Imagine building the company of your dreams. That’s exactly what Kristi Alford-Haarberg, President and CEO of E2 Optics has done over the course of her career. Inspired by digital transformation initiatives occurring all around her, but particularly by the healthcare sector, Alford-Haarberg embarked on a journey to help organizations quickly construct data centers and provide end-to-end technology solutions.
Today, digital solutions are no longer “nice to have” for the average healthcare organization. They’re mission critical. As a result, hyperscalers and private enterprises are racing to construct the data centers necessary to power our modern, more-connected world. However, digital transformation and modernization became an even larger priority in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the pandemic spread, healthcare organizations found themselves in a race against time; moving quickly to embrace the next-generation technologies that would enable them to operate in a new era where face-to-face, in-person interaction had to be replaced with digital engagement for the health and safety of everyone.
Future Healthcare Today recently sat down with Kristi Alford-Haarberg to discuss her background in technology, her experience starting the company, and the solutions and services that E2 Optics provides for today’s increasingly digitally-dependent enterprises.
Future Healthcare Today (FHT): Kristi, can you tell our readers a bit about your professional background? What led you to want to create E2 Optics?
Kristi Alford-Haarberg: After graduating college, I started working in a sales position for a technology company. I worked for a cable manufacturing company that manufactured cable assemblies, cable harnesses, and other products. I didn’t intend to enter the technology industry, but it was lucky because it eventually grew to be one of the world’s largest, fastest-growing industries.
For much of my career, I’ve held business development and sales positions for large technology companies – including a role working for a Fortune 200 company where I gained a lot of experience and had a lot of professional success. I often found myself becoming the top salesperson at the companies for which I worked.
When the dot.com boom started, I was at the Kent Companies and was able to land a large customer – Level 3. This is where I started getting my feet wet in the services side. It was one of the first times that I was selling services and not just product. That is when I got my first experience with things like structured cabling, DC power, and installation. I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed the personal human element of services, and how it required that you craft and create a unique solution and experience for the customer.
Following the dot.com crash, I took some time off to focus on family. I started to reflect on what I wanted to do next, and on what I had accomplished in my career to that point. Based on my previous experience, I was confident that I could start a successful company.
I felt that by building a company that shared my values – a company that was very customer focused, that tried to understand customer needs and requirements, and one that brought them tailored solutions which met their unique needs – I would be bringing something new to the market that could grow and be successful.
In 2010, I launched E2 Optics – a woman-owned business in a male dominated industry. I self-funded the business from day one and have since grown the business by focusing on what I could bring to the industry, not dwelling on the barriers that I have faced.
FHT: Speaking of barriers and challenges, as a female entrepreneur in a relatively male dominated industry, were there any unique roadblocks that you faced?
Kristi Alford-Haarberg: I would say that there were several challenges that E2 Optics faced because it was a small, woman-owned company.
The first challenge we experienced was with financing. I was rejected at every turn from banking institutions because of my lack of entrepreneurial experience. This is a barrier to entry for many women-owned and minority-owned businesses – it can be very hard to get the funding and investment that you need to start and grow the business from traditional financial institutions.
As a small, entrepreneurial startup company, we also faced challenges within our industry and marketplace.
In the IT integration and structure cabling installation industries, there are specific manufacturers who make the materials that are essential for the work we do. As a small startup, I was often excluded from becoming a partner to many key manufacturers, which would preclude us from offering warranties to our early customers. It can take many years to become an “official partner” or “certified” by some of these large manufactures, but those certifications are essential to be a serious player in our marketplace.
Finally, I have been discriminated against and overlooked many times since I started the company. There is definitely a “Good ‘Ole Boys” club in the technology and IT integration industry. There have been many times where the company has been left out, where information hasn’t been shared, or when leads haven’t been shared, simply because we’re not in “the club.”
But I never used that as an excuse. I always took those doubts and roadblocks as inspiration and used them as motivation to build the organization.
FHT: How did your experience starting E2 Optics shape the culture and values that you’ve worked to establish in the company?
Kristi Alford-Haarberg: The culture I’ve worked to instill in E2 Optics is a result of – and combination of – multiple different experiences from throughout my career.
When working to identify the culture I wanted to embrace within the company, I reflected on the leaders I worked with in my career as an employee. I thought about the leadership styles which worked best – the positive leadership styles that were the most motivating to the employees – and the negative leadership styles that were ineffective and had negative effects. I used those experiences to shape the culture and atmosphere that I wanted to create for E2 Optics.
I wanted that atmosphere to be very open, very caring, and very understanding. I wanted our employees to have work-life balance and to have time for their home lives and their families. I wanted to make E2 Optics a place where all employees were excited to get up and go to work every day.
FHT: E2 Optics is mostly known as an IT solution and services provider to the data center industry. Can you tell our readers a bit about what the company does for hyperscalers and other data center operators?
Kristi Alford-Haarberg: When we started the company in 2010, we started as a traditional structured cabling company, offering copper and fiber cable installation for business and enterprise customers. During that time, I felt the pendulum swing and saw technology becoming mission-critical to how all organizations operate – from healthcare organizations to private enterprises to government agencies and organizations.
Technology’s fundamental role in how today’s enterprises operate has given birth to the massive increase in data center construction that we’ve seen over the past decade – and which continues today. The explosion in data center construction from hyperscalers, enterprises and other data center operators was an opportunity for E2 Optics, and we began to offer infrastructure integration services for large, hyperscale data centers.
Today, E2 Optics provides data center owners and operators with crews of people who install all of the infrastructure – all of the “rack and stack” for the network equipment and data center spaces. We provide all of the infrastructure, the ladder racks, the basket trays, everything within a network room and data center, as well as all of the connectivity – the fiber and copper – and training.
Be sure to check back for the next article in this two-part Q&A series, when we ask Kristi about E2 Optics’ recent evolution from infrastructure integration and structure cabling company, into a cutting-edge, end-to-end technology solution provider.
To learn more about E2 Optics, click here.