The Woman Who Broke the Code
THE SILICON VALLEY GENDER NARRATIVE IS FIRMLY ENTRENCHED: WOMEN DON’T GET COMPUTER SCIENCE DEGREES AND DON’T START SUCCESSFUL TECH COMPANIES. DON’T TELL THERESE TUCKER ANY OF THAT
Silicon Valley's gender narrative was firmly entrenched— until BlackLine’s Therese Tucker, one of the only female founder-CEOs running a public tech company, changed it.
ONE EVENING IN MAY, a team of Goldman Sachs bankers helped a founder-CEO raise some secondary money for investors in Black Line, a fast-growing software company now worth more than $1.5 billion. After the deal priced, as they ushered the hoodie-clad founder and the besuited CFO into an elevator, the bankers ran into a senior Goldman guy: “Hey, you should meet the CEO of Black Line. They’re raising $115 million.” The executive looked right past Therese Tucker, in her black hoodie and flower-printed blue jeans and pastel-pink hair, and directed his praise to her male finance chief: “Great job.” Tucker is laughing about this a few minutes later, humor loud and infectious, ethereal hair swinging along. It’s been a good year for BlackLine, a nine-time Inc. 5000 honoree that analysts credit with inventing a new market for accounting software. The Los Angeles company, which had $123 million in 2016 revenue and went public a year ago, has seen its stock outperform buzzier recent tech IPOs, including Nutanix’s and Snap’s. So for Tucker, a blazingly intelligent and impish 56-year-old, this
evening wasn’t the first time in her long career as a tech founder—or her relatively short one as a public company CEO—that she’s been underestimated. But such dismissals barely give her pause.
“Why have a modest ambition?” she shrugs. “Because then you accomplish it, and it’s boring.”
Tucker has rarely been bored over the past 17 years, as she’s faced virtually every entrepreneurial obstacle. After cashing out her retirement savings to fund her startup, she came perilously close to failing with its first product, pivoted her way out, and then spent several white-knuckle years trying to persuade big corporations to buy her technology. Determined to become a sort of Salesforce for accountants— dragging antiquated business bookkeeping from paper into the cloud—Tucker gritted her way through every dark period.
Even today, Black Line isn’t a household name (unless your household contains an accountant). But it does business with plenty of them: Coca- Cola, Under Armour, United Airlines, and eBay are all customers. Black Line was so early into the market that the product description it coined, “continuous accounting,” is now used by established enterprise-software giants, including Black Line partner SAP. What the term actually means: Tucker’s software-as-a-service won’t crunch your numbers, but it will pull in the data through programs that do—letting you see exactly what’s affecting those numbers, at any time and from anywhere, rather than making you wait for your accountant to email you the latest month’s Excel spreadsheets. Black- Line sells this service mostly to companies with more than $50 million in revenue, and counts almost 2,000 customers. According to a Frost & Sullivan report it commissioned, Black Line’s potential global market could be $20 billion by next year.
“A lot of product founders don’t make the transition to being the CEO of a bigger company, but Therese has a knack for figuring out when she needs to drill down and when she needs to run with things,” says Hollie Moore Haynes, who led Silver Lake Sumeru’s initial 2013 private equity investment in Black Line and remains on its board. “She kept hitting numbers—and she’s the heart of the company.”
Tucker, in many ways, resembles a stereotypical tech founder, with her direct, sometimes impatient questions; her intense focus on details; and her small, cluttered office tucked behind her programming team. Externally, of course, she stands out: The IPO turned her into one of the only female founder- CEOs running a public tech company.
While women formed the backbone of the early tech industry (see “When Women Ruled Computing,” below), their erosion there is startlingly grim. The likes of Apple, Facebook, and Google now employ technical work forces that are more than 75 percent male. Among growth-minded female founders, the numbers are worse: While roughly 30 percent of all small businesses are woman-owned, only 10 percent of the Inc. 500 fastest-growing private companies in America have female founders, and according to Cata- lyst, only 5.2 percent of the S&P 500 have women in charge.
