Inaugural Lifetime Achievement Winner Donna Grothjan Hailed As A Channel Champion By Industry Peers
‘[Grothjan] has stood out as a woman role model in a male-dominated industry. Her concise and fearless approach to solving business problems and making the IT channel a better place will be remembered as a benchmark of what she stood for over her many years in the industry,’ one solution provider tells CRN of channel champion Donna Grothjan.
As a latchkey kid growing up with a single mother and sister, Donna Grothjan is used to working hard to make her mark in the world.
A lifelong Southern Californian, Grothjan’s household included the three disciplined women who followed a set routine.
“My mom worked. … We’d come home, we had our chores, then we did our homework, then we got to watch TV or play or do whatever we wanted, but there was an order. And it’s funny, because that order is still with me today,” she told CRN.
The discipline of those early years provided Grothjan with the strong work ethic and resolve to overcome the obstacles she faced during a 33-year career in the channel, driving profitable growth for quite literally hundreds of thousands of solution providers. That unwavering commitment to partners, along with her impressive track record as a channel sales leader and partner advocate at Ingram Micro, Juniper Networks, Aruba Networks and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, have earned Grothjan a Lifetime Achievement Award at the inaugural CRN Women of the Year Awards, which was celebrated at a black-tie gala at The Plaza Hotel in New York City on Dec. 5.
Felise Katz , president and CEO of PKA Technologies, a Montvale, N.J.-based solution provider, has faced similar obstacles in technology solution sales business and recognizes a kindred spirit in Grothjan. As such, Katz said Grothjan is a fitting first-ever Women of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award winner.
“[Grothjan] has stood out as a woman role model in a male-dominated industry,” said Katz. “Her concise and fearless approach to solving business problems and making the IT channel a better place will be remembered as a benchmark of what she stood for over her many years in the industry.”
Katz called Grothjan—known for her empathy and intelligence in what can be a bitterly divisive solution sales business—a trusted friend to the channel community. She singled out Grothjan’s ability to craft one of the most profitable programs for partners in her role as channel chief for HPE Aruba.
“[Grothjan] always took the time and care to listen to the partner community as the IT world and specifically networking has and continues to progress,” Katz said, noting the challenges Grothjan faced navigating the fast-changing technology solutions landscape over more than three decades. “[She] recognized the need for partners to grow profitably so they can continue to adapt to different service and cloud models as the industry evolves.”
A perennial winner of CRN’s Power 100 Women of the Channel List and CRN’s Top 100 Executives list, Grothjan provided the channel savvy and smarts that made Aruba Networks, Juniper Networks and Hewlett Packard Enterprise repeat 5-Star Award Winners in CRN’s annual Partner Program Guide.
But Grothjan didn’t always see herself in a tech career, and the channel—which she didn’t know existed when she first started her career—certainly wasn’t on her radar.
She attended California State University, Fullerton, a commuter college, where she had her sights set on a career in advertising. She took her first job after college at a very small ad agency in Newport Beach, Calif. About a year in, she met up with a college friend who had just started working for a company called Ingram Micro.
“It’s fun. They’re hiring,” Grothjan recalls her friend telling her.
Grothjan interviewed and landed a job as a marketing administrator at the distribution powerhouse, a company where she would spend the next decade and a half climbing the ladder and cultivating her career as a channel champion.
“Fifteen years later, I left as the senior vice president of product management. I’m sitting on the executive staff, and that was a crowning moment for me,” said Grothjan. ”It was this achievement that I had never dreamed that I could do, especially as a female and an Asian female.”
Grothjan and her husband, whom she met at Cal State Fullerton, had a plan that she would stay at home as the primary caretaker once they had children. But after giving birth to her second child, she decided that wasn’t her path.
Something of a superhero among former colleagues, peers and loved ones for her ability to juggle professional and family responsibilities with two children, Grothjan’s ability to do it all stood out to her daughter, Katie Grothjan.
Katie Grothjan began her own channel career in 2020 and currently serves as a digital marketing manager for Ingram Micro, following in her mother’s footsteps. It’s her mom’s emotional intelligence that separates her as a leader, according to her daughter. ”She’s always impressed me with her ability to take so much on and handle it so professionally and respectfully,” she said.
