In 1935, the headiness of the praise IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson, Sr., heaped on his “great pioneer woman,” Anne Van Vechten, and her 24 fellow graduates of IBM’s first co-ed Systems Service School didn’t last long. Despite Watson’s thoughtfulness at the graduation dinner, providing each of them with a corsage, a box of Whitman’s Samplers, and a carton of cigarettes, he struggled with getting them accepted by the organization.
For whatever reasons, Watson’s warning in his commencement address about his personal interest in seeing the women of Systems Service Class No. 126 succeed was largely disregarded by the organization. Anne later recalled that there were mutterings: “The old man is off his rocker. … These girls won’t last long. … This is a tough man’s organization.”
It certainly was. And Watson was the toughest. When after a few months he still found resistance in the field sales management organization to the meaningful use of the women, he allegedly ordered the dismissal of all but one of the 67 male graduates of Systems Service Class No. 125, the one survivor later recollected in his memoirs. If true, it was a brutal message to the organization, one that accelerated culture change by demonstrating that Watson was extremely serious about growing the role and contributions of women in the company. And even if it wasn’t true, the rumor alone would alert people that their jobs could be on the line if they continued to resist. Anne later recalled that it took about two years before the men of the IBM sales organization decided that the “girls” were here to stay.
Anne’s own road was a little less bumpy. That September, just a month after graduation, Watson again surprised Anne by naming her the Secretary of Education of the Women’s Division. He did so in typical Watson fashion. With her on the dais at a large graduation event, he announced that – completely unbeknownst to her – that he was appointing her to lead women’s education at IBM. Anne later recalled that the shock of the appointment, and of having to give an impromptu acceptance speech in front of 1000 people, actually cured her of a slight stuttering problem she had.
This was a valuable side benefit to her promotion, because Watson had made the new role an executive position … back when there were only a handful of positions at IBM that were considered executive. As a result, she was based in headquarters and attended all the top strategy and policy meetings of the company. The executives didn’t know what to make of Watson’s “great pioneer woman”, and she wasn’t quite sure herself … still just 21-years-old, she didn’t know what her role at these meetings was to be. But she was up to speed on all of IBM’s activities in the era, from the use of IBM equipment in a medical study in Cleveland that identified improper administration of anesthesia as a leading cause of surgical deaths, to the IBM’s fingerprint cards played in the FBI’s search for John Dillinger.
Over the next few years, Anne expanded her role at headquarters. In addition to overseeing the women’s education program, where she traveled extensively recruiting prospective candidates and visiting IBM field locations to oversee the integration of co-ed graduates into office organizations, she became a go-to special projects person for Watson. She researched charitable donation requests, found job placements for disabled graduates of IBM training schools, and helped oversee the staffing at IBM exhibits at the New York World’s Fair and San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition.
Anne also handled social arrangements for IBM customers and other VIPs who visited New York City. Watson took great pride in IBM’s abilities to host visitors, and Anne quickly found a role in that activity. Tall and athletic, with youthful good looks and quick with a joke, she met and attended social events like dinners at the Waldorf with some of the most famous people in the world – explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd, airline industry entrepreneur Juan Trippe, New Dealer James Farley, opera star Lawrence Tibbett, and a host of European royalty.
Anne left IBM in 1943 when she married Douglas Coupe, a serviceman. Her post-IBM life is perhaps best left for another blog post. But I’ll leave you a clue about what it would touch on. The NY State Golf Association Senior Women’s Amateur Championship trophy is named the Anne Coupe Cup. So it’s fitting to close here with a quote from Anne as she looked forward optimistically to her career with IBM. “I feel that life offers so much and that the rough spots can be gotten out of with a little courage and a good niblick shot.”