Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
In the mid-1990s, Janie Gonzalez and her husband, Bill, began an internet services company out of a spare room in Janie’s family home on the South Side.
Twenty-five years after Webhead‘s founding, Southside residents still come to visit when Janie is in the neighborhood, their scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings of her. They view her as an example for what the South Side can produce: a self-made success story in an industry with few Latina CEOs.
“She was like a hometown hero,” said Bill Gonzalez.
After 25 years of leading her largely self-funded company, Janie Gonzalez is setting her sights on helping young female and minority tech entrepreneurs. She is willing to take a step back from the day-to-day operations at Webhead to take on what she sees as a growing disparity faced by businesswomen and entrepreneurs of color – groups that she feels aren’t given the same opportunities their white and affluent peers enjoy.
The tech industry has historically seen a lack of women and minorities in its workforce, dating back even further than when Webhead, which handles the backend web development processes for commercial and government organizations, emerged at the dawn of the internet age.
Some progress has been made, but it’s been too slow for Gonzalez’s taste. Minorities and women, especially black and Hispanic students, still represent just a sliver of those earning computer science degrees, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. And the ones that try to chart their own path through entrepreneurship often run into issues when seeking the capital to grow their businesses, Gonzalez said.
“For me, that’s really hard [to accept] as someone who started with a very simple vision,” she said. “That was to use technology to basically break the cycle of poverty and to pave a new role for women in technology, regardless of ethnicity.”
That’s why she started LatinaCEO, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering entrepreneurs in underrepresented groups. Gonzalez also brought to life Cascarón Bash – a charitable event benefiting educational efforts in science, technology, engineering, art, and math – that is going into its seventh year.
Now Gonzalez is looking to launch a tech-focused incubator for minority- and female-led companies. The veteran entrepreneur has been looking for funding to support the venture but hasn’t found willing investors, so she plans to bootstrap the program, to be known as Inclusiva, like she’s done most of her career.
People close to Gonzalez talk about her tenacity and her determination to get things done in spite of the obstacles in her way. It’s a refrain familiar to her husband, who has seen her soldier on even in the face of occasional financial uncertainty: “As Janie often says,” he said, “‘If no one’s going to help me, then I’m going to do it on my own.'”
The incipient stages of Webhead began out of the high-capacity computing lab at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where Bill Gonzalez was working on a doctorate degree in computer science. His work focused on a then-emerging technology: the internet.
When UTSA professors began employing Bill’s services to build websites, a business model began to develop. The original Webhead team consisted of Roger Colunga, who specialized in building servers; Bill, who developed the websites; and Janie, who pounded the pavement in search of customers.
But unlike Silicon Valley’s early internet companies, Webhead could not access venture capital investment or traditional bank lending. The internet was seen by some lenders in those days as a fad, and banks were leery of supporting a business that resembled few other enterprises they had loaned to before, said Janie Barrera, president and CEO of LiftFund. The nonprofit organization provides small businesses with loans and free educational services to help them become self-sufficient.
“She had a dream, and no one was helping her propel that dream,” Barrera said.
LiftFund, then known as Acción Texas, supplied Webhead with a loan of about $20,000, one of the few injections of outside capital the company has received. Because the business model for an internet company was so new, Barrera paired Gonzalez with a finance professional who helped her learn how to run her company so it remained viable.
A focus on building the business’s assets helped Webhead zero in on contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense, the company’s main client and one that has provided steady revenue over the past decade, and buying its own facility to build equity.
Getting Webhead’s financials in order helped give Gonzalez the time to focus on her other projects, such as her LatinaCEO business consultancy and life-coaching business, which has taken her to cities throughout South Texas.
Having spent time growing up in Laredo, Gonzalez has a special kinship with that border city and has been invited to speak to students on several occasions. She can’t help but see herself in the students: industrious and bright but often dismissed and given few opportunities.
She often meets teenagers who dream of starting their own business or beginning a career in a STEM field, but they feel the same stressors she did at that age: marriage, having children, being first-generation college students, and taking care of their families. It’s not for a lack of talent that they aren’t able to forge a career in science, technology, math, or engineering, Gonzalez said.
“All they want is to change their life through education, through an opportunity,” she said.
Gonzalez beat the odds by not only putting herself through college but also founding a business while completing her studies, said Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who serves with Gonzalez on CPS Energy’s board.
“The time in which she started her company, computers weren’t standard equipment in dorm rooms,” he said. “This was a time when the internet was not a household name, and she had the vision and foresight to become proficient and also build a business around these new technologies – and meanwhile raise a family and put herself through school. It’s phenomenal, and it’s happening on our city’s South Side.”
A graffiti tag Bill had seen spray-painted commonly on San Antonio’s West Side inspired the name of the Gonzalezes’ business, originally styled as Web-Hed. In those days, a webhead was someone who lost a significant amount of brain cells from inhaling spray-paint fumes.
But Bill saw an opportunity to give the term a new, positive spin. With the World Wide Web becoming an international phenomenon in the ensuing years, the new meaning took hold. A webhead became someone who knows a lot about the internet.
Now Gonzalez will look to carry out her mission to build a new batch of webheads in San Antonio’s traditionally overlooked neighborhoods.
“I’m looking forward to the next generation of Latina CEOs … and Latino CEOs,” Gonzalez said. “I know that there are a lot of Janies out there and a lot of Bills out there, and I’m looking forward to seeing them grow. If I can play a small role in that, I would be honored to be able to do so.”