The Women in Business series is presented by UMB Women and Wealth
As the founder, CEO, and president of ECCO Select, Prenger now leads one of the Top 500 Hispanic businesses in the country. As a minority Latina woman in the tech field, Prenger has faced many challenges. “I feel respected and have a seat at the table, but it took two decades to prove that I had the technical skills and leadership capabilities to build this business,” she says. “When I’m introduced to someone new, there are typically questions about the founding of my company. Did my dad start it? Was it my husband?” Prenger can laugh it off now, but it still rankles. “It’s too bad that people still don’t look at successful women entrepreneurs as capable of starting and growing businesses.”
The seed for Prenger’s success was planted years ago and in another country. Born in Portugal, Prenger says she spoke “Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English by the time I was five.” But after moving to Kansas City for her father’s job with TWA, she only spoke English. “Unfortunately, in the era I grew up in, speaking a different language brought on hostile stares,” she says. But when she’s with relatives, some of the language comes back.
Her ability to translate, speak, and think in different languages “has served me well with soft skills,” Prenger says. “Technology is another language I mastered.” Technology and people skills may seem foreign to each other, but Prenger says this “bilingual” approach helped her do the business matchmaking she does today—pairing companies with IT talent, processes, and technology solutions that help spur growth.
Prenger’s father, director of management information services with TWA, encouraged her to go into the field. She majored in Management Information Systems at Central Missouri State (now University of Central Missouri) in Warrensburg and did an internship with the state of Missouri. That cemented her future. “Once I understood the basic concepts of instruction and the line by line detail that had to be thought through, tested, and executed to create output, it became a passion,” she says. “I really relished working on the architecture, design, and all elements of the full life cycle to create a system that was better, faster, and more relevant than what was in place.”
Although she was captivated early on by the possibilities in the tech world, Prenger says that women are still a hard sell on IT as a career. “I don’t think women open themselves to the possibilities of how varied the technology industry is and how they can be anything from a super tech geek to the business and analytics side.” Says Prenger, “I believe women don’t think tech is sexy.”
Yet Prenger sees the upside of what tech careers offer, which includes “better ways to virtually meet and collaborate and typically a great salary through a person’s career,” she says.
Married for 41 years to her college sweetheart, mother to two grown sons, and grandmother of six, Prenger believes that women can have it all—a family and a career—maybe just not all at the same time. “For women, it’s important to have that support with people who love you,” she says. “You don’t have to miss out.”
What has helped her juggle career and family is another soft skill she has mastered—time management. Prenger makes use of every moment—a phone interview while she’s driving, writing reports during a flight on a business trip. “I can compartmentalize,” she says. “I look at what’s going on the next day, the next week, the next month, and take care of what needs doing.”
She can also prioritize. “If my family needs me, that absolutely comes first. Outside of that, business is my Number One priority, then my work in the community. Everything flows from success in business, how to increase growth while decreasing expenses.”
“Creating a positive work environment for my employees is very important to me,” she says. “We offer great benefits, but we also create great hangout spaces—a deck with fire pits, for example. I think it’s really important for your people to feel appreciated. We do quarterly business reviews at great restaurants. We ask questions to keep our leadership team on their toes and when they answer correctly, they get a gift card to places like Piropos or Capital Grille. It creates an ‘I want that!’ moment.”
If there’s one piece of advice she’d give women starting out today, it’s “Never burn bridges and be nice to everyone,” Prenger says. “You never know who might be your ally.”
And the thing she wishes she had known when she started out? “How to play golf,” she says with a laugh.