Louise Wannier (BS '78), Technology Entrepreneur and Textile Artist
By the time Louise Wannier arrived at Caltech, the first class of women undergraduates were in their senior year. In the course of four short years a momentous decision had become a normalized way of life. For Wannier, Caltech exerted a magnetic pull; she loved campus and its laser focus on science and engineering, and her degree in astronomy served as a foundation point in her subsequent career.
Family opportunities brought Wannier to Sweden - an unlikely place to develop her career in consulting. In the discussion below, Wannier relates the opportunities that led to the development of VCR+ and Gemstar and her decisions ultimately to translate her successes in business into new ventures in textiles and art design. Although her career went in directions far removed from her undergraduate focus in astronomy, Wannier reflects on the perspectives and analytical emphasis she gained as a Caltech undergraduate.
DAVID ZIERLER: Ok, this is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Monday, October 31, 2022. I'm delighted to have Louise Wannier in our office today. Louise, thank you so much for joining me today.
LOUISE WANNIER: Thanks.
ZIERLER: To start, Louise, would you please tell me if you have any official institutional titles or affiliations?
WANNIER: Not today.
ZIERLER: Okay. You are an independent artist. Is that the best way to describe your work?
WANNIER: I would say I am a semi-retired entrepreneur who advises a few people informally. And I do a lot of art.
ZIERLER: What kind of advising do you do? In what fields?
WANNIER: I mentor entrepreneurs who are building their companies, but very, very informally because I built companies for over 30 years. I went to Caltech from 1974 to 1978, and then I went directly to UCLA business school. It's now called the Anderson School. At the time, it was called Graduate School of Management or GSM, as we fondly called it. It was in a tiny building. Anyway, that's UCLA. There were a bunch of people because I think—David was his first name, but his last name is escaping me right now, but he was the treasurer of Caltech (the late David Morrisroe), and he was, I think, a Harvard graduate. A number of the people in my house, Dabney House, ended up going to Harvard Business School. I went to UCLA because I was about to get married to a new Caltech professor, whose name was Peter Wannier, and I didn't want to travel all the time. And we wanted to build a family.
ZIERLER: Your primary career was in business and entrepreneurialism?
ZIERLER: With the art being more of a hobby?
WANNIER: The art, I didn't really start doing until I—well, I did it as a child, but it wasn't considered to be a serious career. I've always had two sides of my brain, the creative side and the logical, mathematical side. My father was an applied mathematician. Of course, I grew up coming to Caltech. I was born in England, but I moved here when I was eight.
ZIERLER: Are your parents British?
WANNIER: My parents were British, and all my family's British, although we're second-generation there too because my father's parents were born in England, but my mother's parents were born in Russia. So, we're part of the Jewish diaspora.
ZIERLER: I guess by Saffman, for sure?
WANNIER: Yeah, exactly. And Wannier, of course, confuses everybody. But my first husband was Peter Wannier. Peter was officially Jewish because his mother was Jewish, but he wasn't really raised Jewish. His father was Catholic, but his father didn't believe in Catholicism. He was a scientist, a very famous scientist, physicist Gregory Wannier, in statistical physics.
Consulting Work in Sweden
ZIERLER: Now for your career, were you always in the consulting on the independent side? Or did you work for companies?
WANNIER: For my career, I went to business school. Graduated with an MBA in 1980. I did my MBA in finance and management science. I ended up going to work in the consulting division of Ernst. A little bit of a long story there, but I worked there for six years as a consultant, and then I worked my way up to becoming a senior manager, and I was on the partner track. Then Peter got offered a professorship in Sweden, so we picked up the family, which at the time was two kids. We ultimately had four children. The two girls, twin girls, were born when we returned. We picked up the two boys and moved to Sweden with the idea that we were going to live in Sweden, and he accepted a chair in Astrophysics at the University of Gothenburg.
ZIERLER: Oh, my. So, this is not a limited term kind of thing. You moved to Sweden?
WANNIER: We moved to Sweden, but he did take a leave of absence from JPL, where he was at the time. He was an assistant professor, associate professor at Caltech. Then he ended up not getting tenure and moving to JPL, but then he was still looking for professorships that were interesting. So, we ended up going to Sweden and it was a very prestigious position there. And I ended up leaving my--
ZIERLER: Was English the lingua franca? Did he need to pick up Swedish?
WANNIER: He did a little, I did more so because I went to the immigrant (Invandrare) program and I learned to speak tolerably well, Swedish, at least well enough to have a regular conversation, not so well that I could discuss art or politics or history, but regular everyday conversation. I was pretty fluent in Swedish by the time I left, which was two and a half years later. Peter ended up—well, it was a tough family decision; we decided not to stay in Sweden. We came back to America. In the meantime, I had started my first company accidentally becoming an entrepreneur because I didn't have a job.
ZIERLER: Being a homemaker in Sweden was not enough for you?
WANNIER: Definitely not. I'm not a homemaker, so…
ZIERLER: Before we get too far, what was your portfolio at Ernst? What did you work on?
WANNIER: I worked on a wide range of things. I ended up working a lot in healthcare because we had a lot of healthcare clients. I worked for hospitals such as Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, worked on strategic planning. That was the time when the government went from fee for service to diagnostic related groups. It was the beginning of the capitation, and HMOs were just starting. I worked on a fascinating number of projects to value HMOs and help them go private so that they could go public, if you will. That was the time when a lot of the HMOs went public. I was the one who negotiated with the state of California to take FHP private, for example, as part of a team, but I was the one that personally did it with David Meadows up at the Department of Corporations.
