• (A)rising to the Challenge

    Angela Selden
    Angela Selden. (Photo by Mark Brown)

    Soon after Angela Selden took over as CEO for Arise Virtual Solutions in 2005, Hurricane Wilma hit Florida. Eighty percent of the people who worked with Arise – people who typically worked from their homes – lived in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. They lost electricity, and broadband and telephone access. With a significant portion of its workforce unable to use their phones and computers for eight or more days, business was cut in half, and two of Arise’s largest clients left.

    The disaster became one of the best things that happened to the company, as it pushed Selden to transform the business. By 2009, due to Arise’s tremendous success, Selden was one of 150 CEOs invited to attend President Barack Obama’s Jobs and Economic Growth Forum.

    Selden’s path to her current position as co-chair at Arise started during an internship while she was an undergraduate student at St. Thomas. She was pursuing majors in accounting and computer science and was interested in an internship at Arthur Andersen (now Accenture). Her internship led to a job offer in either audit or tax, but she asked to go into consulting and became the first St. Thomas graduate to go directly into that field at Arthur Andersen – one of many firsts she has achieved in her career.

    Her education and experience taught her about technology and how it was changing business. She also learned how to work with teams and serve clients. She moved up within the organization, eventually becoming the youngest managing partner. Over three years, she more than doubled the revenue of her group, largely through reinventing its strategy, moving it from 90 percent consulting work to a 50-50 mix of consulting and outsourcing.

    Selden was encountering ideas that were preparing her for a move to Arise, although as one of the top five women at Accenture, she had no plans to leave soon. She began to reflect on how “outsourcing” generally meant “offshoring.” She also considered the need for employment opportunities for Americans, regardless of where in the United States they lived. Selden’s small-town roots in Tomah, Wis., had made her aware of how people often were unemployed or underemployed because of a lack of opportunities in their area. She was reading The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, a book which argues that technological advances have leveled the playing field in global commerce.  “When I read the book, it stopped me in my tracks to realize that technological benefits were being used against us. It made me angry,” she said. Selden felt that technology could be used to help the underemployed.

    One more factor made her think about how changing the way people work might allow them to have a remarkable career while maintaining great relationships with family members: Her three-year-old asked her, “Mommy, what’s it like to live on an airplane?”

    “That was a low point,” Selden said. As Selden was asking herself questions about the lack of adequate employment opportunities in some places and how we can improve the way we work, Arise approached her with the opportunity to become the company’s CEO. The intersection of her roots, her interest in technology and the chance to bring her ideas and abilities into play was too remarkable to pass up.

    A New Way to Work

    Arise provides a virtual workforce to its clients in the areas of customer service, technical support and sales. The people who work with Arise incorporate as an LLC, so they are not employees but small business owners. Selden notes that the social contract has changed over time. Pensions and unions have gone away, and workers are less confident that they will work for their current employer in 15 years.

    Arise’s setup gives people more control. They decide which clients they will serve, how often they will work and where they will do the work – whether from their home or a vacation home. Selden notes this trend is not just happening in the call-center industry but also in law, marketing and technology, allowing employees to have ownership of their careers. “A ‘parent-child’ type of relationship between employer and employee tends to create an environment where the ‘child’ tries to figure out what he can get away with. We need more adult-to-adult relationships for the 21st century,” Selden said. “Arise’s environment is strictly oriented around your ability to control how much you make and when you work.”

    Top performers choose their hours before everyone else. Employees are not paid just to show up. The relationship between the company and the worker puts success in the hands of the worker. “You control your own destiny,” Selden said.

    “It’s scary, and it’s foreign to corporations, which are used to a top-down, command-and-control relationship.” Selden had to convince companies that they could trust people they’d never met and that Arise could provide them with better results through a performance-based environment.

    Some of the people who work with Arise employ others who would rather not create their own business. One of Arise’s success stories is Lexsine Miller, a single mother who was holding down two jobs and lost everything in a move before she began working with Arise. She has built her business, Open Door Multiservices, into a seven-figure company that employs hundreds of people.

    From Wilma to Washington

    Following Hurricane Wilma, which dealt a severe blow to Arise, Selden decided to diversify the workforce. She shut down recruiting in Florida, but not one person who worked with the company was let go. She led the company in finding new ways to recruit and in reinventing service delivery. By the end of 2006, Arise had more than replaced the business it had lost from the hurricane.

    The company began training and recruiting people virtually. Selden worked hard to convince potential clients to trust that work done by a virtual workforce would be done with quality. She also found that Arise could deliver value for businesses beyond the workforce it provided. “Companies can use our technology infrastructure for their own purposes. They can use our curriculum. Our business process has commercial value, so we offer not simply people doing good work but highly scalable tools and processes clients can use. We have a consulting team that works side by side with them.”

    Arise also expanded internationally. In addition to its workforce of 25,000 people in the United States, it now has 1,000 workers in Canada and 2,000 in the United Kingdom and Ireland. “Global clients drew us into other countries,” she said. “Multinationals told us they needed talent in other locations.” She also convinced large employers that Arise could provide a sizeable virtual workforce. “They believed there was no way the model could work at that scale.” But Arise proved that it could indeed provide 3,000 workers for one client and 2,000 for another, adjusting the size of the workforce according to peak demands.

    When Selden was invited to attend the Jobs and Economic Growth Forum, she was in a small business and entrepreneurship breakout group with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Karen Mills, administrator of the Small Business Association.

    “I told them that 1 million call-center jobs left the United States between 1999 and 2009. The trend can’t continue. Virtualizing work, leveraging the broadband infrastructure, could keep families intact in local communities. It also supports a green economy; you’re not outfitting a large building for your workforce, and they don’t use fossil fuel to commute,” she said. Arise caught President Obama’s attention, and the organization has been featured on television and in print as a bright spot in a
    stagnant economy. Selden was invited back to Washington last January for a forum on insourcing American work.

    “Companies aren’t seeing enough economic benefits from outsourcing their work overseas,” Selden said. “Labor costs are rising, exchange rates need to be taken into account, and costs can be neutralized if an issue is resolved in the first call instead of two to three calls because of a lack of understanding between the customer and the employee.”

    Mary Bartlett ’89, vice president, implementations and product management at Arise, has known Selden for 20 years. Although they both attended St. Thomas at about the same time, Bartlett didn’t meet Selden until she was working for Accenture, where the two hit it off. “She convinced me to go to Winnipeg for a winter project, so you know she’s a good saleswoman,” Bartlett said. “Angie is the epitome of a Level 5 leader from Good to Great. She has personal humility. She deflects good things onto the people around her. Her ambition is not for herself but for her company, her team, her group. She has the ability to make you better than you ever thought you could be. She’s your biggest advocate. People are better off for being around her.”

    In May, the Opus College of Business presented Selden with a 2012 Entrepreneur Award. “That is a capstone of what we’ve accomplished at Arise,” Selden said. “The entire company is fueled by entrepreneurs, so that award is for them as much as for me.”

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