The Miami Herald / Q&A: Betsy Atkins puts expertise to work on corporate boards

By Nancy Dahlberg

The news that Leo Apotheker was replaced as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard after just 11 months at the helm shook up Betsy Atkins, an entrepreneur and former CEO three times over.

“They had a courageous CEO who was leading them through the difficult changes to reinvent the company as a high-margin, high- growth market contender,” says Atkins. “The HP board is an example of governance at its worst, where the directors lost sight of their duty of loyalty to the shareholders to follow through and reposition the company with the right leader for the long term.”

Atkins should know. She’s on four boards of public companies now — Chico’s, Polycom, Schneider Electric and SunPower — as well as on private boards, and she has sat on 28 other public boards in her career. “I have had the privilege of working through challenging board assignments such as Lucent, helping to turn around HealthSouth, and transitioning private companies to public, such as the green tech company SunPower.

“Boards are supposed to hang tough,” she says. “For instance at SunPower we went through a restatement of earnings, a class action lawsuit, a go-private transaction — it’s been a board of many challenging events. … A board is supposed to do proper governance for the shareholders for the longterm.”

Atkins participated in founding and building the $5.4 billion tech firm Ascend Communications and turning around NCI Inc., creator of the PowerBar. She also was a former chairman and CEO of Clear Standards, which provided software to measure, mitigate and monetize carbon emissions.

A typical day for Atkins starts early with calls to Europe, then continues with emails, conference calls with boards and calls with executive colleagues and often involves introducing people who would be helpful to CEOs of companies where she works.

She’s also on Florida International University’s Med School Board, which has been overseeing getting hospital-based services approved, setting up fee structures and setting up alliances with local hospitals for students’ internships. The program offers “innovative ways of cross training students in a broad set of public health as well as traditional med school curriculum,” she says.

In earlier years, Atkins had been a tech angel, investing in startup companies, and in 1991 formed a venture capital firm, Baja LLC, an early investor in Yahoo and eBay. Baja no longer actively invests.

Atkins participated in this interview by phone and e-mail from Maine, where she spends a few months of the year. The rest of the time she lives in South Florida. “Miami is my home. I love it.”

Q. What motivates you to sit on corporate boards?

The business issues are fascinating, complex and there is the opportunity to make a significant contribution for shareholders, employees and industry in general.

Q. How would you describe your leadership style?

Engaged, motivational, with a clear line of sight to the goals, and orientation to action.

Q. What should companies seek in a board member?

Companies should seek a board member that will help them anticipate the risks and challenges as the company grows. However, board members should understand their role is oversight — not to overstep.

Q. Why aren’t there more women on corporate boards?

Many governance committees in charge of drafting new board member profiles often request a sitting or former CEO, who can bring an operating perspective.

Q. What are some of the key issues facing Corporate America today?

American corporations have the second highest corporate tax rate in the world and an increasing regulatory burden that impacts global competitiveness. There is also global competition for talent and our international Visa regulations negatively impact the free flow of talent and personnel.

Q. Is the U.S. economy is in for a double dip or is it on the mend?

I believe the economy will be choppy and flat until we get through this election cycle. The one thing that would cause an immediate double dip would be a major Euro zone/currency issue. For example, if Germany were to withdraw from the Euro.

Q. Do you believe we are in a tech bubble?

I believe we are in a major, new innovation cycle with three forces driving technology growth. First, the emergence and wide adoption of social media penetrating all aspects of corporations. Second, the adoption of software, applications and functions moving into the cloud. And the third, mobility and full mobile enablement from standard corporate interactions through, and including all, consumer interactions (i.e. you now have your boarding pass on your cellphone … using your digital wallet will become widespread.)

Q. From where you sit on corporate boards and being an entrepreneur yourself, what does it take to run a successful company?

The ability to remain flexible and quickly iterate on the initial concept based on customer and market feedback. Additionally, an entrepreneurial leader needs to be courageous, determined and committed to winning.

Q. What are some ways to drive innovation?

Significantly lowering/eliminating capital gains tax, increasing the number of available H1 Visa’s and increasing the number of entrepreneurs that have access to angel investors.

Q. Entrepreneurship – born or learned?

I think entrepreneurship is mostly “born.” To be an entrepreneur you have to have great conviction around your ideas and capabilities. You need an independent spirit and a determination and drive to win that will not be slowed down as you face and overcome obstacles.

Q. What’s the best career advice you ever received?

My mother said to always extend yourself to help enable the success of others. She also advised me to be sure to meet and exceed every commitment that I make; be reliable, responsible and the one who goes the extra mile to get a job done.

Q. What was your first job? How much did you make?

Working for General Electric earning $9,500 per year. This was also my worst job. They were bureaucratic and rigid and there was no esprit de corps.

Q. What’s the first thing you read in the morning?

The Drudge Report and the Wall Street Journal.

Q. What class should every college student is required to take?

Every student should be sure to take classes that are heavy in writing assignments so they can learn to communicate in a compelling and coherent way.

Q. Complete this sentence: “South Florida really needs …”

…special tax incentives for innovation and technology development.

Q. And this one: “South Florida’s technology sector really needs …”

…a robust angel investing fund. We have the schools and student population. We don’t have the companies to hire these students. We are missing the funding sources here in South Florida. If you have that funding you develop a network of early-stage companies, some of which will succeed, which will hire more students.

Q. What keeps you up at night?

The U.S. debt

Q. What’s a great day for you?

Learning something new, having the opportunity to work with bright and committed, high integrity people.

Q. Tell us something about yourself that might surprise your colleagues.

I am a big fishing enthusiast. I really like to go for large fish that fight, like wahoo. I like perch, and I really like tuna but I’ve never caught one. I’m dying to catch one.

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