I worked on a lot of valuation studies because that was the kind of work we got. I did some strategic planning and a lot of financial feasibility studies. I worked a lot with a partner who is of blessed memory—he's since deceased—Ron Robison, who was at that time partner in charge of L.A., but then became partner in charge of the Western Region for Los Angeles. Also worked with a partner called Kip Jones, and he did a lot of litigation support. So, I did a lot of litigation support analytics work as well. Basically, I was just quick with numbers, so I got assigned to the projects that involved lots of numbers.
ZIERLER: Now, when you got to Sweden, was the plan for you to figure out something entrepreneurial to do, or—?
WANNIER: No, I was actually looking for consulting work. I assumed I would do business consulting because that's what I had been doing. Then, when I realized—
ZIERLER: This is before Zoom. How do you do that in Sweden?
WANNIER: What do you mean before Zoom? This was a recent thing. Or how do you do consulting, or—?
ZIERLER: How do you do without video conferencing, without things like that?
WANNIER: You travel, or you get on the phone, or you go meet people, or you network. The way we used to do, we go to conferences, you meet people at conferences. So, I ended up meeting or being introduced to Holger Bohlin (deceased), who was an economics professor at the University of Gothenburg. He was a fascinating man. He had started a consulting group that was kind of like Boston Consulting Group, but for Scandinavia, INDEVO it's probably still going, I don't know, but he introduced me to a few people. At the same time, he was interested in working on a project in education technology and computer-based training basically. People had just started to do it. In those days, they were using IBM XTs. We were using Philips Laservision players. I ended up getting involved in the project and spinning it out as a little company, so it was my first entrepreneurial venture. Holger had realized that the workforce was going to need re-training for the new internet technologies coming. At that time, we were using BITNET; that was 1986 to 1988. We were using BITNET, which is a precursor to all of our email programs. Scientists were using it; regular people weren't using it. There was no visual multimedia. There was no web. The web wasn't invented until the early mid ‘90s. So, we were doing this interactive computer-based training before the web. There was a big effort in England called Open University at the time. Now it's natural, we're all doing it, but in those days, it was a new idea.
ZIERLER: Yes. That's why I said before Zoom, how did you--
WANNIER: At the time, we were moving from sending big disks around to sending, it was the precursor to CD-ROM so that we were getting CD-i, I think. CD-i, CD-ROM that was coming, and it was basically the beginning. But there were authoring languages that had been created that would enable you to create an interactive script. Anyway, long story short, I ended up creating a little company called Interaktiv Video/Skillware that was in conjunction with a number of industrial customers. So, we had Ericsson, we had SKF, we had Volvo, and the partner that ended up building the company with me that was working for a large Swedish company, which is actually a chain of grocery stores called ICA. So, like the Vons of the west coast of Sweden, or the Ralphs of the west coast of Sweden. And he, Anders Gunner was his name, he had been coming from the video side, and I was coming from the authoring side and figuring out how to put these programs together so they would be interesting for corporate customers and so they might teach someone something. We did custom development of interactive learning applications for large Swedish companies, and built it up to a couple of million, I think, in Swedish revenue if I remember. It might have been a little bit more than that. That was a time in Sweden that was really unusual, and I particularly would like to mention it because it's something that I've long thought that this country should do and I've talked to a number of people about, but the Swedish government had realized that a lot of people needed re-training.
ZIERLER: Re-training after what, like de-industrialization?
WANNIER: Yes, from the de-industrialization, for the coming of the internet era. I mean, that was in the 1980s. Now, of course, we're way past that then, but we still have the problem that a lot of people no longer work in factories, and they need to be trained for the kinds of work that may or may not be available. Of course, a lot of jobs now are being threatened to be taken away from people (by the advent of AI). But at that time, the Swedish government had realized that and they decided to require 1% of corporate profits to be put into a renewal fund for the country. If you could imagine 1% of American corporate profits going into a renewal fund for this country, how we would eliminate some of the major social challenges that we're facing. As a result, Sweden has always been very competitive. I haven't analytically looked at what the results were from a socio-economic status, but that was the very beginning of it. There were these big pools of funds available, and our education initiatives fit in. We were able to get funding, in conjunction, in partnership with these companies, for these kinds of projects. So, it was interesting.
ZIERLER: How long did you stay in Sweden?
WANNIER: Just two and a half years.
ZIERLER: That's a lot in two and a half years.
WANNIER: And that was the very beginning. It was the very beginning of my entrepreneurial career. Then I came back to America.
ZIERLER: Your then-husband had gotten a job back in the States?
WANNIER: Well, he had taken a leave from JPL where he was a senior scientist, and he just went back to that job.
ZIERLER: He could have stayed though? He just wanted to go back?
WANNIER: It was a permanent position. It was a chair in astrophysics. He gave that up to come back. It was a very, very tough decision. In fact, I remember that we did a formal decision analysis, like the kind I used to do when I was studying at UCLA, and he's a scientist, too. We're both logical. He was a professor of astronomy here. We put every factor down on the page, and we ranked the relative scale, all the different ones, and the end of adding it up, all the different directions—it was exactly a dead heat.
ZIERLER: It sounds like for you, you were just getting started in Sweden. You could have stayed.
WANNIER: I could have stayed and—
ZIERLER: You were enjoying it?
WANNIER: Oh, yeah, I was loving it. I was loving it, but it was okay. It was okay. I was okay to come back. It was—
ZIERLER: How old were your kids at the time?
