from the sales and marketing to a trade show to actually having customers come to our home for dinner. So at a very formative age and having these economic teachings from my grandparents to say, " When you are a financially healthy and sound economy, this is the difference of what you can provide for your people." And both of them struggled horrendously during the Cultural Revolution and escaped China for a better opportunity in Taiwan. And those stories are passed down so that again, I have this legacy, this kind of legacy of burden to say, you have this incredible life compared and there are generations of people that never saw the light of day because they were exterminated in this genocide. And so because you are here, you have this responsibility towards your community to do the work that you're doing. And so I've always been like, " Oh man, this is a lot." Now even when I went to Purdue and afterwards to The London School of Economics and then to the IU Kelley School of Business, it was really more of a how do I learn more about systems? How do I learn more about the processes that we as a society build today that either are working or are not working for our communities? And so having had this tutelage backed of my grandfather looking at really the financial health of the community and the impact of how we spend money and my grandmother in saying always understand what the process is, always seek to educate yourself on what the systems that exist are and either follow the system through or understand the system, play the game, but make change along the way as an example of how should be better. And so those formative lessons have carried me through to today where I am, I wake up every day going, " I can't believe we're a for- profit company able to do the things that we do to help support change," but it's because of the passion of our team members and partners and being willing to literally follow not only those ideologies but literally utilize those process build out standards to go through and effect policy change at the legislative level.
Michelle Brandriss: And it's so inspirational. And oftentimes people think they have to go into government or they have to run for office to make big changes. And you're showing a way of, no, you can do it through the private sector and you can do it through technology or different ways to really help. And I have found, when I started this podcast, speaking to people who are wanting to make change in their community, it's kind of one of those reasons, Emily has been helping also find people who I could talk to and through their business helping change in the community. And it's so important and it's so cool to meet people who are doing it. And I love your grandmother. I mean, she's awesome.
Sunny Lu Williams: She's amazing. I think you made a really great point about we have type-casted certain roles in our kind of communities and our ecosystems to say, "Oh, this is your job." In reality, those particular roles might be the ones to initiate a process or advocate for a particular message or initiative, but it can never be one single organization or person or stakeholder, it requires collaboration. I was benefited by an incredible public school education and I had teachers that understood what civic duty and civic duty teachings in the classroom really are and mean. And I had teachers that understood how to share and apply collective impact. Those teachers really understood that they were entrusted and had the authority to define what was going to be taught in curriculum to support the next generation of leadership. If we don't pour into our teachers, we aren't pouring into our next generation. And so from a public education space, we have to understand that they went to school to be the experts on how to teach, what to teach, curriculums and so forth. And when we politicize that as a role, we have some significant consequences that come about. And so if we don't understand civic duty and collective impact and we're not teaching that today, I think we're getting further and further from the mark of being able to really look at it and say, empowering change through private sector, empowering change through entrepreneurship and leadership because that is a whole curriculum missing from our formative education. In the years that I had to go to IU Kelley, I think it was very clear what our professor's political leanings were, but they were also very clear to say this is different types of thought leadership and you're going to have to bridge that gap when you are looking at creating change, celebrating commonalities towards a common goal.
Michelle Brandriss: I really liked what you said where you have teachers going to school to learn how to teach and learn what to teach rather than... I mean, our school board here where parents are getting involved, where suddenly they're deciding what teachers should be teaching. I don't want that, you have not been trained in that. I don't want you telling our teachers what they should be teaching.
Sunny Lu Williams: Right, unless you are literally a scholar of instructional design and have the credentials to provide your opinion, as simply as that.
Michelle Brandriss: I appreciate that input and I'm all for you getting up and voicing that, I think it's fantastic and we need it. So more parents need to step up and say, " Hey, let's let the teachers teach, and they have gone to school for this and they are the specialists." No one wants me trying to fix a car, and our kids are more important than our cars. Now you have expanded, you obviously are in Indiana, but you're doing work in Illinois, Indiana and then you're also doing work internationally as well. How did that come about?
