Susan Elliott grew up in St. Louis in the middle of the 20th century. In the '50s she headed off to Smith College, and she graduated in 1958.
"I went to the college counselor and said, 'There's got to be a job in this country—somewhere—that I do not now have to go to typing school for,' " she recounted to me.
In fact there was: At the time, IBM was actively recruiting women and they had recently opened up a regional training center back home in St. Louis. This was fortuitous. "In those days," she says, "you didn't dream of going to New York and getting an apartment with other women. You went home, if you weren't getting married."
IBM had Elliott complete some tests to make sure she had the analytical and logical abilities that they needed. "I passed the test, which I had expected I would do," she says. She started at IBM in the fall of 1958 as a programmer.
Three years later, she married Howard Elliott Jr., whom she'd had a crush on since she was 14. "It took me ten years to reel him in," she clucks. By 1966 she was pregnant with her first child.
This was a problem. Many companies in those days were skittish about the liability of having a pregnant woman in the office. "IBM's policy was to send you home at six months because you were so fragile. You couldn't possibly work for that last three months," she says sarcastically. "That wasn't acceptable to me because, one, I loved what I was doing, but, two, Howard was recently out of law school and we needed me to work."
Soon Elliott found another place that wanted to hire her, First National Bank in St. Louis. "They wanted my technical capabilities," she says. "Having worked for those eight years for IBM, I was way out on the leading edge." But First National Bank had the same policy—no work for the third trimester.
Susan and Howard mulled things over and came up with a workaround: "Howard, with his new law degree, incorporated me."
It was a tidy little solution: The bank could avoid directly hiring Elliott, protecting itself from the risk, and instead subcontract the work to Systems Service Enterprises Inc., of which Susan was the sole employee. (SSE are Elliott's initials.)
"So, one, I got the job and, two, that's when I started my own business."
Elliott worked for the bank for about a year, taking just a little bit of time off when her daughter was born.
Today her younger daughter runs SSE Inc., which now has around 150 employees. According to Elliott, "It's doing better than it ever, ever, ever has done."