My Personal Journey

My Personal Journey

The unexpected lessons I learned from my cardiac arrest

In the early morning of Nov 7, 2020, walking alone on a beach in Maui, my heart stopped. It didn’t beat for about 4 minutes before I had the incredible luck of being found by a doctor who did CPR and saved my life. Obviously, a lot more drama happened after that, including being put into a therapeutic hypothermia coma for a couple of days and a long stay in hospital with a beautiful view of the West Maui mountains but the definitive moment of luck/grace/lightning was being found by someone who knew CPR. And because he knew CPR I not only live, I live without brain damage.

Of the people who have a cardiac arrest outside of the hospital only 1 in 10 live. That’s a 90% chance of dying. And then, if you live, a serious chance of cognitive impairment. This is such a shocking statistic it took me some time to absorb it and gave me a great deal to think about.

Because of the nature of my cardiac arrest I remember nothing. Nothing from the event itself, nothing from a week before (I don’t even remember flying to Maui) and certainly little for the week after I woke up. I can’t report on a near-death experience. I didn’t see a light, feel my soul above my body, or any of the other mystical experiences people report. A shame because that would certainly have been interesting.

No, all I can report is the huge shock I felt when I realized I had died without a plan!

I had lots of time in hospital to think about this—there wasn’t much else to do. I didn’t have the energy to watch TV or read and because of Covid couldn’t have any visitors. I was stuck in bed because I was weak from the cardiac arrest and beaten up (CPR does a number on your ribs). As I tried to make sense of what happened I realized that I try to plan everything, but I cannot plan for what I cannot predict. I didn’t predict strokes in my 40s and so did not learn how to manage stress until it was too late. I’d thought about a global pandemic only because of the books my husband loves to read but certainly never predicted it would shut down all my travel. And I didn’t predict my heart would stop without warning.

So my first tough lesson: I can’t assume I can plan what happens around me when I die. This never occurred to me! I had always assumed I would die from cancer like my Mum, or flu, or at least something where I would have a few days or months to get my business in order and give direction. I used to think about “what if” and “would I have time to visit Rome one last time once I know I am dying?” kind of thoughts, not how to take care of the family if I drop dead.

I had written a letter to my family 6 months before my heart failure because of the Covid-19 pandemic. I figured at 60 I had some chance of dying if I got it so I wrote a letter thanking them for their wonderful love and giving direction on the party to throw should I die (the important things like which champagne and red wine to serve and to play U2 all night). But in that letter I didn’t give them my passwords, how to get into our budgets and bank accounts and which professional calls need to be made in the event – which was exactly what my husband Bret actually had to deal with.

However, I did get to observe how hyper-organized my family is in a crisis and how they care for one another. Bret was with me in Maui and my 89 year old father was living in a community in Cupertino when I had my adventure on the beach. The police found Bret from a note in my pocket with our condo address on it (my Covid test form for the state of Hawaii) and the news went out across the phone lines. Within 24 hours the family had reconfigured. My sister flew from the UK to be with my father (in case the worst happened), our son flew to Maui to support his father, our daughter moved into our home to help her cousin with the dog and cat sitting since our stay would be extended. Rapid reconfiguration to make sure everyone, two-footed and four-footed, had support. I was impressed.

A clear difference from what happens on the professional front where I learned (for a second time) that I am not indispensable in any professional capacity. Yes, I knew this, but ego leads us to believe we’re valuable and would be missed. It’s very clear to me now that the people I work with who like and respect me would miss me (the person) but my wisdom/advice/experience is replaceable. My husband sent the professionally required emails since I would miss a number of board meetings; I watched the reactions colleagues had and value those which were about our relationship. But most wouldn’t miss me at all after the initial shock.

My father taught me that lesson. A colleague of his died unexpectedly one day (I must have been about 13) and my father went to the funeral. When he came home he was depressed and as he talked about the funeral the aspect that had upset him the most was not the sadness of the family, or the grief for a friend, but that as soon as the service was over his peers talked about who would replace the teammate who had died. Their focus was on themselves, and who would benefit from the change. Unless you are Steve Jobs or Elon Musk we are all professionally immediately replaceable. Makes me wonder why we work so hard.

When Bret called family and close friends to tell them what had happened (and many of these calls were before he knew what the final outcome would be) there were three types of reaction. One group’s immediate concern was for me— what did he know of my status, what was the treatment, what was the prognosis etc.? One group was concerned for him and our (adult) children—what could s/he do to help Bret, what did he need? And the third group was concern for themselves—what did it mean for them? All are very fair reactions. I do not judge that one is better than another but it is a humbling lesson to see and process why people react differently. 

