Inside Track: Earned confidence drives OST president to be a leader
A successful career has always been important to Meredith Bronk — but not necessarily in technology.
Even from an early age, Meredith Bronk told herself that no matter what profession she chose, she would become a success.
Bronk, the president of Grand Rapids-based OST (Open Systems Technologies) Inc., is now doing something that few women in America — or in the world, for that matter — have done: lead a highly acclaimed, globally reaching technology company.
“My career was always important to me,” she said. “I never questioned even as a young adult that I was going to be professionally successful. It was always a big driver for me.”
Bronk was born in South Bend, Ind. Although her father worked in IT, technology wasn’t a big part of her early development, she said, something she finds ironic given the fact that she now runs OST.
Her family moved to West Bloomfield the summer before she started high school. After graduating from West Bloomfield High School in 1988, she attended Alma College, where she earned a bachelor of business administration degree. She spent her last summer of college in a work-study program in Japan, an experience that taught her how to be flexible and open to learning in the face of conflict, she said.
“(The lessons I learned were) flexibility, dealing with a different culture, but I think it was about grace and history. Not everyone we ran into in Japan liked us, so there was a certain amount of respect for a culture that’s very, very old,” she said.
“It exposes you to different ways of thought, and I think it makes you marketable. One of the reasons I did it was because it shows you’re open to new things.”
Bronk got her first post-college job in Arizona, working as an accounting clerk for American Stores, which at the time was “the second-largest drug and grocer retailer in the country,” she said. She worked there for four years and was promoted almost every year, but by the summer of 1995, an ended relationship and a sense of dissatisfaction led her to return to Michigan to be with her family, who had moved to Grand Haven.
She was suffering from a sort of “quarter-life crisis,” she said, reflecting on the months spent trying to readjust to living with her parents in a city where she knew no one.
Her talent didn’t go unnoticed for long; soon the people who were supposed to be job-placing her asked her to stick around.
“I was talking to recruiter and placement companies. My first full-time job back (in Michigan) … was with Accountability Now, which did accounting placement. I went there and asked, ‘Can you help me find a job?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, why don’t you come and work for us?’ So I did,” Bronk said.
“I met a really good friend through that who was established and knew people, and I was able to branch out through that.”
After a year, Bronk began doing general booking and human resources work for Custom Source, a manufacturing company in Coopersville. It was while there that her friend John Adkins gave her a phone call about a “little technology startup company called OST” that would change everything.
“I had done a project (with him) for a company called Eagle Ottawa Leather Co. on the lakeshore,” she said. “When OST needed a project manager, he said, ‘I know somebody who would be great,’ and called and referred me to OST, so that’s how I came here.”
Bronk joined OST as a project manager in February 1998 and “loved it from day one.” She developed a close bond with OST’s co-founder Dan Behm and CIO Jim VanderMey, who from the beginning were open and supportive of the value she brought to the company as a primary point of contact for clients who were installing technology, she said.
Bronk also fell in love with colleague Kipp Bronk, whom she eventually married. In 2002, Bronk and her husband, along with four other employees, decided to buy out the company, which at the time was made up of three salespeople, three technical people and Bronk.
The years after the buy-out were tough, but they got through it, she said.
Now, just over a decade later, Bronk, who meanwhile earned an executive MBA from the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, was named OST’s president in April of this year.
“We’d been planning it for a long time. Dan had kind of been grooming me. It was very natural. I think it’s evident in how the transition was a non-event,” she said.
“Other than my kids, this is my other baby. … There’s an absolute commitment to putting our employees first. … I almost can’t imagine anywhere else having a commitment like that to make the job worthwhile. I have a huge responsibility to serve the employees of OST. And I love that.”
Bronk’s position as one of the few women leaders in the local technology industry has given her a unique perspective on the issue of how few females there are in the industry. This is partly due to how educators present girls with technology, she said, adding that there’s a perception that working in a tech company means “sitting in a dark corner coding, being unsocial and unnoticed” — a framework that turns a lot of girls off.
“We need more girls in technology. Even if you look at the women running technology (companies) today, they didn’t grow up in technology — I didn’t. We need more true women technologists, and that’s’ not going to happen unless we change how technology is presented to girls,” she said.
“Technology is problem solving. It’s figuring out how to do something differently. I think we have to be much more deliberate in how we present those opportunities to girls in a way that engages them.”
Initially, there may be hurdles for women in the industry, but sometimes the hurdles aren’t placed there by men but by other women, Bronk said. She remembered a conference where she met an older woman who had “smashed a lot of glass ceilings” for women in technology, yet acted cold and unsupportive toward younger women like Bronk.
“I remember feeling like she didn’t like my style, how I went about it, and almost didn’t give credibility to the path I took,” she said.
“How women are successful has evolved from ‘being a woman in a man’s world playing a man’s game’ to figuring out how to find your own voice. I think early on, especially for me, I never was the (one to say), ‘I’m going to play the man’s game.’ That’s just not who I am.”
All good leaders have qualities that go beyond their genders, Bronk said. She wants people to remember that, at the end of the day, she still is a professional leading a technology company at a time when technology is changing at lightning speeds. About 70 percent of OST’s revenue last year came from the reselling of product, she said, because technology is now a consumer product.
In an industry like that, what matters most is that the leader is a good leader, regardless of their gender, she said.
“I’m challenged right now to lead this million-dollar organization. The fact that I’m a woman is inconsequential,” she said.
“I’m a learner. I want to be better today than I was yesterday. … I know my own capabilities and limitations. Really for me, that’s where the confidence comes from: knowing I am who I am.”