Katie Grothjan credits her and her brother’s independence, work ethic and “travel bugs” to watching their mother in action in her career and at home.
“I think she has always been stressed that if she was working all the time, that we wouldn’t have enough support from her. … I think we had the support from others—like my amazing dad—and we had the support from her as well. We felt very loved and attended to our whole lives,” she said.
Through the years, Katie Grothjan started to appreciate how worldly and globally conscious her mother was, having spent much of her career in a global role and traveling frequently.
“My brother and I have traveled a lot and have been lucky to have the opportunity to do so. We have become very globally competent ourselves in terms of just being able to figure things out on our own, and she always trusts that we’re going to be OK in those situations,” she said.
Early Career Days
Frank Vitagliano (pictured), CEO of the Global Technology Distribution Council, met Donna Grothjan more than 20 years ago when she was working at Ingram Micro as senior vice president of product management, and he was at IBM. While Ingram Micro and IBM have enjoyed a very good working relationship over the years, when the two first met, there were some lingering issues between the companies. Vitagliano and Donna Grothjan were tasked with resolving those issues.
“At the time, my first impression was that she was in a really big job, and it didn’t take her long to get there. She had, frankly, risen up the ranks, and right off the bat, I was impressed with the trajectory of her career,” he said. “When I got to work with her, I kind of realized why she had that trajectory.”
Vitagliano could clearly see that Donna Grothjan “checked all the boxes.” She knew distribution as well or better than any channel chief in the industry, bar none, he added.
“She’s very intelligent. Oftentimes, the smartest person in the room, although you would never know it from the way she acted, but she was. Extraordinarily hardworking, very results-oriented, just gets stuff done,” he said. “But also, very kind, very compassionate and just a really good person. People loved working with her and for her. She just has a way about her that makes people want to work with her.”
The two channel leaders’ paths crossed again when Vitagliano joined Juniper Networks as senior vice president of global channels. Donna Grothjan had joined the company two years earlier as vice president of worldwide partner programs.
It was there that Donna Grothjan proved she had the ability to put herself in the solution provider’s shoes and think about partner programs or changes from their perspectives, Vitagliano said.
“A lot of channel chiefs can’t or won’t do that. A lot of us kind of get trapped in an internal view of things and she would try to always take it from external, in, and that was really, really important. I think the solution providers in the industry recognized that,” he said. “It has happened to all of us who’ve been in the channel chief role—you kind of roll something out and it’s not as well thought out as it should be and then you have to make changes. She was really good at not having that happen because she would think about it from the customers’ view, and that’s really hard to do because you’re usually under a lot of internal pressure.”
The Road To Channel Chief
For anyone who has seen Donna Grothjan on stage or give a presentation, she’s extraordinarily polished and engaging, said Vitagliano. But it didn’t start out that way, he said.
He noticed that in the beginning of her career, Donna Grothjan was internally focused and didn’t put herself out there to present outside of her company. When they were working together at Juniper Networks, Vitagliano decided one year that he didn’t want to be the only person speaking at the company’s annual channel event.
In what would be the first of many onstage presentations in front of hundreds of people, Donna Grothjan was nervous, but set to present her “really complex set of slides” that shared news about some upcoming channel program changes, said Vitagliano.
“She basically memorized every word for the seven or eight slides that she had. She was like ‘Rain Man’ behind the stage, walking back and forth, talking to herself, practicing. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god. This is not going to be good. She’s going to have a nervous breakdown before she gets up on stage. And it was amazing. She nailed the presentation, and that was the beginning of what is now a very accomplished public speaker. But the first time, she and all of us were very nervous,” he said, laughing at the memory.
Michele Campbell, former vice president, global channel programs and enablement at Sectigo, the SSL certificate supplier, met Donna Grothjan in 2004 when Grothjan joined Juniper Networks. The networking specialist at the time was just beginning to launch an official channel team, which Campbell would later refer to as “the dream team.”