And so to Freddie Mercury’s lesson: “Nothing really matters, anyone can see. Nothing really matters – nothing really matters to me.” 

Everything I think, or say, or do is unimportant and trivial in the grand scheme of the cosmos. The philosopher Epicurus had it right in ~300BC. Life is to be enjoyed with our friends, death is not to be feared and the Gods have no interest in humans at all. We are simply made up of atoms and once we die we are gone so what matters is how we live. 

I am a deist and don’t believe in life after death and so all I have, anything of importance is right now with the people whom I love and who love me, in the places I love and continuing to do what I can to improve the lives of the people around me. Don’t get me wrong – I still enjoy my work. I thrive on the intellectual challenge and want to serve my community; I want to continue to support my family. But work has to be seen in context, as a necessary part of life to make a living; I am finally learning my job is not my purpose.

But maybe the biggest surprise for me is that I have discovered I can be happy simply being quiet. I have spent my whole life on the move. Working, traveling, parenting, gardening, housekeeping but now that I need to stay still for a few months I am learning a new way of being. My heart has an electrical problem not a plumbing problem so the cure is rest and a defibrillator in my chest. I now relish the pleasure of dogs sitting at my feet in front of the fire who are happy to have me home all day, walking them a little further every day. Reading, and reading some more. Cooking. Becoming at peace with the silence, although I do miss being with my friends. The pandemic makes it easier to accept because there is nothing else I can do but instead of stressing against it I am learning how to relax into it for the very first time.

Not that I am not longing to travel and be on the go again. I am. I am desperately longing to get back on a plane, put on my Birkenstocks and walked the ancient streets. I will see Rome again before I die.

Photo: Orvieto cathedral © 2019 Penny Herscher

My Personal Journey

The velvet-lined rut

I’ll start with a disclaimer. I am a privileged Silicon Valley executive with no grounded reason to complain. I have my home, my family (our adult kids came home) and a living that creates a comfortable lifestyle. So don’t feel sorry for me.

But here I am, in the middle of a global pandemic, back in lockdown in a state where the infection numbers are going in the wrong direction, turning sixty today. Wow – that’s a big number. I’m not afraid of it, but as I look back on the lives I have led, and look forward to the lives I still plan to lead, I cannot believe I find myself living a life which, while comfortable, is a velvet lined rut where I can’t see over the edges to the track and the fields and the horizon beyond. And which is not the life I chose.

I have always traveled since becoming a working adult. I’ve been all over the world, as have most tech execs, meeting people, learning, stretching my mind on technology and culture. I’ve always traveled for fun too. Back to Europe at least once a year, even when the kids were little. Dragging the family to Asia, to Europe, to Central America, to the Middle East, to Italy and France over and over, reveling in the art, food, history and excitement of the new experience.

Travel is a choice. Some people never have the choice because of their work but many office professionals do. There comes a point in a career where you choose whether to concentrate your career near home, or not. Some people don’t want to be on a plane every week. They prefer the stability and security of being home every night and choose a career path accordingly. But I never chose to be domesticated the way I have to be now.

I thrived on the variety and stimulus that comes with a mobile lifestyle. Visiting customers, factories, conferences and international colleagues. For some, like me, the movement became the purpose. The lack of repetition, the continuous joy of moving from place to place and experience to experience. The visual stimulus of art; the palate stimulus of food; the ability to wander free, accountable to no-one in the moment. Human beings are, at their core, nomadic and with me that desire is right at the surface.

So lockdown is a challenge. A maturing opportunity – at sixty – to grow up maybe? To stop searching and stay in once place? At fifty I wrote that I recognized the loss and challenges of aging, “Clearly only a healthy dose of humor and self-depreciation is going to get me through this.” At fifty five I retired to sit on boards and travel. At sixty aging has now taken over my body so I can’t worry about that any more – so I serve on a number of boards, 100% on zoom, but no travel! Unthinkable. Especially when I now know we (office workers) can work from anywhere. The lockdown proved that if nothing else. I could do my job from Italy as easily as my living room, if they’d only let me in.

This pandemic is a dramatic loss of freedom for everyone. But life is now distilled down to its essence – the pure spirit. There is no room for frivolity, no room for superficiality in the face of so much tragedy and restriction of movement. My only choice is to learn to appreciate the velvet in my rut and cherish the time – not knowing how long it will be.

Photo: Pompeii © 2011 Penny Herscher

My Personal Journey

I know why my Grandmother drank gin at breakfast

It is day 60 of our shelter in place. Everything seems calm in Cupertino, California. Companies have quickly and successfully transitioned to working from home. Jack Dorsey has said Twitter employees can work from home forever, friends are posting gorgeous pictures of their new lives on Facebook and for the first time in more than 10 years there is very little traffic on 101 at 5pm.

