Thursday, July 14, 2016

Jamie Orr: One Physicist Fearlessly Wearing Many Hats, Part I

Jamie Orr at UC Davis for her 4/15/16 presentation

 Jamie (Romness) Orr graduated from UC Davis in 2011 with a PhD in Physics and a theoretical dissertation on the physics of protein folding. Since then she has been an adjunct professor at Foothill College, a member of many boards including Sustainable Silicon Valley, an economic and community development consultant, a Deputy Sector Navigator (!), and a Founder and CEO of Tahoe Mountain Lab. Jamie gave an inspiring presentation to our students on April 15, 2016. It ended with a record number, for our series, of hugs of the speaker (two), and a record number of moist eyes (two). I believe she struck a chord with some because she allowed them to see new possibilities for work-life balance. Here we deliver the main body of her presentation, saving the Q&A session for a Part II.


The first thing I want to talk about is what makes a good entrepreneur. You can learn all of these in physics. One of the things that I was not taught was how all of the physics thinking: the determination, the nights up crying over quantum mechanics homework, the nights crying in the bathroom during quantum mechanics lab, all of those things were actually training me to be a great entrepreneur.

What makes an entrepreneur? Founding a startup? Working for yourself? That sounds pretty good, right?

Many people think a startup has to be based on a completely new idea. Actually, it does not have to be brand new at all. In fact it usually isn’t. The best way to start something up is to start where someone else left off and improve it.

You can Google, “traits of an entrepreneur” and all of these articles come out, a lot of them in Entrepreneur Magazine. Entrepreneurs are getting a lot of attention right now. Obama’s putting in a big push for innovation and bringing that back to the United States. We have the whole Silicon Valley thing. Any of you watch the show Silicon Valley? Yeah it’s traumatizing for me to watch because yes, that is what it’s like. And being a woman – not always fun.

The main traits that make a good entrepreneur are perseverance and tenacity. Can you get something done? Are you willing to put in the work? And typically, if someone is majoring in something like physics, especially all the way through graduate school, they have at least a little bit of perseverance because it’s hard.

Passion: you have to love what you’re doing or the idea of what you’re trying to do. This does not have to be the only thing. Because sometimes you might be passionate about a lot of different things and it’s going to be too hard to actually get there and so you get distracted and go off into something else. But you have to at least have some interest in what you’re doing.


“Resourcefulness: How many of you have written a lab report at 3:00 AM the night before? Admit it. Yes, you all have.”

Resourcefulness: How many of you have written a lab report at 3:00 AM the night before? Admit it. Yes, you all have. Also, in terms of physics, you have to be able to look at a system, look at all of the variables, figure out which ones you can throw the heck out because that’s going to get really nasty, and figure out how to actually make sense of what’s going on in the system. You have to be resourceful. A lot of times people talk about this as creativity. But it’s not just being creative. It’s also actually using what’s straight in front of you.

Flexibility: you’re going to fall on your face. A lot. And it’s okay. And again, that’s something that I feel like physics majors in particular have a really good understanding of. You’re not always going to have an answer and especially – how many of you are kind of experimental-ish? Any of you experimental-ish? Have you done labs, have you worked with instruments that break? Yeah? I was an experimentalist for a long time, and my favorite word was “defenestration” because I wanted to throw all of my equipment out a window. You have to be flexible, because that’s going to happen. You have to be willing to pivot when something doesn’t work. You have to be willing to fail, and fail fast.

Tolerance of ambiguity: are you okay with not knowing how the heck you’re going to get somewhere? This is basically quantum mechanics in its entirety. And start going towards string theory, whew, yes. But again, physicists are okay with ambiguity. Yes, we want to get down and be able to quantize it, but we know that that’s not what we’re starting with. We’re going to be starting with something as big as the universe and it’s okay.

Vision: can you take that ambiguity and find that path to quantizing something, to actually getting to what your customer wants, or solving that specific problem?

And then self-confidence: this is something that a lot of my colleagues in the sciences still struggle with. Scientists often are more introverted. I’m a total introvert myself, can you believe that? Again, I’m going to go crawl up in a ball after this. But that’s fine.


