As one of only a few women who run high-tech companies in Ottawa, Sue Abu-Hakima has become known as a bit of a trailblazer.
Still, even she wasn’t expecting the latest honour to come her way in a distinguished career that has seen the mother of two launch two firms and be named to the Order of Ontario.
Ms. Abu-Hakima, the co-founder and CEO of Amika Mobile, was announced this week as one of 2014’s top 25 Women of Influence. The Women of Influence organization promotes the advancement of women in North American business through seminars, professional coaching, media and corporate consulting.
“On one side, it’s quite humbling, but on another side, it’s very inspiring because what they’re trying to do with the award is essentially say that there’s a lot of people in the workplace who are women and that they want to put a little bit of a stake in the ground … that essentially says some of these women need to be recognized,” says Ms. Abu-Hakima, whose firm makes software that automatically seeks out computers and mobile devices and issues alerts during emergencies.
She joins Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Co-Operators Group CEO Kathy Bardswick and Ottawa neurosurgeon Dr. Eve Tsai among others on this year’s list.
The select group was chosen from nominees based on criteria that included their level of education, community involvement, positions on boards of directors and social media connections. The winners will be honoured at a luncheon in Toronto in December.
After earning a bachelor's degree in engineering at McGill University, Ms. Abu-Hakima began her high-tech career at Nortel predecessor Bell Northern Research.
She moved on to the National Research Council, where she ultimately headed her own software lab. While there, she also attained her PhD at Carleton University before eventually launching her first startup, AmikaNow!, as a spinoff from NRC in 1998.
That firm’s business compliance unit was bought by Entrust in 2004. After overseeing the transition, Ms. Abu-Hakima left Entrust to form Amika Mobile in 2007. The company introduced its flagship product, Amika Mobility Server, in 2011 and now has customers ranging from the Canadian government to the Little League World Series in the U.S.
Today, Ms. Abu-Hakima is among just a handful of female high-tech CEOs in the Ottawa region. She says women still face a difficult time raising startup capital and cracking the ranks of upper management in a male-dominated field, and she hopes this latest recognition will help inspire a new generation of female entrepreneurs.
“We’re seeing more women doing technology, but not enough, and definitely not enough women doing engineering and staying in the field and computer science and staying in the field,” she said. “This has been a traditionally male-dominated environment and women sort of shy away from that. It is a hard thing to do to start up a product company and make a go of it. It can be done.”
Ms. Abu-Hakima, who was born in the Middle East and grew up in Montreal, credits her mother with encouraging her and her five siblings to work hard and believe in themselves.
“She brought us all up to be very independent,” she said. “It’s important that regardless of gender, that your kids be brought up to be independent and to learn that they need to make their way in the world. To me, the key is definitely education.”
She says Amika Mobile, which was funded with cash from the Entrust acquisition as well as angel investors and federal IRAP grants, is on track to top $1 million in revenues this year.
“It’s been slow growth,” she said. “Whenever you start a software business, it takes you a good three or four years to establish a product and establish a (base) of customers. And if you’re a small company in Canada, you’re even at a bigger disadvantage because, essentially, people don’t trust you. They think you’re going to disappear.”
With a strong customer base and new products in the pipeline, the company is on solid footing, she says. Larger firms have approached her and her partners about acquiring the company, she added, but so far none of the offers has been the right fit.
“We evaluate those opportunities as they come up,” she said. “You have to line up a lot of ducks for things like that to happen. The thing we can do is just build the company. Then we’ll evaluate. If at some point, we think we want to grow this thing some more or take it on a venture exchange, we’ll evaluate that as that comes up. But at the moment, the strategy is play hard and work hard – really focus and build up those customers.”