Computer Database Systems

Louise Kirkbride, pioneer of computer technologies for customer service, showed her promise as an innovator at age 17, when, against her parents wishes, she left her Philadelphia home for southern California. She had been awarded a full scholarship to the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), where she was a member of the college's first class that included women. She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering from CalTech, all while waiting tables on campus to earn enough money to pay for books and supplies, as well as learning to fly.

After her graduation in 1977, Kirkbride joined the staff of CalTech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and that year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began its civilian Space Shuttle Program. She applied along with 8,000 others, and although she made it to the final 80 candidates, she did not make it to the final cut. Disappointed, she left the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to join private industry.

Within a few years, Kirkbride married. After working as a hardware engineer for an aircraft-components corporation, she and her husband founded their own company, called CADRI. They started the enterprise to provide computer-automated design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) services for the aircraft industry, but Kirkbride became very interested in the problem that customer service and technical support posed for companies like hers and their clients. In 1989, she founded her next company, Answer Systems, to address this issue.

At Answer Systems, Kirkbride developed and patented problem resolution technology for customer service, which enabled businesses to better communicate with their customers and other constituents through help-desk automation. J.C. Penney signed Answer Systems to run the customer service center for its 1,400 retail stores. Other major companies, including France Telecom and Prudential Securities, signed on as well, further cementing the company's success. Finally, in 1995, Platinum Technology (now Computer Associates) bought Answer Systems for $38 million.

Next, Kirkbride wanted to find a way to make Internet communication between businesses and their customers better. That is when she founded her next company, Broad Daylight, where she serves as the CEO today. The Santa Clara, California-based company, which counts American Airlines, Hilton Hotels, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Kodak, and Cisco Systems among its clients, provides software that enables businesses to give automatic feedback to customers who ask questions through their websites.

At Broad Daylight, Kirkbride and her team developed Broad Mind, a software product that helps companies build custom databases of responses to frequently-asked customer queries. Companies using the technology see a dramatic return on investment, answering up to 98 percent of repeat questions on the Web at a much lower cost-per-question than email or phone support. The company recently secured a major round of venture funding and expects to hit profitability shortly as well.

In addition to her CEO duties, Kirkbride serves on the CalTech Board of Trustees and is an avid world traveler. She is recognized as a role model for young women looking to enter scientific fields. She encourages them to enter sales positions, which, she declares, is one of the surest ways to climb the company ladder.