Catherine Vu is the owner and CUO (chief uptime officer) of Pro-Active IT Management Inc. – but leading a first-class IT firm is the last thing she ever thought she would be doing with her life.
“I graduated from the University of Alberta (U of A) in 1994 as an accountant,” starts Catherine, “but I wasn’t a very good accountant! I was very shy. There weren’t many jobs available, so I ended up doing marketing for an IT firm. I knew nothing of computers. In U of A, I paid people to type my papers because I always crashed my computer!”
Catherine stuck it out at that company for three years, observing their practices and procedures.
“Then they hired a salesman,” Catherine continues. “He said I could do I.T. I thought, ‘no, I can’t,’ but when I asked my employers for a bonus and they said no, we left and started Pro-Active
Computer Solutions and ran it as a partnership until 2003, when the partnership was dissolved.”
On August 4, 2003, Catherine launched Pro-Active IT Management.
She learned how to cold call, which she says is “the best skill I was ever taught. A lot of our clients were from cold calls. That’s where I learned to build relationships with people; it’s a critical business skill.”
Although the career change was something completely unexpected for Catherine, she fell naturally into the role. “I have a logical mind, and I.T. is very logical. Sometimes, the solution is on the 20th step. Sometimes it’s on the 1st. I started when computers ran on DOS. Now it’s Windows, where you can just look everything up.”
Still, the impact of how far she had come didn’t hit Catherine until 2012, when she was invited to go to Silicon Valley as the only Alberta representative out of 11 women in tech from across Canada. As she rubbed shoulders at the conference with the likes of Google and other world-famous IT companies and tech professionals, she thought, “I AM a geek! Yup. I’m pretty geeky and I own it.”
Resilient, open to change, an entrepreneurial mind, hustle, and grit – Catherine embodies all these qualities, but when you learn something about her that very few people know, it becomes very clear how her past shaped her future.
Catherine was born in Vietnam. Her father escaped to Canada in 1975.
“He tried to sponsor us over, but it’s a very long process. After waiting for years, we tried to escape and buy our passage to Canada. My mother, two sisters, and I were put on a boat. We were packed like sardines. We were debarked on an island and were supposed to be there for three days when another ship would pick us up to continue the journey. That ship never came.”
Instead of three days, Catherine, her family, and the other shipmates were on the island for weeks, and it was time none of them had planned for. When their provisions ran out, they lived off the land as best they could. “We caught crabs on the beach and made rice with salt water.”
Then a ship sailed over the horizon, and things went from bad to worse.
“It was a communist ship,” Catherine cringes at the memory. “Some young men were able to escape by running up into the mountains, but most of the men and women and families were captured, including my family. We were taken to a camp and left there for four days. My sister contracted an illness and nearly died. After four long days, the women and children were released – they couldn’t be useful to our captors as labourers. We had nothing to return to. We what we did have was taken from us. We had no money. We had nothing. We begged and talked and bartered our way back to Saigon. My mother sold meals at a food stand to make ends meet.”
And then we see a flash of the spirit that fuels Catherine’s happy, passionate, yes-filled life. “It was,” she says thinking of those hard times, “an adventure.”
The sponsorship came through in 1981 and they made it to Canada, but Catherine learned a hard lesson during those lean years. “There were a lot of rich people on that boat, and they were not good at sharing. I watched poor people feeding each other and taking care of each other. The poor reached out so others could get to the next place.”
This is one of the things that sparked in Catherine a lifelong passion for giving back. She also has another very important reason for her lifelong dedication to being community-minded.
“The main reason that I’m so involved in charitable initiatives is actually because of my brother, who was born with Down syndrome. He is the reason I started volunteering, so I can get the scoop on the best way to raise him with my mother – we are his co-guardians. His name is Daniel Vu and I’m so proud of all his accomplishments. He’s amazing and so loving! He has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and graduated from U of A in 2015. He now works in the U of A fitness centre.
Easter Seals, Alberta Cancer Foundation, Sorrentino’s Compassion House, Norquest 1000 Women, a member of the Stollery Women’s Network committee, active on the board member of Winnifred Stewart Association: these are just a very few of the charitable initiatives in which Catherine is happily immersed.
In fact, as much as she loves what she does, Catherine sees Pro-Active Management IT as a tool that helps her build others up through employment and giving back to the community, and as a tool to help herself continue to learn, grow, and give.
“Pro-Active IT Management is an on-demand, outsource I.T. service provider that helps small businesses make technology work for them. Our difference is that we introduce our clients to the non-profits and charities we work with, so our clients have opportunities to give back,” says Catherine.
In addition to Office 365 migrations, Pro-Active offers:
- Network design, implementation, and maintenance
- Internet and web solutions
- On-premise and Cloud data backup
- Software procurement and training
- Virus and security protection
- Hardware sourcing, installation, and service
- CRM system setup and training
Her approach to I.T. is very different.