But inside the California ranch houses there is a seething going on, a desperation at the role we find ourselves in in the pandemic. In this case “we” is professional, smart women. Women who have careers; women who have had the privilege of help in the house and have not cleaned a toilet in 25 years; women who like to stimulate their brains with hard problems to solve and challenging debates. Women who are used to being respected for the work that they do.

Women still do the majority of the housework but this work is not respected. And it is repetitive and never ending. It’s like Groundhog Day except I am not learning to speak French or do ice sculptures because I either don’t have time or simply can’t concentrate long enough in the breaks I have. Every day it falls on women, as I am seeing with my girlfriends, to keep the house running, fed and clean. As Eleanor Margolis says in her Guardian piece “Stop this retro nonsense about lockdown being a return to domestic bliss for women.” It isn’t, it is return to the stifling life so many women led before emancipation. Even though some men are posting on Instagram as they step up and help around the house (why weren’t they before?) it is a rare man that will clean a toilet unless he’s paid to do it.

My grandmother was a smart woman. She went to Cambridge University, studied biology and graduated before women were allowed to formally receive a degree. But then she married and moved to India as a wife of the British Raj. She was never able to work but volunteered for local women in what is now Pakistan. By the time I knew her in England she volunteered as a local magistrate but spent much of her time cooking, cleaning, looking after my grandfather, drinking gin, angry and unfulfilled.

I understand why. I, like her, was not cut out to work on the household day in and day out. I respect my friends who chose to stay home to raise their children, but I did not. I chose a career and to hire people to help me with the house and the children. But now, with the arrival of Covid-19, I live in a world where every day I do the same thing. Get up, make bread, make coffee, empty the dishwasher, load the dishwasher, run laundry, cook, clean the kitchen and, once a week, shop and clean the house or cajole young adults into helping me clean the house. And keep my professional responsibilities going on Zoom while competing for bandwidth with the same young adults who are working from home. Zoom goes up and down; bandwidth comes and goes like my patience.

I have no real complaints. We have food, a roof over our heads, an income, a vegetable garden and our family is healthy. I know we are lucky. But even knowing that, the loss of my old life of stimulating conversations, travel to meet with interesting people in exciting places, dinner with friends and most importantly the freedom of being my own master preys on me. And while I don’t typically pour my first glass of wine until 6pm I understand why some days my grandmother didn’t wait and numbed herself earlier in the day. 

I have always known I was fortunate to be born into a generation where women can have a career outside the home. Now I feel it more than ever deep in my tired bones.

Photo: Paris © 2019 Penny Herscher

My Personal Journey

How 2016 rocked my world as I talked with women entrepreneurs

 I am more convinced than ever that there is a bright future for women entrepreneurs and 2016 proved it to me!

I stepped back from being a full time CEO a little more than a year ago. It was time, for family reasons, and I set out to change my life. I still work (I serve on two public company boards) but I decided to spend a great deal more time with my father and my family than I have ever been able to do before, and to prioritize my time to giving back. But I had no idea what that really meant for me – what could I do that was meaningful other than work as a CEO?

I decided that I would just say “yes” to every request for help from entrepreneurs, especially, but not exclusively, women. Not that I would be a pushover and do anything I was asked, but I would say yes to any request for a meeting from an entrepreneur who wanted advice. A first meeting at least and if I thought I could make a difference I’d keep saying yes. I wish I could say I was inspired by Shonda Rhimes’ TED talk but I did not see it until I was well into the year. Instead I was thinking of it as following breadcrumbs without knowing where they were going to lead.

It’s been an extraordinary year, it’s taken me in directions I never would have expected, and it’s changing me.

I’ve met with many amazing female entrepreneurs. Aged twenties to sixties. A psychiatrist who has figured out how to use technology to dramatically reduce the cost of cognitive testing for veterans with PTSD or the elderly with dementia, a media executive with a passion for travel who’s changing how people explore the world, a technologist who’s figured out how to measure skin tone so you can buy the right makeup for your skin, a CEO with an IoT product that can tell you all about the water leakage risks in your commercial property assets (something I did not know was a big problem), a woman revolutionizing the sex tech industry, a woman with breakthrough security technology to protect your phone, a visionary who set up the first and only incubator in Gaza… a new calendaring app, a better travel itinerary planning app, a next generation geospatial model, better on-chip failsafe technology, the artistic director of a ballet, networking technology, machine learning technology … the whole gamut! I have found I love talking with entrepreneurs and CEOs. I love listening to their stories about their businesses, what’s working, what’s scaring them, how they are getting funded.

