If you spend time chatting with Gwen Shields, chief operating officer and partner at Emmaus-based Altitude Marketing, you’ll learn that two words – logic and luck – have been dominant factors in her education and professional life.
As a student in Lower Moreland High School, Huntingdon Valley, Montgomery County, in the late 1970s, Shields’ interests and intellect hinted that she would take a different journey than most of her friends.
“I was always good in math and science, but I struggled with English and was bored with history,” she recalled.
Her ability to excel in math and science was accompanied by what Shields terms “a chip on my shoulder.”
“When people [said] things like, ‘Girls can’t do that,’ I said, ‘Just watch me!’ ”
HOOKED ON ENGINEERING
Luck came with one adult who took notice of her talents – a great aunt who sent to the rising high school junior a newspaper clipping about a one-week engineering experience for girls at Stevens Tech in Hoboken, N.J.
Shields applied and was accepted, spending a week in the dorms and attending lectures about various engineering disciplines explained by professional women engineers. (She noted, ironically, that all of the professors mentoring each talk were male.)
Field trips included ones to a General Motors plant in Tarrytown, N.Y., and the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.
“I was completely hooked [on engineering] after that,” Shields said.
Shields applied to six top engineering schools, noting a different engineering major with each one.
She picked the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, graduating in 1984 with a degree in systems engineering, then a new discipline.
In the years following, Shields worked with a number of computer companies, some such as IBM still exist, and others swallowed up by bigger entities. She also spent a few years at Proctor & Gamble, first in Cincinnati, where she got a programming job.
“I dealt with a massive manufacturing database so I could help businesspeople make data-driven decisions,” she said.
When life dictated the need for a relocation, P&G placed Shields in the role of a shift supervisor at a peanut butter manufacturing plant it owned in Portsmouth, Va.
“It may not have been a good fit, but I learned a lot,” she said, “and I was exposed to [W.] Edward Deming’s total quality management.”
Widely credited for helping post-World War II Japan adopt lean manufacturing practices, Deming is considered the father and author of a 14-point set of management practices to help companies increase quality and productivity.
Soon, Shields knew it was time to move on. She picked up a phone book and called the first business listed under computers.
She told them all she had to offer, and soon she had a job setting up computer systems for businesses, including many law firms, and training personnel on their use.
It was clear to her, however, that the bigger bucks went to the sales folks.
Ultimately, consulting – not sales – was her forte, and she worked independently at designing programming and installing professional systems. As a mom to two young sons in the late 1990s, she had neither the time nor inclination for a full-time job.
In those years, ever wanting to learn more, Shields began to conquer the world of public relations, learning how to write case studies for businesses and getting notice in USA Today.
“I understood technology well enough to be able to explain it clearly to journalists,” she said.
Again, as many client technology companies were purchased by larger ones, she logically expanded her experience, running Kestrel Communications, a national public relations and marketing firm specializing in technology companies.
FINDING A NICHE
About a decade ago, she met Andrew Stanten, president of Altitude Marketing, when the company was a small startup. Their talents would help to catapult Altitude Marketing to prominence in the Greater Lehigh Valley and beyond.
Their team of 20-plus members has earned a number of awards, having found the market niche of complex, highly technical industries.
Among their clients is Ben Franklin Technology Partners, which provides direct funding, business assistance and networking opportunities to early stage and established technology firms. Some of the startups have become Altitude clients, Shields noted.
Shields and Stanten said business-to-business companies demand a different type of marketing.
“A lot of our clients are engineers, patent holders, inventors,” she said, “and right through the door, they meet an engineer who can understand their point of view and production.”
“Most of our clients offer some sort of software, technology or technology service,” he said. “Gwen’s engineering background enables her to relate to the scientists and engineers that have founded and run these companies.
“She can speak their language – literally – and set their minds at ease that we will get our heads around the complexity of what they are selling.”
Shields and Stanten take pride in having built an organization with standard operating procedures, stressing processes and methodologies.
“We are able to measure results, making informed decisions based on technology and technology integration,” she said.
Stanten said Shields is very process-oriented.
“Her practical approach to problem-solving guides how we tackle client challenges in the market,” he said.
Logical, to be sure.