The World According to Carol Bartz

On September 6, 2011, Carol Bartz was infamously fired, by phone, as CEO of Yahoo after two years at the Internet company. Back in 2006, we talked to the veteran business exec about what it takes to bust through the glass ceiling. Even then she proved that candor was certainly one of her strong suits.

Martha Mendoza

She found another home of sorts in the bank where her Sunday-school teacher was president, working her way up from secretary to teller. Like any person with clear memories of money struggles, Bartz remembers every decimal of those early paychecks. She earned 75 cents an hour as a teller. Right after she graduated from high school, the bank managers realized they owed her back pay because of a change in the minimum wage, and gave her a check for $350. It was "the biggest windfall in my life," says Bartz, who years later would cash in $11 million in Autodesk stock options in one year. "It was an incredible amount of money to me."

The bank managers also helped Bartz get a scholarship, allowing her to go to William Woods, an elite all-girls college in Fulton, Missouri. She wasn’t one of the crowd, though; she had a job in the cafeteria serving food to the wealthy students. "A pretty humbling experience," she calls it. "I was one of very few students actually working there. It wasn’t the kind of school where people did that."

On to College

Two years into college, Bartz took a class at a neighboring all-boys school and fell in love with what in 1966 was an obscure, if intriguing, field. "I was going to be a math major, but I didn’t want to teach math. So I took a computer class. Well, the first time I wrote a program, I just loved it," she says, sighing at the memory. "I absolutely loved it. We had to write a program that would add up all of the license plate numbers in the state of Missouri. Ah! I remember that so clearly."

Bartz transferred to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to study computer science, and worked her way through school serving drinks to lobbyists and politicians at the Hoffman House supper club. She exercised constantly ("like, 1,500 hours a day") to fit into the required costume, a red miniskirt and black fishnet stockings, and wore a huge red feather tucked into her hair. Bartz had talked her way into the job, only to discover that cocktails were more complex than she had anticipated. But with help from a friendly bartender, she was soon earning tips from her regular customers. One evening one of those customers snapped her garter belt as he ordered a drink. "Then he looked up, I looked back — and, oh my god, it was my high school principal!" she says. (William Freese, the former principal, praises Bartz’s accomplishments, and says he well remembers the "little outfit" she wore at the club, but that he did not snap her garter.)

Bartz would later apply lessons she learned at the club — like memorizing her clients’ names, hometowns, and favorite drinks — to her marketing jobs. After college, she sold automated banking services. She remembers "driving around in my go-go boots, traveling to small towns, trying to convince little banks to automate." Then she made the leap to 3M Company.

Being Singled Out

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was barely a vocabulary for the kind of discrimination and harassment Bartz would face, but it was unmistakable from her first day. "3M was where I first realized that this corporate thing against women really existed," she says. "I was definitely singled out." In her first week, Bartz, the only woman professional in a division of 300 men, was sent to an out-of-town business meeting where everyone was assigned to share a room. When "C. Bartz" saw her room assignment, she quietly had the hotel switch her to a single room. The next morning she was met by a manager who had just, apparently, had a good look at the list. "We’re going to have to let you go," he said. "You slept with somebody last night."

Bartz can laugh about it now. "They were so whacked out just because there was actually a female there," she says. "I told them I didn’t sleep with anybody last night, and that I didn’t know anyone there. Even so, for the next several hours, I was fired."

First Published June 1, 2006

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