By Jessica Titlebaum (Chicago)
Looking out the 38th floor window in a conference room at YJT Solutions, I can see straight ahead of me the Ceres statue that sits on top of the Chicago Board of Trade. Also known as the Roman Goddess of Agriculture or the Eternal Mother, the statue overlooks Chicago’s financial district and LaSalle Street.
The maternal sighting seems significant as I sit down to interview Linda Bracken, CEO and founder of YJT Solutions.
“People say that when you have kids the love is greater than you could ever expect and that is true,” she said. “But the sense of responsibility for my children as well as my employees is greater than I could have ever have imagined as well.”
A Fascination With Technology
Bracken is one of few women who have conquered the financial technology niche that exists within the Derivatives industry. After graduating from Iowa State University with a degree in Computer Engineering, she went on to receive her Masters in Management from Northwestern University where she met future business partner Rob Merrilees. Bracken began helping Merrilees with the network and infrastructure of his computer systems.
Always fascinated by technology, she emphasized the impact technology plays in the evolution of our society.
“I am not the first person to say this but none of us can imagine the impact that technology has and will continue to have on our world,” she said. “ Almost every aspect of transaction, survival and operations will change fundamentally. Everything from education to health care will be unrecognizable from its current form if you fast forward 20 or 30 years and trading is not exempt.”
She compared her work with trading infrastructure to work she used to see people do on automobiles.
“I remember when I was a kid everyone’s dad was underneath the car on Sundays with wrenches and tires trying to tweak the engine and put new parts in,” she said. “You don’t see that anymore because things have gotten so complex. You need advanced technology to diagnose what is wrong with a car because everything is done inside a computer. This is similar to how we improve trading infrastructure.“
Bracken launched YJT Solutions, a financial technology-consulting firm providing real-time network infrastructure and application support, with Merrilees, right after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Providing knowledge, flexibility and support to existing IT departments and enabling them to embark on innovative projects has always been a motivator for Bracken. Even in the difficult times of that era.
“Those early years taught me a lot about growing a company,” she said. “In hard economic times you have to make sure what you are doing is valuable and you have to offer something that the customers really need and want. You also have to be able to get rid of the stuff that people don’t want. “
She compares the time of her company’s inception to our current economic environment. She said that the biggest problem back then and now still, is that people are scared to embark on the projects that will generate money. She calls it ‘the waiting place.’
“Have you ever read the Dr. Seuss book, Oh The Places You Will Go?” she asked. “He warns of the perils of getting into the waiting place, which was what it was like in 2001 and now again a decade later.”
A Woman In A Male Dominated Industry
Bracken said that she does not like playing the “woman card” in a corner of the financial industry historically led by men.
“I want to be known for what I bring to the table irrespective of whether I am a man or a woman,” she said. “However, with that being said, there is an old guard in this industry and I think that most people are used to dealing with men.”
She also says that the old mentality of working only with men is changing and not as prevalent in the newer minds coming through the industry.
As Bracken embarked on her career, she says that she had women to look up to and role models she respected.
She brought up Kim Taylor, the president of the CME Group clearing house.
“I worked with Kim years ago and admire her depth of expertise and no non-sense delivery,” said Bracken.
Another woman Bracken looks up to is Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay. Whitman joined the innovative Internet company when it had 30 employees and about $4 million in revenue. Under Whitman’s leadership, the company grew to 15,000 employees and $8 billion in annual revenue by 2008.
“I think Whitman did a remarkable job transforming the company,” Bracken said. “This goes back to the Internet and how technology is opening up new possibilities for creating and thinking.”
Whitman’s story is similar to one of Bracken’s favorite business books, Good To Great by Jim Collins.
“It’s an old book about taking a good company and making it a great company,” she said. “I really like playing at this top A-plus level and this book really spoke to me.”
One of the things Bracken believes makes or breaks companies is the people employed there.
“It starts with great people. It’s about getting the wrong people off the bus, the right people on the bus and the right people in the right roles,” she explained.
A Working Mother
Besides feeling responsible for her YJT employees, Bracken is solely responsible for her twin three-year old daughters.
“I used to think that I was busy – but I had no idea what busy even meant,” she said about being a working mother. “People say that they are less committed to their work life when they have kids but for me, it’s made me more committed.”
She compares having kids to having a lens that puts things in focus. It’s made her realize she should spend time on things that further her life ambitions which include being a good member of the community, giving back to the community, and being a good role model for her daughters.
On the topic of work life balance, she does not believe the concept truly exists.
“Something is always short changed and I constantly feel like I should be spending more time with either my family or on my work,” she said.
As a single and working mother, Bracken was forced to do something she is not good at: ask for help. She has hands on parents that help take care of her children as well as a nanny. Between the two support systems, she feels like she may have better support than married women.
Bracken also already has conversations with her children about working and dedicating time to her career.
“We talk about why I have to go to work,” she explained. “I tell them that it is for two reasons. One is that each person in this world is given a gift and I believe as humans it is our duty to give the world that gift and make it a better place. The second reason is to make money because it is a reality of life that you need money to survive.”
Bracken went on to say that it is important to teach her kids how to be self-sufficient.
“Self-sufficiency gives you the confidence you need to move in the world and even if you choose to be a stay at home mom, it is important to know you have the capacity to earn a living for yourself and to know your calling and place in the world.”
Bracken is one of a handful of women in technology. As a single mother, she feels there is a “double whammy because there is no fall back option.” She has a lot of responsibility on her shoulders but she handles it gracefully and successfully.
She had the following advice for working women like her.
“It’s really easy to find fault with yourself and feel like you are not spending enough time with your kids. We can make ourselves dysfunctional if we take ourselves too seriously. I say, take a step back and look at all you have gotten done. Celebrate the successes and make sure to laugh at yourself because you are only human.”