I ask questions, ad nausea, and then focus in on one of two challenges they face and discuss with them how to overcome them. It’s fun for both of us, and I realize I can help many of them. No judgement, just the experience of being there myself more than once before. And I now believe, more than ever, it is much harder for women to get venture funding than men. I have far too many data points now!

I’ve met with women hedge fund managers who only invest in women led companies, recruiters whose only business is placing women on boards, bankers who want to do deals for women CEOs. The movement is happening. Women are, more than ever, proactively helping women. I threw a book party for Joann Lublin’s new book Earning It – the party was 3 days after our horrific election – and I saw ~60 women (eating my husband’s terrific food and drinking good wine) talking to each other about how this cannot be our future and becoming even more committed to make a different future for women.

But I also visited Israel for the first time and I was hooked. I found Israel fascinating and a historical goldmine but then I spent time in the West Bank with family who are orthodox settlers, and at the same time joined a small group trying to help Palestine with Silicon Valley technology. Wow, that is a complex area. I am reading like crazy trying to understand, but it’s also an area where young women are starting businesses and where I can help.

2016 wasn’t all about female entrepreneurs. I’ve spent 25% of the year in Europe. Driving with my Dad through France, quiet days with him in England helping him write his life story, Italy with my daughter, with my husband, with my sister. Enough time that I know I was truly present for my family, for the first time in a long time.

I am not unaware that it is a privilege for me to be able to do this, but I also now recognize that it is not only money that holds us in our jobs. It is also social status, recognition, a sense of being important. One of my new friends, now in her seventies, and who had a very big, high profile CEO job, told me one of the things she found most difficult about retiring was not being important any more. We are all, in our own ways, driven by ego and giving up the identity that defined me for most of my adult life has had it’s hard moments, like when a man asked me at a fundraiser what I do for a living and when I said I am retired he said “oh” and walked away. I’ve had plenty of “invisible” moments this year and it takes some getting used to.

We may feel it’s hard for women entrepreneurs in 2017, but the groundswell is growing. The number of smart women building businesses inspires me. The number of powerful female CEOs inspires me. And in 2017 I am open for business to help them in any way I can!

My Personal Journey

The Silk Roads – and other Summer reading which may make me live longer

I was highly amused to read the New York Times article that people who read books live longer!

According to the NYT “Compared with those who did not read books, those who read for up to three and a half hours a week were 17 percent less likely to die over 12 years of follow-up, and those who read more than that were 23 percent less likely to die. Book readers lived an average of almost two years longer than those who did not read at all.”

Well I am on my way to changing my longevity to a long old age surrounded by piles of books. Hooray!

And this Summer, as my first Summer not working full time as a CEO, the books are certainly piling up but by far the best book I have read in a long time is the Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan. This book is a retelling of world history by looking at it through the lens of the development of trade routes, specifically the silk roads, through the center of the world (Persia and it’s neighbors). It does a beautiful job of weaving a complex story of how these economic relationships developed in a completely compelling and riveting way, while at the same time it ties the trading relationships into world events as diverse as the discovery of the New World and the Second World War.

It’s not perfect – as the Guardian review says “The need for brevity has led to some troubling misrepresentations” but at 646 pages of dense type it is hardly brief. And the Washington Post review is fair in both praising the book, and pointing out it’s shortcomings.

But for me much of the fascination with this book comes not from learning any specific new history but instead to see how intimately everything is connected. I, like the author, was raised with a Eurocentric point of view and my education was very pro British Empire. I cringed at times at how critical the author is of the British in the 19th century, but my discomfort was even more acute reading his perspective on the Americans in the Middle East since the second world war. He’s harsh, and maybe a little biased against both my countries (I’m a dual national after all) and yet his perspective was thought provoking.

If you are interested in world history this is a book truly worth making the time and effort to read. And even if you are not, this book will open your eyes to a new way of thinking about the history we were taught.

For the rest of my Summer… of the many books I have read I recommend:
Sicily by John Julius Norwich – a loving walk through the history of this fascinating island and a must if you are thinking of visiting.
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit – gorgeous, rich description of the birth of modern Israel, although a little biased.
Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore – deeply researched sweep through 2500 years of this fascinating city’s history, also well written.
Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy – a nerdy feast on this fascinating man.

And for a scented confection that makes you want to cook with lemons and get on a plane to Italy my current delight is The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helen Attlee. It is simply perfect!

My Personal Journey

When Thomas Paine went back to high school: Or how Thetford Grammar saved my father

It’s strange how the tendrils of history weave our lives together in unexpected ways.

