Dorothy Terrell reflects on a life of achievement in the corporate world

Born and raised in South Florida, Dorothy Terrell returned to her hometown after a career that took her from the East Coast of the United States to the West Coast and back again. Terrell was on the ground floor of the computer revolution and e-commerce, playing a leadership role in three premier technology firms.

Today, Terrell steers the direction of major companies and nonprofits as a board member. She also contributes as a philanthropist to the South Florida arts community. In her most recent professional capacity, Terrell is an investor, providing financing and advice to early stage companies.

At the age of 71, Terrell has an abundance of insights to share from her experiences as a high-level executive in corporate America, a career and jobs counselor, a philanthropist and a working mother.

Q. At a young age, you went from working in the public sector doing job and career counseling to the corporate sector where you eventually held a high position as a corporate executive officer. What was it like making that transition?

A. Growing up, I never thought I would be in corporate America. When I found myself there, it was a matter of having jobs to do, and I was busy doing those jobs. I was not thinking, “Now I am in corporate America and how should it feel.” I was busy trying to not let people down who had given me an opportunity to be somewhere I never thought I would be. For years, people saw more in me than I saw in myself. I was given opportunity because of that. I worked really hard to do a good job at whatever I was doing.

Q. At one point in your career, you were an officer at Sun Microsystems, a huge Silicon Valley computer server and software company that eventually was bought by Oracle. How did you make the climb to such a high position? What was your career path?

A. When I graduated from college, I wanted out of Florida. I left to become a counselor at the Job Corps Center in Maine. Although brief, I really enjoyed that time. After that, I moved to Boston with a friend and went to work for an adult retraining center. I started as a counselor, then become a supervisor, then director of operations.

While I was there, I came into contact with a representative of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), who years later, offered me a position in employee relations. I was with Digital for 16 1/2 years. It was really exciting. I joined Sun Microsystems in 1991 and became president of SunExpress and a corporate executive officer. I was with Sun for 6 1/2 years.

Q. At Sun Microsystems, CEO Scott McNealy’s well-known motto was ‘hire great people and delegate.’ Did you benefit from this thinking?

A. At the time I got the job, I was working on the West Coast for DEC and I came back to the East Coast to start up SunExpress, the company’s after-marketing and online services business. I eventually took SunExpress into international markets and led it to profitability.

Sun Microsystems was an extremely competitive environment. During my first week, people came to me with all kinds of issues and expected me to solve them. Scott’s way of thinking was to have lunch or be lunch.

Part of what helped me was having worked on the West Coast. Working on the East Coast was different than the West Coast, where there was not the same sense of loyalty to company or from the company to the people. It was easy to find another job. Frequent change was just business, and I began to understand the differences.

Scott was supportive of me from the beginning to the end. But that didn’t mean I didn’t have to fend off the alligators. It was a rough environment. I was warned ahead of time, but didn’t take it seriously, and I’m glad I didn’t because it was an incredible experience.

Q. What skills helped you the most at the rapidly growing technology companies where you worked?

A. My willingness to relocate and do things I had not done before. I also learned that it’s easy to look good when things are going well, it’s how you react when things aren’t going well that counts. That way of thinking has helped me. I became in touch with the fact that I did have some skills and could think through things. But I also had the ability to know what I didn’t know and be OK with that and hire people who were fabulous at those things.

Q. Based on your experiences in the technology sector, what advice do you have for managers trying to lead through change?

A. Understand and embrace the fact that there will always be change and prepare for it. Don’t be afraid to take risk and to learn from, rather than hide from, mistakes. Hire people who are willing, able and excited to make things happen. And, be the best leader and learner you can be.

Q. Now you have become an investor in startups; how did you get involved in that and what do you look for in the companies you fund?

A. I was at a luncheon for the Massachusetts Women’s Forum and sat next to a woman I had not seen in number of years. We were catching up and I said I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next, but I didn’t want to go back into corporate America. She asked me to become a partner at First Light Capital, which does early stage venture investing in companies that offer computer hardware and software services.

