Women Execs Saying Goodbye

Dec. 21, 2004
Top female managers are quitting corporations in growing numbers to become entrepreneurs.

Large manufacturers should pay attention to Kim Polese and women like her. Young and smart, Polese, 36, was named one of the 25 most influential people in America last year by Time magazine. At Sun Microsystems Inc. she developed a lump of computer code into the Web-based operating system Java, one of todays hottest-selling technologies. Working with a handful of programmers isolated from corporate headquarters on what many at Sun considered an unrealistic skunk-works project, Polese developed Javas business plan and created its market strategy covering licensing, pricing, and positioning. Not long after she launched the product, Polese left the company. "I just didnt have the desire to be on Suns corporate fast track," she says. Polese may have quit Suns fast track, but now she is running on one of her own. Persuading Arthur van Hoff and other members of Javas programming brain trust to join her, Polese launched Marimba Inc., Mountain View, Calif., in 1996 to help companies update and distribute software across the Internet. Polese represents a trend that if it continues could weaken the foundation of leadership in corporate manufacturing. She and a number of other women are giving up the corner suite, the reliable six-figure salary, the speech writer, and other benefits that come with being a top manager at some of the countrys largest companies. These new-breed entrepreneurs are leaving major manufacturers to start their own businesses or to join other fledgling enterprises in a leadership capacity. Others include:

