Ken Coleman is a man with nothing to prove. The former executive vice president of Silicon Graphics Inc. made his mark in the technology world, running global sales, services, and marketing for the $2.3 billion computer systems giant and managing more than 4,000 employees in 37 countries. As a 25-year veteran–14-plus years at SGI as well as stints at Hewlett Packard and Activision–Coleman is an industry power player. And his impressive list of achievements and A-list contacts placed him among BLACK ENTERPRISE’s Top 25 Blacks in Technology in 2001.
So when he retired three years ago, industry insiders assumed he would head to his Maui retreat, sip Mai Tais, and relax for a while. When he eventually resurfaced, many believed he would follow the path of other former Silicon Valley titans and do the corporate board thing–at least that seemed like the plan.
Fast forward to summer 2004. Coleman is seated at the head of a table in a Mountain View, California, boardroom, flanked by his executive management team. His left foot propped casually on the edge of the table, Coleman rocks back and forth, eyes squinting at the PowerPoint presentation, mind racing. He asks a question or two, but it appears that he has already discovered the answers and simply waits for everyone else to catch up. This is typical Coleman. He’s never still.
The marathon session is a pivotal one for his tech startup, ITM Software. He and his team are discussing strategies to advance the company. They’re also buzzing about ITM Business Suite, an innovative collection of software applications that promises to improve information technology management for chief information officers. The mood in the Yosemite Room, the largest of several corporate meeting areas, is “intense, not tense,” jokes Willie Hooks, ITM’s chief business strategist. Intense is a word frequently heard at ITM. The adjective seems fitting since today’s dialogue, like hundreds of other conversations since the company’s inception, focuses on yet another make-or-break scenario.
The meeting is symbolic of Coleman’s transition from a top executive at a corporate monolith to founder of a bootstrapping software company. It’s the story of a retired executive performing the second act of his business life. For the tech veteran, the venture would test his ability to acquire financing from skeptical venture capitalists burned by dot-bombs. It would also require assembling and developing a crackerjack team. His company was the entrepreneurial David trying to snatch business from corporate Goliaths. If that’s not all, ITM represented something else: a rare tech startup launched by an African American with significant investment, counsel, and management expertise from other blacks in the industry.
Making the Transition
Why did Coleman leave the calm waters of retirement for the rough waves of entrepreneurship? It boiled down to the strength of a new idea–and the opportunity to profit from it. He was driven by the need to solve a nagging business problem. As SGI’s executive vice president, he says he was often frustrated by the inability of chief information officers to comprehensively integrate the