A Women’s History of Silicon Valley

Let’s lionize these technologists who kicked off the computer revolution.
portraits of six female technologists
Top row, from left: Judy Estrin, Lynn Conway, Sandy Lerner; Bottom row: Diane Greene, Donna, Dubinsky, Sandy Kurtzig

On a recent Sunday morning, a friend texted me a photo from the checkout line of a Palo Alto Whole Foods. It was the cover of a Newsweek special issue entitled “Founding Fathers of Silicon Valley.” Seven faces graced the cover: Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg. David Packard. Bill Hewlett. Jeff Bezos. Elon Musk. Steve Jobs.

Three words for you, Newsweek: What the hell?

OK, put aside the fact that three of those men don’t live in the Bay Area. At least one of them wasn’t born when the valley’s orchards were first being transformed into ground zero for the computer revolution. And any history that holds up seven white men as the founders of the computer revolution obscures the true collective nature of innovation.

Most important, it eliminates a valuable recruiting tool for getting women into tech, and for propelling them to more powerful positions: representation. As Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund said in the 2011 documentary Miss Representations: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

I posted the cover on Facebook, calling the publication out for its narrow approach. Kira Bindrim, who was then Newsweek’s managing editor (and has since left for Quartz), responded to the post, blaming an outside company for the faux pas and writing that whenever you have seven white guys on a cover, “someone somewhere should always go, ‘… now hold up.’”

So, hold up.

History unfolds in the telling. The story of the birth of Facebook, for example, has a different set of main characters, depending on whether you’re hearing about it over a glass of wine with the founder’s sister Randi Zuckerberg or his nemesis Tyler Winklevoss, and neither of them is going to tell you the story that former Harvard President Larry Summers would share.

Too often, in Silicon Valley as in other places, women are involved in significant events, but their stories go untold. They are the cofounders who are not named in press articles. They are the computer scientists who didn’t leave to start a company, but instead made important contributions in research labs. They’re the people we gloss over in our hurry to recount the life and times of Steve Jobs yet again. “Look, we know Silicon Valley has a gender issue and it’s bad,” Leslie Berlin, who is the project historian for the Silicon Valley archives for Stanford, told me. “But let’s not erase the women who helped make this valley.”

What happens when you tell the history of the birth of Silicon Valley a different way? It offers a map to a generation of young men and women looking for new leadership models.

So to the current editors of Newsweek, here’s my version, in which, as an exercise, I gloss over the men in my effort to highlight the contributions of seven important women. The stories are no less dramatic. The characters are no less deserving of HBO’s parody treatment. They’ve gotten fired, too, and they’ve also come out of retirement to save their companies. They’re outrageous, ambitious, and technically sound. Let me introduce you to the Founding Mothers of Silicon Valley:

In 1975, a young Judy Estrin worked for a research group at Stanford that was credited with developing the Internet. Its leader was kind of a big deal. As a grad student, Estrin contributed to the networking protocols that form the basic architecture of the Internet.

The daughter of two computer scientists, she’d studied math and computer science at the University of California, Los Angeles and then gotten a masters in mechanical engineering at Stanford. She remembers coming home from a computer science class in tears, having stayed up all night to get a program to work. It didn’t. “My dad said to me,” Estrin recounted in a 2010 interview, “that the key to solving problems in programming, which I think applies to life also, is first to look at that big problem and break it into pieces.” Figure out how to solve the smaller problems and then figure out how they work together.

Above all else, Estrin understood networking systems. Her first entrepreneurial endeavor was Bridge Communications, a company she cofounded with her then-husband and a few other folks in 1981 to get incompatible networks to talk to each other. The company went public in 1985 and sold to 3Com two years later for more than $200 million.

Meanwhile, Estrin had caught the entrepreneurship bug. She and her then husband went on to join the founding team of Network Computing Devices, which supplied low-cost, graphics-intensive Unix workstations, and took it public in 1992. Three years later, the pair cofounded Precept Software, an internet video streaming company. Cisco paid roughly $84 million for it in 1998 and named Estrin its chief technology officer. At the time, it was the largest networking company in the world.

