The Returnee
The Returnee
Name: Sandy Kurtzig
Company: Kenandy
Age: 64

Sandra Kurtzig is, in many ways, typical of today's Silicon Valley founders: She's ambitious, she's a repeat entrepreneur, and her business software company, Kenandy, is capitalizing on a hot tech trend (software delivered over the `Net). But there's one thing that separates Kurtzig from the generally youthful pack: She's 64 years old.

If Kurtzig's name rings a bell it might be because she was a Valley pioneer in a different era. In 1972, she started ASK Group Inc. (formerly Ask Computer Systems), a groundbreaking maker of manufacturing-management software that became the first female-founded company to go public. (It did so in 1981). Kurtzig left the company in 1985--citing the desire to spend more time with her family. When her successor didn't work out, she returned to run the company for a few more years before retiring from ASK for good in 1991. The company was acquired by Computer Associates (now CA Technologies) in 1994.

Kurtzig filled her retirement days with projects, including a 5-year stint as the general contractor on her house on the Kohala Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii. She was without a project when her neighbor, Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, suggested that Kurtzig say goodbye to her cushy Hawaiian digs and relocate to Silicon Valley to work on a manufacturing management software that could be sold as a service. "I know you're big and overbearing," she told Benioff, who helped evangelize so-called cloud computing. "But I'm retired. Did you forget?" Still, the rush that accompanied the new challenge attracted Kurtzig's inner adventurer -- and she bit. She worked on the Kenandy product, funding all the development herself, in hiding for 18 months before unveiling the company at Salesforce's annual Dreamforce conference for Cloud-focused companies on September 1.

The first time Kurtzig started a company, she wasn't quite so fearless and unhesitating. She was a 24-year old working at General Electric selling computer timesharing devices when she received a call in 1971 from a guy named Larry Whitaker whose company, Halcyon Communications, needed a custom computing program to handle his company's start-up manufacturing operations.

The idea of leaving her secure GE job was frightening. "In 1971 the man leaving a corporation to start his own company was often the black sheep... and the woman starting her own company was considered a pariah, a piranha, or both," she recounts in her autobiography, CEO: building a $400 million company from the ground up.

Nevertheless, Kurtzig pushed ahead and, with a $2,000 commission check from GE and a $300 check from Halycon, she founded ASK in a spare bedroom of her Mountain View, Calif., apartment. (ASK stands for she and her sons -- Andy, Sandra, and Ken.) The company's Manman enterprise software was a hit, and by the time Kurtzig retired ASK had annual sales of more than $450 million.

Along the way she raised two sons who have gone on to become CEOs themselves. Andy, 38, is the founder and CEO of JustAnswer Corp, a website that provides answers to users' questions through its network of experts, and Ken, 35, is the founder and CEO of iReuse LLC, a sustainability consulting and software company. The young men regularly ask their mother for advice. "Do you want me to answer this as a mother or as a business person?" Kurtzig will reply. "As your mother, it's a fabulous idea. As a businessperson, it's pretty bad." She adds: "I'm very proud of them and they're equally proud of me."

Her sons aren't the only folks in Silicon Valley who admire Kurtzig's business expertise. When Kurtzig finished building a prototype of Kenandy's software she had little trouble finding backing. She met with Kleiner Perkins partner and former Oracle president Ray Lane, who persuaded the venture firm to invest in Kenandy. (The name is a combination of her two sons, Ken and Andy.) The company has raised $10.5 million in early round funding.

That's a big change from the early days of ASK. Nowadays, she says, "it's a different game." And this time, Kurtzig is playing by her own set of rules.



Last updated September 30 2011: 12:16 PM ET