A Breaker of Barriers Stays Plugged in To Silicon Valley Past 80
This piece comes from a conversation between FundersClub’s Christine Georghiou, and Ellen Uhrbrock. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Uhrbrock currently serves on Palo Alto’s Comprehensive Plan Update Leadership Group, an appointed board focused on how the city and region will grow and evolve until 2030. Much of the work centers around transportation and easing the gridlock that can stymie both companies and people around Silicon Valley.
This is merely the latest manifestation of Uhrbrock’s lifelong focus on technology and transportation. She has been part of the tech and community world of Palo Alto since she enrolled in Stanford’s MBA program in 1954. She was one of three women in her graduating class.
Some key takeaways we had after speaking with Uhrbrock:
- When interviewing and negotiating for a new job, be upfront with your expectations. It’s then when you need to make your demands known, not later. (This tactic scored Uhrbrock a cherished parking spot in the center of Stanford’s campus when she took her first job at the university.)
- Transportation is a key way in which metros can unlock economic value and provide a better quality of life for all community members, including seniors.
- Understanding new technologies is as much about a willingness to learn as it is about having an existing technology aptitude.
- Sometimes opportunity is about being in the right place at the right time, but you have to recognize and seize those chances when they emerge.
- The best way to read for education, in many cases, is to read for entertainment. Read about the things you like and love, and knit that knowledge back into your life and what you do every day.
You’re passionate about tech and transportation: Do you see similarities in the evolution of both of those things?
Absolutely. You have to be ready for it and receptive to it, to ideas that are coming along, and not keep imagining things in the ways they’ve been since 1920.
You mentioned that you read a lot so as to stay up on technology—what do you read?
Well, I’ve read the Wall Street Journal for 50 years. I'm really addicted to it, but my use of it is probably quite different now. I really hesitate to say this, but I read it for entertainment. I follow the stories that are of interest to me. I like to read the actual paper version of the newspaper. I can't bring myself, quite yet, to do that online.
You’re a volunteer at Avenidas’ Palo Alto Senior Center—and one of the programs you set up was around teaching seniors to use Twitter—how did that go?
Yes! The big problem I had, at first, is that I couldn't get anybody to teach the course.
And you have to understand that there is a gap when it comes to things like Twitter—most people of mature age felt very superior about this sort of thing. They may have tried it and found it useless. The world is full of seniors who are afraid of those little blue birds and won't click on them.
So I couldn't get someone to take me seriously on this and volunteer to put on a program. Luckily, being a member of the citizens’ advisory committee has wonderful perks. You can call City Hall they'll put you in touch with anyone you want to meet. I wanted to ask the new head of Technology if he could teach seniors to tweet. He is protected by the best executive secretary I've ever run into, but he made the appointment. He's a charming fellow.
He walked in, and he said that was a great idea! He couldn't do it, but I said, I asked him, "Well, who could?" He actually recommended someone whom I knew who's head of the E-book division, new division, in Palo Alto library, so I asked her to do it, and she agreed.
She was wonderful. The program sold out quickly. They were lots of seniors learning how to Tweet! It was a day I really enjoyed.
That's amazing! Did you ever follow-up to see if any of the people in that session are still active Twitter users?
I did it with a handful of them, but I didn’t do it in an organized way. The important thing is that they’re not afraid of the little blue birds anymore! I think that's a real plus.
That’s definitely a big step. Going over to your experience as a student at Stanford—you were one of only three women in the MBA class of 1956?
Well, yes. There were 3 in my class, who are all alive and reasonably active in a variety of things. It was a wonderful experience, but I came west to go to Stanford because Stanford was the only university or college which offered a 2-year MBA. Harvard has recently boasted about their 50 years of accepting women into the Harvard MBA, but they were 25 years behind Stanford.
What Harvard did, if you were a woman applying to the MBA program, they very politely referred you to Radcliffe, which had a one-year program that turned out the best administrative assistants you can imagine.