  • Carol Bartz, 49, another star performer at Sun, left in 1992 after 10 years with that organization to join San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk Inc., a supplier of design software and multimedia tools. That year Autodesk reported revenues of $285 million. In her six years as CEO, Bartz has more than doubled the companys revenues to $617 million.
  • Cynthia A. Fisher, 37, spent seven years at IBM Corp. and two at Boston-based Haemonetics Corp. before establishing Viacord Inc., Boston, in 1993. Viacord stores blood from umbilical cords for family members facing surgery.
  • Ellen Hancock, 54, after 29 years at IBM and stints at National Semiconductor Corp. and Apple Computer Inc., this year was recruited by Santa Clara, Calif.-based Internet and network-management company Exodus Communications Inc. to serve as its president.
  • Katherine A. Hudson, 51, spent 24 years at Eastman Kodak Co. before she left in 1994 to become president and CEO of W.H. Brady Co., a manufacturer of coated films and industrial-identification products in Milwaukee.
  • Susan Insley, 52, had reached the corporate stratosphere at Honda of America Mfg. Inc. when in 1996 she decided to join Cochran Public Relations in Columbus as a principal and executive vice president.
  • M. Christine Jacobs, 47, quit Amersham Corp. in 1988 for a position at Theragenics Corp., a Norcross, Ga.-based medical-device company.
"Im worried about encouraging women to go to small companies just to be successful -- it would be dangerous for larger companies," confides Hancock. She once interviewed for the CEO position at IBM and supervised 15,000 employees there, but now oversees Exodus total staff of 250. However, the change in size doesnt seem to bother her. "Every once in a while I have to remind myself that we dont have the infrastructure, the market research, the trend data that Im used to looking at," she says. For the last decade women have started businesses at twice the rate of men. Some of those ventures begin as one-person operations and stay that way. Others develop a product or service demanded by the market and grow into thriving enterprises. These female-headed organizations contribute $2.3 billion to the U.S. economy annually. About 58% of these female entrepreneurs have worked in the private sector, and more than 25% have toiled for medium-sized or large companies, reports "Paths to Entrepreneurship," a new study of women in business. The report also indicates that of those who leave companies to start their own businesses, more than half say nothing would draw them back. Many female-led firms can be found in high-tech fields where old-boy networks are few and opportunities are many for anyone with aptitude and good ideas. "Women leave larger companies because they are pushed and pulled," observes Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst, a New York-based research and advisory organization that helped to author the entrepreneurship study. "They are pulled by a good idea, but pushed by a glass ceiling or another powerful reason." When management changed at the U.S. subsidiary of Amersham Corp. (now Nycomed Amersham PLC), a British medical-devices manufacturer, regional manager Jacobs didnt agree with the subsidiarys new strategies, so she began looking for another job. Interviewing with General Electric Co.s medical-equipment division, she realized its corporate environment would not be suitable either. "I had nine interviews and not one with a woman. During one I asked how many women regional managers GE had. When the guy didnt know, I got this sinking feeling that I might be perfect for GE, but GE would never know it." Half the women who left private-sector employment to start their own business cite a desire for more flexibility, the entrepreneurship study finds. Some think they are being held to higher standards than men. Others report being excluded from line positions -- the only route to the top. Women also leave large corporations for more independence and to be their own bosses. "Theres a free-agent mentality. Its a byproduct of layoffs, which shook the concept of loyalty to an organization," observes Caroline Nahas, managing director, Southern California, Korn/Ferry International, Los Angeles. She believes the trend of top performers leaving large organizations for start-ups is not unique to women, but is more noticeable among them because there are fewer women at top levels in corporations. Hancock, who following her years at IBM spent a year working closely with former Apple CEO Gilbert F. Amelio as chief technology officer, weighed the pros and cons of becoming president of Exodus a few weeks before its initial public offering. Hancock hesitated at joining such a small company, but then she looked to her role models, Jim Barksdale, for example, who left AT&T Corp. to become CEO of Netscape Communications Corp. She talked it over with former associates. A friend finally persuaded her with the potential psychological and financial rewards. "Go for an initial public offering. Make your own investment. It will show you what its like to grow something again," Hancock recalls him advising. Shared Traits This swelling class of entrepreneurs shares several traits. For one, they expect to stand out. Hancock reached the highest rank for a woman ever at IBM. Susan Insley climbed further up the corporate ladder at Honda of America than any woman had before her. Over a decade, she held a range of responsibilities including directing Hondas key North American research-and-development operation and managing the companys Anna, Ohio, engine and drivetrain plant. Sometimes being first or unique can be lonely. "One seminar I went to had 200 CEOs -- all males. Being the only women used to make me feel odd. No one asked me to go for dinner. I didnt get called for early-morning golf games on Saturday," points out Theragenics Jacobs, who was promoted to CEO in 1993, shortly after the company began manufacturing its devices for cancer treatment. Many of these women had entrepreneurial parents who served as role models. Others bore heavy responsibilities at a young age. Jacobs was the eldest of nine children and helped to raise the youngest five. Viacord founder Fisher tasted entrepreneurial life as a teenager. "My father was a CPA who used to put financing together for everything from panel homes to racquetball clubs," she says. Fisher learned how business operated by starting small. She stuffed envelopes. Later she helped out in manufacturing and even invested in a few enterprises before starting her own. Few admit money drew them to small companies, although women insist they expect to be well rewarded if their ideas turn into another Microsoft. Jacobs accepted a pay cut when hired at Theragenics. Her salary negotiations went something like this: "Well be bankrupt in 12 months. Could you tell us how much youll need to live?" Jacobs offered to accept the position for $37,300. "They offered me $37,500 and I took it," she says, laughing. Environments offered by small companies usually prove spartan compared with the offices, equipment, and resources found at larger corporations. When Jacobs arrived at Theragenics, she learned she and the chief controller would have to take turns using one phone. "We had desks side-by-side and shared the room with nude mice -- bizarre little creatures grown to be hairless," describes Jacobs. One concept women entrepreneurs stress when discussing their reasons for leaving corporate life in favor of a small company is a need to create something. Polese left Sun to form Marimba because she had a great idea and an enthusiastic team. She recognized that if she didnt start a company like Marimba someone else would. "It was a desire to strike out on my own and create something with my cofounders -- some of the best engineers Id ever worked with." Hudson left Kodak because she wanted to build a company. "Kodak was in a downsizing mode, and I already had had that experience. I wanted to grow something," she says. Since Hudson made the change in 1994 Brady has almost doubled in size, its stock price has tripled, and it has expanded into 12 new countries. Its 1997 sales reached $426 million. Technical backgrounds and high levels of education separate these entrepreneurs from other businesswomen. Autodesks Bartz is a University of Wisconsin honors graduate in computer science. Marimbas Polese holds a B.S. in biophysics, as does Viacords Fisher, who also earned an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. As important as the degrees -- and some say more so -- is the education these women receive at large manufacturers. "Even more important than Harvard, which gave me the skills to evaluate general business situations, was the sales and marketing background I developed in seven years at IBM," points out Fisher. Insley credits Honda of America with teaching her, a "non-engineer," to understand how to run its then-largest U.S. manufacturing plant. "I had to grasp how our 26 lines of manufacturing worked, how we produced transmissions, brakes, and suspension components," she says. Making the right choices When it comes to succeeding in manufacturing, none of these women believes her gender hindered her progress. They have, however, seen other women blocked by discrimination and sometimes bad choices. Hancock has watched money and promotions lure women to staff roles, which stifled their chances for the CEO slot. "In the final analysis, when companies are trying to fill top-level spots, one question they ask is, Does she have line experience?" Hancock emphasizes. Subtle gender discrimination often annoys Autodesks Bartz. She talks of attending industry meetings when a man will come up to the group of men she is standing with and refuse to acknowledge her. "One of three things then happens. Either I say, Hi, Im Carol Bartz, another fellow will introduce me, or Ill just decide to ignore the SOB," she says. "You can climb over the mountain or go through the valley." As many leadership styles exist as do women entrepreneurs, but certain themes echo from one female-led firm to the next. Women are mediators and problem-solvers. They are collegial and laugh easily -- and heartily -- in conversation. They lead horizontally and place an emphasis on education. Marimbas Polese regards the ability to learn as a key quality in an employee. When she founded Marimba, Polese realized she didnt know everything about writing a business plan, licensing, or even the technology she wanted to sell. "I accepted that I didnt know everything and became like a sponge. As long as I keep learning and asking questions, Ill do O.K. Id like everyone in Marimba to think that way. Its the only way to accomplish things." Since Bartz took over as CEO of Autodesk in 1992, she has made mistakes on a weekly basis. "Mistakes are one of the greatest learning experiences you can have. If every idea for a product becomes successful, the corporation is failing because it hasnt stretched its people," she believes. Women who leave large companies to become entrepreneurs dont fit the stereotype of the isolated genius toiling in a garage to invent a new product. Instead, they make excellent leaders because they enjoy working with people. "I listen. Im fair. Tough, but fair. I believe that I give people a lot of chances to run and manage their jobs. And Im there to support them," says Bartz. Bradys Hudson credits her open-door policy for breaking down psychological walls between divisions that had resulted in secrets rather than information sharing. "When I was hired I shook everybodys hand, which let them know I cared about their success and that they were creatively engaged." Although these women enjoy their work and laugh often when discussing their responsibilities, they speak about "working like dogs," while giving up weekends and even, ironically, family time. "Being the CEO of a start-up is a 24-hour-day job," observes Fisher, who spent two months in Nepal trying to decide whether or not to leave her secure position at a large manufacturer to start up Viacord. When Jacobs first started at Theragenics, she traveled three weekends out of every month to medical conferences to talk to oncologists and urologists. On weeknights she sat at home reading old issues of esoteric medical journals. None of these women would return to a corporate executive position. "Its fun," says Fisher of her life as an entrepreneur. "Its blazing trails and fighting fires, winning against the competition. You cant always do that at a large corporation."

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