If you had to describe Sheila G. Talton in one word, it would be tenacious. It is a trait that has helped Talton build Chicago-based Unisource Network Services Inc. into a top-flight telecommunications and network-integration firm. Unisource clients include BancOne, the Federal Aviation Administration and Euro-Tunnel/Transmanche-Link, which runs the Chunnel that connects France and the United Kingdom. As the head of a company with revenues of over $9 million and offices in Washington, D.C., and New York, Talton has cleared a path for herself in an industry dominated by white males. Not only has her tenacity served her well in winning clients, but it has also proved useful in gaining members for her company’s board of directors.
“I had declined joining the Unisource board several times before Sheila finally convinced me to ‘just attend’ a board meeting to get a feel for it,” says Michael S. Fields, chairman and CEO of the Fields Group, a technology management consulting firm in Pleasanton, California (see “The Black Digerati,” March 1998). Fields was already an active member of seven other boards. At dinner later that evening, Talton put her request in plainer terms. “She eventually said, ‘You can join the board and participate in this company officially or not. It doesn’t matter because I’ll bug you for advice anyway. The only difference is that you won’t be a board member,’” recalls Fields. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Founded in 1986, Unisource grew out of Talton’s desire to be a driving force in the information technology (IT) industry. Just two years prior to launching the company, after having worked in the IT industry for her entire adult life, Talton, 45, reached an epiphany: “When I looked at the people above me, there weren’t any who looked like me,” says the Ohio native, who saw neither females nor African Americans in the executive ranks. “My feeling was that if I was going to blaze new trails and be a pioneer, then I may as well maximize my return and become an entrepreneur.” At the time Talton was a sales manager in the Chicago office of Applied Data Research, a division of Ameritech Inc.
Coincidentally, the government was completing the forced breakup of telecommunications powerhouse AT&T. “I began to investigate what opportunities would arise from the divestiture of AT&T,” explains Talton. “I knew there would be a market for telecommunications services and that’s where I needed to be.”
She decided to launch a network-engineering firm that would assist businesses in designing and implementing communications infrastructure for computer, data and voice communications. The investment community, however, did not share Talton’s enthusiasm. “In the ’80s, venture capitalists weren’t investing in service firms because they were still of the mind-set that you had to have assets-and not the kind that walked and talked,” she recalls. Being an African American female certainly didn’t help assuage doubt. “It’s hard for women to raise capital because the investment community often doesn’t believe you can be serious about running your own business,” says Talton,