Celebrating 150 years of Yale women

Courtesy Donna Dubinsky

Courtesy Donna Dubinsky

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Donna Dubinsky
Tech CEO

By Melinda Beck ’77

When Donna Dubinsky ’77 was selling bowling shirts in high school in Benton Harbor, Michigan, she never imagined she would one day be one of the nation’s top tech entrepreneurs. Or the subject of a long-running Harvard Business School case. Or the senior fellow of the Yale Board of Trustees.

“It’s been a roller-coaster, with enormous triumphs and enormous near-disasters,” she says of her career at the forefront of four technology revolutions: the personal computer, the handheld computer, the smartphone, and artificial intelligence.

Dubinsky applied to Yale on a lark, got in off the waiting list, and joined the fifth class of women admitted as first-years. Coming from a threadbare high school, she found the first year academically brutal. “I was so ill-prepared. I’d never written papers,” she recalls. But her first-year English teacher taught her to write, and soon she was thriving. “Vincent Scully’s History of Art course made me see the world differently,” she says.

After graduating in 1977, Dubinsky got a job at the Philadelphia National Bank and “totally fell in love with business.” Her entrepreneurial drive led her to Harvard Business School, where she was awestruck watching an electronic spreadsheet make instant calculations on an early Apple computer. When a recruiter for Apple came to campus looking for engineers, Dubinsky convinced her that Apple also needed employees who could talk to customers.

By 1985, Dubinsky was running part of Apple’s distribution network when she clashed with Apple founder Steve Jobs. He wanted to eliminate warehouses and ship computers directly from factory to dealer. Dubinsky thought it unworkable. “The irony was, the issue was dropped when Steve left the company and I stayed on,” she says. Their standoff is still studied in a popular Harvard Business School case.

Dubinsky left Apple a few years later and took a year off in Paris, contemplating her next step. “I literally made a balance sheet,” she recalls. “I decided I wanted to be a CEO.” Networking in Silicon Valley, Dubinsky met Jeff Hawkins, an engineer with an idea for a pocket-sized version of a personal computer. “I had the same feeling when I saw that electronic spreadsheet,” she says: “This is the future.”

Dubinsky joined Hawkins’s Palm Computing Inc. as president and CEO in 1992. The PalmPilot they created was a personal digital assistant that synced with PCs. Tech reviewers raved and sales soared. Dubinsky and Hawkins later left Palm to form Handspring Inc., which became the fastest growing company in US history. Then she made what she calls the biggest mistake of her career: leasing vast new space for the company—just before the dot-com bubble burst. To survive, the company merged with Palm, but Android and Apple soon dominated the market.

Undaunted, in 2005 Dubinsky and Hawkins created Numenta Inc. They’re building on Hawkins’s dream of computing systems that mirror how the brain works. Says Hawkins: “She is super-talented and always understood the long-term implications of everything we did.”