If she could cash in on hindsight, Kathryn Gould might be one of the richest women in Silicon Valley. As it is, she's pretty comfortable. She puts her personal net worth at "more than $20 million and less than $100 million." But, she adds, "there's nothing I could do with $100 million that I can't do with what I've got."
Gould joined Oracle as its first vice president of marketing in 1982 — before Tom Siebel or Mike Seashols — and spent two tumultuous years there. She left to start her own firm 18 months before the IPO. As Gould discusses her track record, she flashes a generous, confident smile. It is her trademark and body armor. Since she was 16, she's been a woman succeeding in a man's world — first as a physicist, then a high-tech entrepreneur, now a venture capitalist.
"I'm sort of a 'third sex,"' she says. "I'm comfortable with guys, yet I know I'm not one of them. Just as I know I'm not a feminist. It has worked well for me. It's the other side of gamesmanship."
But life on the high-tech battlefield isn't a game. Gould is in her Menlo Park office, shortly after firing the CEO of one of her startups. "It was exhausting," she says. "When it was over, I just said, 'I'm tired and I'm pissed at you.' He said the same thing to me."
She has been on the other side of the desk. "I was once fired and rehired by Larry Ellison in the same day!" she says, almost boastfully. "I've seen him literally spitting mad."
Gould, 47, is a general partner of Foundation Capital, a spinoff of Merrill, Pickard, Anderson & Eyre, a premier West Coast venture-capital firm. Foundation is only 18 months old, but it's run by serious VC players. The firm's four partners have backed companies with a combined market value of $6 billion. Gould has served on the boards of 11 startups and positioned three of them to be acquired, in deals totaling about $2 billion.
She has backed startups in different industries with different strategies. But a common thread runs through all her investments — her experience at Oracle. Her time there taught her two life-changing lessons: what it takes for companies to win, and the role she plays best in those victories.
"A company has to seize great opportunities," Gould says. "It has to ruthlessly prioritize around what it takes to win. And companies have to understand they can't make everyone happy. Too many companies don't focus on winning. They get obsessed by other things — like satisfying each and every customer, whether or not they have strategic value."
What did Oracle teach her about herself? "I learned that I like to build companies but not run them," she says. "It's what I'm best at. I lack the skill set to run my own company. I was good on the analytical side, but I was too idealistic. When things get highly charged, you've just got to have the leadership. I was one of those people who let their idealism get in the way of winning."
The candor is striking, almost startling. Tom Siebel and Mike Seashols left Oracle infused with a sense of limitless possibilities about their prospects and personal powers. Kathryn Gould left with a formula for success that incorporated a clear sense of her own limitations. But don't confuse self-knowledge with self-doubt. Gould likes being around the rough-and-tumble, thrives on the business fray. She just recognizes that others are more suited to leading troops into battle and holding down the fort.
What, then, are the attributes of a great leader? "They are unconventional people with unconventional skills," she says. "Yes, they need technological vision. But they need a real talent for evangelism. All great entrepreneurs are like that. Everyone knows what they are trying to do."
She makes one last point on leadership: "Every CEO I back has to have a little piece of Larry Ellison in him."
Kathryn Gould joined Oracle when she was 31, with an MBA from the University of Chicago to complement a degree in physics from the University of Toronto. She was an accomplished violinist and even considered music as a career. But she grew more intrigued with physics. She went to work at Argonne National Laboratory, then switched to optical design for Bell & Howell before joining a Chicago-based electronics company.
"There were also things going on in California that really caught my attention. Apple was taking off," recalls Gould, a Los Angeles native. "Women engineers, particularly ones with MBAs, were rarities back then. I just had to get out there."
Gould discovered Data Systems Design, a startup based in Palo Alto. She became director of marketing. About the same time, she heard of an "interesting little company" in Menlo Park that was trying to sell the world on the concept of relational databases.
"I went to see Larry, and it was just bam!" she says. "He had no venture backing and less than a million dollars in revenues. And he was already talking about being the biggest force in the industry."
Gould signed on as a consultant but after a few months Ellison wanted more. "When I joined the company full time, we had 15 employees," she says. "I can't say I honestly believed we'd make it to the end of the year. Larry went looking for money and was turned down by everybody. I could see why. He was terminally intense."
She recalls those early years as being "rowdy and chaotic and wonderful." She also remembers the dark side, the fast-talking jousts that turned on a dime into heated, macho arguments. "A lot of the guys relished the savage atmosphere. I didn't understand the right side of the brain. I'd never played team sports. I'd never really 'hung out.' I was not the political equal of some of these guys. I was off the bus."
But Gould shows no bitterness. In fact, she smiles. "Larry got turned down for money because VCs had to wonder if he wasn't insane. He had no college degree, no real resume. The VCs were focusing on the guy and not on the business opportunity. But I can focus on the right things. I'm running my own show now."
And looking for the next Larry Ellison. Somewhere out there is another manic leader, another unwashed world-changer. It could be a woman - she recently backed one — but it's certainly someone who wants to start something that defies human possibilities. The CEOs she funds "all know where they are going and how to get there," she says. "They show me their internal compasses. I don't care whether someone has a college degree or even has had a spectacular failure. I invest in lucky people. They've been to the brink, or over it. The lucky ones learn and get perspective."
Gould considers herself lucky. Her life is demanding. She has as many as 40 hot business plans on her desk in any given week. She also has a husband, George, and an 8-year-old son. She wishes she'd had time for another. She wishes she could play her violin more, spend more time with her local chamber group, ride horses. She and George own a twin-engine Beechcraft turbo-prop. "Flying is serious," she says. "You get behind the controls, you forget about everything else and concentrate. It's really intense and relaxing. We take it out to the desert or down to the beach."
Though they both used to fly the plane, she recently quit. No time to maintain her qualifications. She regrets it. Other than that, "My only regret would be if one of my companies lost money. No, I wouldn't really regret that. I'd just be pissed. Great startups are acts of passion."
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.