WANNIER: My kids were, I guess, one and three when we went, and three and five when we came back.
ZIERLER: Oh, so just starting for kindergarten. That's fine.
WANNIER: Yeah. My son came and started kindergarten, and I stayed an extra few months to do the transition. But then I got pregnant with the twins.
ZIERLER: Oh, boy.
WANNIER: So, it ended up being—came back and had twin girls in May of 1988. Then I—
ZIERLER: Did you hang on to your house, or what did you—?
WANNIER: We had hung on to our house. We had rented it out.
ZIERLER: Oh, so that's good. That's easy.
WANNIER: We had rented it out, yeah. We were somewhat flexible financially, so that was a very big help. We could make the decision. And we didn't know when we went. We went with the full intention of staying, but not knowing whether we were going to stay.
ZIERLER: All right. So, you get back to the States—
WANNIER: Got back to the States. Then, I ended up working for a very short time, for a startup venture capital firm at a time when venture capital was in the toilet. It was very down. That was 1989 I guess, beginning of—the girls were born in May. I think I started that job in the Fall of ‘88 or six months after they were born, I think.
ZIERLER: Did you think about going back to Ernst or you needed the flexibility?
WANNIER: I talked to them about it. I talked about going back to Ernst. It's a really good question. I talked to the partner in charge and the person that then replaced him. I had kind of moved on from wanting to do financial consulting. The kind of consulting I wanted to do, I wanted to help them build a practice in, which now I think Deloitte has a big practice in—they weren't interested. It wasn't a good fit with where they were right then. It was before the merger with Arthur Young, and it was still pretty early in the whole interactive new media space, so their whole new media practice had not yet developed. I was just too early, which was a little bit the story in some of the things that I ended up doing. In it must have been Spring of 1989, I ended up leaving that startup VC group and going to work with Henry Yuen, who's also, as you know, a Caltech graduate, and was my father's graduate student.
ZIERLER: Oh. Was he the point of connection, or you knew him independently?
The Origins of Gemstar
WANNIER: No, my father was the point of connection. My dad said, "Henry is working on something. He needs some help on the business side. Would you like to have lunch with him?"
ZIERLER: What was he working on?
WANNIER: He was working on the beginning of what became VCR Plus+ and Gemstar, which I helped him build. There were six of us that built that company. Well, six initially, and then we built a whole team.
ZIERLER: What was the vision from the beginning? What did you want to create?
WANNIER: How much do you know about Gemstar?
ZIERLER: I know a little bit, but for the purposes of capturing the history—
WANNIER: I have done full interviews about that, which I'm happy to share with you, if you'd like them. When I met Henry, he had the idea for VCR Plus+, the idea of doing the coding scheme. The apocryphal stories in the newspapers are true, which is he was watching a basketball game, and he had an idea that using a number to communicate the information to the VCR so that the show could be taped would be more efficient. When I met him for lunch that day with my father together, he handed me over a non-disclosure agreement. I'd known him since I was a child, and I'd been to his wedding and so forth, but I said, "Fine, I'll sign your non-disclosure agreement." Then he told me the idea. At the time I didn't own a VCR. I went over to my parents' home later to see what programming one entailed. TV wasn't a big part of my life. But he explained it. And he handed me over a page that he'd mocked up from TV Guide on the 8.5x11 sheet of paper into which he had put the numbers. But the first time I looked at the page, I didn't see them. Then I looked again, and then I saw the numbers, I said, "Oh. Yes, I could do that." So, I said, "Yeah, I'll do it. But not as an employee, I'll be a co-founder with you, or I'll be a partner with you." So, that's what we did. I started working on it full time.
ZIERLER: As an employee of the company or as a consultant?
WANNIER: As a co-founder of the company. So, as an employee, team member. He had set up an incubator to work on a bunch of ideas, and this was one of them. He was working full time at TRW, and he was also a lawyer and doing consulting with his law practice with various clients, and one of them ended up funding the project. The first job was to try to figure out how to convince some number of people that print television magazines or guides to print the code numbers. There began the journey. I took on the piece of the business development. My role was VP of Business Development to begin with. I took on the job of trying to contact the newspapers and TV Guide and convince them to print the numbers. That's what I did.
ZIERLER: Were the advertisers on board with this?
WANNIER: There were no advertisers involved in the beginning. That came as part of the strategy to get everyone involved. We actually ended up bringing in advertisers to the publications that printed the code numbers.
ZIERLER: No, I'm thinking about the advertisers during the commercial breaks. How would they feel about their advertisements being captured and viewed later on?
WANNIER: Oh, nobody had an opinion about that. I mean, VCRs existed and people were doing that already, so there was nothing that we were changing about that. We were just helping people to operate their VCRs. I mean, it was the butt of a national joke at that time. Do you remember VCR Plus+ at all as a child?
ZIERLER: I do.
WANNIER: Did you have one in your house?
ZIERLER: We did.
WANNIER: You did have one. Oh, okay. All right. Okay. Well, my mother was the guinea pig for the design, or one of the guinea pigs—
ZIERLER: Like if she can do it, it's a workable system kind of thing?
WANNIER: Yeah. Really, literally. She's very proud of that. I spent a lot of time on the interface design and thinking about how to make it really the easiest possible. There were a number of important twists in the path, but maybe we should have a separate conversation, just to tell you that whole story. I mean, the story, it was amazing. I ended up convincing TV Guide to start it in two editions, and The New York Times, and to roll it out city by city. It took a year to roll out the United States. Then I ended up commuting to London and setting it up all over Europe, and setting up the team to do that. It was a great project.