Sunny Lu Williams: No, we have a seven state footprint in the US, and those count active programs today. Internationally, we've paused a lot of that work simply because I haven't been able to get there. So an example of a phenomenal project, we had a wonderful stakeholder group in the Indiana Department of Health here that did a tremendous amount of work on looking at diabetes education, prevention and programs and they essentially created the strategic action plan. They published it, I looked at this beautiful strategic action plan and I'm like, " We really need to implement this." And many community organizations in Indiana and the states was like, it was too broad, it was too comprehensive and it really required a significant funding. So I just kind of parked it for a little bit and luck and happenstance occurred and I was on a flight to Doha, Qatar, and I was speaking at a medical device conference. And I had an audience member that was the private physician to the royal family in Bahrain. And so he's like, " I want you to come and speak." And I thought I was going to come and speak about medical technology, which is kind of at the time for my focus. And so I said, " I'd be happy to accept the invitation." When I arrived, he had nothing to do with medical technology. He was like, " You are such an inspirational speaker, we want to formalize a capstone project with you that is focused on employee health and wellness for the oil and gas industry." And so as we were planning health and wellness, we ended up taking the strategic action plan, I said, " Just read this plan and see what you guys think as far as implementation." Three years later, Guinness Book of World Records for longest standing, continuous diabetes education programming for the largest spectrum of age groups, which then resulted in more public health programs.
Michelle Brandriss: Awesome.
Sunny Lu Williams: This is the kind of work where, tongue in cheek, I say, our organization is about Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and digital marketing. That's literally what we do. We have to partner with the people that do the work in order for real change to occur.
Michelle Brandriss: So with that, because now you have a seven state footprint, is it more education or is it health as well in all seven states?
Sunny Lu Williams: So in the seven states, predominantly it's all public health. It's all public health policy change. Most states are very behind in their public health policy, they're very behind in the literal passing of public health laws. So, of course nobody could predict the pandemic, but there were many people predicting the opiate crisis. And so with that, the funding that came from state opiate response dollars through to settlement dollars with the pharmaceutical companies through to then COVID and pandemic, et cetera, has really created a environment of public health funding that we will probably never see... I probably will never see again in my lifetime.
Michelle Brandriss: I feel like I'm just grasping what you do. How do you get people to understand your process, the lawmakers or the people who can really make a difference? You've got data driven solutions, how did you poll the data? So how do you show the modeling so you can have people kind of grasp it and take it and run with it?
Sunny Lu Williams: So that's a very interesting question because I'll be very frank, I am still tweaking the translative properties of that, the actual response to that. So I will say that we have multiple different views of the same information and that's what makes our organization a huge benefit to all of the different stakeholders within the community. So for example, in a particular program we will have seven different iterations of the same information.
Michelle Brandriss: Oh wow.
Sunny Lu Williams: And that first iteration is, to the funder, is very different from the second group, which is really the community. And even in the community you have to break the community into three additional groups, which are stakeholders, people that understand the process, people that are the users of the process and the people that are the deliverers of the process. And then the latter three are really looking at continuous change management of how does your program evolve? So almost think of it like, how does your program time lapse and how do you show that time lapse and change? Then, how do you report on the outcomes? And finally, then how do you support that messaging to say, " Hey, next community, you really want this program."
Michelle Brandriss: As far as wins, you're Techserv, what do you think some of your biggest wins have been?
Sunny Lu Williams: That's a really good question. I would say that anytime we take on a brand new agency and we win that first grant with a new agency, that's a win to me because that means that we understood not only the agency's strategies objectives, but we also understand the true why behind this particular funding opportunity. And that's exciting stuff for me because I'm one of those really boring people that actually read the federal budget, it's over a thousand pages, but you have to follow the money, right? So I'm not saying as part of your civic duty you have to read the federal budget, but I'm saying you have to understand what's out there, you have to understand what's being funded and why and you have to please read the acts, the propositions, whatever the language of the bill is before you formulate a comment because it's not supportive to be an echo chamber and it's not supportive to just copy and paste or repost until you really understand, how does that act benefit you, your family and your community or how does it not? And so a huge win for me, for our team specifically is understanding that we have gotten the aha, and part of it is just the translation. You are so embedded in your day to day, you may not know that you're totally disconnected from the community or from how does this work in the field. And so there's those components of, how do we really have these good stewards that are vendors, subcontractors, and folks like ourselves that say, " Okay, we get it. This is what we think we heard and understood, this is what we responded with and this is where we think we can provide further improvement and change management." And that's all part of the iterative design process. So that's my biggest win. My other biggest win is, we have a lot of interns, we have a lot of students that I feel obligated to give almost this apprenticeship journey, because I feel like that's really what gave me the experience. That exposure early on when I was still able to decide what I wanted to do in a career is what made me have the empowerment to make those decisions, not just kind of keep on keeping on. So another huge win for me is when our interns choose to stay and they get excited about a full- time offer with us. I feel very hopeful that we have more and more folks that can lend their incredible skill sets towards a greater good and establishing themselves in not only being that translative messenger but really listening and providing a different point of access for folks whose voices should have been heard all along but they weren't.
