24 May 2017

Ilene H. Lang, MBA 1973

2017 Alumni Achievement Award Recipient
by Susan Young


Retired President and CEO, Catalyst

Clues to Ilene Lang’s future success as an entrepreneur, executive, and women’s advocate were evident in her teens. The oldest of three children in a devout Jewish family in Chicago, she ran a business tutoring Hebrew to boys preparing for their bar mitzvot, participated in student government, and applied to the college she’d determined was the best in the country: Radcliffe.

“I was a feminist early on,” says Lang, whose life’s work includes building a picture-framing store and a photo business, blazing a trail as a high-tech leader, raising three children, and advocating for women. Lang entered the nascent world of technology in 1982 when she joined Symbolics, an all-male, MIT-led, artificial intelligence startup. She had learned about computers working as a technical writer after earning a degree in history and literature from Radcliffe. “I was the only MBA, and I grew with the company,” says Lang, who became VP of software and helped take the company public. Along the way, she developed policies that enabled women to thrive at work—telecommuting (before it had a name) and flexible scheduling, among others.

“There were no models for how to manage work life and family life,” says Lang. While she gained a reputation as an executive who understood technology, knew how to market it, and had the leadership skills to take on difficult challenges, she also focused on paving the way for more women. “I see it as a virtuous circle,” she says. “People help you, you help others.”

In 1993, Lang joined Lotus where she ran international product development until she was promoted to lead its $500-million desktop business group. Two years later, when IBM acquired the firm, she was recruited by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) to build its software business. At DEC she launched AltaVista, an early search engine that within three months became one of the most successful brands of its day. When the company abandoned its plan to take AltaVista public, Lang left. “I didn’t agree with the strategy,” she says matter-of-factly. “I wasn’t going to stick around just to have a job.”

After leading two more tech companies, the stars aligned for Lang to marry her avocation with her vocation in 2003 when she was named president of Catalyst, a research and advisory firm that helps bring women into senior leadership roles. “I had followed Catalyst almost from its [1962] beginning,” she says. “Everything that I had experienced firsthand in my career was documented in the Catalyst research.”

“I believe in establishing a foundation of inclusion, where individuals are valued not just because of how they are alike but of how they are different.”
“I believe in establishing a foundation of inclusion, where individuals are valued not just because of how they are alike but of how they are different.”

During her 10 years leading Catalyst, Lang pushed the organization to expand globally, fortified its endowment, invested in information technology infrastructure, and hired and mentored her successor. “Ilene was a very strategic leader for us,” says retired Ernst & Young CEO Jim Turley, former chair of the Catalyst board. “She thinks big and pushed us to do the same.”

At the heart of everything Ilene Lang has accomplished is a fact that Catalyst research makes clear: “Companies that have women in leadership roles perform better,” says Lang, simply. “What’s good for women is good for the bottom line, good for men, good for business, good for customers, and good for communities.”

That fact hits home for Lang, who retired from Catalyst in 2015 and remains a strong voice for women’s rights. When she was interested in joining Catalyst, Lang was dating Neil Berkson, a high school boyfriend who contacted her after seeing her on the cover of the Boston Globe Magazine. Working for Catalyst would mean moving from Boston to New York, and she worried that could mean the end of their relationship. “How could what’s good for you not be good for us?” asked Berkson. Today the couple lives in Greenwich Village and has built a life together focused on civil rights activism, friends, and their blended family.

Photo by Susan Young

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1973, Section F

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