By Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)
From a childhood in Colombia, to a life in the States, Janet Lustgarten’s personal motto might as well be “no guts, no glory.”
Lustgarten’s father was a men’s suit manufacturer in Colombia when new political pressures brought change to business and the way factories were run. “It was a difficult time,” she recalled, “and my family thought we’d live a better life in the United States and moved to Florida. We were the classic family coming to America looking for security and opportunity”
Just seven years old when the family arrived in Miami, Lustgarten didn’t speak a word of English, but found herself already proficient in math. “Even in Columbia, I was already leaning towards being good with numbers but, when I didn’t have the mastery of the language, that became my academic strength,” said Lustgarten. She followed her love of math and logic to Mt. Holyoke, the all-women’s liberal arts college. Ever the groundbreaker, Lustgarten commuted to University of Massachusetts for the computer science classes she required and became the first person to declare a computer science major at Mt. Holyoke.
“Computer science was a field that was up and coming,” said Lustgarten. “And I had a very clear objective to be financially independent. I wanted to develop a career path that would allow me to live comfortably in New York City. I was confident that I could graduate from college with a degree in computer science and secure myself a well paid position.”
After moving to New York City, Lustgarten interviewed with IBM for a sales support job but didn’t get the job because she “didn’t fit the mold.” Not stopped by this disappointment, Lustgarten began to look around for other opportunities. She was “just curious about personal computers, PCs, and went into Computerland, the only retail computer store in New York City, a couple of times. When she observed that most of the sales people barely knew how to turn on the machines, she saw an opportunity. She met with the owner of that store and proposed that she build a technical support department within the sales department of the store so that customers would have successful preliminary experiences with computers instead of frustration. The owner gave her a chance—and a salary. Through that job, she developed a consulting business, helping computer customers with the installation of memory chips and other technical issues after purchase.
After about a year, Lustgarten applied to Columbia University’s school of Engineering graduate program. When her application was rejected, Lustgarten, undaunted, wrote the university defending her credentials. “I felt that my undergraduate degree, the grades and the recommendation were certainly good enough to get in [at that time]. I felt [the rejection] was because of the English part of the GREs. I let them know that I felt that the application was judged on standardized test written for native English speakers, which was not fair. They considered my letter and decided to admit me.”
Lustgarten’s first job out of graduate school—which she got via one of her professors— was as a consultant at Fifth Generation Company, which specialized in expert systems for airlines and insurance companies. She loved the work and it was great first step, but she was already working on the ideas of how she would do things differently when she had her own company
She left in 1986 to join the westward rush to Silicon Valley. She got a job with Tecknowledge, an Expert Systems company based in Palo Alto. A few years later, she joined PwC technology center to build expert systems for General Motors and other large corporations. When her [then] husband, who is also in technology, got a job in New York, Lustgarten transferred to the company’s New York office, where she continued to work until she got pregnant.
“Until that point, I had been a very fortunate person and privileged in many ways. I had everything under control. The type of money I was making was unheard of because of the specialization in artificial intelligence and because I was able to use both my communication and technical skills to speak to customers about it.” But Lustgarten’s charmed life was about to change.
The pregnancy and childbirth turned out to be a difficult one, landing her in a wheelchair for six months after her daughter was born. “This injury changed my perspective on life. I was so happy to have a wonderful daughter and be a mother but it wasn’t clear when I would be able to walk again. It was very stressful. I had lost a lot of predictability and control in my life.” Fortunately her second pregnancy resulted in only a month of wheelchair-bound convalescence.
Seeking more control, she and her [then] husband—who had been working at Morgan Stanley— started Kx Systems, producing products based on an array based language.
Making the leap took a lot of courage, said Lustgarten. “I think that this is just another example of my ability to try things. I always knew that, if this didn’t work out, I had a good education and could just to get some type of reliable job.”
Although it wasn’t exactly in her area of expertise, Lustgarten was able to apply her consulting and communication skills honed at PwC to connect the customers and products. “I was always interested in understanding the customers’ occupation needs: the problems they were trying to solve. That type of thinking—more consultative—allowed me to figure out what problems my customers were having and how my technology could help them.”
Her operating philosophy is: “Remain honest at all times, even when people are going to think of me as a fool.” Now, sixteen years later, the company has flourished under her leadership. Her commitment to doing what’s best for her customers has always been a major influence on the development and direction the company has taken at each stage of its growth and it continues to be so to this day.
Lustgarten believes that, while there are no barriers to the advancement of women at the programmer level, there are still some at the management level. “The women who succeed in the larger corporations are able to learn to be more emotionally neutral. The women who remain in management are the ones that allow themselves time to react and silently reword what they are thinking before they speak and share their opininions.
She explained, “It is always the distinction that women have, a multi-dimensional approach to management that involves leadership, problem solving and communication. Since these dimension require a balancing act, women can become excellent managers if they build-in a reaction time.
Lustgarten believes that the technology industry is a great place for women. “In the long run, hard work is what matters. “Even in an entry level job—which isn’t interesting for anybody—you should strive to do your best.” She added, “When you work hard, you give up a lot other things in your day to day life. But work hard anyway; give yourself the best chance to be recognized and feel satisfaction. My goal at the end of the day is to look back and be pleased with what I’ve done with the day.”