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Legendary Entrepreneur and Author Judy Estrin (Part 1)

Posted on Thursday, Dec 4th 2008

Estrin has been named three times to Fortune Magazine’s list of the 50 most powerful women in American business. She sits on the boards of directors of The Walt Disney Company and FedEx Corporation as well as two private company boards – Packet Design, Inc. and Arch Rock. For more background review her bio.

SM: Judy, you are a legend in Silicon Valley. Take us back to where your story begins. Where are you from, where did you grow up, and what is in your DNA that got you into all of this?

JE: The part that is in my DNA is a love for science and technology. The part that was a surprise was my being an entrepreneur and a leader. I never expected that when I was younger. Both of my parents were electrical engineers. My father worked on the original computer architecture and my mother got her PhD at a time when one other woman in the country got a PhD in electrical engineering. My parents spent most of their careers at UCLA. My father was one of the founders of the computer science department at UCLA.

At the time there were nepotism laws, so my mother could not actually work in the EE department when my dad was there so she became one of the very first biomedical engineers and ran the data processing lab in the Brain Research Institute at UCLA. She did research on brain imaging in a time when nobody knew what biomedical engineering was about.

My parents loved what they did. I grew up assuming you did not do something unless you had a passion for it. I think one of the hallmarks of entrepreneurship is that passion. I think that without even realizing it I associated work with passion. It has never occurred to me that you could have a job just to have a job.

I was brought up in a household filled with science. My older sister is a MD and my younger sister is a professor of computer science. My upbringing was steeped in science. I did my undergrad at UCLA in math, focusing on computer science. There was no computer science department since the field was just beginning. I did my masters at Stanford in EE with a concentration in computer engineering. When I did my masters my adviser was Vint Cerf, who was often known as the father of the Internet. As it turns out, Vint was one of my father’s PhD students. Another of my father’s students is Paul Barren, who is one of the inventors of packet switching, which is the technology that underlies it all. When I was at Stanford I was a junior member of the team that was building the TCP protocols, which became the backbone of the Internet.

Sometimes you make decisions that, at the moment you are making them, you have no idea how they are going to influence your life. When I got out of Stanford I had offers from Xerox, HP and Intel, and then I had an offer from this 50-person company called Zilog which was a spin out of Intel. I was interviewing as a software engineer and the traditional path would have been to go to one of the big companies. I ended up going to Zilog because a friend of my parents told me the smartest people he knew worked at Zilog. I chose to go to a 50-person company right out of school in 1976, which was before startups were common.

It ended up being an incredible decision for me. I quickly moved into management, where I was an individual contributor for two years. I did some computer architecture and software work for a couple of years, but I found that I really enjoyed leading and being in management. I led the project that essentially shipped the first commercial local area network, something called z-net.

Zilog is also where I met Bill Carrico, my now ex-husband, who became my business partner of 25 years. He was my boss at Zilog and in 1981 we decided to start Bridge Communications. I was 26 and he was 31. Now it is a common story, but at the time it was not. Bridge Communications was our first company.

SM: In several of the turning points you describe up until now, your father seems to have had a mentoring role. Was that an active role?

JE: Yes and no. My father and mother both had very significant influences on me but in different ways. My ending up in computer science was in many ways my following in my father’s footsteps. My mother and father’s combined influence led me to believe that I could do whatever I wanted to do when I entered the world and the workplace. I never questioned being a woman in a man’s world. Because I had a built-in role model I didn’t even think about it. Unlike some women of my generation, I think that one of the things that has helped make me successful is that I never had a chip on my shoulder about being a woman. I just did what I did and I ended up very often being the only woman in groups of men.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Legendary Entrepreneur and Author Judy Estrin
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