Michigan Engineer Article - Nancy Gilby

By Kim Roth

gilbylgThe average day in the high-voltage life of entrepreneur Nancy Benovich Gilby (BSE CE '85; MSE CSE '87) starts with a bicycle -- she hops on and pedals six miles from home to her office on London's Phipp Street. It's there that her day seems more in line with her position as a chief executive officer who guides a major corporation and handles seven- and eight-figure business ventures.

Gilby also holds the titles of "attentive wife" and "devoted mother of two," which she says are far more important than her corporate positions -- she has a full, well-rounded life. Nevertheless, this entrepreneur pours herself into her role as CEO of PocketThis, a four-year-old firm that develops software to save and transfer content wirelessly from the Web and PCs to mobile phones. Her workdays revolve around top-level meetings with Europe's largest wireless carriers and venture capitalists. Millions of dollars exchange hands. Lives and livelihoods depend on her good judgment. "With a startup," she said, "many things can go wrong, any one of which could put you out of business. Every day has its series of up-and-down roller coaster rides."

Her appetite for the entrepreneurial life dates back to her Michigan Engineering experience. She made a special note of her days as a grad student working with deans James Duderstadt (1981-1986) and Charles Vest (1986-1989). Gilby also learned some tricks of the trade from John Poduska (son of Bill Poduska, founder of Apollo Computer, which was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 1989), and from Apple Computer's co-founder and current CEO, Steve Jobs. She called all of them "amazing men with pioneering spirits."

After leaving Michigan in 1987, Gilby showed that same spirit and her creative ability by developing new applications at Apollo, ON Technology, Wildfire Communications and Firefly Networks. In 1998, she co-founded MarketSoft Inc., developer of Web-based e-marketing software; not long after, two colleagues invited her to help start up PocketThis.

Her knack with successful startups has spanned 18 years, a period in which she developed a unique, integrated approach to company and market development. In fact, her process is so original that it has resulted in three case studies at the Harvard Business School.

"It's about solving a business problem," Gilby said. She's learned to watch the market, listen to customers and -- above all -- put ego aside. In the case of PocketThis, the challenge was to overcome market saturation for mobile voice services. Her solution? "You have to bolster revenues through data services," she said. "It's going to be a tremendous market opportunity."

Gilby joked that she doesn't have much of a social life given her schedule, desire to spend time with her family -- husband, Joe, and five-year-old ball of energy, Jay -- and making preparations for another "bundle of joy" who, as Michigan Engineer goes to press, is on the way. Still, she's found time to serve on Michigan Engineering's Alumni Society Board of Governors and to assist the College with recruiting.

She also makes space on her calendar for speaking engagements during which she shares her entrepreneurial experiences with groups of women in engineering and the sciences. "I like to inspire women to pursue their careers once they've invested in their engineering education," she said. "It can be a challenge to have a family, too. I've been fortunate to be able to pursue what's important to me. I can't say I've led a dull life and I want others to be able to say the same. 

Kim Roth is a freelance writer whose work appears in the Chicago Tribune and other notable publications.

- Michigan Engineer Spring/Summer 2005 (College of Engineering)