Michelle Munson is CEO of Aspera, a company she began after being laid off. Aspera was her realization that she could not only control her own career path but also create jobs for other people in a culture she established. This story is great inspiration for the thousands who have been let go by their employers.
SM: Michelle, where does your story begin?
MM: I grew up in Kansas, on a farm. My family is a five-generation farm family that raises Angus cattle as well as wheat, corn and soybeans. There is a long-standing family tradition in both the line of business and the location. My mom is a retired university professor. I grew up in Kansas, went to school there and went to college at Kansas State University. That is an interesting point with me; I was accepted to MIT and went to Kansas State.
Growing up, I liked all subjects but had a particular interest in math. I also enjoyed English. I was very serious about school, and by the time I was going to college I had scholarship opportunities that made it possible for me to go to school anywhere. I went to school at Kansas State for a couple of reasons. I had a full-ride scholarship, and I had taken several courses at the university during high school and had great professors. I was convinced that this could be a way I would be happy.
After that I went to graduate school. I did a Fulbright at Cambridge in the UK. Between those two I was involved in starting an ISP in this rural area where we did not have them. There was no AOL access because it was too small for AOL to justify putting in service.
SM: What did you study in college?
MM: I got two degrees. I did a physics degree out of interest. I enjoyed the subject but was also very much an electrical engineering student and called myself an engineer. I ended up doing graduate study in computer science. I picked a one-year master’s program out of interest. The Internet was just starting then. My undergraduate work was focused more on semiconductor technologies. To the extent that you have a focus [at that point], my internships were around semiconductor materials. Netscape was released the last semester of my senior year in college, and I was enamored by it. I realized I needed to make a shift into software if I was going to make a shift into this world. At that point and time I made a conscious decision to do graduate work with software so that I could be part of the Internet.
I was involved with starting this ISP my last year of college and took a year off to develop that. I ran it, but it was a very small business. It was totally different from a technology business like we have at Aspera. It was an interesting thing to do and to understand what the Internet meant. There was no clear future in that at all, which solidified my desire to go to graduate school.
SM: How long did you operate the ISP?
MM: One year. We kept it for three years, and we did finally sell it. The first year we got it going I was still in school, and I took a one-year break between graduation and going to Cambridge to actually work on it full time. We sold it to another ISP when I came back from Cambridge.