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Mighty Mayer
Can the young CEO from Wisconsin turn around Yahoo, and in the meantime, how weird will the press about her get?

Marissa Mayer at Turner Hall 

The last time Marissa Mayer was at Turner Hall, it was for her first concert, ever. She went to see Michael Damian, a “Young and the Restless” star who’d succeeded with a slightly vain second career in pop music and a radio hit called “Rock On.” Coming back on Sunday, the stylishly gritty venue on North Fourth Street looked oddly familiar, though she couldn’t think of why at first. “Oh my God,” she said, “I’ve been here before.”

But back then, there were no purple spotlights outside, no corporate buses ringing the block, and she wasn’t the CEO of Yahoo, the country’s fifth largest internet company, according to the 2012 Fortune 500. There were no ranks of marketing staffers carefully managing the event, part of the company’s “On the Road” campaign to accompany its new push into the mobile app market. She wasn’t the star guest, more of interest than rapper Macklemore or DJ Ryan Lewis, both of who would perform later in the night in an attempt to connect more affectionately with a number of young fans and Yahoo users waiting outside. A lot had changed.

She was a mother now. In fact, this was her first observance of Mother’s Day. Celebrations started in Chicago with what she called a “nice brunch” and more or less ended with a failed attempt at shopping for baby clothes made by the Milwaukee-based Florence Eiseman company, a favorite of Mayer’s. The family (made up of Mayer, son McAllister and husband Zachary Bogue, a lawyer and venture capitalist) didn’t make the drive before the outlet closed, Mayer says. Later, she ate dinner at Turner’s, downstairs from the concert hall, and made her way up to the venue’s VIP section for interviews and photos, wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and black boots. She more resembled the teenage Marissa that hung out at Mayfair and the old Northridge malls while visiting her grandfather (Clem Mayer, a seller of insurance and the long-time mayor of Jackson, Wis.) than the ascendant executive who’s been strangely fetishized by national press since her surprise hire in 2012.

The former Google engineer and envoy’s task of pulling Yahoo out of a painful decline makes for surprising reading, and her young age (37), recent fast-paced birth and brief struggle with employees over banning telecommuting have driven plenty of web traffic as well. To see a sign of this mild obsession, look no further than Forbes’
recent national approval poll (a kind of survey routinely used to measure support for a U.S. president) asking, “Do you have an overall positive or negative opinion of the job Marissa Mayer is doing as CEO of Yahoo?” In four tries at administering the survey, between 72 and 81 percent of people responded that they had “no strong opinion.” Of those who answered otherwise, positive responses tended to outweigh negative ones by a slight margin. The story’s headline concluded that “Despite Best Efforts, Marissa Mayer’s Public Has No Strong Opinions About Her.” Would Larry Page’s?

Mayer, the “Googirl,” was one of Google’s earliest engineers and its first female employee, and she played a central role in the development of Google Search and other applications that have become as familiar to many users as their own limbs. (How many people can type
maps.google.com with a sudden mashing movement out of pure habit? I know I can.)

Mayer’s work at Stanford on artificial intelligence fed into her work at Google and now Yahoo, where she’s attempting to implement the ethos of usability and simplicity crystallized famously on the Google Search home page: one logo, one box, two buttons. Mayer designed the layout, which presents no content to users who are visiting the page to search for results that (at least until Google Mind-Reading enters open beta) are most likely unrelated. New weather and mail apps from Yahoo are attempts at interfaces that cozy up in a similar way to users in the hope of becoming familiar, reflexive tools.

To hear Mayer talk about it, Yahoo is a kind of benevolent O.G. among internet companies. “The really amazing thing is that we’re friends with everyone,” she says. “We have a lot of different partnerships across our industry. We’ve got partnerships in place with Google, with Microsoft, with Apple, with all these different designers.”

Sunday’s concert was the first Mayer attended from the On the Road tour, which is staging shows around the U.S. in May and in Europe in June and July. Her return to Turner may have been prompted by more than just the venue’s Wisconsin address and the opportunity to see Wisconsin family; nostalgia for Milwaukee may have played a role, however subliminal. “I remember getting in early enough to go to Mayfair and the Steak Escape. I loved the Steak Escape,” she says of long-past trips to Wauwatosa and the Milwaukee area. “Toys R’ Us was another big thing. Wausau didn’t have Toys R’ Us, and Milwaukee had Toys R’ Us. We were really lucky when we could come down here and go to Toys R’ Us.”

Forbes never asked what’s on Mayer’s MP3 player these days, so we did. “Let’s see,” she says. “I have of lot of the Killers, and I listen to a lot of U2, Coldplay. I also really like Kelly Clarkson and Taylor Swift. I’m very pop-y.”

After the concert, she planned a swift return to California, where she’s trying to reinvent an august internet company – and where everyone’s watching to see if she'll succeed.

“Monday is always a big day for us,” she says, “so I’ve got to go back.”

(photo courtesy of Lydo Le for Yahoo! On the Road)

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