In 2015, she was second-in-command at one of the biggest IT companies in the world with $70 billion in annual revenue and over 100,000 employees. She was appointed by President Obama to the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (NSTAC) and was elected to Oracle’s board of directors. Her name is Renee James and today, she oversees a 300-person fledgling tech firm that manufactures computer chips – a sector that most venture capitalists get antsy talking about when words like “investment” and “opportunity” come up.
For James, that is exactly the place she wants to be. After leaving Intel four years ago, she started working part-time with Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, while she weighed her options for the future. She knew she wanted to build something of her own and finally settled on the idea that she wanted to launch a semiconductor startup. It wasn’t easy, though.
As she describes it, many people were willing to meet with her just based on name recognition but very little interest once they learned the specifics. "Everyone took my phone call and I got a lot of meetings," she explained. "They almost always said no."
She may have been told that she was crazy to start a computer chip company at a time everyone was investing in cloud initiatives but that didn't stop her. After having several VCs pass on her plans, James decided that she would approach Carlyle even though she knew that it might not be the easiest sell – the PE giant didn't tend to invest in early-stage startups and a 2015 an underperforming semi-conductor deal had left its impression. They let her pitch the idea and challenged her to further flesh out her plan with details on how’d she tackle intellectual property rights; develop partnerships; and recruit the people she’d need.
From there, she gathered together a team from those who had been previously employed at a company called Applied Micro – an acquisition that left its server chip unit (and people) on the market for a new buyer. She also tapped Oracle for a $46 million investment, coaxed Carlyle Group to the table with an undisclosed investment amount, and launched Ampere Computing. “Everything I ever worked on was risky – every single thing,” James said. “[But] this is part of the deal, innovation is a drug.”
The company produces ARM-based microprocessors for cloud servers and with recent concerns being raised regarding security vulnerabilities with Intel's computer chips – many big companies are making a switch. Microsoft, for example, announced they would be moving forward with using only ARM-enabled systems and became one of Ampere's first customers.
In a 2016 interview with Stanford Business School, James shared her experiences of competing for Intel’s CEO position in 2013. “I was a candidate to be CEO [for Intel] and I wasn’t selected for co-CEO which was the proposal we made… but to become president,” James shared. “At the time, I was thrilled and I still love the company so much.”
She realized somewhere along the way that she wanted to run her shop and said her farewells to Intel two years later. “Being in charge isn’t so much about being the boss,” she explained. “It’s more about setting the strategy and creating the leadership environment that you want, and making the decisions around how you’re going to handle things that are more difficult a certain way.”
James received her international business degree in 1986 and her MBA in 1992 from the University of Oregon.