For those women who do make a career in Silicon Valley, the past year has unveiled plenty of examples of the rampant misogyny and sexism they must overcome. In February, engineer Susan Fowler published a vivid account of the harassment she experienced at Uber, one that preceded the ouster of its CEO, Travis Kalanick. In June, several women reported years of unwelcome sexual advances from high-profile venture capitalists, including 500 Startups’ Dave McClure and Lightspeed Venture’s Justin Caldbeck (see page 75). And in August, Google fired a 28-yearold male engineer for a memo claiming that women are less biologically suited to computer programming than men.
“Tech is male-run,” says Tucker, who studied computer programming in the early 1980s. “I kept thinking, ‘I know this could be a great career, if I can just get through this program,’ but it was not welcoming toward women.” Since then, she has faced all of the now-familiar affronts, from the college professors telling her that she was expected to fail to groping male bosses to investors assuming that she couldn’t finance her own company without support from a husband.
Yet Tucker, a farmer’s daughter with a “no-bullshit” reputation (according to serial entrepreneur and author Sramana Mitra), has managed to defy these statistics. Now this founder, who neither dwells on nor dismisses the challenges facing women in tech, is keeping her focus on what she can
directly affect: continuing her company’s decade-plus of fast growth.
“I still have these massive goals. I just want to change how accounting works,” Tucker reflects in late June, at her company’s Woodland Hills headquarters. “I’ll be ready to retire once everybody does it my way.”
SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO, a seed of that ambition is what started Black-Line. Divorced, parenting two small children, and burnt out after leaving her job at software company Sun Gard, Tucker decided to return to what had made her happy—if broke— soon after college: starting her own programming business.
It’s not a very radical choice for someone who self-identifies as an entrepreneur. Yet it made Tucker an outlier: a woman who built a career, and a hard- core technology business, at the very time that women in general were dropping out of the industry.
Many early computer programmers were female when Tucker was growing up milking cows in rural Illinois, the youngest of four girls. She became the first in her family to go to college, studying business and French—until she took an early Apple programming class and fell in love. “It was like, ‘You’re kidding—people will pay me to actually sit and make a list of instructions for the computer to execute? That’s super cool.’ ”
Still, she had to face down male professors telling her she wasn’t cut out for programming. Fortunately, as she describes it, she had “an unreasonable amount of confidence.” She graduated in December 1983—just as the percentage of women earning computer science degrees peaked at 37 percent. (It now hovers around 18 percent.) After graduating, she found an engineering job that would move her to California, working for Hughes Aircraft on surface-ship sonar fault detection firmware. Then, in 1985, Tucker started her first company, selling her programming services to small businesses. That eventually led to work creating software for a mortgage company and then a programming job at a firm later purchased by Sun Gard, where she became CTO of its treasury systems department.
While starting her first business in the mid-’80s, Tucker met her future husband, then a Marine and now a hospital chaplain, at a laundromat. They got married and had two children, a son and a daughter; but by 2000, both consumed by their careers and the demands of parenting, they had split up.
The divorce, coinciding with her restlessness at Sun Gard, ultimately gave Tucker the space she needed to take a gamble and set up her own company. “My husband is very risk-averse. I put everything into this company, and he never would have been comfortable with that,” she says. “It was like, my kids and my company and that was it. Absolutely nothing else.”
Rather than try to raise money from venture capitalists, Tucker cashed out her retirement accounts and her Sun Gard options and took out a second mortgage on her house. At 40, with more than 15 years of experience programming for financial companies, she had both the contacts and the professional seasoning, yet she still had to prove her qualifications. In meetings with early clients or potential investors, Tucker often heard “remarks like, ‘Oh, well, your husband’s supporting you, right?’ ” recalls Charlie Gaulke, a woman Tucker hired as Black Line’s fifth employee and who is now vice president of development. “She did so much of it with her own financial backing, her own sheer will, and determination.”
