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Lindsey Gates-Markel

Though I’d never worked as a content strategist before applying to work at Pixo, I did my research on the company like a seasoned pro (or at least someone proficient in Google), and before long, I couldn’t stop reading about Lori Gold Patterson, the CEO of Pixo.

I told my girlfriends about her, who were similarly impressed, and soon we spoke often of the familiar “Lori,” a legend who only needed one name: Lori started Pixo. Lori encourages women in tech. Did you know Lori is a mother? Lori seems so generous with her time and advice. Lori leans OUT, you know — we should lean out. If only Lori were here, drinking rosé with us on this porch!

After several months at Pixo, my enthusiasm for the company has only grown, and I can actually refer to Lori in the familiar with some legitimacy. When Pixo was recently included on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S., I took the opportunity to sit down with Lori and talk about the success of the company she started, the advice she wishes people would ask for, and what she would have never expected about being a CEO.

I spoke with Lori Gold Patterson on a banner day — her first day back to full-time work after several months away fighting (and conquering) cancer, and the 17th anniversary of Pixo’s incorporation.

Tell me about Pixo and what’s unique about it.

Pixo was launched as a social experiment to prove that you could operate a company in an exceptionally competitive IT consulting space with leading-edge outcomes and challenging work for achieve-a-holics without overpromising and under-delivering, without cut-throat decision-making, and without resting on the backs of staff to work crazy hours in order to fulfill unreasonable promises.

We’ve operated for 17 years in that manner and proved that the field of IT consulting doesn’t have to be an unreasonable place for a human to exist for a long time. It can be exceptionally inspiring and empowering. We take real responsibility for exceeding all of our expectations and not just saying yes for comfort’s purpose. Clients can be exceptionally happy, and employees can be exceptionally happy at the same time.

Where does that attitude come from?

From mine and my brother’s parents. We were raised in that manner and were honest and communicative to a fault. My dad was this optimist. I remember growing up and watching tension turn into excitement over and over again, always seeing a silver lining. When things felt stuck or undoable, my brother and I would feel like “This is that moment where it could either fall flat, or this is the moment where ingenuity is on the other side.”

You started Pixo with your brother 17 years ago. What did the company look like then?

Seventeen years ago, the demand for programming and IT services far exceeded the supply. Our vision was to take highly educated, underemployed individuals and teach them to be competent programmers through free classes, then to pull folks who were really showing promise into existing projects. Everybody walked in with their own computer and desk and chair. We looked like a bunch of people who were really excited to work outside of corporate America but also to solve the same problems that our cohorts in corporate America were solving.

And now Pixo has just been named one of America’s 5,000 fastest-growing private companies.

At the beginning of 2013, the leadership here at Pixo verbalized that we wanted to double in size, for a couple of reasons: people love to work at Pixo, and we wanted more people to be able to do so, and to work together on larger projects. We also wanted to go back to our roots of true software engineering and solving complex problems for organizations, and wanted to expand our internal expert pool to do so.

We expected and planned that it would take us about two to three years to double in size. It took four months. We had a very exciting and hard 2013. We hadn’t realized to what extent the market needs and wants us. But we want to manage growth reasonably and slowly. We’re very proud to be in the list of fastest-growing companies, but what’s much more important is to be in the list of “effectively-growing.” Fast happened to us, but it’s not our intention.

You mentioned that people love to work at Pixo. How would you describe the culture here? Was it intentional from the start?

The culture at Pixo is the most intentional part of the company, and the thing we’re most proud of is that it has remained intact in our growth. In our community, people absolutely know our culture. We have very vocal employees who are ingrained in the community in various not-for-profits, for-profits, and initiatives. It’s a culture of vulnerability, safe risk-taking, humans over profit, and an unwillingness to simply do what we’re asked.

Who should ask you for advice, and what would you tell them?

One of my favorite roles I’ve played in the last four years is Entrepreneur-in-Residence for our world-renowned Research Park at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. One of the key pieces of advice I give to new business founders is to digest the advice they get from mentors and advisors, but also to challenge it as wholeheartedly as they would challenge anything else.

In the startup world, I fear that there’s so much advice ready to be given, and that advisors are so confident and proven and competent, that we start to look like cookie cutter companies, and new CEOs and founders don’t find their own voices early enough. Be willing to utilize and respect the advice of mentors, but also be willing to walk on a completely different side of the road if your gut tells you to.

I would advise professional people to hold their organizations responsible for human factors. One of the reasons our corporate America is as discriminatory, debilitating, and demotivating as it is is that as individuals, we feel at risk of losing our jobs, so we accept things we shouldn’t accept. Look for ways you can empower the people around you, empower yourself, and empower your bosses from within an organization. That’s how we change organizations from within.

I would advise healthy people to understand that one day, they may not be healthy, and in response to that, to focus on physical health and mental strength every day. At any moment, you might have to use your body to fight. What skills could you be practicing on a regular basis to be mentally and emotionally ready? I’m not suggesting we sit around thinking we’re going to get sick, but by preparing for that, we attain a better quality of life anyway.

I would advise parents that their single most important job is to raise individuals who have high self-esteem and who understand how to utilize their interpersonal and external resources to achieve the things they dream about. If we keep that end result really clear, it drives all sorts of parenting decisions in a very different direction than how many of us parent.

What has been true about being the CEO of Pixo that you wouldn’t have anticipated 17 years ago?

I would not have anticipated that Pixo, long-term, could be a place for someone like me and a lot of someones like me. Seventeen years ago, I had about a two-year capacity. I needed brand-new challenges every two years; that was the best and worst thing about me professionally.

I believe really strongly that the leaders of organizations have to keep their eye on the organization and ensure that the culture moves with the organization, not with the leader. At Pixo, doing so allows us to continue to have, at our core, the same values. If we stay with the same operations, we could no longer say that we put humans first, because we’d be putting the comfort of operations first. At Pixo, we reinvent ourselves and have significantly reinvented ourselves numerous times. I would not have anticipated that I could have been challenged anew over and over again.

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