Stanford historian Leslie Berlin’s ‘Troublemakers’ tells the story of female leaders like Sandra Kurtzig at a time when America’s tech industry was in its infancy
Silicon Valley had always had a place for women.
The heart of America’s multi-trillion tech industry has occasionally seemed like Ground Zero when it comes to (mis)treatment of women. There were the shenanigans at Uber that forced out its hard charging CEO and allegations of harassment made against top venture capitalists; even seemingly innocuous TripAdvisor has come under fire for censoring reviews by survivors of sexual assault.
In this climate comes “Troublemakers,” a history of Silicon Valley in the 1970s from Stanford University historian Leslie Berlin. Out Tuesday, the book tells the story of seven individuals who embodied the Valley’s ethos when the likes of Apple and Microsoft were in their infancy. Among them are two women: Sandra Kurtzig, the first female to take a tech company public, and Fawn Alvarez, who went from factory worker to chief of staff at a ROLM, once a major telecoms company. “Women have been here pioneering alongside men all along,” Berlin tells Moneyish. “Women have had to be as good, while also contending with a lot of issues that men didn’t need to.”
Though long in the making, Kurtzig’s tale can be read as a researched riposte to James Damore, the now-fired Google engineer who this year wrote an inflammatory memo questioning if women belonged in science and tech. “This notion that Silicon Valley has an anti-woman bias in its DNA is not borne out,” Berlin says, adding that females did “everything from building electronics to writing code for video games” back when the now super-prosperous slice of northern California was a backwater. (Women in 2017 typically make up anything from 30% to four-fifths of U.S.-based employees at major Silicon Valley firms.)
— Sandra Kurtzig (@SandyKurtzig) December 6, 2013
That doesn’t mean sexism didn’t exist during the Valley’s fledgling days. Berlin recounts Kurtzig, who quit General Electric to found business software firm ASK out of her kitchen, being mistaken for a “booth babe” at a tech conference. A newspaper article about her success proudly noted that “Sandy was no women’s libber.” But whereas the tech industry’s present icons like to present themselves as paragons of virtue, the Valley back then merely reflected America. “The sexist attitude wasn’t specific to the Valley, but in the air they breathed and what these women pushed back against,” the author says.
Kurtzig hewed to a playbook that might seem unorthodox today: the UCLA and Stanford alumna aggressively embraced her femininity. She carried around a pink briefcase and dispatched “Have You Seen This Woman” ad flyers with her photo and physical description alongside a promise to solve her client’s computing needs. After ASK went public in 1981, the now multi-millionaire participated in a corporate video that showed a female’s hands digging through a pile of $100 bills to retrieve a bottle of nail polish.
“She was never overtly trying to be sexy but felt ‘I’m a woman, it’s going to make men more comfortable if I dress as a woman,’” Berlin says, adding that Kurtzig was selling her software to conservative manufacturing business operators.
It worked. Alongside being a profitable entity run by competent management, ASK’s profile was raised by having a then-rare woman at the top. “Sandy was very cognizant about being a character in a play she didn’t write, playing a part that didn’t exist for women at that time,” says Berlin. “That was one of the things special about her, but no more important than anytime [an investor] wants to be involved with a celebrity entrepreneur.”
Now 70, Kurtzig isn’t out of the game. In 2011, she founded Kenandy, an enterprise software company that launched with $10.5 million in funding from some of the Valley’s biggest VCs. (She now sits on the board.) But though Berlin, who wrote a well-received biography of “Mayor of Silicon Valley” Bob Noyce in 2005, considers Kurtzig to an O.G. troublemaker, her Valley was also very different from the 21st century tech corridor that popularized jargon like “disruption.”
Indeed, Berlin argues that Kurtzig and contemporaries like Apple’s Steve Wozniak were reluctant startup entrepreneurs. “For a lot of them, if they could have thrived within the status quo, they would have done it,” she says, noting that Kurtzig was perversely penalized for being a good saleswoman in her earlier career. “They was a real sense of a citizen’s duty to do the right thing and benefit the body politic that doesn’t seem to [exist] so much anymore.”
But Berlin is still optimistic about the Valley, which she emphasizes houses thousands of entrepreneurial firms beyond the likes of Uber and Google, many of them trying to improve the world. And she adds that for all the problems of sexism America’s tech titans face, it’s probably not worse than in Hollywood.
“That’s the unfortunate part of being a professional woman,” she says. “But the stories that are coming out were broken by women who were highly competent and had options” beyond their previous employment. “It’s nowhere near good enough, but it’s a reflection of the [better] opportunities women have today.”
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