Michelle Brandriss: It's so inspirational, and I love that you're developing a tribe on your end. So thank you for doing that. And I wanted to ask also, as we're coming to the end of the interview, do you have a mantra or words that you kind of say around the office or the inspirational quote that you might have hung above your office door?
Sunny Lu Williams: I was about to turn around, just look around. I think probably the most important thing that I try to remember for myself, and then I literally like this tribe that you're referring to, I really like that, and I like the alliteration with Techserv, a Techserv tribe. I would say that I always remind our team to rest and to take time to really think through things and plan and not be so worried about the doing if we don't have the plan in place. And so I would offer that that is something that we continuously support in that you should not be working late hours in the night, you should be communicating that a timeline needs to be pushed. And not just that I don't want to see your email so that you do delayed send until the morning, but I really want this organization to have a good life/ work balance because in my previous careers as a consultant, as a telecom exec, we really didn't honor that. We didn't honor it. And I as a leader of people, but also as in a manager didn't honor that. And so I really want to ensure that people when we look and talk about collective impact, that it's our energies and our efforts and overall our preparedness that really will showcase long term sustaining collective impact. And if we can't sustain ourselves and our families, there's no way that we can sustain our communities. I think my team would tell you that we always have an overabundance amount of food at any of our events and we have vegans and vegetarians and others that have religious practices that abstain from various foods and that we are always really focused on that invitation to be and come together, not necessarily for a particular agenda, but just being together as an organization. And I think that that's incredibly important and we spend the majority of our lives working that we should do things that we're passionate about with people that we care for and be purpose filled in what we do on a day to day.
Michelle Brandriss: Thank you. I love collective impact and purpose filled, those are two great just points that I'm pulling from that too. I just love that. But Sunny, you are an inspiration. I love the work that you're doing, it's amazing. And as I was reading and I was finding out about you, I was struggling just because I'm not a tech- minded person. And everything I kept finding out, I'm like, " Wow, wow." I mean, this is really cool stuff, it really is.
Sunny Lu Williams: Thank you.
Michelle Brandriss: And I think it might be at a higher level than many people know. So I think you're flying under the radar because it's hard to understand, but it's really amazing.
Sunny Lu Williams: Now that you've said that, I will give you the quote, " It's not about us, it's about the community." And so I'm very reluctant when people ask us to be interviewed or front and center, and I will give kudos to the team over at Inside Indiana Business, they really, really wanted me to share about these wonderful programs and things that are coming on. And I was like, " No, no, no. It needs to be the community. It needs to be community. It needs to be the community." And so the wonderful executive producer there said, " Okay, great. Then you moderate it." So I offered for us to take over a Gary Dick show for me to moderate the conversation with the community. I was so floored and so thankful and so honored and we really dove deep. And I will say that we're very process oriented, very project oriented, so sometimes it gets lost in the details, but for sure it's never intended to be too high level or not translative or not able to be understood. But there's just so many fine details in how we are able to do the work that we do that sometimes I'm like, " You got four hours, I've got a strategy session I can workshop with you." But other than that, the real tight scripted impact messaging I leave to my marketing team, and we have a wonderful marketing agency led by some incredible community messengers, we like to call them.
Michelle Brandriss: You care so much about what you do, you read the federal budget, your inaudible meetings are a minimum of four hours. I mean, it's amazing. It really is. And-
Sunny Lu Williams: Even though they're four hours, there's always a good amount of food, restful breaks and lots of walking, just so... It almost sounds like a punishment, these four- hour strategy inaudible, but I would tell you, across the community, everybody really enjoys them.
Michelle Brandriss: Good. But Sunny, thank you for joining us. It's so inspirational. I love hearing small level or at the fine details and to help us move forward as a community, and thank you so much for being so community minded. We need that, so it's huge. Thank you.
Sunny Lu Williams: Well, thank you for sharing the message and it was a pleasure to be with you today.
Michelle Brandriss: Yes, so nice meeting you. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you to our listeners for joining us for today's episode. And thank you to my amazing producer, Emily Flanigan. She deals with all my shenanigans. Julia Augustino, thank you for the amazing composition that you have made for the podcast. And listeners, feel free to check us out on our social media channels. Don't forget to give us a five- star review and you can also visit us on fromthebasementup.com. Thank you so much.
Sunny Lu Williams is the President of TechServ, a woman-owned business aimed at helping underserved communities, focusing on healthcare, corrections, and education. Sunny Lu is passionate about improving community and public health, and today she shares how she and TechServ are doing just that. Listen now for TechServ's incredible story, and learn how they are expanding and doing good for our communities.