But it was a one-year, and I knew that the two-year program would be better. I arrived in California, and the other two women came for different reasons, of course, but one of the things that we all had in common is that we all had pretty powerful fathers who encouraged us, and mothers who were well-educated.
If you were born before the 60's, you really missed the opportunity to easily adjust to the internet age completely. Well, my generation missed the time of the pill and the change of the sexual revolution.
It's interesting now if you talk to men of my age, or close to it, their image is that a man has to be the home provider.
In their minds, women don't work, or if they do, it better be something that is really quite acceptable as a part-time thing. That's really changed a lot. I am one of those who actually was, I think, fortunate enough to be employed all my life and make my own living. I had great opportunities.
What did you do following your graduation from Stanford?
Well, around the time I graduated, there was some turnover amongst the deans at Stanford, which led to a lot of new opportunities to do interesting jobs. Some of it research, some of it writing catalogs and being the secretary to the admissions office and so forth. The business school offered me a job as an administrative assistant to the deans. I bargained with them and said that, "Well, I'll take the job, but I will not type."
Little did I know that, later, everybody would have to type. But at that point, I would not type. And — it tickles me in retrospect — I said I had to have a title that entitled me for parking on the circle at Stanford.
What's 'the circle'?
It’s reserved parking in the front of the main campus, and you had to have a certain status and employment rank in order to be entitled to parking, otherwise, you know, employees had to take long hikes to find some place to park.
Here it is, the parking, again, is the big problem. Where do you park the employees? Where do you park the customers that come in?
So much comes down to parking and transportation.
Did your interest in transportation start with having trouble securing a parking spot at Stanford?
No, actually. That was an ego status problem, you know. What I wanted for a job.
Did you end up getting the title you needed to park in the circle?
Yes! I became a research associate.
So the gambit worked. The time to ask is when you get the first job, you know? You better lay it out right away.
That's important! I discovered it worked.
Anyway, I actually quit Stanford when the then-acting Dean said to me one day "Ellen, it is a pity that you are a woman. If you were a man, you could be an assistant Dean."
Yeah. It just really knocks you for a loop when somebody says something like that, you know?
Yeah, so that was my decision. I decided that what I really wanted was a small business. In a small business, you can see the impact of your work every day, and that's so satisfying. To know whether the ad campaign you designed works or whether your new sales technique is effective – it's really very satisfying.
And it was during my entrepreneurial days when I became more interested in mass transit options. I was playing hooky one day, traveling up to San Francisco to go to the symphony. They have Thursday afternoon symphonies, and I was carpooling there with four middle-aged women who went to the matinee together. We were riding up 101, I still remember the whole thing clearly, the driver was chatting away to everybody in the car and not really paying attention on the road, and I thought, "Ellen, this is dangerous." I decided then and there that I've got to learn another way to get to San Francisco.
That's when I started taking the train. I mastered the Muni, and it went on and on and on. I discovered I often prefer to be on the train than on the highway. That really started my activism in the space.
So yes, I’m really very knowledgeable now on planning trips, but I don't want to plan your trip. I want to teach you how to plan it!
That’s great. I saw that you were also the vice president of a travel planning agency?
Oh, I was. That was like another MBA. I went down, and when I decided that I wanted a small business, I was thinking, "Well, what kind of small business?" Basically, you see, I like to work. I don't like to make lots of battles of status and the rest of it. I really like to work. Where could I do that?
I put travel on the list, and I had a friend in the class behind me at Stanford who looked into a travel agency that was up for sale and he bought it. He didn't know anything about travel except what he'd done himself. But it was the late 50's, which was a great time to get into the business because of the transition from ships to airplanes as one of the dominant modes of travel.
It was a wonderful industry, and it involved so much, especially when the internet came in. We got to be a part of that whole story, and the office I was in at that time had the first airline Sabre computer in it on the West Coast.
Wow, that’s a big deal.
