Elena Scotti/FUSION

Mari Baker was home on maternity leave in 1995 when she was named vice president of international business at Intuit, then still an upstart software company in the midst of rapid expansion. Her boss had sent her clipping after clipping about women who managed to balance high-profile careers with family. Feeling empowered, Baker took her ten-week-old daughter on a business trip to Japan, telling herself all the while that she, too, could do it.

But by the end of the trip, Baker was ready to quit. Her daughter never adjusted to the time zone difference, keeping her up all night. She was overly caffeinated and exhausted. Having a baby and a jet-set career seemed mutually incompatible.

So Baker's boss, then-CEO Bill Campbell, offered her another job, heading a division of Intuit that was bigger but which had more regular hours and less travel.

“I remember walking through the parking lot crying that I couldn’t do it and he was just like, ‘I can solve this,’” Baker told me. She spent a decade at Intuit, then went on to head several Silicon Valley companies and to co-found the Stanford Center for the Advancement of Women's Leadership.

“I use that as a nice story of a boss who isn’t flustered by a woman having a baby,” she said.

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Silicon Valley is full of anecdotes and evidence of how hard it is to be a woman in tech. Most of the news we hear isn't good: Investors prefer male entrepreneurs over females, even when the pitch is exactly the same, according to a recent joint study by Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and MIT. Less than a quarter of 97 tech companies surveyed by the ad startup Paper G offered more than a month of paid maternity leave. The majority of women who go to work in science, engineering and technology choose to leave their fields, most of them citing macho work environments and sexist behavior, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Over the past two years, I've covered a whole lot of mostly negatively news about the role of gender in Silicon Valley. But there is one positive story I hear over and over again from many of Silicon Valley's most powerful women about Bill Campbell, Intuit's former CEO: Campbell, nearly a dozen female tech executives have told me, was a mentor and advocate who not only established female-friendly policies in an industry that's often hostile to them, but opened many of the doors that helped them succeed.

“When people say, ‘We can’t find a woman for the job,’ he says, ‘Oh yes you can and you can find an All-Star.’ He thinks it’s BS that women don’t always get a chance,” said Diane Greene, an investor and influential Google board member who was recruited by Campbell to Intuit’s board. “He’s been way ahead of his time in seeing that if you’re not proactive about bringing women on board it’s not going to happen.”

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Of course, it’s problematic when women in an industry need a male champion in order to succeed. Even at Intuit, where Campbell remains chairman of the board, there is room for improvement. At present, about a third of Intuit's executives are women, which is about the same percentage as the financial software company's ranks of women overall. Those numbers are not great.

But the women I spoke with describe Campbell as the examplar of a male boss, encouraging, for example, a work culture that allowed parents to spend time with their families. In the six years Campbell served as Intuit CEO, beginning in 1994, Baker said he made rules like not calling meetings before 10 a.m. or after 5 p.m. This was in part because he, too, was a dad.

“He was never trying to hide the fact that he was a dad and his children were important in his life,” said Baker, who is now a board member at John Wiley and Sons and advisor to the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford. “It was one of the great things about Intuit — you knew other executives' kids, you knew their spouse.”

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Baker compares Campbell to another tech industry boss, whom she declined to name, who took all the company's men golfing every Friday and never invited the women. Campbell, on the other hand, went out of his way to include women in meetings and work events, created company policies friendly to families, hired women for high-ranking positions and encouraged women he mentored to seek out those kinds of positions for themselves.

Bill Campbell (right) speaks with venture capitalist Ben Horowitz on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF in 2012.
Getty Images

Throughout his years as an executive at Apple, Claris and Intuit, and as an executive coach, Campbell has mentored Greene and Baker, as well as Donna Dubinsky (now CEO of the machine learning company Numenta),  Shellye Archambeau (now CEO of MetricStream), Juliet de Baubigny (partner at the influential venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins), Intuit CMO Caroline Donahue and, reportedly, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, among others.

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“There is no doubt the opportunities he gave me vaulted me in my career. It gave me a seat at the table in a fundamental way,” said Dubinsky, Numenta's CEO.

In 1986, Campbell tapped Dubinsky, a former Apple employee, for a senior position in Claris, a software subsidiary of Apple. Dubinsky had never been on a company’s executive team before and Campbell wanted her to run operations. Instead, Dubinsky said she wanted to head up international sales. He said yes. Campbell later made the introduction that wound up landing Dubinsky the job as CEO of Palm as it developed the Palm Pilot. He also recruited Dubinsky for a spot as the only woman on Intuit’s board.

"While the industry continues to become more friendly to the idea of women CEOs, there is still a long way to go," Campbell wrote of encouraging Dubinsky to go for the CEO role as part of the LeanIn project. "At the same time, women must stand up for what they want and ask for what they deserve."

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Campbell, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is known in tech circles as “The Coach” for his role as mentor to everyone from Jeff Bezos of Amazon to Twitter co-founder Evan Williams. (Incidentally, he has also coached Columbia's football team and a high school powder puff team.)

Shellye Archambeau met Campbell when she was chief marketing officer of the dotcom-era software company Loudcloud and he was on her board. Campbell became a regular at an informal meetup group for female CEOs she'd founded and together they started a female entrepreneurs' conference. Archambeau credits Campbell with helping her when she was ready to try her hand at a CEO job, and then offering her frequent advice when she landed one as CEO of MetricStream.

“He was definitely a strong figure in my career,” she said. “We have a talent shortage in tech and we are not leveraging 50 percent of the population the way we should. But Bill has enabled more women’s talent to be not just tapped, but given the opportunity to demonstrate the full talent that they have.”

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Intuit CMO Caroline Donahue said via e-mail that when she was a 26-year-old district sales manager at Apple, she got a phone call from Steve Jobs that she thought was a prank until Jobs mentioned that Bill Campbell had suggested he give her a ring. She had dinner with Jobs, then CEO of NeXT, and wound up getting a career-changing job offer as sales manager.

“Bill really treats men and women the same – but what makes him a great mentor for women is that he also encourages them to speak up, go for the promotions, and have confidence in themselves," she said.

Campbell represents an older generation and a time when women were incredibly scarce in executive ranks. It will take another generation (or more) before we reach gender parity in leadership; hopefully, in our lifetime, there will be just as many potential powerful women mentors in the business world as men.

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But the takeaway here is that one thoughtful executive can have an outsize influence. Being sensitive to the trials of motherhood can keep a great employee on board. Pushing to find a woman for the job can yield excellent results.

Many women I spoke with about Campbell mentioned that they have sought to become mentors to other women because of his lesson.

"You build these things one block at a time. He’s given women the sense that they belong and then they go out and give other women the sense that they belong," said Greene.

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At one point, Greene said she was contemplating quitting the board of Intuit and leaving tech altogether. Campbell, she said, is the one that talked her out of it.

"He made us feel empowered," she said. "I really could have just left the tech industry. Bill really was so far ahead of his time."