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From the very beginning, Elaine Mendoza was a tinkerer, awed by the equipment in the laboratory where her father would work but never so much that she was deterred from trying some experiments of her own.
Mendoza became one of the first female entrepreneurs in San Antonio’s tech sector and remains the CEO of her biotechnology and software company Conceptual Mindworks. Earlier this month she became the first Latin-American to chair the Texas A&M board of regents.
Mendoza was driven by her parents’ own upward rise. Although they never struggled, her family’s economic status changed when her parents put themselves through school and ultimately earned postsecondary degrees. Her dad was a high school dropout who joined the Navy and later earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. Her mom, who retired as a school principal, was forbidden from going to college until she got married. Witnessing that sacrifice made Mendoza and her sisters believe they could achieve anything if they worked hard at it.
“Our parents didn’t say you can only do these kinds of things … because you’re a girl or anything like that,” she said. “It was limitless. I mean, you just go out and do what you are passionate about. I was lucky he was willing to take me on those little trips [to the laboratory].”
Mendoza had a lifelong fascination with science, technology, engineering, and math. After graduating with a degree in aerospace engineering from A&M, she began working for her dad’s engineering business.
But Mendoza wanted to make her own mark. Growing up, Mendoza was never told she couldn’t pursue a career in the STEM fields even though examples of women who had made a career in science in the 1970s and ’80s were few and far between. So in 1990, when Mendoza was 25 years old, she and her husband Larry Gay purchased a used computer for $1,000, and Conceptual Mindworks was born.
In the early days of the company, Conceptual Mindworks worked primarily with the U.S. Department of Defense, as Mendoza used her aerospace engineering background to develop flight simulation software that prepared pilots for the Gulf War, where Iraqi soldiers would point lasers at them, impairing U.S. airmen’s vision.
Before artificial intelligence powered self-driving cars, Mendoza’s company was using neural networks, a form of AI that is modeled off the human brain, to build software for the U.S. Air Force.
But it was always Mendoza’s goal for Conceptual Mindworks to develop its own patented technology that would be sold on the public market to other companies. In the early 2000s, the company began looking at problems in the health care industry and landed on the need for a streamlined electronic records service. Although adoption of electronic record-keeping was uncommon at the time, the concept was not new, but emerging cloud technologies created an internet-supported system. Hospitals would no longer be weighed down by having to store their records in a computer server.
The cloud was still in its nebulous infancy in those days, and Conceptual Mindworks had to explain what a software system for managing health records would look like. Many hospitals were hesitant to put private files in a space as abstract as the cloud. Nonetheless, Mendoza stuck to her guns.
“The model made too much sense,” she said. “Certainly over time as online shopping became more prevalent and, especially, online banking became dominant, sure enough, our software-as-a-service model really gained steam. We haven’t looked back ever since.”
Mendoza believes Conceptual Mindworks might have been one of the first electronic health records companies to use a software-as-a-service model, meaning customers pay a monthly rate for a software product that is continually updated and patched for bugs. But the company manages to maintain a rather unassuming existence.
Although her company struggles for name recognition in a San Antonio tech scene increasingly dominated by cloud and cybersecurity service providers, Mendoza prefers it that way, said Tessa Gabbard, the company’s controller who started in 1994 as a receptionist. It helps the enterprise stay laser-focused, she said.
In 1999, David Heard, who now heads Tech Bloc, a local technology industry trade organization, helped convene a meeting of the area’s top tech CEOs, which included Mendoza, to organize a precursor to Tech Bloc as they aimed to grow the tech sector in San Antonio.
“This is the original gangster group during a period where it was semi-irrational to try and build a tech company in San Antonio,” Heard said. “This was pre-Rackspace.”
Mendoza was an early pioneer in the San Antonio tech sector among a group that included the Denim Group’s John Dickson, Pryor Medical’s David Spencer, G.P. Singh, and Webhead’s Janie Gonzalez, he said. Mendoza and her credentials as an entrepreneur gave the group, which came to be known as the San Antonio Technology Accelerator Initiative, an important face, Heard said.
“She gave credibility to the idea that tech can happen in San Antonio,” he said, “and, to be totally unfiltered, that it’s not just the purview of old white guys.”
First hearing about Mendoza’s planned foray into the medical space when she joined the company in the mid-90s, Gabbard said she wasn’t surprised to see Conceptual Mindworks’ flagship electronic health records platform, known as Sevocity, come to fruition about 10 years later.
“She walks her talk,” Gabbard said of Mendoza. “When she says she’s going to do something she does it.”
That includes her commitment to community service. Serving in education is Mendoza’s way of giving back to the system that allowed her parents to climb the socioeconomic ladder, Gabbard said.
“It’s been her passion all along, and she’s never strayed from that.”
In addition to her day job running Conceptual Mindworks, Mendoza also sits on a number of education boards. She chairs the board of Pre-K 4 SA, a government-associated nonprofit that helps administers the city’s universal pre-K program. Mendoza also sits on the board of Charles Butt-founded Holdsworth Center. She was appointed to the A&M board of regents in 2011 after serving on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and has since risen the ranks to vice chair and now chairwoman as of mid-May.
“It’s a huge honor,” Mendoza said of the vote from the A&M system regents to elect her as chair. “It comes with a lot of responsibility, obviously. We want to do this well; we want to do it right.”
At the time Mendoza was studying, there were six other female students in the aerospace engineering program.
Her focus now at Texas A&M is to break down barriers erected decades ago that caused certain academic programs to be dominated by white men. She said she has worked to encourage more recruitment of underrepresented groups to Texas A&M’s College of Engineering.
Between fall 2014 and fall 2018, Hispanic representation at Texas A&M climbed from 18.4 percent of the total headcount at A&M-College Station to 21.5 percent, according to university data.
Chancellor John Sharp credits the rise in Hispanic representation to Mendoza, who charged the admissions staff at the university with improving its diversity. There would be real costs to failing to provide opportunities to a minority group slated to become the majority in Texas by 2040, Sharp said.
“If that young workforce is poorly educated then you’ve got real financial problems coming down the road,” he said. “These youngsters are a way bigger deal than cattle, cotton, or oil ever was. We just have to make sure they’re well educated. That’s the key to Texas’ economic future.”
While Mendoza has accomplished a lot, she admits there are still two childhood dreams she wished she could have accomplished – being an astronaut and a linebacker in the NFL.
And for a moment, the slight-framed, 5-foot-1 tech CEO steeps in the latter bygone ambition: “I would have been a good one, too,” she said.