Friday, December 31, 2010

Patrimony is alive and well and unchanging

It’s wild to cross the world and literally find yourself in a world that superficially looks the same, and yet is so different... but is it?

London is a great modern metropolis, but hidden behind large wooden doors, deep within the financial city of London, there lies an old world order – the world of the Livery Companies - the old Guilds. The Fishmongers, the Goldsmiths, the Longbow makers - more than 100 ancient professional (originally religious) guilds of members of the trades.

They survived in London for over 900 years because they were wealthy professional organizations, and unlike similar organizations in the rest of Europe, they were independent of the crown and would lend money to the King when he needed it. It was a symbiotic relationship to keep the guilds healthy through the infighting for the crown between the great Houses.

Most are male only societies - membership by patrimony or servitude. Some small fraction of the members actually still practice the trade of their guild, but mostly they are clubs, membership handed down through patrimony, to manage their considerable wealth, patronize schools and charities, and most of all eat and drink together in companionship.

My father is one of the more senior members of the Worshipful Company of Dyers (the 13th in precedence of the Livery companies). Yesterday he threw a private lunch party in their Hall, surrounded by portraits, set for elegance (outside in in case you are wondering which implement to use – and pass the port only to the left).

I sat in the Hall, obviously enjoying my family and their friends, musing on how far away technology and the rat race are once you step behind the doors. Here what matters is tradition, family history, friendship, charity and the quality of the wine, not technology, growth rate, competition and who’s the smartest.

But wait – I kid myself – it must be the residual mellowing effect of the fabulous port. It’s not different. It’s still white male and about hierarchy and power. But with a more civilized veneer than silicon valley.

I do love that my father has the Dyers and that it gives him so much companionship and pleasure. I do wonder that he indulges me in my liberal views. Maybe he is secretly pleased when I ruffle the feathers of the status quo.

My father is a member from my mother’s side of the family (an old, aristocratic bloodline). Their names are in the roster for hundreds of years. My grandfather had no sons and brought my father in instead. My father had no sons so has brought in my cousin, over my infuriation at the unjustness of the system.

So the year my father was the Prime Warden he asked me to give the speech at Ladies Night (the one evening of the year ladies are invited to dinner). My role? To thank the Dyers on behalf of the ladies. I did so with humor and bite.

They were well into the port by the time I gave my speech, and so after a witty thanks to all on behalf of the ladies for the dinner, a few good jokes etc. etc. etc. I pointed out that I was, after all, more entitled to be a member of the Worshipful Company of Dyers than my father given my bloodline, but (running my hands suggestively down the deep V at the front of my evening dress) I was born with an impediment I could not overcome.

Hilarious laughter from the members – what an absurd idea so provocatively expressed! So funny! And they are still laughing about it 10 years later.

Carols by candlelight

There is simply nothing like singing your heart out to make you feel alive.

December 23, 2010 – Carols by Candlelight at the Royal Albert Hall – an oval Victorian concert hall, dimly lit (a simulation of candlelight). The Mozart Festival Orchestra at one end in 18th century period costume. A choir in red robes (hints of the occult I think). 6,000 people with carol sheets in their hands. Readings from a Christmas Carol and St Marks Gospel by Robert Powell.

And a conductor and harpsichordist, Steven Devine, in a hot wig with a roster of groaning jokes to warm up the crowd.

Singing every other carol. Professional then crowd, professional then crowd. Singing descant between my son’s tenor and my mother’s soprano. Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Insider trading - why is everyone shocked?

In theory the principle behind insider trading has not changed in 30 years - as evidenced by Hollywood's first major attempt at telling the story in Wall Street in 1987. But in practice the process through which companies communicate, and the SEC investigates, changes continuously.

Witness the recent investigations into Expert Networks and Corporate Access and their possible role in providing insider information to hedge funds. Investors have always wanted to talk directly with company management to get a better understanding of a company and it's prospects.

Before Reg-FD sell-side analysts would get preferential access to company management - and often get help with their models and their descriptions of the company's strategy and it's progress. 20 years ago a sell-side analyst might send you his model and research report a few days in advance of publishing and you could give him feedback. In the early 90s when I was VP Marketing at Synopsys the sell side analysts would send their reports to me and the CFO in advance to have us edit and correct them before they were published.

Then Reg-FD came along and it became illegal for management to give the sell-side advanced information.Fast forward 5 years and we have two types of "access". The sell-side organizes access to management for their best clients - hosting management for a couple of days in New York or Boston and wheeling them into one-on-ones and high end restaurants.

In contrast Expert Networks hook the buy-side up with experts in the field they are researching and the smart ones put recordings and controls in place. In both cases no insider information is supposed to be shared but come on... they are two versions of the same thing. People talking to people to get understanding, color and tone. You can watch a CEO and his team, especially in the down times between meetings, and get a good sense of their outlook.

