The woman who changed Silicon Valley

Sandra Kurtzig

In Silicon Valley, Sandy Kurtzig is a legend, who happens to be a female founder. At 68, she's quietly moving on from the CEO role at Kenandy.

The 1997 book "In the Company of Giants" features conversations with 16 tech visionaries, including Steve Jobs , Bill Gates, Andy Grove and Michael Dell. Only one woman made the cut: Sandra Kurtzig.

That was long before Marissa Mayer climbed the ranks of Google and then jumped to run Yahoo , or Sheryl Sandberg became the number two at Facebook . Kurtzig was an industry mainstay years ahead of Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard or Meg Whitman at eBay and then H-P.

Kurtzig's storied career, spanning more than four decades in computers, is little-known outside of Silicon Valley, where larger-than-life personalities tend to dominate the headlines. So it's no surprise that when Kurtzig, 68, stepped down as CEO of cloud software developer Kenandy last month, she quietly changed her title on the company's website to executive chairman.

Read More Private company looking to dent Oracle, SAP

There was no press release, and Kurtzig made no public announcement.

"I'm still working far too many hours," said Kurtzig, estimating that she's down to 10 hours a day with the company, mostly out of the office. "I don't know how to do things half way."

Kurtzig, who is spending more time at her vacation home in Hawaii, is looking for a permanent replacement, and Kenandy Chief Financial Officer Stephen Cumming has assumed the interim CEO role. The board hired headhunter Russell Reynolds to lead the search.

Kenandy has 100 employees and is tripling annual revenue as businesses move their enterprise resource planning applications to the cloud. Notable customers include Big Heart Pet Brands (formerly Del Monte ) and Philips.

Kurtzig came out of retirement to start the Redwood City, California-based company in 2010, some 38 years after founding her first business ASK Group. ASK's software helped manufacturing companies manage their operations.

She built ASK to $400 million in revenue and eventually sold it to Computer Associates (now known as CA ), though the company was suffering from mounting losses by the time of the deal.

While she declined to provide her net worth, Kurtzig said that she would rank high on Forbes Magazine's recent list of the 50 richest self-made women, if her numbers were public. The list ranges from $250 million to $4.5 billion, with 18 billionaires at the top.

One distinction Kurtzig will always have is being the first woman to take a Silicon Valley tech company public. She led ASK's IPO in 1981.

Read More Wall Street's ongoing struggle to make sense of the cloud

"She had a fantastic career, sold her company and basically retired," said Marc Benioff, the founder and chief executive of , which invested in Kenandy to help get it off the ground. "She decided to do it all again. It's very cool."

Not that Kurtzig was ever really out of tech.

Her two sons, Ken and Andy (the inspiration for Kenandy), are themselves successful technology entrepreneurs, who have worked with their mother in formal and informal ways.

Read More Microsoft aims to catch Amazon in the cloud

Andy, 42, is the founder and CEO of JustAnswer, a question-and-answer site that attracts 26 million visitors a month. Ken, 39, founded cloud software maker Arizay (named after his two kids, Arie and Alizae) in 2013 and previously started iReuse, whose software helps companies run sustainability programs.

The three worked together for a brief stretch from 2000-2001 at eBenefits, a human resources software company, where Andy was chief executive, Sandra (who goes by Sandy) was chairman and Ken was a product manager.

In her second go-round as a founder and CEO, Kurtzig said she has observed an environment with much more focus on gender, even though the numbers haven't improved dramatically. According to the Kauffman Foundation, fewer than 10 percent of high-growth companies are founded by women.

Gender is not Kurtzig's favorite issue, and one in which she has admittedly stayed "under the radar." But having founded Kenandy in her 60s, there's another message she likes to get across.

"You can start a business at any age," Kurtzig said. "Tech really allows anybody at any age or any sex or cultural background to really get involved and start a company."

The Kurtzigs are a true Silicon Valley family. Sandy's position running ASK from the 1970s through the early 1990s put her in the inner circle of tech executives, particularly those who have sold to businesses.

Read More Steve Jobs seized his chance

At their home in the town of Atherton, common dinner guests included Jobs, Bill Hewlett, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and prominent lawyer Larry Sonsini.

In that environment, the kids grew up seeing industry icons as everyday people, who would talk about their failures often more than their successes.

"I learned that these are just normal guys, just smart guys who solve problems," said Ken Kurtzig. "You and I or anyone can do this."

Read More Gordon Moore on 50th anniversary of Moore's Law

Andy got the entrepreneurial bug early, starting companies while a student at the University of California at Berkeley. JustAnswer, which he launched in 2003, is his third real business and has raised $51 million.

Ken had actually planned to be a doctor and did his undergraduate work in pre-med.

"I had no grandiose visions of trying to compete with her," he said. "My brother had visions of being more successful."

As he was nearing graduation from UCLA in 1998, Ken met a recruiter from PeopleSoft. He decided to bail on medical school to work in the software industry, ultimately leading him to start iReuse in 2003.

With iReuse and now Arizay, Ken has avoided raising venture capital while preaching frugality, an attribute he says he learned from his mom. ASK never raised venture funding, and though Kenandy has brought in over $43 million, that's a tiny number relative to the mega-rounds being raised by other fast-growing software start-ups.

JustAnswer is venture backed, but hasn't raised capital since 2012. Andy says he grew up with an understanding that profit matters, even if at the expense of growth.

"I am very financially disciplined, more so than current economy warrants," he said. "There are a lot of companies burning $10 million a month or more, and I'm not comfortable with that."

Read More Why one veteran VC is investing despite seeing a bubble

Lawyer Sonsini has seen it all in Silicon Valley, but he almost never sees a family of successful entrepreneurs. Wins in the industry are so scarce that for multiple family members to not only have the drive to build something but to prosper, defies all the odds.

"It's pretty rare," said Sonsini, whose lengthy client roster has included Apple , Google, and Twitter. "I've been representing entrepreneurs and CEOs and companies in the Valley for almost 50 years. I haven't very often this combination."

Sonsini is a board observer at JustAnswer, and a Kenandy board member and investor.

At Kenandy, Sonsini and the other directors are tasked with helping find the next CEO. Kurtzig is assisting in the process, though she's spending as much time as she can in Hawaii, finally enjoying a house that she built before starting Kenandy.

Even in Hawaii, where her two kids and five grandchildren gather annually, new business ideas are still getting formed.

In the summer of 2012, Andy's oldest daughter Jamie (now 11) was annoyed that she couldn't take her dad's iPad down to the beach for fear of it getting wet. So she came up with an idea for a customized waterproof iPad cover and called it the WetPad.

They sell for $49.99 each on Etsy , and Jamie donates half the money she makes to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, because she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at a very young age.

"She's our third generation," said her grandmother.

The family gets together every week or two for dinner and multiple times a year for vacations. Sometimes, Sandy even gets to travel alone with her two kids, something that was a challenge in her many years as CEO.

Even though she was often working "25-hour days," as she describes it, Sandy says the tireless schedule ultimately helped her relationship with her sons because they have many more experiences to share.

"There's a real advantage for women to be working because they do have a different bond with their kids," she said. "I'm closer to my kids now than when they were babies."