ZIERLER: How long did you stay with that?
WANNIER: I did that for five years, from 1989, and I left in March of 1994.
ZIERLER: Was the technology overtaken by something else, or it was just a mature product and it was time for a new adventure?
WANNIER: I'd launched it all over Europe, and there were people on the other side of the world in the process of launching it through Asia at that time, and we had really finished doing that, so we were thinking about what to do next as a company. The company was going to go either in the direction of doing licensing and acquiring more technology—that was really Henry's focus. Henry wanted to acquire technology, create technology, and work on the problems of advertisers on the internet. He had a great mind. He was looking at interstitial advertising. He was looking at what nowadays is controlled by Google. He was looking at all of the early stages of what became a number of very big companies. Any one of those could have come out of what Gemstar was working on in those days, but wasn't to be, for a lot of different reasons, which have nothing to do with me because it all happened after my tenure. I was living in Europe, and I was away from my family, and I had to come back. It was time for me to come back. It was either that, or move my family over to Europe, and we didn't want to do that. So, I came back.
ZIERLER: And your former husband was happy to be back at JPL? That was a consideration as well to come back?
WANNIER: Well, he would have been happier to be a professor somewhere, but he was happy to be at JPL. He had a good career at JPL.
ZIERLER: What came next for you after that? Smaller projects?
WANNIER: No, I left Gemstar because we issued our first dividend. It was before the company went public. That was the timing that gave me the impetus to then change. I took that $200,000 dividend check and put 100% of it into my new company I'd start following work I had begun to think about when I was working in Sweden. I had met some people on my visits back to the States while I was traveling from England to do that. And beforehand in Sweden, I had actually met some people that were working on something in the area of AI, in the early days of AI when we were programming in Prolog and LISP and so forth.
I started thinking about the problem of, how do you have a computer organize information? How do we need to construct a piece of software so that we can work with the diverse kinds of information on a computer and so that the computer can organize it for you, instead of your brain having to keep track of everything, and work a bit more the way you think? There were a number of—like, actually on the Mac, remember HyperCard in the early days?
WANNIER: Yeah. And there were some other note-taking programs. It's interesting how difficult this problem was. A lot of people were attacking it in different ways. And Bill Gross had done one too before Lotus 1-2-3. I forgot what the name of it was. Anyway, a lot of people were thinking about that problem. I ended up meeting some people on one of my trips back from London and ended up taking my money and starting this company, which was originally called Dex Information Systems and then became Enfish. It was a software company that developed new technology for organizing information in a new database structure, and we filed patents on it as well that were issued and ultimately much, much later settled with Microsoft. But we didn't make it through the 2000 crash. The 2000 crash killed us. We started the company in ‘98. We had some funding from Intel, funding from other venture capitalists, I put in some money, quite a bit of money. And then, we didn't make it. I had to close that company in 2003. Just about killed me. Then I went to pursue my lifelong love of textile design.
Career Pivot to Textiles and Art Design
ZIERLER: I was wondering when that came about.
WANNIER: Textiles and art and design. I decided to go take a degree in textile design at the Fashion Institute in Los Angeles.
ZIERLER: Was this a financially secure retirement kind of thing, or was this risky for you in that regard?
WANNIER: Well, no. The thing about Gemstar is it gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted for the rest of my life. That has been the case for a long time. I'm not a wealthy person in modern terms, but I've done well enough that I can choose what I want to do.
ZIERLER: Do what you do.
WANNIER: Do what I did. Exactly. So, I invested in Enfish; that didn't work. I got sick at that time. I decided to take a life break. I decided to pursue this passion I'd had in textile design, which is actually also sort of an accident because my assistant who worked for me at Enfish came to talk to me, to visit one day. She said, "Louise, you always talked about loving textile design. Do you know about this place?" She actually told me about it. I was about to start chemo, and I thought, "Well, this is a way more fun thing to do." I mean, I did the chemo, obviously, but they thought I'd had a bad hair day when I came in with a different—well, it's just a funny thing, but I was wearing a wig because the chemo, you lose your hair. Then the hair started growing back about two thirds of the way through the program, so I took the wig off and they all thought I just cut my hair. It's very funny. It's very funny. So, that was fun. No, I did textile design and took a one-year professional certification and just initially learned to draw and paint. Then, when I was there, I got an idea that became MyShape.com which was my fourth company.
DAVID ZIERLER: What was that company? What did that do?
WANNIER: MyShape.com, what it did was match you—we just did it for women to start with. We were going to add men, but we had just done women to start with. But we had the first online personal shopping where a woman filled in a profile and we matched you to the clothes that fit and flattered you. So, instead of going to Macy's or going to Nordstrom or going to whatever and having to go through all the clothing, you just got to focus on the filtered, curated set that suited you.
ZIERLER: I'm loving this. I'm going to tell my wife about it if it's still available.