The SEC can and will get all over insider information - and the mess at Galleon is evidence of what can happen if you play fast and loose. I've met with them, and firms like them, and you have to be on your toes to not break the rules. To whit, one meeting I was in with my CEO and a hedge fund PM two weeks before the end of the quarter (more than 5 years ago) and I watched in amazement as they talked in code and clearly conveyed the pending results.

My favorite example - my customer (a portfolio manager) who was invested in a large public company whose CEO was a reformed smoker. She sold when she saw him smoking, and bought when she saw him being able to quit for a while. It was a fool proof strategy for years.

I'm glad the SEC is all over insider trading and trying to keep ahead of every new loophole that develops. The fast and loose times of the late 90s were not good for any but the few who sold tech at the top. But it's got to be a continuous improvement process, not a stop and start process based on public sentiment. Any time there is great wealth being created (as we have seen and will continue to see in hedge funds) we should expect to see the creative few bending the rules and trying to get an unfair advantage. It's human nature.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The planned parenthood energizer bunny

Time is an ongoing challenge and never more so than on a Saturday morning when I have a millions things to do --- and I have a board meeting to get to. I gulp, I rush, I go, and I am always glad I do when I get there.

Today I am at the quarterly board meeting for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. The board is made up of people from all walks of life. Health care, politics, the law, government and foundations. And me, the one from "industry". It's always fascinating to hear from the worlds so different from my own - especially California politics.

Our ongoing challenge here is the California budget. We receive funding for family planning from the state and the Feds give us more $9 for every $1 we get from the state. So we are a net gain, and save money for the state by providing family planning services, but in the current dire CA fiscal crisis every decision is short term survival not necessarily long term.

But as one of our board members pointed out, PPMM is like the Energizer Bunny. The management team just keeps drumming. No matter what happens the organization keeps going, keeps growing, and keeps focused on the mission:

"to ensure that every individual has the knowledge, opportunity and freedom to make every child a wanted child and every family a healthy family."

And with two new counties coming up (San Mateo and Alameda) they are going to need their extra batteries!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Drunken tongues tell no lies

I was 13 when I learned that alcohol could be a dark and dangerous thing.

Some context - I grew up around social drinking - it was not a big deal and today I love great red wine. But there is one drink I cannot tolerate the smell of and that is gin.

My memory of the day is as clear as a bell. My mother and I went to visit my grandmother for lunch – this was a year after my grandfather had died. My grandmother was a brilliant woman, Cambridge educated but frustrated by the roles she had had to play in life as the daughter of a Yorkshire vicar of a good family and a wife of the Raj. Today she would have had a career of her own but in her generation she had not broken out and the years of frustration had built up.

She was lonely, angry and bitter and she had been drinking. Neat gin. Lunch started out seemingly fine but as the meal went on she went on the attack. Vicious, cruel attacks at my mother and her abilities, attacks about my father, his background, and his motivations in marrying my mother. My mother would have been 40 – younger than I am now – facing this diatribe in front of her 13 year old daughter. And not surprisingly she broke down.

I grew up in that moment. I remember standing up, thanking my grandmother for lunch and telling my mother we were leaving. She was scared and crying but I grabbed her hand and she followed me. I walked her to the car and to this day I remember the lunch hitting me on the back of my head as she threw it after me. I was shaking but determined as I told my mother we were leaving. Now. And lamb chops have never had much appeal since.

Probably not the first time I took over, but the first time I remember taking over for a "grown up".

Friday, December 10, 2010

Weather whiplash

Modern travel creates a strange dislocation in clothing when crossing the country.

Yesterday I was in New York and it was cold, really cold. My phone said 24 degrees (F), the radio said 19 degrees. My nose and the tips of my ears knew it was at least as low as 19, if not lower!

I layer up to go to my meetings - including the warm wool coat. Gloves. A scarf. Then, when ready to go home I hail a cab and hot foot to JFK. My stripping act then ensues. And as expected on the plane it's cold, then it's hot, then it's cold.

All normal. Except when I land in SFO I am in my final layer - a polo neck sweater. It is December 9 after all. Seems reasonable to me.

But the weather gets the last laugh. Driving home -- 11pm -- it's 61 degrees! I surrender and put on the air conditioning.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Is a broken arm a priority?

I found myself telling this story to a journalist last week as I described some of the weird and funny experiences that come with my choices in life. I've written before that I think balance is a myth - it's impossible to achieve if you are a CEO and a mother - and there are days when you just have to choose.

One day when my son Sebastian was 8 years old - it was the last day of the quarter at Simplex. We had the traditional kind of business where revenue recognition was a major task on the last day of the quarter to make sure we were accounting for our orders correctly and shipping the right ones to make the number, as well as negotiating with customers to get business closed. Typically I would spend the day with my CFO and VP sales intently closing the quarter.