This Summer my father told me that he had decided to give a 1925 copy of the complete works of Thomas Paine to his old school in memory of his brother. He asked me to go with him and, thinking it would be a pretty drive on a summer day, I said yes, not knowing I’d peel another layer of his story.

My father’s school is Thetford Grammar School in Norfolk, England. It’s a very old school, dating back to Saxon times with old flint buildings that were part of a Dominican Friary and a Norman cathedral in the past, and where ruins still stand in the parking lot.

But more importantly, Thomas Paine went to Thetford Grammar from 1744 to 1749. One of the founding fathers of the United States, and author of the radical work Common Sense, went to this little market town school all those years ago. It’s in a rural part of England which was surrounded by farms and wealthy landed gentry back then; I have to wonder how many of Thomas Paine’s ideas were formed by the feudal attitudes still prevalent in England in those days.

I knew the school meant a lot to my father, but I didn’t realize quite how much until I went with him.

My father grew up in Thetford in the War surrounded by air bases, Yanks and the excitement of a war going on around him as a young boy. But he also grew up in a tough household because his father had a drinking problem. He was a bright kid with a positive outlook on life and his schooling had a huge influence on his life – he would say it was how he got out. He was pushed ahead early, supported by his teachers and did so well he got a scholarship to UCL and so escaped his family’s life in Thetford.

Without the school he would still be there instead of traveling the world. And this is what he had the chance to tell some of the kids when we went to the school. Little did we know that the new headmaster made an event of my father coming up! We had the local press and a photographer there, the heads of the boys and the girls schools, the chair of the board of governors all there to receive the gift.



The front page report in the Bury Free Press!

The headmaster, Mark Bedford, gave a speech, my father gave a speech, and I teared up. I looked up at the wall and saw his name on the wall board of Bartram Gold Medal winners in 1949. There was his name (with the old apostrophe put into the name in the late 19th century and removed again in the late 20th) recording that his teachers and his own ability pulled him out of a dead end situation at home and put him on a path to an international career in tech. Not surprising that at age 84 he still remembers the names of all his maths teachers!

And he’s been asked back to give the speech at the Speech Day at the beginning of term in September, with teachers, parents and students. I’m so proud of him!


 Norman cathedral ruins in the parking lot


 Smiling for the local press


 The medal winners – he is F.A. O’Nians up there in 1949


The “old school” where Thomas Paine studied
 In Old School, telling the students why he’s giving the books


My Personal Journey

Living the life of an eighty four year old and the lessons that teaches

When I stepped back from being a full time CEO 9 months ago I knew there were a few things that would take an adjustment. Most have been a good change for me. And some are just very different.

One of the choices I have made is to spend a great deal more time with my father. He’s 84 (almost 85!), lives in England and is physically fit. But he’s alone, and slowing down, and long periods alone get him down. So this year I’ve been going to the UK every other month, and he’s come to stay with us, and we’ve vacationed together in France. And next Winter he’s coming to us for several months to escape the long, cold, grey days which England serves up after Christmas.

Life’s a very different pace when you’re 84. There is routine. Breakfast always at the dining table which is set with china, a trip to the supermarket every other day, time with the paper in the morning after breakfast, the big meal (meat and two veg) in the middle of the day (if possible), a walk through the woods by the house (only if it’s not raining), project work (his life story, sorting out photos…), lunch and dinner at the set dining table, and TV after dinner.

It’s idyllic. One day each trip we go to London because he has a meeting at the Dyers and I go to a museum, although this time I stretched the day when I arranged to meet one of my young cousins for a drink after work and got a later train home. But I realized it is very tiring to have such a long day if you are 84 (although it was “great fun”). My sister comes by at the weekends and breaks up the routine for us, and some days I leave for a few hours to see old friends. But in general, it’s a gentle way to live.

And it’s an education for me. An education to help him write his life story, and hear the stories over and over and so realize how important they are to him. An education we are now getting together on self publishing. An education to see how important his lifetime of collecting furniture, art, china etc is to him and how each piece is attached to a memory. An education to hear how important each job was to him, and how much he loved his work, and yet an education to see that all the b.s. he put up with as he was climbing the ladder isn’t really meaningful in comparison to the time he had with my mother, and with family, kids, vacations and adventures. I know this myself, and yet it’s very grounding to actually live in the reality of someone over 80 for a while.