“. . . You’re always selling something. You’re selling confidence in yourself to an investor. You’re selling your product to a customer. You’re selling that your teammates are actually going to be able to get the project done. You have to have that confidence in yourself. . .”

But it’s practice. Understanding that you can get up here and talk to a lot of people and explain what you’re passionate about; that’s something that’s really important in an entrepreneur. Otherwise how are you going to sell anything? And you’re always selling something. You’re selling confidence in yourself to an investor. You’re selling your product to a customer. You’re selling that your teammates are actually going to be able to get the project done. You have to have that confidence in yourself: that you’re going to be able to do it even though you’re going to fall on your face and you have to have all this ambiguity – that’s good.

All right, so getting to where I am in Tahoe was not a straight path. And it was definitely downhill for some parts. But it was not a random walk. So I didn’t just randomly fall into living in Tahoe and running a company. You don’t always necessarily see exactly what you’re going to do. When I was about twelve or thirteen, I was really obsessed with MacGyver and I knew I wanted to be a physicist. And I knew I wanted a PhD in physics. And so I was like, “I’m just going to do that.” And I knew I probably wouldn’t be MacGyver, because of the mullet. But I thought that it was just a really set, discrete set of steps. I get my Bachelor’s in physics, I get into grad school, I do some really awesome project, I get some papers published, write my dissertation, go get a postdoc. Then probably get another postdoc because that’s kind of how it is now and then land in a professorship and then go give talks around the world about my amazing research and teach a bunch of students; basically do what Lloyd did. That’s probably what he did, yeah.

I thought “that’s what everyone does.” I didn’t realize that’s not necessarily the case. And getting away from being so stuck to that mindset: that that’s what I had to do, was really eye-opening. And that didn’t happen until about halfway through graduate school. So I’m going to talk a little bit about my graduate work. When I arrived at Davis I started out as an experimentalist.

I used to have bets with my other fellow graduate students, about who had the lowest Physics GRE score. I will tell you I won every time. My score was in the 7th percentile. Ninety-three % of people scored higher. I did not study. I totally just flaked. I almost forgot that I had to take the test when I was still at Cal Poly. And then I made the biggest mistake: I was having fun taking the test and trying to do all the problems, so I did all of the problems. And you get docked for the ones you miss. So I got a very low score. However, I was also a very active undergraduate researcher. So the advisor I had as an undergraduate had colleagues that met me before graduate school and actually recruited me to come to Davis. And so I actually ended up having my pick of about three or four different graduate programs. And then Davis is where I chose to go, and they basically told me, “Yeah, okay, you screwed up the test. But we’re still going to let you come and have a chance.”

And so I started as an experimentalist. I was actually shared between Physics and Chemistry, because it was a chemist that recruited me. I was doing nanomaterials. I was in the basement a lot, working with plasmas a lot. Ultimately, as what happens to a lot of graduate students, it didn’t work out. I ended up having a very traumatic and awful experience – graduate group mismatch, that kind of thing. And when that happened, I started looking at other things and aksing myself, “Do I really want to stick this out? Because this sucks. I’m not enjoying myself.” The research just wasn’t working out; I wasn’t getting treated very well unfortunately. So I started looking at law school. I actually went so far as to take the LSAT, apply to a bunch of different law schools, get into a bunch of different law schools, and then I met Dan Cox.

The funniest thing about this is I actually almost went to DePaul Law School, which is in Chicago, for intellectual property. The woman that heads that department was a PhD physicist from Cornell that was in the same class as Daniel Cox in graduate school. So I was choosing between two colleagues from Cornell. And I finally told her, “Look, this sounds really fun, but I’ve got to see this through. So again, that perseverance: I decided I wanted to see the Physics PhD through. So I joined his group. The problem was, I was an experimentalist. Daniel Cox is a theoretician. So I had to jump from experiment to theory, which is not something that a lot of graduate students do. It was still in condensed matter, so I was still looking at systems of atoms knocking into each other, doing funky things, but I went from doing magnetic nanomaterials to doing protein folding. We always joked that I pretty much treated all of the code that our group would produce as just my microscope. So I was just using it as a tool instead of actually developing it. I was still an experimentalist at heart; I was just using a virtual tool. So again, that flexibility.


