By Chris O’Brien (Business & Technology Columnist, San Jose Mercury News) Before Silicon Valley had Larry Ellison or Steve Jobs, it had Sandra Kurtzig. By founding and taking public one of the region's first software companies almost four decades ago, she became an industry giant. The fact that she was the valley's lone female tech CEO also made her a pioneer for women, too.
Kurtzig, 64, recently announced that she had come out of retirement to take the helm of a new startup, almost 40 years after starting ASK Corp. And perhaps her biggest surprise -- and disappointment -- is that as she looks back at that trail she blazed as a female tech CEO, she sees so few women walking down it.
"I'm actually shocked that there aren't more women CEOs," Kurtzig said in a recent interview. "I knew when I started ASK that being a woman in a man's world was unique. I could understand why people were surprised and why I got so much press back then. But it still feels like I'm the only one."
That's close to the truth. There was Carol Bartz, of course, until she was ousted as CEO of Yahoo (YHOO). And there are some notable number twos, like Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook and Safra Catz at Oracle (ORCL). And among startups and venture capital firms, there's a growing number of female partners and founders.
And yet, they still represent a distinct minority in Silicon Valley's tech economy, and a rarity in executive suites. And it's far, far fewer than Kurtzig would have imagined all those years ago.
The annual census of California women business leaders by the UC Davis Graduate School of Management reported that women hold just 9.5 percent of board seats and top executive positions at California corporations. Only 16 of 400 companies surveyed had a female CEO.
There's a long list of culprits, according to Wendy Beecham, managing director of executive education at UC Davis. Most likely, you've heard them all before. Far more men than women get science and engineering degrees. Tech has a nerdy image. The work-life balance is even harder to achieve in tech than most industries. And the tech boys' club tends to be self-reinforcing.
"We tend to hire people like us," Beecham said. "If you're a 50-year-old white guy, you tend to be more comfortable with 50-year-old white guys."
While not denying these challenges, Kurtzig also didn't let them slow her -- then or now.
Consider how this latest phase of her career began. She had been retired for more than a decade and spending most of her time at her home in Hawaii, when she began chatting about the software industry with one of her neighbors. That neighbor happened to be Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce.com.
They started brainstorming an idea for a startup that would create cloud-based services to help companies manage their logistics.
"Who is going to win at this market?" Kurtzig asked Benioff.
"You are," Benioff replied. "And I'm going to fund it."
Kurtzig took up the challenge, dubbing the company "Kenandy" after her sons -- Ken and Andy.
And when she needed venture capital, she marched into the offices of Kleiner Perkins without an appointment and asked to speak to Ray Lane or John Doerr.
Doerr was out. Lane, who had never met her despite having a house near Kurtzig's in Atherton, was eager to meet the legend and ushered her into his office.
Last week, Kenandy came out of stealth mode, announcing it had raised a first round of $10.5 million led by Kleiner Perkins and Salesforce.com. Kurtzig appeared on stage a couple of days later at the annual Salesforce.com conference with Lane and Benioff to describe the new venture.
"Sandy is a great entrepreneur," Lane told the audience. "Let me tell you: All the 30-year-olds in the audience, look out. This generation is not gone. I work with a lot of 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds, and I haven't seen anywhere near the energy that this lady has."
Kurtzig is one of those women who somehow managed to do it all. She raised her sons as a divorced, single mom and still advises them on their business ventures. And now that she's back in the saddle, she's feeling the pressure and the thrill again.
"I must say, I'm very flattered and very humbled by the reaction," Kurtzig said when we talked on the phone. "I think the expectations are so incredibly high, it's a little scary. Everyone is expecting it to be so incredibly successful."
But unlike before, no one is expecting Kurtzig's role as tech CEO to be a giant leap forward for women in Silicon Valley. Instead, she'll have to settle for taking one more small step toward closing a gap that appears likely to endure long after she leaves the stage.
This post was originally posted at the San Jose Mercury News.
Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Chris O'Brien is a Columnist at the Mercury News. He blogs at SiliconBeat. Follow him on Twitter at @sjcobrien.