Carl Ledbetter

Special Partner

In the last five years, Carl has received four new patents and had three new grandbabies, but it is clearly the grandbabies that are the most important to him. He’s no longer our only grandfather, but he’s still the only one of us with a passel of patents, which we don’t even pretend to understand, but we do follow his grandbabies on social media. He likes to think he’s perceived as a tough-guy executive and technologist, but it’s a hard role to play when we watch Finn, Adeline, and Portia turn him into a pushover Poppie.

Carl is a (former) runner, an avid hiker (having done twenty Fourteeners and been to Kilimanjaro), a SCUBA diver, and a technical rock climber. And that’s saying something. He has also been on every continent, including on mainland Antarctica, been to over seventy countries, swum in every ocean in the world, including the Baltic, the Black Sea, and both the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans (where it was 29 degrees Fahrenheit—can you say shrinkage?). We tell you these not to boast about Carl, but to point out one irrefutable truth that he mentions all the time in defense of his activities: They’re a lot safer than his day job.

Carl has been in the venture capital business for 21 years — eleven at Pelion and the rest at Novell and AT&T. And during that time he h as served on the boards of three public and more than twenty private companies. Including senior executive positions at IBM (where he was Lab Director of the Engineering and Scientific Processor Products Laboratory at Kingston, NY), Control Data Corporation (where he was President of CDC’s supercomputer subsidiary, ETA Systems), SUN Microsystems (where he ran SUN’s PC Networking Division), and AT&T (where he was President of the Consumer Products Division).

Can’t get enough? Read on.

Carl has also been an entrepreneur himself: he ran a startup called, Hybrid Networks, a Sand Hill Road venture-backed company, which he took public and sold to a major telecom. In all, he has led companies or divisions ranging from ten people to 16,000, and, over the course of his career, he has had more than 26,000 engineers reporting to him.

All of which means he knows someone at nearly every company with the potential to be a technology customer in the computer, networking, or telecommunications industry. He also bought fifteen companies and sold eight during his career before he became involved with venture capital, so he is really someone who has been in nearly every position and on every side of the table that any entrepreneur would want to know about.

Speaking of before — prior to joining the computer and telecommunications industry, Carl earned a BS, MA, and PhD in mathematics. He was a professor of mathematics at universities on both coasts and in the Midwest, and while he was in the California State University system he served as academic dean. This academic background has come in handy for Carl, not only because it gives him a union card for just about every technology that underlies what the tech industry is working on today, but because all the rest of us have children who routinely have called Carl with help with their math homework over the years; it turns out that Carl is pretty good at high school algebra. All in all, Carl’s is a history that serves as the backbone of his expertise in technology.

In fact, Carl has been a leader in the computer and telecommunications industry for decades. He was Chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on the Computer Industry of Minnesota under the administrations of two governors; he was a member of the board of directors of the Wireless Industry Association, and he served as a member of the Technology Advisory Committee to the Joint House-Senate Committee on Science and Technology.

He was also a founding member and treasurer of the board of directors of the Rocky Mountain Venture Capital Association. Plus – I know, this is getting embarrassing – he was a member of the Boston Computer Museum’s Computer Bowl team. On top of that, he has been invited to be the keynote speaker at more than twenty international conferences on supercomputing, computer networking, computer security, and encryption. But, interestingly enough, never on bowling.

All of that said, though, what stands out most to his peers and co-workers is his need to doodle during company presentations. In his defense, though, he says it helps him concentrate. Now, when we say ‘doodle’ we ain’t talking squiggles like everyone else. Here’s one from last week: obvious_equation Apparently, this is one of the Maxwell Equations, which Carl thinks are, and we are quoting here, “Obvious.”

But if it’s a crime to think that everyone knows what he’s talking about when he mentions the Karush-Kuhn-Tucker Theorem, then he does not seem to be concerned. Ditto for being able to complete the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in under forty-five minutes and knowing every line of most of Shakespeare’s plays by heart (although, we are happy to report, not with their original pronunciation).

Carl was the author of the original solutions manual for Rubik’s Cube and he can still solve it in under a minute. (He says he does it by the colors.) And he’s the technical advisor for AMC’s hit television series Halt and Catch Fire. (He operates the computer under the table and off camera in all of the scenes that have a live screen.) And if you ever noticed insider references to Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, George Dantzig, and Emmy Noether, you’re welcome.

Hobby wise, Carl is a huge baseball fan. In fact, he has seen more than half of all the World Series games ever played. He once insisted we hire an MBA student as an intern because he was the only candidate who managed to find out which player held the record for the fewest pitches per plate appearance over a career. (He would deny this if it weren’t true.) And finally, he was in Fenway when Carlton Fisk’s home run in the 12th inning of the sixth game of the 1975 World Series hit the foul pole (for you doubters out there, he still has the ticket stub). He is also a pilot and for many years had an airplane and regularly flew it between Denver and Salt Lake City and Palo Alto.

But, alas, contrary to outward appearances, his life is anything but a bowl full of cherries. Over the last few years, has lost no fewer than six cell phones, including one he dropped in a swimming pool (and to answer your question, yes, fully submerged cell phones can still ring – but, evidently, only once). He ran over another one with his car. In the snow. (It’s a long story.) And he ran over a laptop computer with his car too. (Don’t ask.) Which is one of the many reasons he is not currently allowed to drive with any of the other partners in the car. And it’s really saying something when the rest of the partners have a combined total of five car accidents while they are driving (Carl has none), but we would still all rather have any one of us drive than be in a car he’s piloting (and that actually includes Carl), because he has taken distraction behind the wheel to an entirely new level: he once returned a Hertz car with a tree stuck in the bumper and claims to have no idea how it got there. We are not making this up.

“Carl is the smartest person I’ve ever known (including fictional characters like Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory). Eidetic memory, Ph.D. in math, a slew of computing patents and so on. Why he can’t figure out how to get a change of clothes into a carry-on is beyond me. He checks this monstrosity of a bag whether it’s a one-night trip to Boise or a three-week trek to Borneo. We take bets on what could possibly be inside. His wife Liz maybe? A Prius?”

- Blake Modersitzki

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