Michelle Munson was CEO and Co-founder 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. Aspera was acquired by IBM in 2017.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
SM: How long did you
operate the ISP?
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.