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Businesswoman Thrives in Male-Dominated Realms

“Pretty little girls like you become bitches-on-wheels if you go into business.”

That’s what Julie Hill remembers her high school guidance counselor telling her in the 1960s. She had told him she wanted to go into business, and he tried to direct her into teaching.

Instead of discouraging her from pursuing her chosen career path, the comment engendered a sense of “righteous anger” that fueled her career, she said. That career has taken her from creating and selling land development companies to the boardrooms of Fortune 50 companies, such as Indianapolis-based Anthem Insurance Companies Inc.

“It’s a stereotype about women,” Hill said, referring to the guidance counselor’s comment. “And very surprisingly, it still exists today. It’s utterly frustrating.”

She now channels that frustration into mentoring and encouraging women through informal guidance and involvement in a number of organizations, including West Palm Beach, Fla.-based The Women Corporate Directors Foundation. She’s on a mission, she said, to get more women in the pipeline for board positions and C-suite offices.

Another passionate pursuit is trying to get companies to realize that it’s important to focus on two things: corporate profits and raising good kids, that they’re not mutually exclusive.

She also tries to inspire businesses to be a force for good in the world, as evidenced by her work with groups such as the B-Team, a global nonprofit initiative co-founded by Richard Branson and Jochen Zeitz that brings together chief executives and business leaders from across the world to “make business work better,” and Leader’s Quest, a social enterprise that works with leaders to create a more equitable and sustainable world.

She’s also channeled her business acumen into the boards of nonprofit organizations, including Irvine-based Human Options, which serves domestic violence victims. In May, she takes over the reins of the University of California-Irvine Foundation.

Stereotype vs. Desire

Hill grew up in Colton in San Bernardino County. She received a scholarship to attend the University of California-Los Angeles. She majored in English since her high school counselor had suggested something traditional and “lady-like,” she said, though business still fascinated her. It seemed “creative” and an opportunity to bring “something good into the world that people need,” she said.

Hill fulfilled requirements for her degree in her junior year and took mostly business classes as a senior. The school didn’t offer a structured business minor at the time, she said.

A few years later, she accompanied a romantic interest to Illinois, where, despite her determination to avoid the guidance counselor’s advice, she taught school for a few years. She soon realized that, sure enough, teaching wasn’t her calling. And it didn’t quench her thirst for business. She found her way to the University of Georgia, where she received a master’s degree in marketing to get back on the business track.

The Atlanta real estate market was “in the tank” when she graduated in 1975. Several banks had repossessed high-rise condo buildings and were having liquidation sales. At a cocktail party one evening, she met an area banker who said his institution had a lot of real estate and didn’t know what to do with it.

“I said, ‘I can handle that for you,’” she said. “I have a marketing company.”

She actually didn’t have a marketing company but formed one that weekend and started business the following Monday, handling the bank’s real estate for five years.

“I taught myself (how to do it),” she said. “I just figured I would try it. The worst thing I could do was fail. He was desperate, and it worked.”

She then decided to apply her skills to an area of the country that excelled at land planning due to understanding the value of market research. The two places she identified were the Reston, Va.-Columbia, Md. area and the Irvine Ranch area of OC. She chose the latter.

Building a Career

She worked for two former merchant builders—capital partners to conventional builders who want to share in the development profit and assume a portion of the risk—on the ranch for four years and was then recruited by a headhunter to move back to Atlanta for a senior executive position with Mobil Oil division Mobil Land Development Corp.

She said she got the itch to move back to Orange County after four years and took a job as president and chief executive of Costain Homes, a division of London-based Costain Group PLC, which she worked for from 1991 to 1998.

She then created Hiram-Hill Development, a land-development company in Newport Beach, and sold pieces of the business to different buyers. She also created the Newport Beach-based consulting and investment firm Hill Co.

Board, Charity Work

Hill also sits on the board of directors of the Lord Abbett Family of Funds, part of Jersey City, N.J.-based Lord Abbett & Co. LLC, and was the first woman to head the board of Australia-based Lendlease Corp., a multinational property and infrastructure company. During her six years on the Lendlease board, she traveled to about 40 countries to talk to company executives about best practices for gender equality in the workplace, bringing some of the world’s experts along with her, such as Lynda Gratton, a British organizational theorist, consultant and professor of management practice at London Business School.

Her involvement with Human Options is part of Hill’s overarching theme of giving women a voice.

“Domestic violence is domestic terrorism,” she said. “It’s squelching a women’s right to have a voice.”

She said she’s looking forward to taking over the helm of the UCI Foundation, UCI’s main advisory and fundraising group. The campus is planning a comprehensive fundraising campaign, though UCI spokesperson Tom Vasich said it’s in the planning stages and “premature to discuss.”

Not Finished

Don’t think Hill has stopped taking risks. She’s signed up to be one of six passengers on a rocket ship designed by Branson’s team that’s scheduled to launch late next year. An innovative airplane will take the rocket ship to an altitude of about 40,000 feet, Hill said. From there, the rocket will be launched for a suborbital trip.

Her brother, Jeff Kincaid, will also be a passenger. She said he worked for NASA contractors on the design of all of the U.S. space shuttles, which have recently been retired. The siblings paid $200,000 each to ride on the historic flight. 

She signed up for the adventure about six years ago and has done zero-gravity training at a Philadelphia facility where fighter pilots train, as well as centrifugal force training to prepare for 3G and 6G forces. She will undergo weightlessness training in advance of floating in the cabin.

“I want to be part of it because it will be a thrill, and thrills are good,” she said “And I suppose it is consistent with my attitude in life in general … take risks, stay challenged, and enjoy the results. It is certainly what made me keep moving forward in my career.”

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