Global Woman

The resume from icy Siberia brought a warm glow to the heart of technical placement executive Bren Norris of San Francisco. Its exotic stamps sealed a happy reality: her 4-year-old company truly had gone global.

"The domestic stuff keeps us going, but the future is global in all of life," says Norris.

As president of Bren Norris Associates, Norris, a former Miss Pennsylvania, is part of an elite corps of women business owners in the technical placement industry, an ever-changing field marked by cutthroat competition. She is a seasoned technology professional, yet some of her new foreign contacts can't cope with her gender. Even after they've spoken with her on the phone, they insist on addressing follow-up correspondence to "Mr. Bren Norris."

But Ms. Norris it is, and from her 150 Post St. headquarters she oversees placement of more than 3,000 technical specialists, from programmers and analysts to database managers and technical writers.

Launched in a meager 50-square-foot office with $8,000 in seed capital, Bren Norris Associates now reports more than $1 million in yearly sales. Norris' office space has grown too -by a factor of thirty. Bank of America, Charles Schwab & Co., Genentech and Visa International are among the enviable names on her client list.

Like most successful businesspeople, Norris seldom rests. And so it is that this year she launched Bren International, the division aimed at meeting the needs of her global clients. When their overseas offices want technical services, she offers specialists who speak the right language, know the right skills, and have passports ready at hand.

By the same token, if a domestic client wants to ship an entire project to India or similarly inexpensive locale, she has contacts to do that as well.

"With a global marketplace, it's necessary to get resources from around the world," Norris explains. The Siberian resume is but one example.

A tireless networker on the local scene, Norris has been twice nominated as the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce's "Woman Entrepreneur of the Year." She's been a finalist for the Chamber's "Outstanding Small Business of the Year." And this year she's made it into U.S. Registry's "Who's Who in Leading American Executives."

As a woman entrepreneur new to the international circuit, Norris must learn protocol just as any man. During a recent unsuccessful bid on a project in Argentina, she learned the hard way about the naming system that links patrilineal and matrilineal surnames. "If you call someone Mr. Jones, you could be calling him by the wrong name," she says ruefully.

She also accepts - for the time being - her limitations. For a project in Kuwait, she sent representatives to scope out the work, rather than hopping a plane herself. "As a female, I don't want to go over," she says.

Generally, Norris dwells on her advantages. As a certified woman-owned business, her company receives favorable treatment from the city and state, as well as from some corporate decision-makers. Should she and a male competitor each bid $10,000 for a project, her certification could give her the winning edge.

Some unscrupulous men register their companies in their wives' names, a practice Norris calls "sleazy." A bigger challenge comes from the dreaded vendor lists-names of pre-approved vendors compiled by big corporations. If she's not among the current chosen few, she often must wait two years before she can even make a pitch.

Fully aware that global projects may prove tougher to win, Norris is debating which language to learn first. She's also continuing her leadership in international activities of the National Association of Women Business Owners. But for a while anyway, her own passport remains in a drawer.

"I don't see travel for me happening for a couple of years," Norris says. "Right now I'm just focused on the opening excitement and the twelve-hour days."

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