“We always joked that I pretty much treated all of the code that our group would produce as just my microscope. So I was just using it as a tool instead of actually developing it. I was still an experimentalist at heart; I was just using a virtual tool.”

However, as happens, life gets in the way. So about two and a half years before I completed my dissertation, my boyfriend, who is now my husband – his mother died. I moved out of Davis into Mountain View about a year before that, in 2008, in order to help him take care of her. She was diabetic, blind, and she ended up dying of heart failure. So this was a really traumatic event, and it put a lot of challenges on finishing. But luckily I was a theoretician. Daniel Cox actually lives in San Francisco so we were able to do meetings in the Bay Area instead of me having to come to Davis. And about a year before I finished, in order to stop having to drive up and teach as a graduate assistant, I started teaching at a junior college in Silicon Valley, called Foothill. I just taught one class here or there until I finished my dissertation. Two weeks after I got my dissertation stamped (they ring the little bell in the office which was actually kind of fun) I found out I was pregnant. Dave and I had gotten married about a year after his mom passed away. So I got married while I was in graduate school as well. But I did finish before getting pregnant.

But you know, life comes first. And so then the decision was, “All right, I have my PhD in Physics. I’m kind of location-bound at this point because I moved to Silicon Valley. I’m not just going to go anywhere in the world to get a postdoc. I’ve already got a job that’s actually pretty good.” I had an amazing dean. I was teaching just part time but I was enjoying it and I was getting enough classes to sustain us. So I focused on that.

I had my daughter in late 2011, the same year I graduated, just at the very end, and continued to work as an adjunct because Silicon Valley is expensive. If I had gone to full-time and put her in daycare, it would have been a wash. It literally did not make financial sense for me to start working full time. So I didn’t.

But what was fun was once I finished my PhD, and once I had the baby, my dean’s like, “Oh look, now you have time!” Of course. So he started putting me on these special projects. At this point I was just teaching; I was using everything that I had learned; I taught a lot when I was here in the Physics 7 series and the Physics 9 series, and I really enjoyed it. I always loved teaching. But he was like, “Oh, you’re a physicist; you’ll figure this other stuff out.” So he had me write an entire certificate program in energy engineering. And when I was done with that, I wrote an entire curriculum for bioengineering. And when I was done with that, I wrote one for 3-D printing and rapid prototyping. Remember, protein folding and teaching Physics 7. But he was right; I did figure it out. And part of what I was doing in order to figure this out, is I started interfacing with industry. I started talking to Google and Yahoo about their campuses and their campus energy use. I started talking to a nonprofit called Sustainable Silicon Valley; I actually met them at NASA. I was doing some research at NASA on one of their energy-efficient buildings. And I was creating a student internship program with that.

So I ended up getting asked to join the board of directors at Sustainable Silicon Valley, which seemed kind of like a weird thing. In my head at least, I think of boards of directors as – no offense to anyone – a bunch of old white dudes sitting around a table that are maybe near retirement, or they’re all definitely wealthy executives: that kind of thing. I was an adjunct faculty, I was fresh out of grad school; it was kind of strange. But then I realized, “No, no, I should be at this table. This is exactly who should be at this table.” I had connections to education and I had the whole millennial thing going for me, which they were looking for. So I did join that board, and I’ve actually been on it over three years now.


“I was an adjunct faculty, I was fresh out of grad school; it was kind of strange. But then I realized, ‘No, no, I should be at this table. This is exactly who should be at this table.’”

That again put me into a position where I started to meet executives around Silicon Valley. So all of a sudden I’m meeting with the head of facilities for Oracle and going to all these conferences. The next thing was a policy group, called the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, and they run an energy committee. They are the largest policy-advocating group in the state and one of the largest in the country. They’re incredibly powerful, because again they’re backed by all of the major players in Silicon Valley and they asked me to chair their energy committee. Again, because I was coming from academia (I was representing Foothill College), I was neutral. And at the time there was a huge battle between PG&E, the power companies, and the solar industry – still going, but these meetings would become very contentious. And what they found was having an academic as the chair would sort of neutralize it and I started acting as a really good facilitator between these two very contentious groups. Of course solar wants all the regulations lifted so they can just go forward, and PG&E is like, “I’m scared about my grid!” So it was a balancing act. But again, I was getting myself in front of all of these different people, and you’re going to start to see a theme here.

