Marin woman moves from Soviet citizen to CEO of global software firm Svitla Systems

Women in Business

This article is part of an ongoing series from the Business Journal highlighting successful female entrepreneurs.

You wouldn’t know it from its small office tucked away in a Marin County bayside town, but Svitla Systems is a global software development company with hundreds of employees in multiple countries.

In 17 years, Nataliya Anon has built the Corte Madera-based firm from a few programmers in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv (formerly Kiev), into a company with over 600 employees in production offices in five other Ukrainian locations plus one each in Krakow, Poland, and Guadalajara, Mexico. It also has sales offices on the East Coast and in Berlin.

While Anon wouldn’t reveal revenues for the privately owned company, she said sales growth has averaged 35% annually in the past eight years. Revenue has climbed 160% in the past four years, 122% in the past three and 66% in the past two.

The latter two growth achievements, respectively, qualified Svitla to debut on this year’s Inc. 5000 list at No. 3,145 and on the Women Presidents’ Organization 50 Fastest-Growing Women-Owned/-Led Companies list at No. 50.

Female executives stand out in the tech world

“Being a woman, I think, is actually an advantage in the high-tech world, because there just aren't that many women founders, women senior executives,” Anon said. “You stand out from the get-go.”

And sometimes, that attention comes with prejudice. In one case, a banker she dealt with would insist that her husband accompany her to each meeting.

Another example came as Svitla was establishing its Mexican subsidiary in 2016 to cater to customers who wanted developers in the same time zone and within a few hours by plane to Silicon Valley.

While Anon and a colleague were meeting with partners of a firm there, a senior attorney initially posed all her questions to Anon’s colleague, a tall man. After about 10 minutes of his repeatedly looking to Anon for the answers, the attorney realized who was actually in charge.

“That was an interesting dynamic,” Anon said.

Overall, she feels the light of fortune has shined on her as an immigrant and a female entrepreneur.

“I still think that immigrants and nonimmigrants in this country, as long as they work hard and live their dream, they can still achieve what they want to achieve,” she said.

Iron will to overcome the Iron Curtain

Anon, 47, credits her entrepreneurial drive partly to her family’s unsanctioned children’s clothing business when the Soviet Union reigned over her native Ukraine. She saw her mother make the items surreptitiously at night, then her grandmother would take them to the market.

But to get the education she wanted to run a business effectively, she would need to leave the Soviet bloc countries.

“It was easier for me to imagine that one day I'm gonna fly as an astronaut to Mars, than one day I'm going to come here to the United States to study,” she said with a laugh.

But then came the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. At that time, Anon was studying for an undergraduate accounting degree in Moscow.

One of the first delegations of U.S. business leaders and educators after the change-over visited her institution, and among them was a professor from a small community college in Oregon. He arranged for her to get a full scholarship there and to board with a nearby family. In 1992 she arrived in the U.S.

After a year at the college, the same instructor encouraged her to go for a master’s degree then helped her convince the University of Kansas to accept her Moscow and Oregon education as the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. She graduated with a master’s degree in accounting and information systems.

“When I came to this country, I needed a job,” she said with a chuckle. “I was told that accounting was an easy path to get a job.”

With the graduate degree in hand and after passing a certified public accountant exam, she went to work for Ernst & Young, first in Manhattan then in London. The entrepreneurial drive accelerated while she was working with companies in the firm’s international tax consulting practice.

In 1999 after four years at Ernst & Young, Anon applied to Stanford Business School’s MBA program. While there, she made connections, both back to her home country through co-founding the campus Ukrainian student association and by networking with budding entrepreneurs around her.

‘Bright’ idea for Svitla

In her second year of the MBA program, she wrote a competition-winning business plan that would become Lohika Systems.

Meaning “logic” in Ukrainian, that company leveraged the country’s science and technology culture to create hubs of programmers that would take on software projects for other companies, following the trail blazed by Indian tech hubs a decade earlier.

Lohika launched amid the tech-led recession of 2001 with venture money and Anon as CEO.

However, within two years she left the company over disagreements with the board and management as to the company’s direction. Lohika was acquired by Altran Solutions in 2016.

Anon then started a venture that sought to develop technology to prevent illegal duplication of CDs and DVDs, but that didn’t materialize.

Yet within six months of leaving Lohika, she started Svitla with no investor backing. The company name comes from a Ukrainian root that means “bright,” “enlightening” or “smart.”

“We have bright people who make bright software,” she said. “Also, it was my intention to create a company that gave employees a bright light, with opportunity to grow and stay in the company for years.”

The company has grown rapidly in the past several years, but more than a few have been with the company for more than eight.

Svitla offers three types of services to help other firms build, test and maintain software on a number of platforms. The first is managed team extension, meant for long-term commitments, including ongoing support and fixing software bugs. The second is called AgileSquads, which is intended to help companies offload software development tasks on demand. And the third service is consulting to help customers plan for and evaluate projects.

The company said it has completed over 1,000 projects and has a 90% rate for repeat business. Customers have included Stanford University, Monster, Ancestry, Houston-based data center software maker BMC, and payment systems developer Ingenico.

From Silicon Valley to Marin

Svitla started in 2003 in Mountain View in the heart of Silicon Valley then relocated several years later. Anon was commuting from the family home in Half Moon Bay, but when the oldest of their three children was about the start school, they started scouting schools around the San Francisco Bay Area. That led them to Marin, and in 2013 and the couple and company relocated.

Now the kids are ages 11, 10 and 7. Balancing the roles of global CEO and mom is tough, she has said.

“Just being a mom is very demanding. The key thing is time management. It’s a skill that one acquires. I have to manage my schedule, prioritize what is important, what has to be done today or could be done tomorrow.”

Remote possibilities

Around the time of Anon’s move to Marin, she invested in Altus Equity Group, a Rohnert Park-based firm that offers alternative investment assets mostly around real estate such as multifamily properties in Southern states.

“I was impressed with her ability to manage business in such a remote fashion,” said Forrest Jinks, CEO of Altus. “She has things going on all over the world, and she manages it from that Marin office.”

Lessons in remote work have come in handy for Altus, as the company hired a controller from outside the area just after the 2017 fire as Sonoma County housing prices soared. Now, the acquisitions director is working from afar, and the pending hire for the senior accountant likely will be, he said.

Anon’s investment was around the time Altus was pitching North Bay Angels for funding. Jinks introduced her to that investor network, and they both have joined.

The coronavirus pandemic also has softened client requirements that Svitla’s developers working on projects be working physically from the same office, Anon said.

While the firm’s hospitality customers took a big hit from the economy lockdowns to slow the virus, logistics and fleet-management companies with the surge in e-commerce demand have necessitated a shift of Svitla developers to those applications as that client demand has grown.

Revenue was down 8% at the half-year point from the first quarter, but the jump in software development demand in July and August has Svitla on track for at least 25% annual growth by year end, Anon said. And with some virus restrictions lifting, Svitla’s travel industry customers are beginning to revive projects.

The North Bay has potential long term for companies to draw younger professionals from urban areas, Anon said.

“It’s not as crowded as other parts of the Bay Area,” she said. “It has great outdoors and lot for young people do to venture outside. It has proximity to great things, with Napa Valley close by and San Francisco, with all its clubs and restaurants and opera, only 16 miles away. And Tahoe is only about three hours away. It’s a great strategic location for young folks.”

Jeff Quackenbush (, 707-521-4256) covers wine, construction and real estate.

Women in Business

This article is part of an ongoing series from the Business Journal highlighting successful female entrepreneurs.

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