Cambridge University - BA Hons, MA, Mathematics
If you had befriended Penny Herscher as a young girl, play dates would have been in a room with carefully crafted modeled airplanes hanging from the ceiling. It was her dream, after all, to become a member of the Royal Air Force. But, at the time women weren’t allowed to serve in combat forces in the UK. Despite this setback, Penny grew up inspired to change the status quo for women, and has shaped her career path accordingly.
Penny, who uses the word “fierce” in conversation as frequently as Taylor Swift takes selfies, has devoted her life to creating a culture of equality in the all-too-often gender-lopsided industry of technology. After graduating from Cambridge with a degree in mathematics, Penny wrote code for years before switching to the business side of tech and launching her own company in 1996 – Simplex Solutions, an electronic design automation company serving the semiconductor industry.
After taking the company public in 2001 and selling it for $300 million in 2002 to Cadence Design Systems, Penny became the general manager and chief marketing officer. Just over a year later, she decided to retire. “I wasn’t really good at it [retiring],” she says. “I really wanted to prove that you could build a successful, highly-diverse company.”
So, in 2005 Penny started her second company, FirstRain, a leading provider of analytics solutions for sales, marketing and business professionals around the world. FirstRain serves multiple Fortune 500 companies and has seen growth with clients like Cisco, HP, Pfizer, GE, Microsoft and others.
In addition to her own entrepreneurial adventures, Penny was an early employee and senior executive at Synopsis, and an R&D engineer with Texas Instruments and Daisy Systems. She currently serves on the boards of JDSU and Rambus, and was on the Anita Borg Institute Board for 11 years.
Today, Penny is as passionate as ever about achieving equality for women, in and out of the workplace. Whether it’s drafting a company’s maternity leave policy, mentoring her daughters, or encouraging young women to be more aggressive with their goals, she doesn’t back down from a challenge. In fact, she’s always ready to be a revolutionary.
Tech needs you more than you need tech.
How does FirstRain emphasize women in tech?
What’s interesting about FirstRain is we’re a deep technology software analytics company, but our COO [YY Lee] and I are both women. I am a mathematician from Cambridge. She is a mathematician from Harvard. We have a 50-50 [female to male ratio] management team, a 50-50 board, and we believe that you can build a truly diverse team. My business partner is also married to another woman and has little children. We are trying to live and breathe what it actually looks like if you have gender equality. If you truly have this at your company, then you remove the barriers of adversity.
I love that you lead by example.
We really try to prove a point that you can build a magical company culture if you do that.
Have you had any pushback from that, or have you been looked to and admired as the company paving the way by example?
I don’t know that we’re looked to and admired, but we also haven’t had much pushback. We have to be careful because 70 percent of our employees are men, so we have to be very vigilant that this is about equality and it’s not about women being better. It’s about equality.
What advice do you have for women who are working at companies that aren’t as equal as yours, where a woman be only one of – or the only – woman sitting at the table with a group of men?
I was that person for 20 years, so I know what that looks like. I am kind of a hard ass. I feel like you just have to fight, and I used to speak up. I was very aggressive. I wrote the maternity leave policy for my company when I found out I was pregnant. I was working for a company that didn’t have a maternity leave policy. It was a quite small company, which probably had 300 or 400 employees at the time, but I was an executive. I was the VP, and I was pregnant, and I had to write the policy.
At some level, if you’re going to be a revolutionary, you just have to do it. Sometimes it’s really difficult to be fierce. I had some really, really awful conversations with men who I worked with – and around – but fuck ’em!
You’ve been dubbed a serial entrepreneur, so how do you find work/life balance?
I became a CEO when my kids were 2 and 4 years old. I also am married to an amazing guy who was willing to do at least 50 percent of the child-raising. He’s not so good at housework, but he’s really good at being with the kids. I feel like I missed out a great deal, because I don’t think you can have work/life balance. I think you shouldn’t get into an executive position, especially CEO, if you’re not willing to do everything you can to make your business work. You’re competing. You’re competing commercially. You’re competing with men in the office who are going to give it everything.