So developing all the curricula for the science learning institute for Foothill College – that also put me in front of the foundation for the college, which again put me in front of the donors, Sustainable Silicon Valley and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. I was really starting to build this network that interfaced with industry but was still part of academia. So I hadn’t completely left academia yet.

However, my husband and I -- again being part of the Ski and Snowboard Club – we started doing ski leases with friends. And then once we had our daughter, we started taking her up there. We looked back at around her first birthday – so this would have been maybe mid-2013 – and all of the pictures that we had in her photo album were of Tahoe. My husband was in startups: he was doing sales and business development. He was doing very well at a couple of them: a couple of exits, a couple of acquisitions, going through what’s called the “start-up hamster wheel.” And he was getting a little bit burnt out about that. He was sitting in traffic for maybe an hour and a half a day; sometimes I was in traffic for an hour and a half a day. I only commuted five miles. And when my daughter was born he was actually just starting at a brand new company, and he actually chose the company because they were five miles away from home. And the CEO had like eight siblings, and he was the oldest and so he loved kids. They sent us a onesie with a logo on it right before she was born. We were like, “Oh, come on.”

So he went to work for them. I would drop her off in the office, usually hand her to the CEO, who would bounce her around while my husband was on a call, and then I’d go teach. My daughter has been in conference rooms and board rooms, and crawling all over people since she was really little. Because we’re trying to build all of these things while raising an infant. But again we kept escaping to Tahoe. So in late 2013 we finally just got tired of it. He had just gone through an acquisition that he decided not to go with. So the rest of his team got hired and he just left. I had just landed a grant, but it was something that was already up and running; I didn’t really need to be on campus to manage it every day. We just decided to move.

It was really a family decision. What you’ll probably find, or I hope you’ll find, is that as you’re trying to make those career choices, where you are and who you’re with really should be at the top of the list.Not the job. So that’s the decision we made: to put our family first, and specifically our daughter first because raising a kid in Tahoe was just a dream. Both my husband and I wished that we had done that. And so we decided to give it a shot. We didn’t really know what we were going to do, but again we had all these skills. He had this startup experience, I had a grant to at least keep us going for about a year. And I always had a dream to have a science institute. Now, just landing a science institute in Tahoe didn’t really make sense. In fact, it’s kind of silly. There’s actually a bunch of them up there, mainly around environmental research, conservation, ecology: that kind of thing.


“. . . As you’re trying to make those career choices, where you are and who you’re with really should be at the top of the list.”

What there wasn’t was a place for people like myself and my husband to work. There was no coworking space. Coworking: you work in an office that’s not a coffee shop, with people that you don’t work for. So you’re working together but independently. So freelancers, remote workers, small startups, can all rent space, kind of like a gym membership, but you don’t necessarily have your boss sitting next to you. Your boss might be across the country. And so it gets really nice– it had that Mishka’s feel without them getting upset that you’re hogging the desk all day. So we decided to open one and just see how it went.

So we opened Tahoe Mountain Lab in spring of 2014, just two years ago. It’s just got 15 desks, it’s got a lot of little owls and some bright colors, got lots of coffee. And we just wanted to see if there were other kind of techy people or remote workers that were in South Lake Tahoe. It’s traditionally considered a tourism town: ski bums, lots of tourism-related low-paying jobs, so there was a real need for stable, higher-wage jobs in that community. And what we found was actually that the need was way bigger than we ever anticipated. Way bigger.

By opening this, something else happened. I got asked to become a consultant in economic development. Not in physics, but economic development. And so my husband and I founded a consulting firm on economic development. The city of South Lake Tahoe needed some help. They saw, “Hey, this young couple comes into town, lands something totally innovative and new, and it’s working. Can you guys do more?” And so they all of a sudden convened about 75 of the city’s leaders. The head of vale for South Lake Tahoe, the head of the casinos, the heads of all the hotels, the head of the college – and all of a sudden these people were supposed to listen to us in economic development. I’m sitting there like, “Wait, the protein folding, Newton’s laws -- none of this is really going to work.”