WANNIER: It doesn't. No, it doesn't. It got stopped by the 2008 crash. I've been too early to market with both Enfish and myShape, but the concepts in them are partially out there now. They're not exactly out there now. The database stuff is definitely—that part was done. The way that our phones now connect all the information to organize it and everything's cross-indexed, that was the idea behind Enfish. That is now mostly there today. I would still love the opportunity to speak with some of the engineers working on improving usability with a few suggestions. But the personal shopping is not fully there yet. I'm hoping that it will be. I'm watching the space. There's a company called—I can't remember the name of it now. Anyway, it was started by people that were part of—one of the senior team founders of the one that started Stitch Fix started this new company called The Yes, and very, very quickly Pinterest bought it or at least that's what it says on the web. They say they're going to relaunch. But that was looking like it was in the direction of what I was trying to do with MyShape. But MyShape went from—we were well funded by Venture Capital and originally by the Pasadena Angels and Tech Coast Angels raised a lot of capital and then got funding from DFJ in Silicon Valley and then, the crash happened and it didn't get the funding that it needed, and they decided to sell it.
ZIERLER: Did you let go of entrepreneurialism at that point?
WANNIER: I was kicked out of the company, and then they put someone else in, one of my team members, and then that person grew it for—or didn't grow it—for three more quarters and then they decided to sell it. That's what happened. I decided to go back to the art at that point.
ZIERLER: What else did you pursue besides textiles?
WANNIER: I opened a studio in Pasadena, and I dabbled and I built several collections. I thought about doing my own fashion lines. I built a collection around the principles of clothing that fit and flattered you and really beautiful textiles.
ZIERLER: So, the studio was still textile-oriented?
WANNIER: The studio was still textiles and fashion, yeah. Then I did art shows and I've done some photography, fine art shows, and nothing very big. Then, about four or five years ago, I decided to start doing some advising, mentoring of other entrepreneurs. I don't know. Just different things.
ZIERLER: How has COVID affected your advising and business, things like that?
WANNIER: It's really easy with Zoom, right? We don't have to travel so much anymore. I used to travel like crazy when I was a consultant. We don't do that anymore. So, it makes life a lot easier, I think. It's very easy to get hold of people. People are much more linkable. So, I think it's made the world more reachable. I also have done a lot of community non-profit work. Sitting on the boards trying to help people do that, being a board member and then doing some financial work that way, and then also doing strategic advising to some local boards, that kind of thing. And now I'm working on Million Peacemakers.
ZIERLER: What is that?
WANNIER: MillionPeacemakers.org is an organization that's been going for eight years and they have trained 250,000 or more people around the world. They have a system for trying to teach everyday peacemaking or conflict resolution for lay people. I mean, non-lawyer based or not thick books and big texts, but they call it going from conflict to nonflict, so their training is called NONFLICT.
ZIERLER: Oh, I like that.
WANNIER: It's very clever.
ZIERLER: Is this certification or more life skills kind of form?
WANNIER: It's life skills and they do have a training program for people who would like to be coaches and make that something that they offer to organizations, but they've worked with everyone from the United Nations to different peacemaking organizations around the world, around the globe. Obviously, they've not made much progress. There's just as much war as there ever was. But their focus now is to build a global alliance of youth.
ZIERLER: Hope for the next generation.
WANNIER: Million Peacemakers for the next generation. (MillionPeacemakersYouth.org) So hopefully, perhaps we can influence.
ZIERLER: Well, Louise, why don't we wind back the clock to high school now?
WANNIER: High school? How much time did I take with all that?
ZIERLER: No, we're good. We're doing great.
WANNIER: Oh, we're doing great. Oh, good.
The Magnetic Pull of Caltech
ZIERLER: When it was time for you to think about college, first of all, your major at Caltech was astronomy, right?
ZIERLER: In high school, growing up, did you gravitate more toward the technical side of things? Math and science was where your interests were?
WANNIER: Honestly, very balanced interest. I loved English as much as I loved Math. When I was thinking about college, my father did not want me to go to Caltech.
WANNIER: I think he would not mind my saying that.
ZIERLER: What was the tuition policy? Could you go for free if you're a child of a faculty member.
WANNIER: We could go for free, yeah.
ZIERLER: And he still didn't want you to go?
WANNIER: He still didn't want me to go.
ZIERLER: Why not? Was it the gender thing?
WANNIER Because he knew me, and he knew I was more of a people person than a real scientist. I mean, I'm not the best person perhaps for you to interview because I'm not a scientist. I'm an innovator and a technologist. I've built all these companies.
ZIERLER: First of all, all of the women I've talked to from those years have represented the full breadth of professions—science, humanities, medicine, law, everything. So, it's not like everybody from those first few years is a professor of astrophysics, right? That's definitely not the case. That's not unique to women, either. That's like just your profile of a Caltech graduate. Caltech graduates go on to all kinds of things.
WANNIER: Right. I mean, what I would say is that Caltech teaches you to think, and I really learned how to think.
ZIERLER: How come you didn't listen to your dad's advice?
WANNIER: Why didn't I listen? Well, I never listened to my dad.
ZIERLER: Why start now!
WANNIER: My father believed in telling you what he thought, but letting you follow the path that you want to follow.
ZIERLER: He did not think that HSS would provide enough of an outlet for that other side of you? I guess not.
ZIERLER: Maybe he didn't appreciate it himself.
WANNIER: I don't think it was that. I think it was the size of the campus. I think he thought I would've done better in a larger campus.
ZIERLER: Sure. It's not even a large high school by the undergraduate standard.
WANNIER: Right. But I was in love with Caltech. I loved hanging around here. I took classes as a senior here. I audited classes as a senior. I audited the Chemistry and I audited the Math I, and also a psychohistory class and a linguistics class. So, when I entered, I was taking Math II and I had already taken the freshman Chemistry. It wasn't that I loved math and science; I loved Caltech. There was just the openness and directness and ability to talk about anything properly. That was what I was attracted to.
