Ananta Hejeebu is founder of Howard Tech Advisors (HTA), an Elkridge-based technology services firm. Founded in 2009, the company has grown to 25 workers and serves more than 100 business and nonprofit clients; its stated mission is to “build community” to make Howard County a better place.
HTA’s primary service is providing a complete information technology (IT) department for businesses that otherwise would not be able to afford one; it supports the community by providing various services to Grassroots, Hope Works, Junior Achievement, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Howard County Autism Society Community Action Council and others.
For its approach and success, HTA was recognized as 2016 Small Business of the Year by the Howard County Chamber of Commerce (HCCC). Prior to founding HTA, Hejeebu served in leadership roles for Workspace.com, a Baltimore-based cloud software provider; F5 Networks, a Seattle-based network infrastructure provider; and Southwestern Company, a Nashville-based book publisher.
While at West Virginia University (WVU), he earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering and received an Army ROTC scholarship, then served in the U.S. Army 18th Airborne Corps. Later, Hejeebu earned an MBA from The Johns Hopkins University.
Hejeebu and his wife, Stacia, have lived in Howard County since 1994 and have three children who attended Howard County public schools. In May 2017, he was appointed as a member on the Howard County Board of Education and has served on the boards of the HCCC, Leadership Howard County (LHC), the Community Foundation of Howard County and others.
What was your goal when finishing college and entering the workforce?
When I went to WVU, I studied engineering because I participated in a high school engineering program and was told that engineers made a good income. That was enough for me. My motivation wasn’t to be rich; rather, I just wanted to provide well for my family.
But some of my earliest work experience included spending my college summers selling children’s books door-to-door — and it was then I realized that I could be paid commensurate with my efforts. I finished my engineering degree, hung it on the wall and, after my military service, joined the business world.
What was your main takeaway from your earlier jobs?
I worked at Wendy’s, and it was frustrating that people who didn’t work hard got paid the same $3.35 per hour as those who worked extremely hard. Effort didn’t seem to matter. Money alone doesn’t motivate me, but I appreciate incentives for excellence or going above and beyond.
What was your military experience?
I was commissioned via ROTC at WVU, completed the Ordnance Officer Basic Course and Airborne School, and then served on active duty at Fort Bragg, N.C. While there, my dad suddenly died, and I was discharged early so I could help my family. I then served five years in the U.S. Army Reserves.
Technically speaking, what does your company do?
We offer technical support services for businesses that are too small to have their own IT departments. We also have clients that have in-house IT staff, and complement them with project support, software tools and other niche services.
How were you able to establish HTA?
I was with Workspace.com when the stock market crashed in fall 2008. We struggled to raise venture funding, so I needed to find my next opportunity.
While looking for my next job, several friends told me their frustrations with IT firms. Since I wanted to stay local and couldn’t find the perfect job, I decided to start my own business. While I’m more technical than most people, I’m primarily interested in business issues and have hired technical people to work with our clients.
Do you find it unusual that your company takes such an integrated approach to serving the community?
It might be unusual compared to other companies, but is an intentional part of our business strategy. During my F5 days, I traveled globally for work and felt I had a disconnected life — my clients, employees, kids’ activities, volunteer efforts, church, etc., were all in individual silos.
I dreamed that I could tie all that together, and that’s what HTA has done for me. It’s also a great quality check, because I run into our clients in my neighborhood, church, restaurants, kids’ sports, school functions, local stores — everywhere. We have to do a good job because our clients can definitely find me. But that’s a good thing.
What was the best thing you learned from LHC?
I learned about the breadth and depth of people who work and live here. I had lived in Howard County for a long time, but had no idea about the variety of needs, community groups, serving opportunities and more that I learned through the program. LHC helps people get the big picture perspective on Howard County and offers each person a way to connect.
Do you think enough is being done to train STEM students in Howard County?
Kids who are interested in STEM are given tremendous opportunities and have many options, but we have to help kids with other interests, too. We can be more sensitive to the variety of interests and motivations of our students, and the broader needs of our community and marketplace.
There are many career paths that have great demand, including HVAC, automotive techs, farming and more, where technology and traditional careers intersect. STEM is more than just working in computers, and our educational systems need to see the bigger picture. I’m eager to help align individual student goals with the market’s needs, so that all of our young adults and future workers can actively participate in and contribute to our community.
What are your thoughts on the importance of entrants to the workforce having a four-year college degree?
A four-year degree and the college experience is great for most young adults, but I don’t feel it is necessarily for everyone. For those who want a professional job, a degree is a foot in the door, but they need other skills such as problem-solving, communication and self-motivation.
I don’t think a degree is the panacea that it was hyped to be a generation ago, and I’m concerned about the amount of debt that many students have coming out of school.
What led to your appointment on the Howard County Public School System’s (HCPSS) board?
I think [County Executive] Allan [Kittleman] chose me because of my perspective on the county and on life. I’m an immigrant, run a business, have kids in the school system, have a child with disabilities, and been long involved with local social services and nonprofits; I’m a champion of all things Howard County, and maybe he thought I could make a positive contribution.
What are the most important topics that you think need to be addressed by the HCPSS?
We need to come together as a school system and community. There has been significant turmoil in the system over the years, and there has been a trust gap. If adults can find a way to better work together, we can take a very good school system and make it better. It feels like we’re making progress, and I’m very hopeful.
Might you consider running for public office?
In 2002, I filed to be a candidate for the Howard County Council, but withdrew after a few months due to my son’s diagnosis. As for running in the future, I have no idea.
What do you see as your greatest professional challenge?
Far and away, we struggle with finding qualified employees. We need really smart technical people with great communication skills that fit within the pay scale for our small business clients.
That’s a needle in a haystack. There are tons of technical people in this area, but the federal government and defense contractors employ many of them. Their salaries and benefit structures heavily skew the private market for IT people, and it makes competing for qualified staff extremely hard. All of the IT companies in the Baltimore-Washington area have the same challenge.
What do you see as your greatest accomplishment?
Without a doubt, it’s my family. Stacia and I will celebrate our 25th anniversary next year, and we continue to work hard on our marriage. Our kids are amazing, and we are so blessed by each of them. We don’t have the perfect marriage or family, but we love each other deeply and are trying to make a positive impact on the world.
What are your goals for the future?
I’ve got tons of business and personal goals. Like everyone, we’re striving to launch our kids into the world as productive citizens. The disability thing requires a little extra planning, but we’re working on it.
From a business perspective, I love growth and spend lots of time thinking about how to grow wisely, serve our clients better, deal with cybersecurity, employee retention and competitive challenges. Business is fun when we’re growing, but we have to be careful about the how and when.