In 48 hours I’ll be on my way back to the hustle of Silicon Valley. Board responsibilities, coaching, the daily tumble of a household and pets. So I try to treasure this gentle pace. And know when it’s all over, hopefully many years from now, I’ll look back on this as a magical time. But it’s also a good reminder that I am not ready to check out of the rat race yet…

My Personal Journey

The strange story of the lost Poussin the “Destruction And Sack Of The Temple Of Jerusalem” and my Uncle Ernie

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. This is a true story of a great masterpiece, lost in time for 350 years and found in our family.My great-uncle Ernie was born Ernest Onians on August 14th, 1904 in Liverpool. He was the youngest of 6, and his immediate elder brother Frank, with whom he was close friends as a young man, was my grandfather. After working together as salesmen selling animal food in East Anglia, Ernie recognized a huge business opportunity – taking waste food at the back door of London restaurants and turning it into pig food which he would process at his mill in Suffolk and then sell to the farmers. He was very successful, a ladies man, and became wealthy.

As he traveled around Suffolk he became interested in art and to educate himself he read extensively, subscribed to art magazines and developed an eye for beautiful things. During and after the War many large houses were being forced to sell their paintings and furniture because of death, taxation and the poor economic situation in the country. As my cousin John wrote “during the ‘forties and early fifties’ he visited many a house sale and county auction, bidding – or more frequently leaving bids – for literally thousands of objects which, like the girlfriends of his youth, caught his curious and sensuous eye. The honied toned ivories, the fresher colors of porcelain, the weave of tapestries, the smooth escapements of watches, the chimes of clocks, the polished veneer of furniture, and above all the flesh, flowers, fruit, animals and landscape found in paintings, all called him to possess them.”

But sadly, although married for a while, he became a hoarder and a miser. He collected so many pieces that he filled up his house and three sheds in his garden with paintings stacked vertically in dirty conditions. As a child I remember my uncle and my father taking me through the piles of paintings, tapestries and clocks which were not insured because Ernie didn’t want anyone to know. My father would visit him frequently (out of loyalty to his own father) as would two of my father’s cousins who were in the art world themselves, one John the professor, the other Dick the artist.

Typical family stuff – until one day one of the sheds burned down. As a result of the fire Ernie did ask his nephews for help to get a review of his pictures. Christies came to the Mill for 2 days and told Ernie and his nephews that there were 7 paintings that should be fully researched before they were sold.

But as is so often the case, his treasures obsessed him. Arguments erupted about what was going to be in his Will and Ernie decided he did not want anyone to get the benefit of his treasures after he died. My father, despite having spent 30 years visiting his uncle and trying to help him, in the end would not be a part of it because, after many iterations,  Ernie insisted that his whole estate be tied up in a trust that would last for 30 years after his death. Only a few of his great nieces and nephews who he hardly knew would benefit, and only if they did not get divorced in the meantime.

Uncle Ernie, as I remember him, 
in the doorway of his home Baylham Mill
Sale catalogues from some of the
auctions he attended

As a result, when Ernie died at age 90 in 1994 the paintings were not researched and his executors gave the sale of the estate to Sotheby’s. A quick one day sale later the estate fetched £2M.

But unbeknown to the experts, and to my cousins who administered his estate, there was a treasure in among the paintings.

This painting had a small, very dark photo in the glossy catalogue (a copy of which my father keeps on his shelf as a reminder of life’s ironies). It was “Attributed to Pietro Testa” as The Sack of Carthage and estimated to fetch £10,000-15,000. But experts watch the sales and as the  Guardian reported four years later it was “picked up at the Onians’ auction for £155,000 by the London gallery Hazlitt, Gooden and Fox, after its advisor, the distinguished Poussin expert Sir Denis Mahon, spotted a photograph of it “the size of a large postage stamp” in the catalogue and ordered them to acquire it “at any cost”.”


The catalogue cover


The thumbnail and description


Hazlitt’s cleaned it, restored it, had it confirmed by the Louvre and it was then that we learned that it was actually the glorious masterpiece the Destruction And Sack Of The Temple Of Jerusalem. Painted by Nicholas Poussin in Rome in 1625-1626, it had been commissioned by the Pope’s nephew Cardinal Barberini as a gift for Cardinal Richelieu! It fetched £4.5M when it was sold to the Rothschild foundation who gave it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where it is now the pride of the museum.

I visited the painting in Jerusalem in March of this year and as I stood in front of it I wondered at the mystery of its journey.

Visiting the painting in Jerusalem

If the executors of Ernie’s will, or Sotheby’s, had had it cleaned as Christies had advised, they would have known what it was immediately. In the middle of the painting is a large menorah being carried out of a Roman temple. And it is the traditional shape of menorah that Poussin would have seen in Rome on the Arch of Titus (who was the general, and future emperor, who sacked and destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE in a brutal, fiery battle to put down the Jewish rebellion – and until 2009 that was the earliest depiction of a menorah found). Any historian would have known it to be destruction of the Temple as documented by Josephus, an event that was the beginning of the diaspora and is mourned even today by Jews around the world.