Men have been conditioned for hundreds of years to compete. You can’t get into a senior position and say, “Oh, well now I need to be home with my children to read them their book every night.” I just don’t buy it. I know Sheryl Sandberg does it. God bless her. But I haven’t had enough money to do that. I think if you’re in a big, rapidly growing company and have made a lot of money you can. But, if you’re in an entrepreneurial situation where you’re trying to create a company from nothing, it takes over your life.
I feel like I failed at work/life balance, and my kids are absolutely fine. They are now 20 and 22. One of my daughters recently graduated from Smith with a degree in mathematics, and we’ve become very good friends. Although I probably spent less time with her than other mothers do with their kids – and less time than I would have liked to have spent – I fiercely believe that I have to do everything I can while I’m on this earth to change the opportunity for equality for women. I believe in it so passionately that I had to make my company successful, so I could prove a woman could do it. I had to succeed. I had no other choice.
You’ve worked with some extremely talented people, and you have to rely a lot on those people in order to get the work done. What are some of those qualities you’ve learned to look for as you’re seeking out talent?
I look for three things: integrity, IQ and energy. You can’t teach integrity. You can’t teach IQ. You can’t teach the energy it takes to change the world. So, I look for those qualities first and then obviously relevant experience. I believe that if you can find those three qualities in an individual, then you can probably teach them anything.
What would you say your personal superpower is?
I would have to ask my daughter. She’s really into superheroes. I care passionately about equality and creating opportunity for everyone. It shapes how I look at the world. It’s the unifying force in my life. I’m high-energy, and I really, really care about others. My superhero would go and fight for equality.
When did you first notice inequality, identify it and decide it was your mission to help change the status quo?
As far back as I can remember, I’ve been fierce about my rights. My parents said I was a challenging child to raise because I always wanted to be a fighter pilot in the RAF [Royal Air Force], but they didn’t take women, which made me really cross. I was that young girl who was building model planes and hanging them from my ceiling. When I was told women couldn’t go into combat, I thought, “What do you mean we can’t go into combat?” Of course now they can, but they couldn’t back then.
I would say I had the real “aha” moment late in my teens. As I went through my teenage years I grew fiercer and fiercer about women being equal to men. I would attend mixed-gender debates where boys would talk down to us, only to have us girls beat them at the debate!
I attended Cambridge. There were 300 mathematicians in my class, and only five of them were women. I couldn’t stand the discrimination toward women at the time. Margaret Thatcher had just been elected, and she was a very powerful force in politics. At the same time, I was going to interviews and couldn’t get a job because I was female. I ended up getting one job, but it became very clear I wasn’t going to get promoted because I was female. I was always the only girl, and it made me more of an activist.
We came to America because I couldn’t imagine working in England for the rest of my career. We moved to California, which I still believe is the most liberal work environment in the world. It’s not perfect, but allowed me to make my mark – proving it could be done.
If a woman reading this interview is interested in tech, but hesitant to pursue it as her career path, what would you want her to know?
I would tell her, “Tech needs you more than you need tech.” There are so many opportunities, and the industry is in a ferocious battle for talent, so get qualified, get a job and come in and help us change tech. We need more engineers. We need more talent. Women are just as capable of working in technology as men, and they bring a different perspective, often a design perspective, and I think we need the diversity.
I saw two young women walking toward the recruiting area at last year’s Grace Hopper Conference and they were nervous about going inside. They were asking each other, “How are we going to do this? How are we going to start? It’s really intimidating.” Of course I’m nosey, and since I was walking past them I walked up to them and said, “Look, they need you more than you need them. This is a suppliers market and they are here because they need more good engineers and this is a good environment to recruit.” The two girls gave me huge grins and thanked me for saying that. They were simply intimidated by the thought of walking up to Apple or Google. I had to give my daughter the same speech; so thankfully, I’d already practiced it once!
If you could give advice to yourself at 21, what would you tell 21-year-old Penny?
I would say to her, "Give more space to other people to succeed. Don’t be so aggressive that you don’t give the people around you enough support, light and air for them to thrive too.” I had to learn that one the hard way.