During those early years fighting for survival, the company ended up changing everything from its core product to its name. In June 2001, Tucker dubbed her business Osaba, Spanish for “I was
daring.” A few months later, the September 11 terrorist attacks made any name similar to “Osama” radioactive.
There were bigger problems than nomenclature. Tucker’s first product was wealth management software, a market dominated by better-established Thomson Reuters. Within a few years, Tucker was running out of cash to keep the lights on—until one day, an existing customer asked for help automating its account reconciliation process: “As a bootstrapped company, if someone will pay you to do something, you say, ‘Hell, yeah,’ ” she explains.
In that request, Tucker recognized a bigger opportunity: to create software that would digitize what was still a very paper-bound market. Corporate accountants at the time relied heavily on three-ring binders. What if Tucker’s programmers could take all of that data, put it on a server somewhere, and let anyone in your company look at it, at any time of day or night? What if you could see the real-time effect that foreign exchange rates were having on your finances? What if Tucker could create a market for simplifying and accessing your business data?
“What she went after is an area of software that’s historically not been well served,” says Terry Tillman, an equity analyst for Sun Trust Robinson Humphrey. Black Line “was first to market with a couple of major products to create automation in an area where there hadn’t been automation … and now I think they’re reaping the benefits of being an early innovator.”
The company—rechristened Black- Line—started its pivot in 2004. But Tucker still had a few tense years before her bet paid off. Among the most painful setbacks was her sales chief’s leaving to start a rival product, which was sold to what became Trintech, now one of Black Line’s big competitors. Today, Tucker claims to be grateful for the defection: “When you’re a vendor, you need a competitor” to legitimize the product.
But you also need relentless coldcalling. “I called a girlfriend from Sun Gard and said, ‘My company is failing and I can’t pay you much. Come work for me?’ ” Tucker says. The friend did—and landed Costco and eBay as two of Black Line’s first big-name clients.
Meanwhile, Tucker was feeling successful enough to return some focus to her personal life. She and her ex-husband, Brian, had remained polite co-parents during her startup’s most uncertain years. Eventually, the exes went from coordinating their kids’ schedules to laughing about their latest dating horror stories, and “we got to be best friends again,” says Tucker. She remarried Brian in 2005; their children were best man and maid of honor at the second wedding. (Their son, Isaac, is also now VP of product at Black Line.)
Within a couple of years, Tucker made another crucial decision: embracing the cloud-based software model pioneered by the likes of Salesforce. That helped Black Line appeal to smaller customers, for whom an internal server installation was too expensive. Tucker’s company gained a reputation among clients for stellar customer service. Revenue continued to grow, by about 50 percent every year; Black Line landed on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastestgrowing private companies in America nine consecutive times, from 2008 to 2016, when it went public.
The road to the IPO started in 2013, when Tucker was considering retirement. She went looking for a buyer and wound up feeling reinvigorated when private equity firm Silver Lake decided to take a bet on her and took a majority investment. (Tucker kept what is now a roughly 12 percent stake.)
“It didn’t matter to me that she hadn’t done this before,” says Haynes, who’s since started her own private equity firm, Luminate Capital. “We just want companies that have really great products.”
LAST DECEMBER, after her company’s IPO raised $152 million, Tucker celebrated by buying herself a Tesla. She wound up with a tech founder’s ultimate firstworld problem: The car was a dud. The cruise control wouldn’t kick on, the music-streaming service kept crashing, the air conditioner stalled out. And when Tucker quickly returned it, the Tesla dealership kept her $2,500 deposit.
