Janet LoweYou’ve probably never heard of CPLEX. But for more than two decades, diverse industries around the world have used this business-to-business resource allocation software to do everything from scheduling airline fleets to optimizing financial trading systems. Texas Engineering alumna Janet Lowe is the woman behind it all.

After graduating from the Cockrell School with a chemical engineering degree in 1979, Lowe began her career as a process engineer for Shell. But it didn’t take long for her to turn her focus to entrepreneurial ambitions. In 1986, she attended Rice University as an MBA student to gain a background in business. There, Bob Bixby, research professor of management and professor emeritus of computational and applied mathematics, approached her with an idea for linear programming software.

After helping him reformat his product, Lowe developed the business plan and together they launched CPLEX. Lowe led the company through its sale to ILOG SA, a publicly held French company, and then stayed on as vice president of strategy and mergers and acquisitions for 10 years. In 2007, she negotiated ILOG SA’s sale to IBM, which still sells CPLEX to this day. Lowe has also founded and built two other profitable companies, all in partnership with her husband, Todd. Today, they are both consultants and private investors, frequently funding startups.

We sat down with Lowe to gain insight into the realities of entrepreneurship and the keys to her success.

What was the biggest risk you took as an entrepreneur?

Leaving my career at Shell was very difficult. My parents thought I was out of my mind, and they were vocal about it! When I made the decision to leave, and to start my own company, I had a really good job and career with Shell. I was highly rated, making really good money and on an executive path. But my husband and I wanted to be able to live near the mountains and have the opportunity to follow our passions. This is what ultimately drove us to entrepreneurship. In the end, it was all worth it.

There are many ups and downs in the life of an entrepreneur. How did you deal with the challenges?

Our first house in Lake Tahoe was on the edge of a forest that backed up against a steep mountain. On difficult days, my husband and I would leave from our house after work and go on a hike straight up. We worked through our biggest problems and made most major decisions while hiking in those woods. Being out in nature helps me clear my mind, and it has a way of putting things into perspective.

What is the best part of owning your own company?

When you’re working for somebody else and there’s a success — even if you were the cause of that success — you don’t really own it. And you definitely don’t own the financial rewards. But when it’s your own company, you really own the success and the rewards. That being said, the reality is that you also own your own failures. It cuts both ways.

What has been your greatest professional success?

CPLEX, the product we not only developed, but also made commercially successful, is still used around the world in a lot of mission-critical applications. There aren’t many software products that are still around 20–25 years later. I’m also very proud of the impact the company has had on our employees. Most of them put their children through college or bought homes with the bonuses and options proceeds they earned. Lots and lots of kids went to school because of CPLEX.

What do you think is the most commonly held misconception about startups?

Many people think that if you have a successful product, you’re all set. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The most important thing is the business model — you have to have a successful way to bring it to people and make money. Engineers, in particular, can get too focused on the product.

Also, many people start their own businesses because they don’t want to work for somebody else. They might be surprised by the reality. In a startup, you work for your customers and for your employees. I felt more beholden to them than I ever did to a boss.

What is the key to succeeding as an entrepreneur?

We invest in a lot of companies, and we have had some that weren’t successful. But we have never seen a startup fail because the product wasn’t good. They end up running out of money because of a problem with the business model. It is vital that you develop a sound and strategic business model.

The other key to success is persistence. I know many accomplished entrepreneurs who are all different kinds of people—introverts and extroverts — but the one thing they all have in common is persistence.

What is your advice for engineers who are also aspiring entrepreneurs?

It’s much easier for someone with a technological degree to learn business than for a business person to learn technology. Pursue internships, jobs and assignments that build skills, and try to get deep into a domain that interests you so you can start looking for opportunities early. And get broad experience on the business side, especially in sales and marketing. Many engineers underestimate the importance of understanding how and why customers buy something. If you can’t acquire those business skills, find a partner who has them.

Lowe and her husband live on the northeast shore of Lake Tahoe near Incline Village, NV, and have two daughters, Kristen and Corinne. In her free time, Lowe is a helicopter pilot and also skis, sails and hikes. She has completed the 170-mile Tahoe Rim Trail and summited Mount Kilimanjaro.

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