This story appeared in the RBJ’s Rochester Business Hall of Fame 2017 section. See more content from this section here.
Christine Whitman calls herself an “accidental entrepreneur.”
“I just wanted to work for a company that I was proud of,” Whitman says. “
As an undergraduate at Syracuse University, Whitman studied psychology and biology. Her first job was as a research assistant in the University of Rochester’s biochemistry department, where she separated materials to be able to distill samples for use in research.
Then she moved to CVC Inc., a supplier of thin-film process equipment for semiconductor and data-storage companies, in 1978. There she applied her experience with the University of Rochester to a product that was distilling large-molecule weight materials.
She worked her way up to become CVC’s vice president for marketing, sales and research and development. The people running the company at the time wanted to retire, and Whitman says she felt there was no one else besides her to to ensure CVC would continue to grow and survive. In 1990, she led a buyout by management and became CVC’s president and chief executive officer.
As the CEO, Whitman had to do a lot of traveling to Silicon Valley and to Asia. She also had to teach herself a business involving material sciences and engineering when her background was more in the social sciences. So, Whitman took night courses to give her the background she needed and used her time on airplanes to study as much as possible. She also hired experts to assist her.
Her dedication paid off handsomely: Over the next decade, Whitman grew the business tenfold, achieving $100 million in revenues. In 1999, CVC was acquired by Veeco Instruments Inc. Whitman served as the president and CEO of Veeco during that transition before retiring to found her own investment partnership, CSW Associates Inc.
Not just an accidental entrepreneur, Whitman also “accidentally fell into a role that was extremely male-dominated. I think it was because I started at the University of Rochester. I didn’t feel any gender bias there, so I never felt as though gender was going to hold me back.”
It was a wake-up call to enter the corporate world in the technical field, she says.
“I had to work much harder than all the males around me. I was constantly trying to learn more about the business at hand. I probably way overcompensated for it,” Whitman continues with a laugh. “I did know more than anybody else.”
A product of her dedication to learning, CSW Associates has been investing in startups for the last 15 years. Some of those investments have included technology companies that focus on natural language and voice automation technology. Now Whitman is the chairman of companies CSW Associates has invested in and grown, including Soleo Communications, VoicePort and OneStream Networks.
In a change of pace from investing in new companies, CSW took on Complemar Products as a turnaround venture of an existing company that was struggling. Whitman is serving as chairwoman and CEO of the company, which she calls a “mini Amazon” that packages and fulfills product orders for third parties and manages their returns.
Part of the reason CSW Associates invested in Complemar was to protect jobs in the Rochester area, Whitman says. Her co-investors and she are “trying to preserve and create jobs that pay higher than minimum wage and pay healthcare benefits in a safe environment on a busline” providing easy access to work, she says.
Whitman also is serving as the first woman to chair Rochester Institute of Technology’s board of trustees. Her partnership with RIT has been a long one, as she has been recruiting employees with technical skills for her businesses for several years.
In her spare time, Whitman is an “evangelist” for growing business in Rochester. Her future projects include support for a business accelerator cooperative that will move into the old Sibley building downtown this winter and creating a business plan contest called “Luminate” for photonics companies.
While Rochester has lost of a lot of large employers, Whitman believes there is hope for the future.
“Hopefully these types of companies will be part of the solution to replace the manufacturers that have left town,” she says.
Amaris Elliott-Engel is a Rochester-area freelance writer.