Campbell said her first impression of Donna Grothjan was that she was a little apprehensive. “She was coming into the vendor world, and she wasn’t quite sure yet what her role was going to be. None of us knew because we were all kind of forming this new channel ops program team,” she said.
However, Donna Grothjan assimilated after an introductory dinner with the rest of the team, who got to see her true colors, including her deep curiosity and patience, Campbell said. “We thought, ‘She’s OK. And she saw that we were all right, too,” she said, smiling.
Donna Grothjan spent the next 10 years at Juniper Networks, climbing all the way to vice president of worldwide distribution.
What makes Donna Grothjan so unique is her attention to detail and desire to drill down into every aspect, Cambell said. “She will double, triple-click, and watching her do that—you realize you can’t just gloss over something. She’s going to want to know all the intricate details. I learned a lot from her,” she said.
Donna Grothjan is not only a great teacher, but an extremely hard worker, said Campbell.
“She’ll burn that midnight oil. She will work around the clock to get it right and get it done and get it in on time. She doesn’t ever crack under pressure. And that pressure doesn’t go away. It’s about how you manage it and how you motivate your people. She’s been instrumental in building teams of people who understand how she works and can rise up to the occasion under pressure without feeling unappreciated, because she appreciates everybody working just as hard as she is,” Cambell said. “In all the years I’ve worked with [her], I never saw her lose her cool.”
To top it off, she was also a lot of fun to travel with, Campbell added.
“She’s just got boundless energy. I can’t figure out how,” she said. “We beat the airports; we beat the hotel bars all around the world. There’s no better travel companion. No better memories than the ones I have being on the road with her, and that’s a real gift.”
A Mentor and Friend
Dangvy Keller, vice president of Americas Alliance and Distribution Sales at Veeam Software, met Donna Grothjan when she was working at her first job at Ingram Micro as a marketing administrator. At the time, Donna Grothjan had already risen through the ranks as senior vice president of product management.
“I just remember this Asian woman walking around the Ingram Micro hallways, and she was always very focused—always going somewhere and doing something,” Keller said.
Keller, an Asian woman herself, saw a role model in Donna Grothjan. “I always saw her at all the events, and she was always so articulate. She was definitely someone that I just admired and wanted to be like,” she said.
Donna Grothjan later hired Keller to HPE’s global team when she was serving as vice president of worldwide distribution, Enterprise Group, for HPE. Keller said she learned the most in her career in those couple of years she worked under Donna Grothjan’s leadership.
“Still to this day, I call her whenever I can’t solve something or I have an issue that I’m trying to solve that requires me to think through how the channel can execute, she’s my first phone call,” she said.
Donna Grothjan’s strong relationships with everyone around her, coupled with her innate ability to understand and leverage the channel, makes her who she is, Keller said. Always the “mom” of the group, Donna Grothjan cares deeply for both her teams at work and at home, Keller said.
“It always makes me smile because I’m a mom as well. Once you have that lifelong bond with her, she continues to help people that have worked for her and with her, the best way she can, just like a mom would do for her kids,” she said. “[It’s] her ability to relate to her team, partners or customers . … And she definitely isn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves and get dirty and do the tactical things,” she said.
In addition to her wildly busy “day jobs” over the course of her career, Donna Grothjan always took the time to give back to those around her by formally and informally mentoring others and helping people grow in their careers, friends and family said.
“She’s always been very aware of her team’s wants and needs, and she’s always trying to develop people that work for her, and same with her customers and partners,” daughter Katie Grothjan said.
Katie Grothjan (pictured above right with Donna) recalls her mom tapping into her massive network and setting up discovery calls with tech industry peers that could speak to their experience in their roles so her daughter could learn more about a particular job or career path. One piece of advice that Donna Grothjan gives to people early in their career, as well throughout their careers, is to build their networks, Katie Grothjan added.
“Her network really became my network,” she said.
But Donna Grothjan didn’t start out with the same background she did with a parent in the tech industry and a wide network of contacts, Katie Grothjan added.
“It’s been very cool to see her have created such an empire coming from where she came from,” Katie Grothjan said.