So all of a sudden I had to pivot again and I had to learn, “What does it mean to do economic development?” Luckily, I was a physics researcher. One of the things I’m really, really good at: looking stuff up and reading a lot of stuff very quickly, distilling it down, and then communicating it out. That was one of the skills that I gained in graduate school. And all of a sudden I realized, “I can do this in other things besides physics. Great!”


“Luckily, I was a physics researcher. One of the things I’m really, really good at: looking stuff up and reading a lot of stuff very quickly, distilling it down, and then communicating it out.”

So I’m this consultant. And we’re now tracking capital investment in the city of South Lake Tahoe as a result of little things that I’m doing. So whether it’s talking to a startup in San Francisco and convincing them, “Hey, I moved; you should move too!” or founding a new Women’s Fund. What happened is the consulting led to a lot of community engagement. And I already talked to you guys about how I was doing this policy thing, and this non-profit thing in Silicon Valley: well all of a sudden in a really small town, being on a board, or being involved in a policy group, makes a much bigger impact. So just last October I helped launch the first Tahoe Women’s Community Fund through the El Dorado community foundation. What this fund does: women pay a membership fee, about $100 or more a year, we pool the money, and then we give out grants. No social meetings, no fluff, no even really trash picking up: nothing. We raised $40,000 in six months. We just gave out grants that are as large or larger than all of the major service organizations -- the Rotary, Soroptimists, kind of the classic groups – grants that they’re giving out every year. So we did it in six months. We already have 200 members.

That makes a big impact on a small community that has a lot of need. The first grant we gave out was a weekend food program for kids in need. They basically buy a bunch of food, they pack it into a backpack, and the kids that need it now have meals to cover them over that entire weekend when they’re not in school. So the key here was: we realized community development is economic development.

I’m now on the board of this group called Entrepreneurs Assembly. It’s a peer-to-peer, completely free support group for entrepreneurs. You meet once a month for a couple of hours, and there’s usually at least one or two kind of experienced business ventures at each table. People who are looking to start up a company, or maybe already did or have small business and need to grow, come sit at the table. They talk about what they’re going through, they get advice from the other people at the table, the mentors make sure it’s in good alignment (not going to get them in jail; that kind of stuff), and then you get some marching orders for the next month and you come back and tell us how you’re doing the next month. Seems pretty simple, but it didn’t exist. And now it does. Entrepreneurs Assembly is coming out of Reno, it’s now also in 17 chapters in Africa, launching in India, and launching in South America. And every single one of those chapters is going to be connected.

I’m on the Lake Tahoe Community College Foundation. So this is actually the fun part, because now I still get to be really tied to academia: I get to do things like 3-D printer workshops and I get to really shape how the college is impacting the community. I work a lot with Keep Tahoe Blue’s executive director now on other ways we can kind of bring development to the community by keeping in mind all the environmental goals. And then the other fun thing that just happened about six months ago: I got asked by the chancellor’s office for the California community colleges to again come in as a consultant in economic and workforce development. So all of those programs that I wrote back at Foothill College came back around.

One of the women I worked with on the energy program was on a solar program at the time. She then joined up with this initiative called Doing What Matters for Jobs and the Economy. It’s a statewide initiative for workforce development in ten different industry sectors across all 113 community colleges. But she wants to retire. And so she was trying to think of who would be a good fit to take her place. And she remembered, “Oh hey, there’s this non-profit, Sustainable Silicon Valley. They’ve got some smart people.” She looked at the board of directors, saw my name, remembered that she had worked with me five years prior, and emailed me out of the blue. And said: “Hey, you want a job?”


“She looked at the board of directors, saw my name, remembered that she had worked with me five years prior, and emailed me out of the blue. And said: ‘Hey, you want a job?’”