Although I am not a partner anymore, I still have investments in some things. However, I started my own firm, FirstCap Advisors. Because it’s my company, I can invest as deep or as soft as I want to.

Q. After spending so much time in Massachusetts, what brought you back to Miami?

A. I never thought I would be back in Florida. I left after college because it was so segregated and there was nothing for me here. There wasn’t really one thing that brought me back. I would return to Hallandale off and on when my mother was alive. Charles, my brother, loved riding down to Miami and it was something we did together.

My husband, Albert, also liked Miami, and we rented here one winter. When we came, we began to feel that Miami was different. There are people from so many other places that it’s a good feeling. In 2010, he was ill and really wanted to come back so we bought here, but he never made it down. Buying the condo was one of best things that could have happened. After Albert died, I had somewhere to go to get out of Boston. I felt more at home in Florida. I love the diversity of Miami. I had two daughters living here at one point.

Q. I understand you are involved with the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). How did that come about and what is your role?

A. I learned that Jorge Pérez and the Knight Foundation were putting a million dollars toward adding to the museum’s collection for African-American art.

In Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts is old and has quite a bit of African-American art. Here, early on, they had some African-American art and a million dollars toward acquiring more, and an organization, African American Art Ambassadors, contributing and raising money for even more acquisitions. To me, that was impressive.

Most of my life has been about access. Now, where I am in life, I want young people who may not know about the arts, particularly African-American art and artists, to know it and they exist, and who knows what might happen after that. That was my interest in PAMM. Being on the board is even more interesting than I expected. I love that museum and what it’s about.

Q. Do you consider yourself a mentor?

A. There are a number of people who would say I am their mentor. I am available to talk to people about their careers, but not with the expectation that people have to do what I say.

In Boston, I had a group of about 30 20-year-olds that my pastor asked me to pull together, not only from church but also professionals or students. They would meet at my house in Boston and we talked about all kinds of subjects. Now, most of them are grown and married and they still rally around each other.

Since I arrived here, I have met a number of sharp, young women who ask questions about my career. We have lunch together. I am available to talk to people and share what I can.

Q. What do you see as your next professional adventure?

A. I am aging off the Herman Miller board this year. With one less corporate board, now I will have time for more personal endeavors and travel. I want to do things that interest me. The idea of tech and early stage startups and activity that’s going on in Miami interests me, but I never have had the time. I would like to get involved in that. I don’t exactly know how or when, but I would like to know more.

Q. You have a daughter and a niece you raised as your daughter. What’s the most memorable advice you have given them?

A. I can give advice to everyone who will listen, except my daughters. They don’t want my advice, but that doesn’t stop me from giving it. They have seen me in action all their lives, but advice is not something they look to me for, so I try to find others who they will listen to.

Dorothy Terrell

Current title: Founder and managing partner of FirstCap Advisors, a venture capital and advisory services firm.

Previous positions: Partner at First Light Capital, a Boston-based venture capital firm; CEO of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a national not-for-profit promoting economic prosperity in America’s inner cities; SVP of worldwide sales and president, services, for NMS Communications; corporate executive officer at Sun Microsystems; and corporate officer at Digital Equipment Corp.

First job: Counselor with Job Corps, Poland Springs, Maine.

Personal: Born in Hallandale and graduated from Dillard High School near Fort Lauderdale.

Education: Graduated cum laude from Florida A&M University in 1966, with a B.A. in English.

Awards: Top 50 line managers in America by Executive Female magazine; a “Top Ten Business Marketer” by Business Marketing magazine; the Distinguished Alumni Award from Florida A&M University; and one of 20 Women of Power and Influence by Black Enterprise magazine.

Board positions: General Mills and Herman Miller. Previously served on the boards of Sears, Roebuck, and Company and Lightbridge, (both public companies) and privately held Endeca Technologies. Recently served as director at Partners HealthCare System and Massachusetts General Hospital. Previously, director at the Massachusetts Software and Internet Council and the National Housing Partnership Foundation. Founding Board Member of The Commonwealth Institute.

Trustee: Pérez Art Museum Miami.

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