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Marissa Mayer: One of Silicon Valley’s Most Powerful Women

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By: Bill Ashton
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By 2012, it was a well-known fact that Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO) had compiled a laundry list of mismanagement and missed opportunities. The company hadn’t launched a product in years, and had become some sort of a joke in Silicon Valley. The stock had plummeted from a peak of $118.75 in the early 2000s to somewhere between $14 and $19 in the months before 37-year-old Marissa Mayer took the helm of the company.

Before the appointment of ‘Google’s Glamor Geek’ to Yahoo’s board, the company had been unsuccessful at making a CEO stick. From 2007 to 2012, five men were given the opportunity to save the legacy company; however, none succeeded. Ross Levinsohn, the last person who took the job as an interim CEO, found himself in a board meeting two months after he became the CEO, presenting his case for a full-time position.

Levinsohn wanted to remove focus from technology to entertainment and also downsize the company. However, the board did not like the idea and he got the hint. Yahoo’s search for a CEO though, was over. Little did he know that Mayer had been made an offer even before the meeting had started.

Marissa Mayer became the youngest woman to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company - and at around the same time, she announced that she was pregnant, thereby causing a stir in the media. Mayer was a mom-to-be, a CEO, a social ideal, and the most talked about woman of her time, all at once.

There’s one thing about Marissa Mayer that everyone agrees to: she is among the smartest people you could meet. Mayer went to Stanford University only after scrutinizing the pros and cons of 10 colleges that she had been accepted at. Mayer chose Stanford out of that extensive list, and promptly enrolled herself in the pre-med program. However, she found herself stuck in a loop of just memorizing and applying, which did not satisfy her need to challenge her mind. It wasn’t long before she found about Stanford’s Symbolic Systems program, which encompassed philosophy, linguistics, cognitive psychology, and computer science. She had found her niche and decided to stay back at Stanford to get her Master’s degree in Computer Sciences.

Mayer was still a few months away from graduating and was swamped by over a dozen enticing job offers. She also had a job offer from a company called Google sitting in her mail box and it was only curiosity that made her click on it. Mayer decided to risk it and accepted the offer from Google, which back then was a tech startup. She cites her desires to be surrounded by smart people, and a yearning to gain solid hands on experience behind her decision to become the 20th employee at Google.

Mayer had a superhuman capacity for work. For thirteen years, she worked like a machine, pulling countless all-nighters and moving up the ranks. As the company grew, so did her career. Mayer became in charge the ‘Google experience’. Known as a fashionista – almost always seen in public wearing Oscar de La Renta - with an eye for design, Mayer is widely credited for the unique look and feel that has come to characterize this ‘Google experience’. For example, she was responsible for approving each "doodle" appearing on the Google home page.

Among those who worked closely with Mayer, there seemed to have been an undercurrent of skepticism regarding her leadership skills. Mayer was often described as someone who would micromanage affairs and has been accused of being quick to jump to conclusions.

By 2010, Mayer’s career at Google stalled. Mayer was removed from her role of overseeing search and was subsequently made the in charge of Google’s location and local services - maps and restaurant recommendations. In April 2011, Larry Page became CEO once again and proceeded to dissolve the operating committee on which Mayer had a seat. He followed the dissolution by creating a top-level committee, called the “L Team”. Mayer was not asked to be a member. Around that time, another executive was put in charge of location and local services, and Mayer was asked to report to him. This set up the stage for Mayer’s voluntary departure from Google.

In June the same year, Mayer was asked to come in for an informal interview with the recruiting team at Yahoo. Mayer explained her candidacy and convinced the team of her abilities to revive the failing company.

The news that Mayer had severed ties with Google, and was going to become CEO of Yahoo was met with an ecstatic reaction from within the company. The industry reverberated with the news as Mayer became the youngest female CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Mayer took the bull by the horns and informed all the senior executives that the company would fail and eventually shutdown if prompt action was not taken. Google’s first lady, as she was called back then, got rid of Blackberries, and replaced them with iPhones and Android devices once she joined Yahoo. Like every other company in Silicon Valley, Yahoo started providing employees with free food. Mayer also started the tradition of holding Friday afternoon meetings, in which employees could put whatever questions they chose, to her and other executives.

Mayer started making immediate changes. She began purchasing failing startups to build the ad platform and technology that Yahoo was in desperate need of. She started transforming the culture of the company, from laid back to high energy.

Today, Yahoo stands at the cusp of a potential turnaround. Investors are happy with Mayer’s performance so far, but only time will tell whether her recent actions will pay off. One thing that is certain though, is that her charismatic and aggressive approach to operations has changed Yahoo’s immediate fate and has stemmed the decline. Since Mayer took over, the company’s stock price has experienced more than 150% increase.

Her work though, has just begun. After all she is up against Google, a giant that she helped create.

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