ZIERLER: Now, the fact that Caltech had gone co-ed four years before you were thinking seriously about these things, did that register with you? Did you think of Caltech as a newly co-ed institution, or was that kind of old hat in relative terms by the time you applied?
WANNIER: I guess the way I would express it is I never thought about being a girl or a boy. That was never a thing in my family.
ZIERLER: Although in 1969, Caltech would've made that decision for you, was the point?
WANNIER: No, exactly. I mean, I wouldn't have been able to apply. But I didn't think about it emotionally. I just wanted to be with smart people. That was really what mattered to me. And the fact that there weren't that many women meant that we got better choices. I mean, I got my own room as a freshman. I never would've got my own room as a freshman. I don't want to sound—I did have a different situation because I was a faculty member's daughter, and I was used to being around the faculty. Caltech didn't intimidate me perhaps the same way that other students entering may have felt.
ZIERLER: Well, you didn't listen to one of them for starters.
WANNIER: And I didn't listen to one of them, the most important one.
ZIERLER: What were the numbers the first year? The class that came in 1970, I think it was 33 women. What were the numbers in ‘75? About that? More? Less?
WANNIER: I think there were 19 of us.
ZIERLER: So, it went down?
WANNIER: It might have been 30. I'm really not sure, I'm sorry.
ZIERLER: I'll look.
WANNIER: You can look. No, I think it was 30. I think we were 220 class members and I think it was roughly 1 in 10 is what I remember. But that would mean only 22, so there were 220, I think, in the class.
ZIERLER: One clear distinction from the class that came in 1970, there was a scramble to make accommodations for women. There had not been women, and all of a sudden, there were.
WANNIER: Right. There was the Lara house and all these—yeah, yeah.
ZIERLER: Exactly. Did all of that feel—not that you had a specific point of reference, but did that feel more or less settled, that Caltech was comfortably accepting women at that point?
WANNIER: Yeah, that felt settled. What I remember in the rotation, of course, the houses all wanted to have as many of the women as they could. The picking of the houses, I think we expressed our choices the same way as anybody else. But they couldn't force us to room with the guys. I think I was first of the women to pick, so I happened to get my own room.
ZIERLER: Part of the narrative that I love in the early years, like ‘70, ‘71, there are a range of opinions among faculty from forward-looking to real dinosaurs. Part of this amazing story is almost all of the dinosaurs are won over, like, "Hey, women can do really great work here just like the guys." Did that feel settled? In other words, for those first few years, there was some intel among the women about professors who were great and professors who were not so great. Was that sort of in the air, knowing which professors, or sort of everybody, as far as you could tell, was on board, or at least it was a non-issue by 1975?
WANNIER: It didn't feel like an issue to me in 1975.
ZIERLER: That's great. Since you were fully interested in all kinds of things, how'd you settle on astronomy?
WANNIER: Well, I didn't. I started with an independent study where I designed my own program of study because I was interested in extraterrestrial life. That was the one idea that I had. And so, I had designed my own program where I was doing biology, geology, planetary science. Andy Ingersoll was my advisor.
ZIERLER: Oh, that's great.
WANNIER: I loved Andy Ingersoll. He's still around, I mean not on campus, or not so much. Then, I kind of exhausted myself, honestly. Junior year was really rough. I was carrying a course load of 60 units as I recall, every quarter. It was really rough. I think I looked at—
ZIERLER: —what could get you out the easiest?
WANNIER: Yeah, and that was Astronomy. It was closest to what I had been choosing.
ZIERLER: Yeah. What was going on in Astronomy at that point? Who were some of the professors you remember?
LOUISE: Other than the man I was going to marry—Peter Wannier was a newer professor—I took classes from Wal Sargent, a pleasant memory.
ZIERLER: Did you get to know Anneila?
WANNIER: Anneila was at the time not a professor.
ZIERLER: Right. But she was around.
WANNIER: Oh, she was around. Of course, she was Wal's wife. I was a couple with Peter quietly, and then publicly already when I was a senior in undergraduate. We started dating when I was a junior, and we got married right the first quarter December after I graduated. I graduated in June, and we got married in December. So, I knew the professors in astronomy. I'm trying to remember. I think Nick Scoville had just arrived. We were friendly with the Readheads. We were friendly with the Sargents. We were friendly—let's see.
ZIERLER: I wonder if Judith Cohen was there yet?
WANNIER: Judith Cohen had not yet come. Peter knew her. And is she still here?
ZIERLER: Yeah. She's Emeritus, but yeah, for sure.
WANNIER: Oh, okay. Yeah. Well, he's 76 now. I'm 66. Let's see. Marshall Cohen obviously, and he's now in his 90s. Professor Oak, I think I had him. Peter Goldreich was in Planetary Science. He taught—is he—?
ZIERLER: He's around, but he's not here.
WANNIER: He's not here. Yeah. He's not well, I think. Yeah, exactly. And the other guy that had just arrived in Physics—dark hair, astrophysicist—I think Peter helped bring him in. I can't remember his name right now. That's all I remember.
ZIERLER: Not Tom Tombrello?
WANNIER: No, Tom Tombrello was a dear friend. He's a physicist. I also went to school in elementary school and high school with a lot of the Caltech faculty kids. Karen is a good friend of mine and Chris was my brother's good friend growing up. Yeah, Tom, very sad when he passed away. He was chairman of Physics, of course, but not at that time. But he didn't teach astronomy. Also, Roger Blandford. He's now at Stanford, I think.
