Mapping Business Success

Alumni donors Ted and Dawn Shields credit GSU for helping their telecom startup thrive

Ted and Dawn Shields met and married while working in a field that they expected would take care of them for life – telecommunications.

But when AT&T broke up in 1984 and the Internet took off, the couple eventually needed backup – and found it in the expertise at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business.

Today, the couple own and operate a successful Atlanta-based company, GeoResults, which sells detailed mapped information to telecom companies and utilities for marketing and planning. They credit their success to GSU’s deep base of business knowledge, which continues to benefit them through their now-global GSU network.

Dawn Shields, the CFO of GeoResults, is a 2008 graduate of the Executive MBA Program, which introduced her to a new world of contacts and new part of the world. This impact is a big reason why the Shields give to GSU in support of the EMBA program and the GSU Fund for Business.

Ted Shields (B.B.A., 1975), returned to GSU in 2001 for help from the Small Business Development Center, which helped him and his wife quickly craft a strategy to start GeoResults.

“It’s a no brainer to give back,” said Ted Shields, who worked his way through GSU in a series of retail jobs that included tending the snack bar on the top of Stone Mountain.

Their story touches on familiar themes at GSU, especially at Robinson – deep roots in Atlanta, resourcefulness and a willingness to take risk.

The couple met building phone networks at Southern Bell, which both considered a “30 years and a gold watch” career. Ted Shields’ grandmother had operated a switchboard and his uncles had designed the switching equipment where the phone lines intersected.

But Southern Bell was part of AT&T, and shortly after the couple married, AT&T disbanded, leaving a network of regional phone carriers. Ted Shields joined Nortel Networks, a provider of networking solutions, and he hired his wife as a contractor.

“He likes to joke and I like to laugh,” she said of their chemistry and teamwork.

Turning back to GSU

In 2000, the prosperous “telecom bubble” burst. When their entire division at Nortel was disbanded in 2001, the couple moved quickly to keep their colleagues together and start GeoResults. Then parents to two young children, they gambled every personal asset on their startup.

“It was like a poker game in a Western movie, where the cowboy puts his watch, the deed to the ranch, the horses and Betsy the cow to stay in the game,” Ted Shields said. “Our house, our retirement plans – everything went in.”

Dawn Shields comes from a family of entrepreneurs who started the Macon Restaurant Supply Co. “This is our opportunity,” she as CFO told her husband, the CEO. “If it doesn’t work, we can always get a job working for someone else.”

Though the world is now a densely connected grid, Ted Shields could see the gaps. Businesses near a fiber optic line have different communication needs. GeoResults could tell the owner of the fiber optic line more about those potential customers.

The couple believed their niche would remain stable as other areas of telecom rose and fell because they specialize in providing data connected to concrete locations – where businesses and homes are on a map.

Tapping local maps to create a national company required vision.

“I do fine art photography, and you see what will be in the frame before you take the photo,” Ted Shields said of his hobby and how it connects to his work. “I saw GeoResults in quick order. We had a product no one else in the United States has. We call this our suitcase of knowledge, and we had to snatch up the friends and family who were telecom savvy to make a great team.”

To go forward, he looked back – to Robinson College, where he had earned a business management degree. “My education there was so good that even by 2001, I could pull from what I learned in statistics and contracts classes,” he said.

They took their business plan to Robinson’s Small Business Development Center, a public service unit that provides consulting and training to Georgia small businesses.

“They had to move fast to keep their team together,” recalled center director Bernard Meineke, who spent six hours – a meeting documented in his meticulous files – with the Shields mapping out their plan for GeoResults.

While the pace of change is rapid throughout many industries, in telecommunications it is “certainly greater, and to stay relevant in that area, continue to add value and stay ahead is a constant challenge,” Meineke said. “What they’ve done is pretty impressive.”

Another point on the map

As GeoResults took off, Dawn Shields saw a gap in her education. She had long wanted to earn an MBA, and as a CFO, “I needed to speak more of the language of business,” she said of entering the 17-month EMBA program.

Each new group of EMBA students stays together as a learning cohort that helps one another.

“It was a wonderful education, and the relationships are the best part,” said Dawn Shields, who serves on the EMBA alumni board. “It’s not just what I learned at Georgia State, but it’s who I can call now when I need an answer for the best way to go.”

One strong relationship is with Neda Barqawi (EMBA, 2010), president of XTarta, a global market research company. Barqawi said Dawn Shields influenced her values and work.

“Her work ethic and her determination to do work that will benefit the society in general is so inspiring,” Barqawi said. “I’m lucky that I had the opportunity to meet and work with such a great individual through the GSU EMBA program.”

GSU’s impact on the couple turned global when Robinson College marketing professor Sevo Eroglu introduced Dawn Shields to Mona Diamond, the honorary consul general for Turkey in Georgia.

In 2010, Dawn Shields joined five other fellow EMBA alumni and students along with other government, business, and educational leaders on a trade mission to Turkey.

In that spot on the globe, Dawn Shields saw firsthand how her personal health history and resources could make a difference. She had survived breast cancer by early detection; her mother died after a later-stage diagnosis. Rural Turkey was a key global crossroads where women’s health and education was a critical issue.

Today the Shields are involved with bringing a breast cancer center to south central Turkey, a region of the country currently in need of a comprehensive approach to the early detection and treatment of breast cancer.

“I really didn’t know anything about Turkey, but I realize how important their geographic location is to us as a U.S. ally and how instrumental Turkey is for peace in the Middle East,” said Dawn Shields.

She has since joined the board of the American Turkish Friendship Council (ATFC), a nonprofit organization founded by Mona Diamond to promote and expand educational, cultural, economic, and humanitarian relationships between the two countries.

“I would advise anyone to take the EMBA program only if you want to change your life,” Ted Shields says. “You will not come out the same.”

In September, Dawn Shields will return to Istanbul, Turkey with Eroglu and other EMBA alumni to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the EMBA program at GSU. In Atlanta, they will celebrate the EMBA program’s 30th anniversary with a schedule of special events.

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424