Today is International Women’s Day. A few weeks ago, I was asked to write an article from my perspective on what that means. As a successful entrepreneur with a varied career in business, media, commerce, and technology, I have had quite a journey with my career. Now as the CEO of Symbonic, a family-oriented company building a better solution for doing business in the entertainment and media industry, I realize I have a unique story to tell for Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day.
I come from a family of strong women. I’m the youngest of three girls born in Philadelphia to two Filipino doctors. My parents moved us to a small, predominantly white hometown during the 70s. The town lacked diversity, with only five Filipino families - including mine. Nevertheless, I recall being amazed by my mother's strength as she tirelessly worked to provide for us. Despite this admiration for who she is and where I come from, I chose to blend in instead of embracing my cultural identity.
Later, I would learn that this was something I should not have buried but the times and challenges I faced to fit in prevented me from this aspect of my culture. I didn’t learn Tagolog, the Filipino native language, and preferred eating pizza and burgers rather than adobo chicken, lumpia, and pancit.
Despite being an average student at best, I cherished every moment at school. Both of my parents were very supportive of my sisters and me. They gave us the opportunity to choose where we went to college and what we wanted to study. Me, I wanted to experience a city and have access to more people and more opportunities to grow and that led me to the University of Pittsburgh.
Launching a Career
After I graduated with a BA in Communications and a minor in Psychology, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I worked for the next two years and eventually decided to return to graduate school and pursue business within healthcare. This is the beginning of how I got on the path to becoming an entrepreneur. My college boyfriend, who would later become my future husband and long-time business partner, got a job that led him to San Francisco, and I sacrificed my career path to go with him.
OG Startups, New Skills & Growing as a Leader
Colorado Springs is the exact opposite of San Francisco. It’s a beautiful town full of outdoor activities but not as diverse or cultural as San Francisco. Nonetheless, living there allowed me to gain business and technology skills. I was quickly promoted from a business and systems analyst to a project manager role. This was where I first embraced technology and saw its capabilities for solving business problems. Within another year, I was promoted to manager and relocated to Phoenix.
This time, my college boyfriend now my husband, followed me as my MCI career grew. In Phoenix, I eventually left MCI and joined a start-up. It wasn’t like the start-ups you see today, but rather a 6 billion dollar multinational corporation named Iridium. I was head of an all-male IT team responsible for implementing the provisioning and billing system for the North American gateway. This role enabled me to make connections with international organizations from all across the globe. We worked for years getting the systems prepared for launch. Unfortunately, Iridium’s expensive product, inadequate sales, and changing technology caused the company to declare bankruptcy as soon as we launched - making us an ideal case study for business schools. Iridium let go of its employees but offered us consulting jobs as they worked through the bankruptcy.
I ultimately decided to leave Phoenix and join my husband's start-up venture in Los Angeles. He had started a business with his brother and sister called Mediachase. The company was building solutions based on the convergence of content, communications, and technology. Joining the company was a significant turning point in my career and a huge change for me. I no longer had the security of being part of a huge corporation or working for someone else. Instead, I was responsible for overseeing an expanding tech business and all its employees.
Guiding Through Adversity
When I joined Mediachase, our success was fueled by the dot com bubble. With my husband at the company's helm, we entered joint ventures focused on using the explosion of growth around the internet. Some of our notable accomplishments were launching the first entertainment news channel streaming online. We created a digital rights management platform using the internet for film and TV distribution deals. We even have a photo of the first signed agreement conducted electronically during the Cannes film festival.
It’s crazy to think that we were doing this in the early 2000s when the infrastructure for the internet was far from what we know today. Yet even with this intense growth, we were sensible enough to understand that it would not last forever. We often traveled to festivals like Sundance and Cannes, and when talking with other tech companies at these events, we'd ask how they were making money. Most gave a perplexed response, "what do you mean? We have investors!" As expected, when everything came crashing down during the bubble burst, our team's resilience became clear as day. Moreover, I could always trust my family for emotional and financial support during challenging times such as those.
With the near-total disintegration of all we had been working on, I took over as President of Mediachase and challenged our small team to take action and decide on a course for the future. At the time, we saw e-commerce and retail as emerging market opportunities. We shifted our focus towards building an open-source e-commerce platform and started selling our platform while providing consulting services. I strategically put together a management team to help us hire employees and establish offices in DC and LA to service large contracts for larger companies and the government.
Even with the success of our platform, I knew we needed to increase our sales, so we focused on building strategic partnerships. Eventually, we partnered with a content management software company in Sweden called EPiServer. We knew that if everything went well, they would purchase us in just a few years. Little did we know how successful this collaboration would be because they offered to buy us within twelve months of forming the agreement.
There's a phrase that "money makes people funny." It was certainly true in our case. As I began doing due diligence for the acquisition, we were suddenly hit with a frivolous lawsuit - something that neither grad school nor my prior career experience had prepared me for. Despite this unexpected obstacle, we successfully navigated the legal process and sold our company. In short, everything turned out just fine in both instances.
With an acquisition, personnel is typically reduced due to overlapping expertise. However, I was stunned when the new company really didn't need me. All they had for me was a low-level marketing job - hardly something commensurate with running a business. So, as infuriating as it was, I worked diligently over the following six months to ensure all of our employees were successfully transferred over and then resigned from my position.
The Birth of a CEO at Symbonic
After running my own business for the past 12 years, I chose to take some time off and invest in myself and my son. I started house projects while taking care of tasks needed for our old company, which I had to maintain for four years before shutting it down completely. After a year off, I was ready to work again but decided I liked being in charge, so I incorporated a new company, Symbonic. Not knowing exactly what Symbonic would do, I began brainstorming with my husband on different ideas for our new venture.
After researching and learning about the entertainment, media, and start-up industries, we landed on software geared toward developing, managing, and growing intellectual property. We spent the next few years socializing our idea with entertainment professionals and building the software. After getting a lot of feedback, we had our MVP and pilot customers using the software. We developed our pitch deck and began talking with investors and making significant progress until the pandemic hit. Like the rest of the world, the entertainment industry shut down. Instead of scaling back, we took this opportunity to hire a few more employees and invest further into developing our software and refining our solution.
In order to test our software, I had to build a production company and needed help with the creative side. I recruited my niece, Greta, who always had a creative flare since she was a little girl, as she was starting her career. Whether it was drawing, photography, or writing, I knew her skills would work great in our company. As my mom always supported me, it was my turn to nurture and grow the next generation of female professionals.
Building a Foundation for the Next Generation
For five years, I have guided Symbonic to a point where we are ready and excited to make changes in the entertainment and media industry. My personal experiences have allowed me to shape how Symbonic comes to market and lay out the destiny of the company.
I believe prioritizing women to hold leadership roles creates a more equitable workplace where we can reach our full potential and bring success to everyone. From the adversity I have experienced, especially in male-dominated industries, I want to create more inclusive work environments that generate powerful leaders.
As I dive into more in my career, I have come to realize the value of sharing our stories as women. Our experiences and knowledge are crucial to guiding the next generation of women to success. It is our job to foster their career development to help them attain what was never promised to us. On this International Women's Day, let us uplift the women in our lives to achieve a better tomorrow for all.
Julie Magbojos, CEO of Symbonic