One evening in May, a team of Goldman Sachs bankers helped a founder-CEO raise some secondary money for investors in BlackLine, 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 BlackLine. 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 that of 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, then pivoted her way out and 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, BlackLine 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. BlackLine was so early into the market that the product description it coined, “continuous accounting,” is now used by established enterprise-software giants, including BlackLine 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. BlackLine 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, BlackLine’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 BlackLine 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,” or the timeline below), their erosion there is startlingly grim. The likes of Apple, Facebook, and Google now employ technical workforces 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 Catalyst, 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. And in August, Google fired a 28-year-old 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 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.
Tucker resembles a stereotypical tech founder, with her direct, sometimes impatient questions. Externally, of course, she stands out: The IPO turned her into one of the only female founder-CEOs running a public tech company.
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 BlackLine. Divorced, parenting two small children, and burnt out after leaving her job at software company SunGard, 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 SunGard, 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 SunGard, 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 SunGard 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 BlackLine’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 of 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.