That’s chump change for a woman worth some $180 million on paper. But Tucker, for whom customer service is a mantra, says she wanted to prove a point: She hired a lawyer and paid him $3,000 in fees to sue the dealership, which ultimately settled the lawsuit this summer. Tucker got her deposit back—
and got to critique one of Silicon Valley’s favorite status symbols—for only $500. “It was worth every penny,” she says. “This is supposed to be the amazing car of the future … and the technology was not as advanced as my three-year-old Dodge Durango’s.” (A Tesla spokesperson says that Tucker’s “demands and complaints were very unreasonable” and the next buyer of the returned vehicle “has had zero complaints.”)
Still, Tucker is thoughtful about her provocations: She got Silver Lake’s signoff before filing the lawsuit. She also got her board’s permission, “in a low-key way,” before dying her hair pink.
To be a woman at the helm of a company is to be constantly, tiresomely, judged by your appearance. “When you have gray hair, you could die on the floor and nobody would notice,” Tucker says. “Middle-aged, gray-haired woman—who cares?” So three years ago, she decided to reclaim that signifier.
It happened during what Tucker calls a “game of chicken” with Black-Line’s marketing department. The publicists begged the CEO to film a staid corporate video, one that would require her to be “this older woman, with a bun and a suit and a scarf, going ‘blah blah blah,’ ” she recalls. Finally, she agreed—but only if, she added, “‘I dye my hair pink.’ It just popped out.”
She booked an appointment at a Beverly Hills salon, and hasn’t looked back. “It has changed how I interact with the world at large,” she reflects. “Now it’s almost like a weird trademark.”
That cartoonishly feminine hair is also a bit of an open challenge to tech’s boys’ club, and all who presume that a technical founder- CEO of a software company would be male. It’s another deliberate provocation—especially this year.
During interviews over the past several months, Tucker expressed both frustration and familiarity with the relentlessly depressing headlines out of Silicon Valley. Early in her career, when faced with similar harassment, she chose the path of practicality: “You avoided certain people, you made sure there was a table between you and so-and-so, and you just dealt with it,” she recalls.
One of her female co-workers, who did report a groping boss, became “a pariah. Her career dead-ended,” Tucker says. But “my career succeeded. Nothing ever really terrible happened. It was just kind of gross and annoying and awful.”
That’s not a criticism of any of the women who have recently come forward. “If you don’t ever say anything, how do you get change to happen?” reflects Tucker. “I still don’t know if putting up and shutting up was the right thing to do.”
As she and other women founders have discovered, often it’s easiest to avoid those behaviors by starting (and financing) your own thing—one where “you make sure that your environment does not have any bias or discrimination built in,” Tucker says.
Black Line would not disclose its racial or gender diversity statistics, and Tucker says she’s found it difficult to recruit as many qualified female programmers as she would like. Two of her six top lieutenants are female, slightly better than the percentage of senior- level executive positions at S&P 500 “information” companies. Many days at 6 a.m., you can find Tucker and her top women executives at the gym across the street, lifting weights with a trainer.
But fighting for some bigger ideal of gender equity is an overwhelming task, and one that Tucker—or any founder— doesn’t have time for. She is still working through the growing pains that all highgrowth startups experience. The company, which had 600 employees when it went public a year ago, has more than 700 now. There’s been some turnover among top executives, including the chief technology officer, a not-insignificant role for a tech company. The firm is still not profitable, and the demands of public investors are only mounting. Now that Tucker has opened up a lucrative market, might better-funded, bigger players eventually push her out of it?
Not if she can help it. On a sundrenched summer day in June, Black-Line’s chief revenue officer, Chris Murphy, swings by Tucker’s office, which is decorated with a religious print opposing the death penalty. Murphy wants to talk numbers, but first gets sucked into a conversation about politics, religion, and how to help the homeless population in Los Angeles. Which brings the discussion back around to Black Line’s ambitious goals, and how quickly its founder wants to achieve them. “You’re not always easy to work for, Therese,” Murphy half-teases his boss.
Tucker grins back, unapologetically in charge: “You’d be so bored if I were easy.”