WANNIER: Those are the ones I remember.
ZIERLER: So, you survived with an astronomy degree?
WANNIER: I survived with an astronomy degree.
ZIERLER: Did you leave wanting to put science in the rear view, at least professionally?
WANNIER: Ward Whaling, who also died recently, gave me an opportunity to do a real research project, and I did a—the SURF fellowships that just started.
ZIERLER: Yeah, absolutely.
Foundations in Astronomy
WANNIER: I had one of those SURF fellowships in between my junior and senior year. I did a project for Ward Whaling, and I wrote a paper and I went through the whole process of doing the research in the third basement of Steele. I was measuring isotope variation of the element, Samarium. Ward gave me that chance to write a paper and really understand—and I realized that I'm too much of a people person. So, that wasn't the right track for me.
ZIERLER: That's all you needed was a summer in a basement?
WANNIER: I mean, that's what my father knew is that I wasn't an introvert. I wasn't a focused single-issue person.
ZIERLER: Sure. What were the reactions among faculty at the institution that there was this undergraduate professor romance? Was that okay? Was it dicey? What was it?
WANNIER: We were terrified. When Peter and I started getting together, we were terrified and we didn't want anybody to know. So, we just kept it very quiet and we didn't put it in anyone's face.
ZIERLER: Did you make an effort not to take his classes, or was that unavoidable?
WANNIER: Well, I did take a second class from him because I had to for the astronomy degree. But I had a different TA and we kept everything very clear. I just remember, I think it was when I was in first quarter of my senior year, I mean we'd been dating for six months or something and I think I called one day. I used to call his office and say, "Hello, is he there?" I think one time the secretary just said, "Louise, we know it's you." They all knew. They were all fine because we weren't putting it in anyone's face.
ZIERLER: Yeah. And there was no—like, the provost didn't call him to the office?
WANNIER: It was nothing.
ZIERLER: There was nothing like that?
WANNIER: There was no manipulation of anybody. We ended up getting married and having four kids. We were married for 17 years.
ZIERLER: Interesting. It's fascinating.
WANNIER: We had a good marriage for a long time.
ZIERLER: Well, that's great.
WANNIER: Yeah. We're still friends.
ZIERLER: When you graduated--
WANNIER: We had eight grandchildren together now.
ZIERLER: Eight? That's wonderful.
WANNIER: Thank you. Thank you.
ZIERLER: Was it B School from the beginning in terms of next steps for you? Was that a very obvious—?
WANNIER: Well, you know Bob Chess? Robert Chess?
ZIERLER: Yes. I only know him because I met him yesterday at the board retreat actually. He was recognized for his service on one of the committees.
WANNIER: Oh, good. Very good. He's a great guy. He was a great guy as an undergrad. We were in the same house together, in Dabney House. We were friends. He and another guy, whose name escapes me right now, were going to Harvard Business School. It was Bob Morrisroe, that's who it was, the treasurer of Caltech. So, it wasn't David; it was Bob Morrisroe. The names come back eventually.
ZIERLER: Sure. If you said Bob, I would've said Morrisroe.
WANNIER: So, it was Bob Morrisroe who was getting everyone to go to Harvard Business School. I learned about it from them. It was from Bob, so Bob Chess and Morrisroe. And I don't know, it seemed like—oh, I remember. Of course. Economics, my favorite non-science professor was Bob Oliver. He was amazing. With him, I went to Model UN and I learned about some other things as well. I took all of his economics classes. That's really, I think—putting math and business together, that's probably what I would've done, if I had it to do over again. I would've done economics.
ZIERLER: But astronomy served you well and everything you did?
WANNIER: Yeah, it did. No, absolutely everything.
ZIERLER: Like you said, it taught you how to think.
WANNIER: Yeah, it taught me how to think. Exactly. And all the other classes, the physics and the biology and everything else—I mean, I did everything from using—I remember doing—is it the synchrotron where you separate out the DNA and all that kind of stuff?
ZIERLER: Oh, yeah.
WANNIER: Yeah. My son went to Caltech. He has a PhD from here.
ZIERLER: Now, did you try to talk him out of going to Caltech?
WANNIER: Not at all.
ZIERLER: You knew that would work for him?
ZIERLER: He did his PhD here.
WANNIER: I didn't tell him one way or the other. Yeah, he did his PhD here.
ZIERLER: In what? What's his field?
WANNIER: Biology. He worked in Steve Mayo's lab. Now he's doing a company. He went to Harvard for postdoc and it was in George Church's lab. He has just started a company. He's commercializing his postdoc research.
ZIERLER: Runs in the family.
WANNIER: I guess both.
ZIERLER: The science, the entrepreneurialism.
ZIERLER: Are you an active alum at all? Do you keep in touch with people from undergrad days? Are you involved in the Associates, things like that?
WANNIER: I am not a member of the Associates. I have friends among the Associates. Peter and I, when we were first married, we were on the board of the Caltech Y for a while for a few years. I've talked to Susan, or called me about getting back on the board, but I don't know that I really want to do it right now. My second husband, Michael Burns, is an architect and he's not involved with Caltech, so it's not as natural for us to spend our time doing that. I'm friendly with a lot of alums. I keep in touch with a lot of people, but I'm not active. I did a lot of stuff with the entrepreneurial, though. I did a lot with the Enterprise Forum and I served on the board of Entretech for a while, which was in a joint thing. Stephanie Yanchinski ran that. Now, she's doing the environmental thing. Even though I live very close and I still work out at the gym.
