Indigo founder got her tech-mindedness from her father
By Dana Bisbee
Walking into Helen Levinson’s office at Indigo Interactive, the first thing you see is the Wonder Woman tin lunchbox that rests on the windowsill behind her desk. The lunchbox is an accurate representation of Levinson’s life—she is a Wonder Woman. On top of being founder and CEO of Indigo Interactive, a company that creates workflow management systems, she has a busy home life keeping up with her young daughter and husband.
Levinson learned how to save the day early on. Not long after her parents immigrated to Chicago from Jordan, her father lost his job, and the family relied on food stamps. “My parents raised us Catholic [so] I was sent to a Catholic school,” Levinson says. “But they didn’t have a lot of money so they would work bingo and additional activities to pay off our tuition.”
To help her struggling family, she worked as a delivery girl when she was just 10 years old. “It was exciting for me because I loved the fact that I was working and was going to get a paycheck,” Levinson says.
Levinson grew up as a minority in two ways. Although her family is Arabic, they are also Christians, which made them minorities within the Arabic community, she says. “My parents were in fear of the unknown, being in this new country and not knowing the language very well. They were really strict,” Levinson says.
So she was not allowed to enjoy things like birthday parties when she was growing up. “I could never partake in sleepovers. My parents were just so weirded out about me staying over at someone’s house other than family. It was tough especially with the boy situation. They didn’t believe in dating or having boys as friends. I broke them in really well because by the time they got to my younger sister, she could really do anything she wanted,” Levinson says.
Right after high school graduation, Levinson jumped into the workforce, managing openings for Omni Super Stores in the Chicago area, but after a few years of working various jobs Levinson decided to get a bachelor’s degree and began working for the Teamsters Union.
She quickly saw the need for improvement in the union’s technology systems and subsequently found where her passion was. “ All of their processes were manual. I was like, Oh my god, this is crazy. I got them all on computers, and I started putting things together and digitizing all of their forms and creating more workflow automation. That’s kind of when I realized that I had to do something different, because I love technology,” Levinson says.
She attributes her technologically-savvy mind to her father. “I used to sit and watch him a lot. I would try and reverse-engineer; I would take things apart and see how they worked and try to put them back together,” Levinson says.
Today, her company, Indigo Interactive, focuses on building workflow automation systems, custom software and web applications with an emphasis on interaction design.
“Talk about building a company from scratch with no investors. Helen’s really done a great job in finding customers and expanding her offerings for her company. She has really done great,” says Michael Nicholas, a mentor to Levinson from early in her career.
Levinson has worked in technology for more than 20 years and has watched women’s roles evolve in the industry. As a newcomer, she learned that she was playing in a “man’s world,” but says Nicholas helped her learn how to play the game to get ahead.
“It’s tough being a woman in tech,” she says. “You deal with a lot of men that can be misogynistic and condescending. I had a gentleman working for me, and I had an idea on how to architect a solution for our web applications, and he didn’t want to follow my direction. I continued on in the direction he wanted, and it failed so we’re starting from scratch.”
She hopes to mentor young girls in the tech industry and be the inspirational role model for them that she lacked when she was starting out. “Sometimes it’s easier to lean on somebody else,” Levinson says.
Edited by Alana Stramowski
Photo by Dana Bisbee