Two years later, Estrin left Cisco to return to start-up life. She went on to launch five more startups, and in 2008, she published a book on innovation. Additionally, she has sat on the boards of three public companies—FedEx (20 years), Sun Microsystems (eight years), and The Walt Disney Company (15 years)—and myriad startups (including Medium, which owned Backchannel until recently).

In 1968, Lynn Conway was fired from IBM Research. It wasn’t because she was bad at her job. She’d arrived at IBM five years earlier after studying physics at MIT and then Columbia. During her time there, she helped pioneer supercomputing technologies. She lost her job as she underwent a gender transition. Closeted and scared she would be found out, she cast about for a new job and landed at Memorex, which was a young computer company at the time.

Under a new identity, she once again received recognition for her work, and in 1973, Conway was recruited by the famous research center Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). PARC, for valley novices, is the famous research center that is now credited with inventing the personal computer, the laser printer, and contemporary computer displays, among many, many other things. Along with another researcher, Conway was responsible for launching a revolution in microchip design in the 1970s that led to a new approach to designing chips. Very large-scale integration methods, or VLSI, allowed engineers to combine tens of thousands of transistor circuits on a single chip. Their textbook became the bible of chip design.

Conway then joined DARPA. As assistant director for strategic computing, she led planning of the major 1980s effort to expand the technology base for modern intelligent-weapons systems. In 1985, she joined the University of Michigan as Professor of EECS and Associate Dean of Engineering, and she is now retired. As she neared retirement, stories about her early work at IBM began to surface, so she came out as a transgender activist. “If you want to change the future,” she wrote in an essay about her journey, “start living as if you’re already there.”

The first software entrepreneur to become a multimillionaire was Sandy Kurtzig. It wasn’t her original goal. In 1972, shequit her job selling computer timeshares for General Electric to devote more time to starting her family. To keep from getting bored, she launched a part-time software business, investing $2,000 of her own savings and running it out of a bedroom in her home. Kurtzig’s software helped helped manufacturing companies keep track of their inventory, sales, financial and manufacturing operations and tasks on a scale that had only been possible previously on large, expensive mainframes. She called it ASK Computer Systems.

To grow her business, she had to get creative. Venture capital was very limited in the early 1970s, so she invested her profits back into the business. To access the minicomputers her company needed, she convinced friends at a Hewlett-Packard plant near her home to let her use its minicomputers in the evenings. She and her employees showed up with sleeping bags at 6pm and stayed until 6am. (So much for a part-time “side project.”) By 1978, Kurtzig struck a deal with Hewlett-Packard to sell minicomputers pre-loaded with her programs. When she took the company public in 1981, it was the 11th fastest-growing company in the country.

Kurtzig stepped down in 1985 to spend some time realizing other passions—and raising her two sons. Over the next few years, the company’s growth flatlined. In 1989, at the request of the board, she returned, and within a couple of years she’d acquired a business that allowed her to expand the ASK produce line to include database software, and sales soared once more. She retired a second time, and the company sold to Computer Associates two years later.

These days, Kurtzig is founder and chairman of the cloud-based enterprise software company Kenandy, a startup named for her two grown sons, Ken and—you guessed it—Andy.

Before the iPhone or even the Blackberry, there was the Palm Pilot; it was a handheld computer manufactured by Palm, and Donna Dubinsky was the company’s founding chief executive.

A Harvard Business School alum, Dubinsky got her start at Apple in 1981 as a customer-support liaison. A few years later, she got into a fight with her boss’s boss, the temperamental founder. He wanted to drop the company’s warehouses and move to a new direct-to-customer production system. “In my mind, Apple being successful depended on distribution being successful,” she said in a book that chronicles the events. Challenging the founder had the potential to be career suicide. She was a middle manager, after all. Even so, she delivered an ultimatum that unless she got 30 days to make a counterproposal, she’d quit.Dubinsky won the argument, and was promoted to run an Apple subsidiary called Claris.

Dubinsky left Apple in 1991. After taking a year off, she was casting about for what to do next. She met an inventor who showed her a prototype of a handheld computer device. Her time at Apple gave her a hunch the device would be a success, so she signed on as CEO of Palm, where she was tasked with raising money, building out a company, and developing a sales strategy. The company sold to US Robotics in 1995 for $44 million, shortly before the iconic PalmPilot went on sale. A few years later, US Robotics sold to 3COM, and Dubinsky and her cofounder didn’t agree with the acquirer’s strategic direction for their device. They left to form Handspring, which sold a competing device called the Treo. (3COM eventually spun off Palm and in 2003, the companies merged; Dubinsky remained on the board until 2009.)

