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Judy Faulkner, founder and CEO of Epic
Judy Faulkner, founder and CEO of Epic
courtesy of HIMSS Media

Judy Faulkner hates high heels.

Stockings too.

“High heels hurt," she told The Capital Times. "Stockings — stockings are probably like ties. They constrain your thinking.”

Faulkner discussed the issue during a long interview in April at the headquarters of Epic, the Wisconsin-based electronic healthcare records management company she founded in 1979 when she was in her mid-30s. Today, Epic has 9,000 employees and annual revenues of $2.5 billion, and the 73-year-old Faulkner is worth $2.6 billion according to Forbes. That makes her one of the top 10 richest self-made women in the U.S. Though she's hardly a household name, Faulkner is America's wealthiest self-made woman in tech, with a net worth slightly higher than Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman ($2.5 billion).

Why has Faulkner remained fairly unknown? Until recently, she rarely granted interviews, preferring to focus on building Epic. But lately, healthcare becomes politicized, and control of the marketplace has been increasingly being fought in public, so Faulkner has felt compelled to talk more to the media.

“It has to do with our growth in the industry,” she told HealthcareITNews last fall. “When we were smaller, it was fairly easy just to stay below the radar and concentrate simply on ‘Are we developing good software? And are we doing a good job with our customers?’ That’s how life was.”

Now, healthcare has become “more of a media battle than a quality-of-products and quality-of-services and support battle,” Faulkner told HealthcareITNews, and she understands she must discuss a wide range of issues in public, sometimes even including how she thinks uncomfortable office attire can affect workplace productivity.

A New Jersey native, Faulkner has spent her entire adult life in Wisconsin after enrolling at the University of Wisconsin to pursue a master's degree in computer science. She and her husband have lived the same Madison subdivision for the better part of three decades, and she drives around in a five-year-old Audi. She recently joined wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett by signing the Giving Pledge and promising to bequeath her assets to foundations upon her death.

Faulkner got her start after taking what she says was one of the country's first-ever computers-in-medicine courses at UW. The decision reflected her interest in both medicine — her mother was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize Peace Prize for her work with the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, and her father was a pharmacist — and tech.

“Math is truth and computer science is what works. It’s great to put them together because you need both,” she told The Capital Times.

Faulkner says she grew up as a "nerd," and credits the advent of Microsoft for making life for people like her easier.

“It was painful to be nerdy when I was growing up and I clearly was nerdy," she told The Capital Times. "But I think it became a perfectly fine thing to be nerdy after Bill Gates.”

Faulkner founded what was then called Human Services Computing, in 1979. At launch, the only employees were two assistants, in addition to the founders.

For a tech company based in the Midwest, growth was initially modest. Eleven years after its founding, the company, which by then had changed its name to Epic, still only had 30 employees, according to the International Directory of Company Histories. But it had already captured some major clients, including the Harvard Community Health Plan, the Ontario (Canada) Ministry of Health, and a 490-bed hospital constructed by the Sultan of Brunei. Epic's bookkeeping software was being used by approximately 100 hospitals in Asia, Canada, and the United States.

One of the company's biggest turning points was when it rolled out a Windows-based electronic medical record (EMR) product called EpicCare. Through word of mouth, and thanks to the growth of Windows itself, the product became the industry standard. By 1997, according to the Directory, Epic had net income of $6.6 million on sales of $30.9 million, and EpicCare was officially the nation's largest electronic medical records system, with some 18,000 licenses sold. Epic attributed more than half of its revenues to EpicCare in 1997, the Directory says. As it expanded into more and more hospitals, revenue hit $162 million in 2003, the year Epic "stunned the industry," in the words of the according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, by landing the Kaiser Permanente contract.

Even as Epic's value soared, Faulkner steadfastly refused to take the company public or accept a buyout. She has also become known for creating an atmosphere that combines grueling hours with unabashed geekiness. Today, the Epic campus in Verona, Wisc., contains a Harry Potter-themed buildings, an Indiana Jones-styled hallway, and a treehouse. For the company’s annual client meeting group, Faulkner is known for dressing in costumes — including Supergirl, the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, and a Harley-Davidson biker.

At the same time, there have been grumbles about Epic's corporate culture. These have manifested themselves in a series of class-action lawsuits challenging the company's overtime pay rules. In fact, one of these suits will soon be heard by the Supreme Court.

The overtime disputes are perhaps the outgrowth of Faulkner's own extreme work ethic. Employees say that Faulkner is always willing to stay up and work all night to get tasks completed, and she expected others to do the same.

“There may be some people who work as hard as Judy,” Epic co-founder John Greist told The Capital Times. “But I'm pretty sure there's nobody who's worked harder.”