WOODSIDE -- She was a high school dropout at 15. Then a grocery clerk, then a Harvard MBA, then a rock star high tech executive. At 37, having revolutionized the dot-com world by helping to create Amazon, she quit to lead another, more personal startup: her own life.
Joy Covey often went rock climbing and kite-boarding, and undertook her greatest adventure with the birth of son Tyler eight years ago. She was 50 when she died Wednesday. Riding her bike down one of Skyline Boulevard's treacherous hills, she collided with a van. Like so much else in Covey's life, her death came suddenly, a shock to friends and admirers who never knew what to expect from her next.
Before becoming an Internet pioneer, Covey was the restless daughter of a doctor and nurse, who were no doubt taken aback when she abruptly quit as a freshman at San Mateo High School, but not appalled. With a blazing IQ of 173 and an adventurer's urge to try something new, instead of surrendering to boredom, she left home at 15.
"I thought, 'If I don't obey, what can they do?' " Covey said in a 1999 interview with Fortune magazine, which had just named her to its list of Most Powerful Women in Business. "I decided, there's no more following the rules."
Name some poets
She passed the high school equivalency exam, then bagged groceries in Fresno for a while, graduated from Cal State-Fresno in 21/2 years, and scored second highest in the country on the exam to become a certified public accountant. A brief stint at the accounting firm Arthur Young led her to Harvard, where she earned an MBA and a law degree. She was the only member of her Harvard cohort to arrive with bragging rights over bagging both groceries and high school.
"I was completely intimidated by the rest of the class," Covey told the Harvard Law Bulletin in a 2002 interview. "Not having finished high school and having been fairly utilitarian in the way I went about college, I didn't have a deep liberal arts background. So we'd go to lunch and people would talk about their favorite seventeenth-century poets, and I'd be thinking, 'Could I even name five poets? From any century?' It wasn't until we got our first-semester grades back that I started to realize that everything was going to be OK."
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Amazon co-founder and CEO Jeff Bezos named the company after the Amazon River, which in turn was named after Greek mythology's legendary nation of female warriors. That was Covey's tribe after taking the position of chief financial officer at the fledgling online bookseller at age 33. When she joined Amazon, the company had 150 employees and annual losses that would soon grow into the hundreds of millions. She led Amazon's IPO, counseling impatient Wall Street analysts to expect more red ink before profitability.
By the time she quit to go skiing in 2000, Covey's net worth was estimated at $200 million. Amazon now has 97,000 employees and a market capitalization of $142.6 billion, all of it based on a structure she put in place. She always insisted that she hadn't retired, just gone through another metamorphosis. This one led her to pour energy and considerable money into the National Resources Defense Council, where she served on the board and as treasurer.
In the cycling accident that killed her, the driver of the van, a 22-year-old Fremont man, had turned left in front of her from the oncoming lane at the last instant, according to CHP spokesman Arturo Montiel. He stayed at the scene and has not been cited in the incident. Montiel said the collision is still under investigation.
Staff writer Joshua Melvin contributed to this report. Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him on Twitter at brucenewmantwit.