For Chrystal Antao, becoming the CEO of Cherokee Data Solutions wasn’t merely a career move — it was stepping forward to lead a family company that had been started from scratch by her mother nearly two decades ago.
“My mother, Pamela Bickford, started this company with the money in her pocket,” says Antao. “She started with an idea and a vision to provide for her family and her community and she did exactly what she set out to do.”
Antao says that her parents, both of whom were citizens of the Cherokee Nation, were forced by economic necessity to move away from their home community to find meaningful work. After landing in Dallas, Texas, the family stayed there for 13 years before they grew tired of being away from their families and their roots.
“We always commuted back home to Oklahoma for every single holiday,” says Antao. “Our parents wanted us to keep that connection to home and to know who we are, but eventually, they just wanted to go home.”
In 1999, the family moved back to Claremore, Oklahoma, where Antao’s mother began strategizing and planning the company by day while taking on extra work as a wallpaper hanger at night to save capital for its launch.
“She always told us: ‘Never, ever let anyone tell you you can’t do something,’” she says. “And that’s exactly the mindset with which she started this company. Nobody was going to tell her she couldn’t do something.”
In October 2001, she started Cherokee Data Solutions, Inc., a woman-owned/disadvantaged minority business providing sales and support for technology and office products — a one-stop solution for businesses that also offers full lifecycle management and environmentally responsible recycling for technology products.
“My mother was an entrepreneur, but she hadn’t had a proper job since getting married and had zero credit,” says Antao. “So when she went to open the business checking account for CDS, the bank not only rejected her for a credit card, they wouldn’t even give her a debit card.”
Unswayed, Antao says her mother framed the rejection letter and hung it in the entryway of the company. Moreover, she refused all debit and credit cards that the bank sent after the company became successful, placing the unactivated cards in the frame with the rejection letter.
“After they saw the money in her account, they couldn’t send them fast enough,” says Antao. “But I’m proud to say that we still operate debt-free. To this day, we still don’t carry any credit balances.”
Later, as the company began turning a solid profit, Antao’s father, Paul Bickford, quit his job in IT sales to join his wife in growing the company. From the beginning, Antao and her two brothers, Matthew and Benjamin Bickford, also helped their mother with the operations of CDS.
“I’d been involved and worked throughout college,” says Antao, who holds a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences with an emphasis in microbiology from Oklahoma State University. “I also worked there while I was getting married and having children, as have my brothers. We are definitely a family business.”
Embracing Change — and the Future
By the early 2010s, CDS’s target market had grown to over 300 customers including federal, Tribal, state and local governments, as well as mid- to large-size corporations. Additionally, its portfolio had been expanded from technology and office products to include durable medical equipment and promotional items. The company that began in a small house behind the Bickford’s family home had now moved to a new office building in Claremore.
In 2013, however, Antao’s father Paul, who was CDS’s president, passed away, which came as a blow to the small, close-knit, family-owned company. Three years later, Pamela, the matriarch of the family and the founder and CEO of CDS, also passed away after a struggle with lung cancer.
But before she died, Bickford made sure the company had a contingency plan to ensure its continuuity for future generations. From a traditional matrilineal Cherokee perspective, in which the women owned the homes and all of the property, the passing down of female ownership made sense.
“My mother was very specific that she wanted CDS to continue to be a woman-owned company,” says Antao. “It was very important to her that the company continued under female leadership.”
Her brothers also continue to work for the company. Today, Benjamin is president of CDS and handles marketing and graphic design, while Matthew handles the company’s IT division.
For Antao, who comes from long line of Cherokee entrepreneurs and business owners, the transition into filling her mother’s considerable shoes was eye-opening.
“There’s so much to running a company like this, but the trickiest part is the work-life balance, because I have four children of my own,” she says. “Also, it was important to learn how to say ‘no,’ because I was always the type to wreck my own life to help others, so now I’m learning to set my own parameters.”
As a business woman and mother, Antao created a work environment at CDS that meets the expectations of the company’s diverse customers while also fulfilling the demands of modern parenthood. Whether someone likes to come in an hour early, or work remotely with a sick kid, flexibility is key, she says.
“The digital revolution changed everything. We bring the kids into the office with us and they help out,” she says. “They help with copies, they make labels, sort supplies, take out the trash, sweep the floor — just like me and my brothers did. It’s in our blood.”
Antao’s commitment to continuing her mother’s vision for providing for the social and economic needs of Northeastern Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation and other Tribes has won her many prominent admirers among other Native women business owners.
“Chrystal Antao is highly intelligent, eternally optimistic, driven to succeed, graciously patient and always striving to understand the needs of her customers,” says Dr. Cara Cowan Watts, CEO and principal owner of Tulsa Pier Drilling. “She epitomizes Cherokee leadership and the historical and contemporary Cherokee woman who leads her family, as well as her community.”
Today, Antao has taken the lessons learned from her parents and has continued their legacy in her role as the CEO of Cherokee Data Solutions — with her mother’s guiding wisdom close at hand.
“A big part of the reason my mother started this company was to keep Native people from leaving home to find a job,” she says. “So for us, it’s not about money — it’s a desire to make a place for families to stay together so they’re not torn apart by logistics.”
As for the future, Antao says she intends to continue the company as a family-owned business that will support her children and their children when they are old enough, as well as giving back to the community.
“I would love to see Cherokee Data Solutions become generational in sustaining our family and our surrounding community,” says Antao. “We do a lot of outreach with STEM programs to support Native youth in their education and other initiatives, because for us, it’s about pouring what we have back into the community and the kids.”