In 2005, Dubinsky and her technical partner got to work on Numenta, an ambitious endeavor to reverse-engineer the brain’s neocortex. After nearly a decade toiling away in stealth mode, Dubinsky and her team began talking about the company’s technology in the last couple years. “Imagine you could build a brain that’s a million times faster than a human, never gets tired, and it’s tuned to be a mathematician,” Dubinsky told Kara Swisher on a recent episode of her podcast. “We could advance mathematical theories extremely rapidly.”

In 1984, Sandy Lerner managed the computers for Stanford’s Graduate School of Business while her boyfriend (whom she later married) worked in a different building on Stanford’s campus. They were part of a group of people who saw a need for a device that would help computers talk to each other. They called their invention a “router.”

For three years, Lerner was CEO while the pair self-funded Cisco, racking up credit card debt. Then, in an epic move, they sold 30 percent of their company to an outside investor for $2.6 million. The investor appointed a new CEO. The trio disagreed about how to sell Cisco’s products. Shortly after the company went public in 1990, the board fired Lerner; her husband quit in solidarity. (They later divorced.)

In the decades that followed, Lerner founded a cosmetics company that she sold to Moet-Hennessy Louis Vuitton, wrote a historically accurate sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and moved to an organic farm in Virginia. She also started the Women in Mathematical Sciences Initiative at Shenandoah University. Occasionally, she speaks to entrepreneurs, and her advice is always the same: don’t give control of your company to investors.

Diane Greene’s first job involved designing offshore oil rigs. She’d studied mechanical engineering at the University of Vermont and then naval architecture at MIT. Problem was, because of her gender, she wasn’t allowed to visit the rigs on which she worked. So, she quit and tried a few other things. In 1988, she got a second masters, this time studying computer science at the University of California at Berkeley. Greene worked at Sybase, Tandem Computers and Silicon Graphics before building her first startup, a streaming video company called Vxtreme that sold to Microsoft in 1997 for $75 million.

In 1998, Greene and her husband, a noted computer science professor, were part of a team of people who founded VMWare, the company that marked the advent of the virtualization industry. Virtualization, as Greene explained in a 2013 talk to YCombinator participants, is a layer of software that sits between the hardware and the operating system. “It kind of fakes out the operating system to think it’s running on the hardware,” she said, making it possible to run multiple operating systems. In 2004, EMC Corporation paid $635 million to buy VMWare. Greene remained CEO, though she had a rocky relationship with EMC’s CEO. In 2007, EMC spun out 10 percent of its shares and VMWare went public. A year later, EMC’s CEO fired Greene. The company’s stock dropped 24 percent in a day, and three prominent executives (including her husband) left the company as a result. That year, Google appointed Greene to its board. After a break, Greene got to work on yet another startup—an enterprise software startup called Bebop.

Last November, Google paid $380 million for the company, and gave her one of the most influential jobs in tech: as senior vice president of Google’s enterprise business, she is in charge of figuring out how to grow the company’s cloud-computing business to a size that, the company posits, could eclipse the ad business within five years.

This is the spot for the women whose names we’ve forgotten, or forgotten to elevate. Maybe it should belong to Ann Bowers, who was Apple’s human resource director and den mother in the early 1980s. Or maybe it should go to Ann Winblad, who cofounded the venture firm Hummer Winblad in 1989. Or PARC computer scientist Adele Goldberg. Or video game designer Roberta Williams. More likely, it belongs to someone I have not yet come across. You tell me who deserves this recognition. Post your nominations here.

And know, above all else, that this list is not complete. It’s not any more definitive than Newsweek’s original flawed cover. Beyond women, there are so many people of different backgrounds who go unrepresented in Silicon Valley’s popular historical narratives. As any historian will tell you, there’s not one valley history; there are many, and they shift according to perspective. If we envision a future that invites a broader array of people to contribute to tech’s evolution, we must not succumb to the ease of narrowing the stories of its past.

Creative Art Direction by Redindhi