Evelyn Berezin, Inspiring 1960s Startup Founder!
Evelyn Berezin was an American computer designer who started her own tech company in an era when female corporate leaders–especially in the tech industry–were relatively unheard of. Her company designed and distributed the “Data Secretary,” one of the first word processing systems, and made their own computer processors (a new technology in those days). Before starting her own company, she faced gender discrimination that prevented her from climbing the corporate ladder. Despite this barrier, Berezin used her computing knowledge and determination to be successful in the tech world as an inventor and company founder.
Hindered by Discrimination
Today, most computers can perform many functions, but in the mid-20th century, many computing machines were built to only perform a limited number of specialized tasks. In the 1950s, when there were no jobs for physicists, Berezin became a logic designer (in those days, someone who helped design specialized computing machines) for Elecom and later Teleregister, where she helped build the first passenger reservation system, made for United Airlines.
Today, a woman can get leadership positions across industries; in the 1960s and ’70s, this was often not the case. In spite of her brilliance and obvious leadership ability (she had trained engineers at both Elecom and Teleregister), Berezin faced gender discrimination in the workplace which hindered her professional advancement. In the early 1960s, Berezin was offered a job at the New York Stock Exchange as the head of communications. But after the appointment was reviewed by the Board of Directors, she received a shock:
She could not take the position after all because, according to the Board: “[Y]ou’re a woman, you’d have to be on the stock market floor from time to time. And the language of the floor is not for a woman’s ears.” Not only would this be considered illegal discrimination today, but it also seemed ridiculous to Berezin because, during her career, she had worked almost exclusively with men and had heard dirty language. This experience–and it wouldn’t be the last one of its kind–served as a reminder that whatever her skills, she would still be denied entrance through some doors because she was a woman.
This realization, along with the urging of friends, led to Berezin’s eventual decision to start her own company:
“[F]rom the first day I went to work in the computer industry in 1951 to 1967 or so, I had held the same job. I ran the logic design department. I had never had another job. And I’m looking up to the next role, to vice president. And I knew…that I would never get that job. That job was for a man, and I would never have it…One [friend] kept telling me ‘Start your own company. It’s the only way to get anywhere.’ … So, with my friends after me, and the fact that I had come to terms with the fact that I was at a dead end and that I would never get anywhere if I stayed in any company not my own, I began to think about it…I finally did come to the conclusion that the only way out– or really the only way UP, was to start a company.”
Determined to Start a Company
Berezin teamed up with friends and founded a startup company eventually named Redactron. Their product? A word processor.
While IBM was the incumbent leader, and had a word processing machine, Berezin created one with secretaries in mind. Her device “was a machine attached to a typewriter that could remember every keystroke, allowing the user to correct mistakes and print clean copy. It was revolutionary for secretaries who spent their days typing.” The machine “had 13 semiconductor chips, some of which Ms. Berezin designed, and programmable logic to drive its word-processing functions.”
In 1969, Redactron moved into its first building, and in 1971, the team began manufacturing their so-called “Data Secretary,” which would be distributed to companies in America and abroad. Berezin’s team couldn’t get the processor chip they wanted from Intel–it wouldn’t be ready in time to ship their first product–so they designed their own, making them one of the first companies to make computer processors. At its peak, the company had just under 500 employees, and it raised “about $10 million of equity over a period of a few years.”
An Inspiration to Women
In 1976 Berezin sold the company to the Burroughs Corporation and remained president of the Redactron division until 1980. She later took up other roles, from venture capitalist to board member of companies and institutions like Stony Brook University. But her contribution to the empowerment of women doesn’t end with her example: She also worked to make a hands-on difference in the lives of other women, as a board member of the American Women’s Economic Development Corporation. For 25 years, Berezin helped train thousands of women in the skills needed to start their own businesses, with a success rate of about 60%.
In 2018, Evelyn Berezin passed away at age 93. Berezin’s story demonstrates that, to be successful, we should both take advantage of opportunities given to us–such as the chance to be pioneers in new industries–and be fierce in our determination to make opportunities for ourselves, even when doing so involves taking risks.
Photo courtesy of the Computer History Museum.