2000 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"I’ve always believed you can do better than the odds, both physically and mentally."
Carol Bartz, born in 1948 in Winona, Minnesota, lived in a housing project as a youngster. Her father, who had only a second grade education, earned $40 a week at the local feed mill. "He could sign his name and that was it, "says Bartz. Her mother, whom Bartz describes as sweet and gentle, had suffered a high fever as a child and never fully recovered her strength or health. "Because my mother wasn't well, I had to grow up pretty fast," says Bartz. "One of my lasting memories of my mother is her always telling me I had to be a big girl. Even at the age of three, I had to wash my own hair from a pan on a chair because my mother couldn't lift me to the sink."
When Bartz was six, her mother had another child. The birth took what little strength she had, and two years later, at the age of 28, she died. At that point, Bartz had to be a mother to her brother and take care of the household. Her father was not equipped emotionally to handle the situation and he often beat Carol with a belt. When her grandparents found out about the situation, the children were taken into protective custody and sent to live with their maternal grandparents on a small farm in Wisconsin.
Bartz's grandmother was practical and direct and instilled in her granddaughter the value of facing life head on. "I learned from my grandmother that you deal with what life delivers, make the best of it, and then move on," says Bartz. While her grandparents provided a stable home life for her, they were not wealthy. At the age of 15, Bartz took a part-time job at a local bank to help with her expenses.
School was a refuge for Bartz and she was a straight-A student. In high school, she devoted herself to her classes and school activities. She was a cheerleader and also president of her senior class and valedictorian. She attended William Woods College, a women's university in Missouri, on a scholarship. She served as an officer in her dorm and as treasurer of the student body. During her sophomore year, she took a computer class and was immediately enthralled. Since William Woods did not offer computer courses, Bartz transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where she could get in-state tuition along with a partial scholarship. She worked in a bank six hours a day and went to school full time, where she was one of only two female students majoring in computer science.
Bartz's first job out of college was selling computer services with First National Bank of St. Paul. Two years later, she became a systems analyst in the microfilm division at 3M Corporation. As was the case in college, Bartz was the only woman in what was considered to be a masculine career. "There were 300 men and me," she says. After several years at 3M she applied for marketing position and was told women couldn't be marketers.
Bartz left 3M and became the second female in the country to work for Digital Equipment's sales department. Soon she was promoted to sales manager and, in 1983, moved to California to work at Sun Microsystems as a marketing director. Within a few months she was made vice president of marketing. For the next nine years, she worked her way up in the company.
In 1992, Bartz was recruited to become CEO and chairman of AutoDesk, a top supplier of design software and one of the largest personal computer software companies in the world. She was the first female to be brought in from the outside to run a major high-tech firm. Entrepreneurial pioneers have run their own outfits before, but Bartz was the only woman to head a leading technology company she had not founded.
Bartz's first day as the new chairman and CEO of AutoDesk was a Friday. On Saturday she went for a routine mammogram, and on Sunday she learned she had breast cancer. She asked her doctor to delay her surgery for a month so she could assemble her executive team and deliver the keynote speech at a convention. At the end of the convention, she gathered her employees and told them she had to have surgery and would be taking a month off. Next, she repeated her news at a meeting of stock analysts. "Had I not been chairman of a public company, I would have just dealt with it," she says. "But I did not want there to be any doubt as to the leadership of the company."
She kept her promise and returned to work in a month. That was 14 years ago. During her tenure, the company diversified its product line and grew revenues from $285 million to $1.5 billion. In April 2006, she stepped down from the day-to-day leadership of the company and now serves as its executive chairman of the board.
Carol Bartz has had many challenges in her life, but she doesn't waste time thinking about them. "It's all just a part of life," she says. "If you get sick or something bad happens to you, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get on with it. I hate to look backwards. I don't agonize about my father beating me or my mother dying. If you accept that adversity is going to happen and don't think of it as a penalty, then you are able to go on. You can't think in terms of fair or unfair. Life isn't fair, but there is a lot of good."