With her long list of accolades including being the CEO a successful software company and being the first female professor at Claremont Graduate University, who would have thought Pamela Coker’s first dream was to be the wife of a diplomat?
Coker told students during CSU San Marco’s “In the Executive’s Chair” class that before a revelation hit her, she dreamt of hosting cocktail parties and traveling around the world.
“I came from that generation who were the first bunch of women to do something besides have a bunch of children and stay home,” Coker said. “So I was one of the first, and the awareness of this hit me when I was 20 years old that there could be another way for me.”
And Coker started studying.
When she finished her undergraduate work at the University of California, San Diego she realized that there were not jobs for her outside of academia.
So she kept going.
After earning her doctorate in cognitive science with a research specialty in computational linguistics from the University of California, Irvine in 1975, Coker became the first female professor at Claremont.
But she soon realized her welcome was hardly warm.
“I became the first female faculty member because Title 9 had just come into play and they had to hire a woman,” she said. “So it turned out they really didn’t like women and they fired me. True story.”
It was time for plan B.
In a world where men were unwilling to hire her, she realized that if she wanted to be successful she would have to start her own business.
“I had no options,” she said. “I thought I was unhireable.”
In 1988, Coker and her brother, Drake Coker, founded Acucorp Inc., a software company, where she served as CEO.
Within the first four years of business, the company grew exponentially and expanded from a single office to six offices and more than 75 distributors nationwide.
It wasn’t always easy though.
When trying to gain respect or venture capital from male counterparts Coker said there was “lots” of pushback.
“It was a different era. There were a lot of overt sexual passes. There was all kinds of stuff you probably wouldn’t see today or see very little of,” she said. “We didn’t have this idea of political correctness.”
Coker said her Ph.D. often helped. She could walk into a room full of men and would be the only one with the title “doctor.”
“I had to be one level higher to be equal,” she said.
Even in today’s world, women face unique challenges.
One of the male students in the class shared an anecdote about a friend of his who gave up her budding career to have children and asked Coker’s opinion on balancing a career and family life.
“For me I had issues,” she said. “I had miscarriages. I had multiple husbands. I had a lot of issues with this.”
However, she said, it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Today, and this wasn’t true of earlier, but today I think we have a chance to have three or four careers,” she said. “I think [the woman who gave up her career] has another shot. She can take from 35 to 55 to raise those kids, go back at 55 and do all those things she’s not doing now.”
After selling Acucorp in 2007, Coker began a new phase in her career. Within the past two years, she has been involved with two start-up companies: the San Diego News Network and a plug-in hybrid company that installs lithium batteries in convential automobiles.
* Video: Interview with Pamela Coker