The menorah in the painting
And on the Arch of Titus on the Via Sacra
in the Roman Forum, celebrating 
the sack and destruction of the Temple 

But the story didn’t stop there. My cousins sued Sotheby’s for negligence in 1999 when this all came to light. The suit went on for several years until, in 2002, as Sotheby’s realized their £3M insurance policy was running out, they settled (the BBC reported “Pig swill estate wins Poussin war” !! ) and £1.4M went to the estate with the rest going to the lawyers.

In the end my father bought a beautiful painting and a clock out of the estate which he cherishes in his home, and a cabinet which was in our house for many years as he lovingly had it restored for his uncle is now in a museum in Los Angeles and known as the Onians Cabinet. Hopefully many people are enjoying the many paintings Uncle Ernie saved, and millions of people will have a chance to marvel at the Poussin in Israel.

The Onians cabinet Naples, Italy circa 1600

Is it sad that the family did not recognize the painting? After all, the children will get plenty of money from the estate in the end. Or is it instead perfect that a painting that depicts such an enormous event in Jewish history was lost, picked up for pig swill cash, not researched by the family, and so was available to be bought by a benefactor who gave it to Israel so Jews from all over the world can cherish it? Personally, I think it’s ironic and perfect.


Notes on the painting from an exhibition at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Nicolas Poussin was the foremost exponent and practitioner of seventeenth-century Classicism. This work from his early Italian period (1625-1626) was commissioned by Poussin’ patron Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew and secretary of Pope Urban VIII, and was offered as a gift to Cardinal Richelieu, the French head of state. Barberini led a papal legation in a vain attempt to reconcile France and Spain, at the time engaged in a bloody war. Poussin draws a parallel in the painting between his patron, the would-be peacemaker, and the enlightened pagan emperor Titus, who tried unsuccessfully to prevent the ruin of Jerusalem and its temple. The composition is divided between the image of the Temple engulfed in flames in the background and the chaotic struggle, dominated by the striking figure of Titus on his white mount, in the foreground. A sense of drama, with the clash of arms and flashes of golden light from the Temple vessels, suffuses the entire work. Classical Roman architecture and sculpture provided sources for Poussin’s painting. The scene seems to be a Roman city: the soldiers’ dress is taken from reliefs on Roman sarcophagi; the facade of the Temple resembles that of the Pantheon; the figure of Titus was inspired by the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline; and the menorah derives from the famous depiction on the Arch of Titus. After Richelieu’s death, the painting was inherited by his niece, who then sold it. It changed hands many times and eventually reached England. Its whereabouts were unknown from the late 1700s until 1995, when it was rediscovered by the art historian Sir Denis Mahon, restored to its original state, and donated to the Israel Museum in 1998.

Leadership, My Personal Journey

SPLX IPO 15 Years Later

15 years is a milestone I think. Short enough that I still remember, long enough that is seems far in the past.We took Simplex public 15 years ago today. May 3, 2001. It was the culmination of a wild ride, and the beginning of another. Going public is a rite of passage. It’s not a birth (founding a company), it’s not a marriage (M&A), it’s not a death (shutting down) so maybe it’s like a bar mitzvah or confirmation – a rite of passage into adulthood. You take a company public when you are large enough that you want to fund the company into the next phase of growth on the public markets, and you want to provide liquidity to your investors. In 2001 that meant revenue of about $50M was needed, profitability, and steady, predictable growth which we had. We loved our company, and we were proud of our technology and our customer relationships.

With the Simplex IPO we threaded the needle between two significant market crises. In April 2000 the dot com bubble burst. We were not a dot com, we were a real company in the semiconductor space selling very nerdy software to chip designers. We filed our first S1 on September 11, 2000. Yes, 9/11 but a year earlier. (Actually we sent the docs to the SEC on Friday Sept 8 but we missed the cutoff so the filing date was 9/11).

Even by Sept 2000 there was little appetite on Wall St for a tech IPO because everyone had been burned by tech valuations based on a faddish bubble. But by late March 2001 we still needed cash to keep growing (we were opening international offices and hiring people behind our growth). I met with Larry Sonsini and Frank Quattrone (both kings of the Valley at the time) and we all believed we could price the deal. So we went on the road.

One of the most intense experiences of my life. 3 weeks of meetings 7-8 meetings every day. Paris, The Hague, London, New York, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas and finally Houston. I drank too much vodka and took smoking back up for the 3 weeks (I did quit again at the end thank goodness). I lost 12 lbs in 15 days because I was not eating much. It seemed as if I was always presenting over breakfast and lunch so when was I going to eat?

