It was late spring in 2007 when then-Harvard University economist Susan Athey received a call. Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer had read about her and wanted to meet.
Athey, 36 at the time, had just become the first woman to receive the John Bates Clark Medal, joining a group that now includes 12 Nobel Prize winners and two White House chief economists. She flew to Redmond, Washington, and was ushered into a windowless conference room with Ballmer and several of his vice presidents. The company was at a crossroads, struggling to gain ground with a search technology that had long trailed Google.