Technology Innovator Helps Women Transcend the Ginger Rogers Principle
Bernee D. L. Strom, Chair, Ensequence, Inc. and The Strom Group
Bernee Strom was good at math, and the notion that women don't do certain things never occurred to her. She always thought she would be a math professor and was well on her way to achieving that goal by 1976 when she completed her coursework for her Ph.D. in math and math education from New York University.
It also never occurred to Strom that she would spend seven years at the helm of a major newspaper before taking a leadership role in the Internet revolution, starting new firms, turning around troubled companies, and blazing a path for women in technology.
A frequent speaker at the nation’s leading business schools, Strom tells audiences that people typically plan their work lives with precision, but careers often happen accidentally. In the end, she says, what matters most is doing what you feel passionate about. For Strom, a trustee of the National Public Radio Foundation, that includes protecting the First Amendment and helping women, especially entrepreneurs, realize their potential.
One of the most basic pieces of advice Strom has for women is to study math.
"How do you know what you want to do in high school?" she asks. "I always encourage people to take math only if they want to be gainfully employed, because you close a lot of doors if you don't."
Strom was a non-tenured math professor at the City University of New York when New York City had a major fiscal crisis. She would probably still be a professor if she had been able to secure a position at a college or university in California when she and her husband, a heart surgeon, moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s. Instead, she joined Deloitte Haskins & Sells as a consultant after earning an MBA with honors in finance from UCLA's Anderson Graduate School of Management.
"You learn to embrace change," she says, "because change is the only certainty."
The next change in Strom's life came about in response to the lack of a "woman-friendly environment in the consulting world" and a tip from a friend about an executive opening at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Strom became the first woman ever to run the circulation department of a major metropolitan daily.
Seven years later, when the Hearst Corporation closed the paper, another young woman approached Strom for help rolling out a new invention, the VCR Plus+ ® Instant Programmer. The VCR-Plus+, created by Gemstar Development Corporation, became one of the most successful consumer electronics products of the last decade. Strom, a founder, shareholder and principal of the company, developed and implemented the business strategy for Gemstar products worldwide.
Frequently frustrated by not having the right files along in her travels, she and a partner created a software company that published the award-winning FileRunner® program.
Another piece of advice Strom often shares: "The most important thing for you to do as an entrepreneur is to keep your eyes open and, if opportunities fly by, grab them."
Strom's next opportunity was to serve as CEO of USA Digital Radio, a partnership of Westinghouse, CBS, and Gannett, charged with inventing in-band, on-channel digital radio.
Strom’s next assignment was to serve on the board of Walker Digital, an intellectual property studio that invents, patents, and licenses processes, systems, and technologies that leverage large existing marketing systems. Strom was the founding CEO of the company’s first spin-out, Priceline.com and was subsequently recruited to Seattle as president and COO of InfoSpace, Inc., a leading global provider of cross-platform merchant and consumer infrastructure services on wireless, broadband, and narrowband platforms.
She is the current chair of Ensequence, Inc., a software company that has developed an interoperable platform for interactive TV. She is also the founding partner of Revitalization Partners, a Seattle-based turnaround and business advisory firm, and chair of the Strom Group, her primary investment vehicle.
Teacher, Mentor, Donor
As part of her leadership role in these companies and on corporate boards, Strom has encouraged giving to the community – financial as well as volunteering time – as a company priority. Indeed, she sees teaching and mentoring as part of her job description.
"In some ways," she says, "I'm still a college professor. I enjoy working with bright young people."
As a member of the Committee of 200 (C200) since 1985, Strom mentors a woman leading a bio-tech company. C200, founded in 1982, is a professional organization of preeminent women entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. Its nearly 500 members in more than 80 industries internationally own and run companies that earn at least $15 million in annual revenues or serve as CEOs or senior executives leading operating divisions with direct impact on annual revenues of $250 million or more.
Mentoring is just one of many ways the C200 offers its members to give back to entrepreneurship. In 1986, C200 launched its grant making arm, the C200 Foundation. Through the Foundation, Strom and many other contributors and corporate sponsors provide young women with tools they need to rise to the top as entrepreneurs and corporate leaders through scholarships, education, mentoring and business opportunities.
"One of my friends described C200 as the only place you could go where people check their guns at the door," says Strom. "It is a close-knit group of like-minded women who are unique and have formed lifelong friendships."
Strom says being honored in 2001 with C200's "Luminary Award for Technology Innovation" was one of the most meaningful awards she ever received because it was bestowed by her C200 peers.
Backwards in High Heels
Strom helped found and serves on the faculty of the Center for Executive Women at the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and sits on the school’s board of advisors. She is also a member of the Women's Leadership Board of the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, dedicated to advancing women globally through leadership, advocacy and dialogue on public policy, and the International Women's Forum, a global organization of high-achieving women who share knowledge, exert influence and help prepare future generations of women leaders.
"I think it’s important to give back to entrepreneurship," says Strom, "because it's critical to the general health of our country. To our democracy, our government, our economy and our children. Profit is not a four-letter word. You have to do well to do good, and the better you do, the more good you can do."
And Strom finds more to do all the time. This year, she served as a national judge for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards after three years judging on the regional level in Seattle. "I got to know companies I didn’t know existed in my own area," she says.
Strom also invests and sits on the advisory boards of several venture funds and angel groups, her philosophy being, "If you believe in entrepreneurship, you should put your money where your mouth is and help entrepreneurs any way you can."
She is a current or former corporate partner of Benchmark Electronics, Hughes Electronics (DirecTV), the Polaroid Corporation, Software Publishing Corporation, and others.
A wife and mother who penetrated the glass ceiling to be named one of the "Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World" by Star Group in 2000 and to receive the Technology Award from IBM, Strom is often asked by younger women how she managed to do it all.
So she tells them about the Ginger Rogers Principle.
"Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except she did it backwards in high heels," to which she adds, "It also helps to pick the right partner and get the best child care you can."
© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.