And then, on May 2, in the late afternoon in Houston, we priced the deal, sold 4 million shares to CSFB, brought in $44M in proceeds for Simplex and hopped on the private jet to New York to be there for the market opening the next day. I slept on the plane, but not much when I got to New York.

May 3 was a round of interviews. Radio, Bloomberg TV, CNN’s finance network at Nasdaq, and time on the floor with the CSFB trader who was making the initial market in SPLX stock. We opened at $12 and closed over $21. The book was 11X over subscribed and we were one of the very first tech deals to get done successfully in 2001, opening up the market for many more that had been waiting. Maybe we priced too low, maybe not, there was no way to know because the market was so skittish.

But, of course, we were only public for 4 months before September 11, 2001 hit. The market collapsed, our customers delayed orders and our stock dropped to $8. A violent roller coaster is too gentle a term for what this felt like. The gripping stress of how to make sure the company, our employees and our customers were OK. When Cadence approached us to buy us in January 2002, a deal we eventually closed on June 2, 2002 for $300M, it was the right outcome for the company. As one of my board members told me “there’s a war coming, you are too small to survive it”.

Paris – walking around jet lagged the first evening


Walking around Paris on Sunday, relaxing before the whirlwind starts (with Luis Buhler, CFO)


Agent Herscher, on a helicopter very early one morning headed to
New Jersey from Manhattan for a presentation



The view of Manhattan from the helicopter



 Showing Melanie and Sebastian the private jet at SFO



How I often spent my time on the jet – not so glamorous!
Our typical ride around New York


 How Aki (Aki Fujimura COO) and Luis would often spend their time in the limo
Getting used to the cycle of meetings and flying – don’t we look smart!


My classic pose, talking to our lawyer (Bob at WSGR) or the bankers. I loved that flip phone.
Signing the docs to sell the shares to the bankers
Hugging out the tension with Aki once it was done
The team including Richard and David from CSFB


Headed to NY to watch the market open and celebrate


Watching the SPLX stock start to trade


The stock hits $20
Doing a TV interview back in Sunnyvale in my office –
the success of the IPO was Silicon Valley  news – maybe the market hadn’t died (yet…)
Leadership, My Personal Journey

Why I’m stepping back from being CEO

I’ve loved being a technology CEO. It’s been 20 years, and the CEO journey has taken me from pride to humility, from exhaustion to exhilaration, from courage to fear and often all in the same day. It’s a fantastic job and a huge responsibility and I’m honored to have been trusted with the job not once but twice and in two very different markets. I’ve worked with talented executives, loyal investors, and customers who’ve become friends over the years.

And I’ve also always been incredibly conscious of the role I play in making it possible for other women to be high tech CEOs by simply showing it can be done in a world which is so biased against us.

But it’s time for me to step back. This has been a tough decision – and those of you who know me well will know what kind of war has been going on in my brain for the last 6 months – I’m not without ego after all! But I am very conscious that over the last 20 years I’ve traded so much as I focused on my career. Of course, my challenges are every working person’s challenges. Enough time with my children, supporting aging and dying parents, not enough sleep, not enough personal time. But I’ve become so much more aware of time passing since my mother died and now my father is 84 and far away and so I’ve decided to make different choices with my time. I feel very fortunate that I have that choice.

It’s hard, but balance is a myth if you are CEO (as I blogged in 2007). Every company deserves a CEO who is on 24/7. One who lives and breathes every aspect of the company, the future of every employee and the success of every customer. That’s just what it takes to succeed.

We’ve built a fabulous technology platform at FirstRain and one we’re proud of. It’s used by some of the biggest companies in the world and our customer engagements just keep getting deeper. I am truly delighted that YY Lee is going to take over from me as CEO – she has been with me every step of our 10+ year journey together at FirstRain. But more than that, she’s worked with me on and off across 3 companies over the last 23 years and I know she more than has what it takes to lead FirstRain through the next stage of growth. I could not be prouder of her. And I’ll be there to help her and the Rainmakers. I’ll stay involved as an active chair, work on strategy and continue to do the part of my job I love the most: working closely with our large customers.

And with the rest of my time? I very much enjoy my public company board work, and of course I’ll keep on coaching entrepreneurs and women (which I love to do), and being a feminist and a blogger. But more importantly I’ll spend more time with my father in England and with my family.

It’s not all perfectly clear to me but I’ll figure it out as I go along. I’ve been an obsessed CEO for so long now I can’t imagine too far ahead yet. But I’m sure I’ll work it out.