On the day in question, at about noon, I got a phone call from the nurse at Bas's school - and she told me that Bas had fallen off the parallel bars and broken his arm. She'd called the nanny, and then my husband, but neither had answered and so I had to go and get him.

I remember standing with the phone in my hand and The Clash playing in my head trying to decide what to do: Should I stay or should I go? I walked into my CFO's office and said "OK you guys have to do this without me. I'll be back as soon as I can".

When I walked into the nurses office Bas was sitting with his arm wrapped with ice and hadn't cried until then. He broke down when he saw me -"Mom, I can't believe you came," he said. "It's the last day of the quarter!"

He'd tell you that story if you asked him. Sometimes he tells it with pride for his mom. Sometimes it's a great way to embarrass me!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Andrew Jackson as you have never seen him

Funny, frenetic; Sexy and stunning; Loud and lumpy.

Bloody, bloody Andrew Jackson is a wild ride on the stage. A populist interpretation of the life of Andrew Jackson in loud rock, absurdity, profanity, humor and one of the best ways I have seen history brought to life if you are not a fan. I went with teenagers for whom history is usually boring and something they have to sweat through in school but when it is packaged in tight black pants, a little cutting, slapstick humor and a rocking score they love it.

As the NY Times said in it's review Ideal President: A Rock Star just Like Me:

"...“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” created by Alex Timbers (book) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics), feels unconditionally (and alarmingly) of the moment. The show’s theme song? An angry little number called “Populism Yea Yea,” in which the chorus roars, “And we’re gonna take this country back for people like us, who don’t just think about things.”

In tracing a restless young nation’s teenage crush on a down-home, rifle-toting maverick (played with omnisexual swagger by Benjamin Walker), this musical suggests that when it comes to selecting their leaders, Americans never outgrew adolescence. Though its style is often as skewed as a tilt-a-whirl ride, “Bloody Bloody” takes precision aim at its central target: an impatient electorate ruled by a hunger for instant gratification.

For some strange reason - well maybe it is a little too out there for the average Broadway attending European tourist - the show closes on January 2 so if you have not seen it yet take 90 minutes out of your business day, check your sensitivity to the gravitas of our former Presidents at the door, and go and see it.

And be very scared. Two words: Sarah Palin.

Labeled at a dinner party

I don't like being labeled. I don't even like wearing those "Hi My name is xxxx" sticky labels that leave glue on your suit jacket at non profit fund raisers. But last weekend I got labeled at a dinner party.

Imagine the evening. Beautiful setting - Tall, perfectly coiffed Christmas tree, gorgeous table, scrumptious smells coming from the kitchen, fantastic selection of red wines. I was at the house of someone I had only met a couple of times but who had kindly invited me to her Christmas dinner party and I was stag because Bret could not join me.

This was the kind of dinner party only for the elegant. All the ladies (except me - that's another story) had little black dresses on. All the ladies (except me) had high strappy shoes on. Two even had the same FM shoes on with their little black dresses (how embarrassing!).

And then when we sat down to dinner each side plate had a small button on it. I didn't read my button at first, but as the evening wore on I realized these were labels!

Mine was Lucky duck. Smarty pants belonged to a close friend of mine who is a litigator. Yes he's smart but not as implied - not a show off (well not most of the time). And worst yet was for his long time girlfriend whose label was Little lamb. Now this woman might look like a lamb - blond, beautiful, legs a mile long and very quiet in a group - but that's not what she is. She's the smarty pants, misses nothing, and sees through every pretense. She just chooses to only show her feisty side when she knows you well - she's just more polite than most of us.

A strange juxtaposition. Extreme elegance combined with barbs. Although I would never deny that I am very lucky!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Iron fist in a velvet glove

Some days I think my job is tough. And then I'll go to a Planned Parenthood Mar Monte board meeting and see how very easy and trivial the task of a high tech CEO can be.

Linda Williams is a little, grey-haired lady with a twinkle in her eye. She's funny, caring and makes you initially feel that she is a gentle sweetie. Ha! no way. Linda is the CEO of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. It's the largest of the Planned Parenthood affiliates and covers much of California and Nevada. And it's a target.

Planned Parenthood is known for abortion. But the reality is less than 3% of the services provided are actually abortion - the majority are sexual health - and most often for those in our community that desperately need the help. Young teens, and the poor without good health insurance. It does so much good, and although most people (70%) if asked believe a women should have the rights to her body, there is an active group who aggressively oppose the work - and this is the group Linda deals with every day.

Mountain View online ran a terrific interview with Linda earlier this week - worth a read to see what a really tough CEO looks like. The interview is about PPMM more than Linda, but knowing what she has dealt with over the last 20+ years - protestors, blockades, threats, incompetent politicians, a broken California budget... - and knowing how she deals with it all with an iron spine, biting wit and determination I can only admire her. And think how we in tech really have it easy in comparison to the vocation it takes to build and run PPMM.

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