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Once a culinary arts student, Carmen Castillo found a different recipe for success

Exclusive interview with the president, CEO, and owner of SDI International Corp., a Florida-based services company that manages client spending of about $3 billion worldwide.
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By David Steinkraus, Negocios Now

When you come from nothing, you have nothing to lose by trying, said Carmen Castillo. She did try and today is president, CEO, and owner of SDI International Corp., a Florida-based services company that manages client spending of about $3 billion worldwide.

Castillo grew up in a poor community in Spain and came to Florida in the early 1990s to study culinary arts. She had always wanted her own business, and when she realized how the nascent technology industry would change everyone’s life, she abandoned professional cooking to start her own technology company.

In early 1993 she opened Superior Design International to provide IT staffing. Her first client was Miami-Dade County, and soon after she became a supplier to IBM. She negotiated an agreement with the Superior Group of Companies, which provided back office, payroll, accounting and other infrastructure for her business, and still does.

“SDI was designed to be a worldwide player from its inception. I knew that technology would make the world flat very rapidly, and I knew that it would be an advantage, a total advantage, to go global almost from the beginning,” she said. “To this day that was the best decision I ever made. That has been such a key differentiator with my competitors and even with my clients.” 

SDI now employs across the globe except in Australia. Castillo is thinking about how to expand there. The company has evolved to provide supply chain management focused on the tail end including procurement. Castillo saw a niche in managing the ends of supply chains where large companies don’t want to spend the time and money resources required to vet and deal with large numbers of smaller, non-core suppliers.

She began her own supplier diversity program 17 years ago, and now between 20% and 25% of business goes to minority- and women-owned firms. They are usually more flexible, offer better technology and prices, and are willing to go the extra mile, Castillo said.

SDI now bids against the largest service companies in the world, such as Accenture, and recently won a huge contract with a Fortune 100 company. It means opening new offices and providing service in 21 countries, learning new cultures and new ways of doing business.

At the same time, she is the current chair of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. It’s a great deal of work, yet it is a great honor to help the Hispanic community, she said.

From her experience, being a successful entrepreneur requires two things, Castillo said.

“You have to be a natural” she said. “You can go to the best schools, but if you don’t have it, if you don’t feel it, you won’t be successful.” 

Remember to be a “humble hustler in business and humble at everything else,” she said.

Her second piece of advice: Hire people smarter than you are because no one person knows everything. “And that is very difficult for owners, and especially for founders, to be humble enough to hire the smartest people you can find,” she said.

Treat them well, pay them well, make them see that their success is everyone’s success, she said, and they will help turn your vision into reality.

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