Donna Grothjan credits a handful of mentors for helping her along the way, including Marie Rourke, founder and chief of Whitefox Marketing, and Jennifer Baier Anaya, senior vice president of global marketing for Ingram Micro, both of whom she met during her Ingram Micro days and coached her when she was new to the channel and to public speaking. She also praises industry leaders Steve Pataky, currently head of channels for Cloudflare, Sue Barsamian, the former chief sales and marketing officer for HPE Software and current tech board member, and Vitagliano for educating her on the “why” of things and the importance of partner relationships along the way.
“I like to learn by observing, and I would watch how they interacted. And guess what? They interacted as their genuine, authentic selves and you could see how people just gravitated to them. I’ve always been my authentic self, but maybe I was a little hesitant sometimes, and that became a very critical learning in my career,” Donna Grothjan said.
A pattern in Donna Grothjan’s work life is her ability to cultivate relationships she’s created with people across the channel over many years, Katie Grothjan said. She recalled a recent dinner the two shared when her mom received a text message from a friend in Singapore. The last messages they had shared back and forth was from two years ago.
“She just said, ‘When we get together next, it’ll basically be like no time has passed.’ And that happens for so many of her connections throughout the industry. They’re just really genuine friendships, and she always will see these people again. She always picks back right up where they left off,” Katie Grothjan said.
The Channel Chief Seat
Donna Grothjan made the move to a new role with fast-growing wireless networking specialist Aruba Networks in 2016 where she served as channel chief right before—and then after—the company’s acquisition by HPE. It’s where she met the person who would become her right-hand man, Jim Harold, vice president of channels for HPE Aruba Networking.
“We needed a strong seat at the table coming into HPE, and she was perfect for that role,” Harold said.
Aruba Networks at the time was being integrated into HPE, and Donna Grothjan was “the complete package”—a quick learner, collaborative, and she kicked off an immediate, great relationship between the two companies’ channel teams, he said. She also spent time meeting partners and understanding the nuances of Aruba’s business, despite coming in with plenty of channel experience of her own, he added.
“That was really key,” he said. “She was open to feedback, listened, and if we weren’t on the right track, she’d correct us, and we’d change course. That was a big strength of hers and she made her mark here.”
While it was important to Donna Grothjan to work with her team to establish trust over time, Harold, who worked side-by-side with her for more than seven years, recalled the two of them hitting it off right from the start.
“It didn’t take long at all … we were finishing each other’s sentences,” he said. “With Donna, there was no hidden agenda. You knew where she stood.”
When Donna Grothjan looks back on her story, she says she was fortunate to start her career at Ingram Micro at a time when the business was booming.
“We used to joke that back then that you could just turn the fax machine on, and the orders would come in,” she said. “But at the same time, I was always learning. Learning about the company I was working for, what my role in the company was, what could I do, and understand and learn from an adjacent role perspective so that I could understand the picture of how all these things come together,” she said.
Donna Grothjan’s past and current colleagues, friends and family members say that among the traits that have led to Grothjan’s success are her empathy, compassion, intelligence, detail-oriented nature, generosity, willingness to share her knowledge and time with partners and colleagues, and her unselfishness, always putting others first.
In fact, Donna Grothjan didn’t simply strive to make the lists of top women in the channel or win awards as a female, breaking glass in the technology sales business, said Campbell. She simply wanted to be the best channel chief in the industry.
“She didn’t want it to be a gender thing,” said Campbell. “She said, ‘I want it all. I want to be the best channel chief in the industry. I’m gunning for that. Give me all the things.’ And I really admired that about her because I watched her blow it out of the water.”
Katie Grothjan wants everyone to know the impact her mom has made on her loved ones, peers, partners and colleagues all over the globe. She wants her mom to know the same, she said.
“It’s almost like she doesn’t believe that she had such a big impact and that she inspired all these people,” Katie Grothjan said.
Since she announced her retirement in August, Donna Grothjan has received numerous messages from friends and former co-workers from all over the world.
“She’s just the most generous person in the entire world. Everything she does, she does for the people she loves, and that means family, it means friends, and even the relationships she has in the industry, especially with her teams,” Katie Grothjan said. “I just want her to know that she deserves the love and appreciation that has come back to her that she’s put out into the world.”