And I said, “Yes, that sounds like fun.” So now I’ve got probably the coolest job title ever, besides CEO: Deputy Sector Navigator. It’s awesome. It’s like people are supposed to salute me. But I am the Deputy Sector Navigator for the Bay Area Energy Construction and Utilities Sector. Now, all those industry contacts I made when I was still in Silicon Valley – I am now getting them to work with all of the faculty of at the community colleges in the Bay Area and say, “Hey, are they teaching the right stuff? Hey, can you hire their students?” and making those connections. And so that’s taking me all over the place and it’s really fun.

So we’ve gotten really engaged in the community and the great thing is, every single piece of this benefits the business, it benefits the community, and I’m having fun doing it. So now where we’re headed is in just about one month we’re going to be opening Tahoe Mountain Lab 2.0. This is beyond that coworking space because remember, I wanted that institute. Well, I’m getting my institute. This summer I’ll be announcing that we have a full-fledged startup business incubator for South Lake Tahoe. We took -- and I saw “we” because there’s a couple partners -- one of the largest buildings in South Lake Tahoe, and probably the most historic. (It doesn’t take a lot to be historic, it was built in the ‘70s.) But it was the newspaper building. It’s kind of the center of town: it’s completely out there. Everyone has to drive by it. And it was totally derelict. And yet the newspaper was still in there. I don’t know how they survived working in this. It hadlower ceilings, and the super-dark ‘70s décor was so gross. The back warehouse used to be a printing press. There were rats in it, there were like weird handprints and writing on the wall, and there were like weird pits that you’d think bodies were going to be in. So we gutted the place. And now we’re creating a 12,000 square-foot coworking space with an incubation program built into it.

The newspaper staff is still there; they’ve got about 10 people. We have 24 private offices; 20 of those are rented out and we’re not even done with construction yet. And then we have the coworking space that used to be our little one with the green owls, and we’re actually doubling the size of that as well. So we’re going to go from 15 to 30 desks for freelancers, remote workers, travelers, and startups.

We held our first private class in our lobby – we’ll also have a conference center when it’s done – and that went really well. It was really exciting to see. And the town’s going to be coming out in force for our grand opening in late May and I’m just really enjoying the ride. Because like I said: five years ago I was just finishing up my dissertation; I was freaking out because I wasn’t going to be a professor. I didn’t tell you the awful story about that, but I can if you ask me about it.

And now I’m a CEO and a consultant, and I still kind of do physics once in a while. I went and gave a talk about Mars in Truckee because they asked if I could and I said, “Sure!” So I went and looked up all the stuff about Mars – again, protein folding! They didn’t want to hear about that; they wanted to hear about The Martian. So I gave a cool talk about The Martian – it’s on Youtube.

So the important stuff. Networking: that is the most important thing you can do for yourself. You know that whole self-confidence thing? You need to show other people. Because there’s this great anecdote; it’s actually a good TED Talk. It talks about how you make things go viral. How do you create a movement? So if some guy is just dancing, at like a concert, he looks like an idiot, right? Just kind of silly; you think he’s crazy. But as soon as someone else comes up and starts dancing with him, all of a sudden it makes it okay that that guy is dancing by himself, because he’s not. So other people see it and they have comfort. So it’s that whole early adopter’s model, if you’re familiar with that. But once you have that first follower, then all of a sudden you’re going to get all the other ones. So networking gives you your first followers. If you’re just submitting résumés and trying to introduce yourself to CEOs, it’s not always going to get you through. It’s going to be a lot harder. But if someone else says, “Hey, you should take a look at them.” – that’s what’s going to get you hired. Or you’re going to get the random email out of the blue after not working with someone for five years that says, “Hey, you want a job?” That’s the goal. You want people to come to you with opportunities.


“. . . Once you have that first follower, then all of a sudden you’re going to get all the other ones. So networking gives you your first follower.”

Collaboration: I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if I was competitive. And this is one thing I actually did not really like about physics, and I railed against when I was in undergrad especially, but also in graduate school – was this weird sense of competition, whether it was for grant money, or for an advisor’s attention (not in Dan Cox’s group – that was super friendly). But collaboration is what’s going to get you somewhere because you can’t do something by yourself, especially if it’s big. You need to have that collaboration. Look at something like CERN. We have all these professors that are in these giant collaborations and there’s a really good reason for it because it’s too big of a project to do by yourself. So don’t be competitive. No one cares. Just collaborate: that’s what’s actually going to get things done.

