Petaluma CEO a leader for the space age

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In the early days of GC Micro, Belinda Guadarrama would bring a few of her engineers with her whenever she first met with a client. The idea was she wanted to make sure that even the most technical questions received the right response.

That was during the late 1980s, a time when women were still working toward equality and a level playing field in the broader business world.

What ended up happening, though, was customers unfamiliar with the chief executive of this emerging Petaluma-based information technology supplier would turn to the mostly male support staff for every single question. Amusingly, Guadarrama, 60, recalled, her employees would then turn to her for the answer.

“We had this triangle going on because they were more comfortable talking to a man than they were to a woman,” she said. “It took me a while to figure out that if I go to these meetings, I have to go alone because then they have to talk to me.”

Over 33 years later, Guadarrama has transformed GC Micro into one of the most distinguished small businesses in the country. The company is minority-woman owned, boasting more than 40 employees and revenue in the $80 million range, she said.

With no advertising whatsoever, GC Micro has developed a client list of Fortune 1,000 companies that span the defense and aerospace industries, providing products to NASA, Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Their software and hardware has been used in space shuttles, and supports some of the world’s most advanced government agencies.

Recently, GC Micro was given the 2019 Outstanding Small Business Award by Lockheed Martin Space, recognized for consistently providing “outstanding support of big data systems with customer service that is second to none,” according to a press release.

For Guadarrama, whose office is filled with customer-minded slogans and idioms, that sort of distinction speaks volumes. The culture she’s tried to foster is built on integrity and teamwork, she said, one that is satisfied making even the tiniest of sales so GC Micro can build trust and use that foundation to grow those relationships.

“Most people, when they start a business, they look at in terms of, ‘I don’t want to work for anybody anymore. I’d like to just be my own boss,’” Guadarrama said. “That’s probably the biggest misconception out there because the second you start your business, every customer you’re working with becomes your boss.”

A Petaluma resident for 18 years, Guadarrama has spent much of her career advocating for entrepreneurs and debunking the notion that small companies can’t serve the largest entities on the planet.

She touts political engagement, and said it can be as simple as meeting with local representatives and serving on committees. Every year, Guadarrama makes a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with federal leaders, she said.

Guadarrama has testified in front of Congress twice, fighting against legislation that would change how small businesses are categorized.

“There’s an awful lot of bills being passed out there that are not necessarily in the best interest of small businesses,” she said. “We have to be involved in it.”

The GC Micro headquarters is housed in a humble space in the business parks on Cypress Drive near Petaluma’s eastern edge.

The entrance that greets its roughly 40 employees and visiting customers consists of a small lobby decorated with rows of photos of Guadarrama meeting with figures like U.S. presidents and famous politicians.

On either side of the wall are two tall trophy cases chocked full of awards and medals recognizing both the company and Guadarrama. Most of the dozens of awards can’t even fit here.

They range from national entrepreneur honors to state and local distinctions. Many recognize Guadarrama for being a pioneer for Hispanic women, but she’s mindful of how those accolades can shape the perception of GC Micro.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘It’s a really good Hispanic-owned company,’ ” she said. “I want them to say, ‘It’s a really good company, and it happens to be owned by a successful Hispanic woman.’”

Guadarrama was raised in Texas, and earned an economics degree from Trinity University in her hometown of San Antonio. The daughter of two parents that never finished high school and a father that served in the military, the value of education was constantly stressed at home, she said.

In fact, bridging the gap between Latino students and higher education has been a big part of her career. Guadarrama has visited schools in Southern California with former Rep. Loretta Sanchez, and worked with a program that provided safety nets for at-risk youth.

Her career began in the Texas Comptroller’s office as a liaison for the IT department, and later the Office of the Attorney General, helping with development and training.

Eventually Guadarrama relocated to the Bay Area, and was the general manager of a software sales company that wound up shutting down. When it did, she founded GC Micro in Novato in 1986.

The early years were lean, Guadarrama said, and once the company began generating sales, she said it was crucial that she continued investing in GC Micro by bringing in talent that specialized in the things she lacked.

Guadarrama believes small businesses are an ideal partner for the government and private contractors that often require a level of nimbleness and adaptability that larger outfits struggle to achieve.

Now a veteran CEO, Guadarrama said the company relies on the work of the staff these days. She rarely does the type of sales work she did in the beginning, and that means the awards and distinctions GC Micro hauls in now are less reflective of her efforts, and more about her workforce.

“It’s not me, it’s not the fact that I’m Hispanic,” she said. “It’s the fact that I’ve got a wonderful team of people out there that really believe in what we’re doing here.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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