That changed all the work, obviously. I had to travel back and forth to New York to see the four or five agencies that had this big computer. They were very proud of it and so forth, but it was on the airplane coming back when the lightbulb went off and I thought, "Ellen, this changes everything! This changes everything from how you write tickets, how you look up the information. You have to reorganize from scratch."
So that was kind of a dream come true for an MBA, somebody who was analytical about these things.
Eventually, we opened the office in the student union at Stanford when it was built, and that was easy enough. But getting the approval of the airlines was quite a trick, because they thought it might not be a lucrative location. But it ended up more than working out. One day, at that office. The head of the alumni association walked in he was talking about a program that they'd had every summer at Stanford for Alumni and he said, "You know, Ellen, next year let's go to Florence!"
I had the opportunity of getting 150 people overseas for the first trip overseas for that particular group. Now, that's the kind of opportunity that comes when you're in the right place at the right time!
That was the start of the Stanford travel abroad program.
So you coordinated the trip for an alumni group?
Yes, they were the Alumni, and I have to tell you, they were the rich Alumni, too. From the beginning, that program was a designed to be a fundraiser. You know?
Right. So Stanford gets to keep the community together and they also get to raise money to support the school’s current activities.
Yes, we did many trips for Stanford, and finally the program grew too big for our agency to handle, but it was a wonderful start. Of course, I ended up know who's who in Silicon Valley.
Absolutely. It’s always great to make those connections.
It was a fantastic opportunity.
And during all of this time, you were also managing your investment portfolio?
I was. I was, and I used to think it was fun. I still think it's fun, but eventually I got to the stage where—I think I was into my late 50's, and managing my portfolio was tremendously complex and it absorbed at least 20 hours of every week. I realized that there will be a day when I won't be able to do it, so I’d better make some kind of plan.
Again, luck had a lot to do with it.
I was on the board of a non-profit, a small opera company that still exists. They had some financial problems, and so some of us board members were helping them determine how to invest their endowment, which they thought was huge—it wasn’t—but it was big enough.
I got the job of researching the industry and figuring out who should be the manager of the endowment. The timing was wonderful. I took the whole year, which I had, to go around and talk to everybody in town, in San Francisco. I ended up with a recommendation for them, and I also ended up with a recommendation for myself—somebody I could use to handle my own investments.
So you used an advisor to handle your investments after that?
Yes, and I have to tell you the withdrawal symptoms were terrible! It really is a withdrawal process, but I adjusted and I’ve now had that setup for more than 20 years.
I still oversee my investments with great interest.
When you were actively managing your investments, did you follow an investment philosophy?
Well, it was the years of Harry Browne, and I believed in, and I still do, not the funds but individual stocks. There was a limit of something like 20 companies or so that you had a reasonable chance to keep track of, so I always stuck to that. I've never been very keen on the bond market.
I can see that your investment manager has made a lot of investments through our platform on your behalf. Have you ever personally worked with startups or invested in startups?
You know, I did one year right out of business school. Somebody who wanted to start a delivery of liquor. It didn't succeed, but that's true of most startups, as you know.
I have had the great luck of being exposed to a lot of startups through Stanford and through the business school, and through my connections, and am often asked to be a guinea pig or a help out with startups. I've enjoyed that immensely.
A little bit of a lighter question – if you had followed your childhood dream job what do you think you would be doing right now?
Oh, I'd be an opera star.
After so many years of planning trips for other people and working within the travel agency, do you have a favorite place to travel?
This is hard to answer, because basically I have traveled a lot, but most of it has been with business. I like that. I like having a purpose when I take a trip.
But my favorite place when I travel for leisure is London. I use the city as a base. The train service is wonderful for day trips out of London. I always have a focus on the trip of what I'm going to do. What I'm going to research, which library, or what project it is. I'm not a sightseer, per se. I mean, I like beautiful scenery, but I like to have a purpose of what the trip is about. I'm not saying I don't like a lovely day at the beach, but I don't really want 2 weeks of nothing but the beach.