“Don’t be afraid to dream and dream big for your company, but share that with your I.T. service provider so they can help you get there. When I talk to a company, they think, why would I tell you that? You’re I.T., not a business coach! But if I know what you want to do, I can be on the lookout for the trends and technology to help make things easier for you.”
“Most companies don’t prioritize their I.T. or realize its importance until something breaks,” cautions Catherine. “Data is such a big part of our lives, but we don’t realize this until something happens to it. So many things can happen. A server gets stolen, a fire in the office, ransomware – most companies cannot continue if they lose their data. Do at least two different backups: one on site, one offsite (Cloud).
Pro-Active IT does everything it can to protect, maintain, and keep that data going for its clients. It’s not unusual for her consultants to work overnight in a client’s workplace to ensure things are running when the doors open for business in the morning.
Catherine’s outlook on everything is upbeat, sunny, and very positive, and that includes her life in Edmonton, even when it’s -35◦C and the cold northern winds are howling.
“I love Edmonton,” she exclaims. “I landed in Edmonton, and I’ve traveled all over the world, but what I love about my home is that we are a city of a million people, but we are still a small town in our willingness to connect with each other. People here are very open. It’s a very inclusive community and not at all cliquey. We are welcoming to people that come here. The city is collaborative, open, friendly, and all heart. And the River Valley? It’s frickn’ awesome!
“I love Edmonton for every season. You will not hear me complain about the weather. You can dress up or dress down for the weather, but you can’t change the people. It’s the people that make the city.”
Clearly, the city loves her back. In addition to a Top 40 under 40 award, Catherine has been widely recognized for her charitable work, and she holds a Business in Edmonton Leaders award, which she says is “Absolutely amazing. It feels like validation. I’ve been there [at the Leaders awards] when others have won over the years. To win means that I have a reputable business worth mentioning. To be a part of it is huge. I’ve even gotten more business thanks to the award.”
The “accidental entrepreneur” has sage advice for others that take the plunge into their own businesses. “Work hard, play hard. Lead by example. I do things, and then I inspire people to follow me because it’s fun! Don’t just sit there and tell people what to do. Be willing to do it first.
“Teamwork is critical. You can’t do it all yourself. You can’t grow without letting go. Teamwork makes things more fun, and I’m all for anything that make things more fun. If you’re not willing to share, how can you collaborate?
“Take chances. Due to my background, I like security. I like comfortable things. But you can’t grow as a person or business owner if you don’t take chances. So, I go out and do things that make me scared. I’m scared of heights, so I rappelled down a building for Easter Seals. I’m afraid of water slides and mud, so I did Mud Hero. I do things to deliberately challenge my fear. It’s the only way to get out of my little box. Taking chances is critical for people. You go by gut. Not taking chances held me back in the early years. You can sit there forever and take time to get things perfect, but now I know the fallout of perfection. It’s inaction.”
Catherine is also happy to achieve something that most entrepreneurs constantly strive for. “I have work/life balance! That’s why I call my business my lifestyle. When I went on my own in 2003, I didn’t take a vacation until 2008. It was just work, work, work, work, work. Now I take regular vacations because that is part of the balance. When I work, I’m working. When I play, I’m playing. Having a great team enables this. If you don’t take care of yourself, your business is going to suffer, so selfcare is critical.”
Much ado is made of Catherine being a female in a traditionally male-dominated industry, but to her, it’s no big deal.
“I just do my thing,” she says with a shrug and a smile. “I always do my thing and never really worry about being compared to others. I run my company in my way, using contactors, putting myself in my client’s shoes, never overselling, taking things one day – one hour – at a time, and building trust. I don’t spend a lot on building a flashy company image, and I guess that could be a ‘female’ trait. I do know that women are very big on collaboration. Maybe men take on more risk. Maybe men do things bigger, showier and faster, than me, but honestly, I don’t think just being male or female is ultimately what makes a company successful.”
Catherine expresses thanks to her Fab 5 group, a team of female business owners that act as each other’s advisory boards. She is also grateful to the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, her contractors, clients, charitable initiatives, friends, family, supporters, husband, and everyone and everything that enriches her life and her business every day.
Going forward, Catherine sees a future where Pro-Active IT is run with less of her direct involvement, but still carries the essence of her life’s work. She plans to get even more involved in her charity work and to create a foundation to help men, women, and children with disabilities. The foundation is the legacy she would like to leave when her adventures on this earth come to an end.
Catherine concludes, “I believe that all of us have the ability to make a difference. We need to start within ourselves and then have so much fun with it that it inspires people. We can all make a difference or an impact; all it takes is wanting to.”