Failure: go fall on your face. I’m going to tell you my failure story really quick. I had already moved to Tahoe, but before we moved to Tahoe, because I’m an over-planner, I also applied to like 10 different teaching positions just in case Tahoe didn’t work. Because you know, there’s not many jobs in Tahoe; I had to go make my own. I didn’t really expect to get any interviews. These were all for tenure-track positions. I had not done a postdoc. I had been an adjunct for a few years and done some cool stuff, but it was non-traditional. I hadn’t published anything in a long time. My research was kind of out-of-date. And I had also distanced myself from protein folding because I was doing all of these weird 3D printing and energy curriculums. But I got three interviews – I got three final interviews. All of a sudden I’m travelling to these teaching universities to interview for a position. Again, as an undergraduate and a graduate, I was like, “I am going to be a physics professor.” This was kind of a vindication of that dream.

Then I got one offer. And then we picked a house because we were going to move. There was one problem, and this is really unfortunate that it so happened. It was a department where there was one female faculty full-time. She was pretty new, definitely considered kind of a hotshot, and then I come in as part of a special university program to try to get an entire cohort of women hired at the same time across the science disciplines to then go through tenure together. Awesome, right? I was stoked. She didn’t like that there was essentially this special program when she didn’t get in under that. And her husband was part-time faculty so was not qualified for that search. She was going to be the chair of that department next year while the chair was on sabbatical. So she made such a stink, and again she was the hotshot bringing in grant money, the department pulled the offer. That sucked. That was like dream finally crushed. I proved to myself that I could get that professorship. But then it got pulled out from under me at the last second. So that was hard. We’re already in Tahoe; we had actually opened the little coworking space, but it was always just kind of a fun project – that’s when I was like, “Nah, I’m just doing this.” And so I doubled down instead of staying in a ball. I was in a ball for a few days. Maybe like a week.

But I doubled down. I was like, “Alright, I’m going to get my institute. I’m going to get my incubator. I am going to prove to them that they missed out.” And now two years later I think I can safely say that I’ve done that. So it’s okay to fail, because that’s just going to help you pivot and maybe find something way better.


“. . . It’s okay to fail, because that’s just going to help you pivot and maybe find something way better.”

Giving back: philanthropy. You don’t have to be retired and wealthy to be a philanthropist. You can start that today It doesn’t matter whatever you’re passionate about; give back and give back now. Because again it creates that cycle: that when you’re helping somebody else, they’re going to help somebody else, and it just magnified before you even know it.

Emergence Theory: when the whole is actually more than the sum of the parts. Like a flock of birds. That’s what philanthropy does for a community. It creates something way bigger than you could ever imagine it. In the coworking space alone, one of our clients is homeless. But he’s super smart, professional; he’d just gone on hard times, he’s just been going through some personal problems. He started working in our space, even though he was camping out at night. But he had that professional space to work from. He landed a contract with Ernst & Young, one of the biggest financial firms in the world. He now has a house, he’s got a car, he bought a mountain bike, and he’s still working out of our space. But that’s the kind of thing that I never thought that I was going to make an impact like that. And again, as a physicist. I’m still a physicist. I get cool looks when I’m like, “Oh yeah, PhD, theoretical physicist, hi.”

And they’re like “What? Who are you?” But I like it.


“Move where you want, then figure out the job that will let you be there.”

And then balance. I moved to Tahoe, that’s like the easy way out, right? I can’t help but be balanced. I ride on my bike to work (it’s like a mile along the lake), we do lunch breaks where we go take a couple laps at Heavenly on our snowboards, with all of our other coworkers. My daughter’s already snowboarding at four – paddleboard; she’s pretty good. There’s no traffic. That’s the biggest thing: there’s no traffic and I’m not paying $2000 a month for daycare. So there’s ways to find balance. And you might have to move to do it. Move where you want, then figure out the job that will let you be there.

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