ZIERLER: What about mentorship? Have you ever interacted with Caltech undergraduates? Have you ever crossed paths with them?
WANNIER: I have spoken a number of times when I'm asked to. I go and I speak with undergraduates, or I have done talks at the women's alumni. I've done a talk for the undergraduate Entrepreneurial Club. I gave a lecture to one of the—who is it that runs the—Ken..? who I also know through Pasadena and Tech Coast Angels.
ZIERLER: Ken Hargreaves?
WANNIER: No. Ken ran a business—is it Ken—it's Ken Pickar… He's a professor, I think or lecturer. I think he does a class in entrepreneurship or does a workshop in entrepreneurship or has done. I did talk to his class once, I think. I know very well Fred Farina and the Tech Transfer office. I've worked in technology in all these different industries—electronics, software, e-commerce and consumer electronics. So I don't know, it just hasn't—I always thought maybe one day I'd be a Caltech trustee, but that hasn't happened.
ZIERLER: You never know. I'm curious, your undergrad—
WANNIER: Sorry. I did work on the Alumni Day committee for a number of years. I forgot. I did that for a period time.
ZIERLER: Alumni Day, is that seminar week or—?
WANNIER: Seminar day, the seminar weekend thing.
ZIERLER: That's a lot of work.
WANNIER: It was. For a few years, it was.
ZIERLER: When you were here—this is just sort of a parallel story; I'm curious if this registered with you at all—Murph Goldberger was President.
WANNIER: I remember.
ZIERLER: I've had conversations--
WANNIER: Oh, and I used to teach the folk dancing here.
ZIERLER: There was folk dancing here? Maybe there still is, I don't know.
WANNIER: I don't know if the Tuesday night folk dancing is still going on, but I used to—
ZIERLER: So, you said no, and you're telling me now how really involved you have been over the years. It's a lot of stuff.
WANNIER: Well, I dabbled, but I did a lot of traveling and living other places.
ZIERLER: Lee Hood told me—it's a narrative of Caltech history that I'm just very fascinated. When his group started to get big and he started thinking about potential commercial applications of the technologies that he was working on, he had this formative conversation with Murph Goldberger who emphasized that "This is higher education. We don't sully ourselves thinking about profits and companies and things like that." And that was one of the things that prompted Lee to move to the University of Washington and ultimately to go on to do what he did. It's so interesting to me because nowadays startup culture is so strong here and it's not like it started from nothing post-Murph Goldberger. I mean, this goes all the way back to Arnold Beckman. I'm curious if you appreciated where Caltech was in terms of thinking about startups and tech transfer. Was that on your radar at all as an undergraduate? Did you think about those things? Did you think about them retrospectively when you went to business school?
WANNIER: I've only ever thought about this stuff retrospectively. It was completely not on Caltech's radar. There was a lot of feeling amongst the faculty at that time, because my father would talk about it, of just this desire to keep Caltech as a place for innovation in pure science, not to be influenced by money. That there was a desire for pure—it was the best place to do pure research, and it was one of the few places in America where you really had that environment. It was such a unique environment. That was the thinking at that time.
ZIERLER: I wonder if that speaks to the ascendancy of physics and astronomy because in earlier generations, it's Caltech, right? It's engineering. That's what a lot of people are associating. And engineering by definition lends itself much more to business and applications and things like that. So, I wonder—
WANNIER: At that time Max Delbrück understood the move towards biology. At the time, biology was very much at the bottom—"the easiest, the one the girls would do," whatever these things people would say.
ZIERLER: The fewest equations.
WANNIER: The fewest equations, the easiest on the math. But Max saw—he lived next door to us growing up, so he saw, and my father and he did a project involving biology and physics and the mathematics of biology, but he really saw the ascendance of bio. So I think it's more that that is moving us towards entrepreneurship, the confluence of computer, technology, and biology, which wasn't there yet.
ZIERLER: Right. There was computational nothing at that point really. And now it's everywhere.
WANNIER: You're right. I mean, Intel, the whole engineering thing, that's where obviously a lot of money has come to Caltech from that as well.
ZIERLER: Did you enjoy Caltech through your son's eyes? Were you involved in his odyssey and how things may have changed?
WANNIER: A little bit, yeah. I enjoyed seeing—and he was a graduate student, right? I was never a graduate student. So, it was nice to see what life was like as a graduate student, as much as a graduate student, young man involves their parent in what they're doing.
ZIERLER: Sure. So, in the end, were you happy that you didn't listen to your father even though he knew you better than yourself at that point?
WANNIER: I've never been unhappy that I went to Caltech. No, of course. But I do wonder sometimes what life would've been if I'd done other things.
WANNIER: You only get one life, so.
ZIERLER: That's right. Louise, one last question, if I may. You said that the real value of Caltech is not specifically in the technical aspects, math and science and things like that, but—and this is a commonality that I've heard so many times—that it has taught you how to think regardless of your area of focus. With that, what has stayed with you? What has Caltech done in terms of influencing how you've thought and influenced or informed the remarkable career you pursued afterwards?
WANNIER: Just thinking cross-laterally and taking ideas and patterns from one place and putting it to another. What I learned really from my father as well as from Caltech in general was just how to think about problems with an open mind, and as I said, take patterns from one place to another.
ZIERLER: It served you quite well.
WANNIER: It served me very well.
ZIERLER: Thank you very much for coming over to visit. I really appreciate it.
WANNIER: Thanks for having me and talking with me.