This story originally appeared in the winter 2012 issue of the Loudoun Business Journal.
In a 2009 column, New York Times
columnist David Brooks wrote that intellectualism and a quest for human understanding isn't what makes one successful in the cutthroat business world.
“The traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours,” Brooks noted. “… In other words, warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as C.E.O.’s. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive.”
If this is so, Sandy Lerner is an anomaly. The phrase “slightly boring” and Lerner's name have no business in the same sentence.
The co-founder of Cisco Systems and the cosmetics company Urban Decay, Lerner is also versed in classic English literature. With her current venture, Ayrshire Farm, the 800-acre sustainable agriculture effort in Upperville, Lerner is far from a no-show, celebrity farmer. Skilled in the process, she puts in the hours necessary to grow the business -– thanks in no small part to her upbringing on a Northern California farm.
But just what makes her tick? While a challenge to ascertain, it's fascinating to try – especially if that attempt comes during a serene September morning conversation at Ayrshire.
The projects of yesterday
Not to belittle the innovative and decisive early days of Cisco Systems, during which Lerner founded the now multi-billion dollar networking equipment company with ex-husband Leonard Bosack, but it's not that story that makes Sandy Lerner a subject unlike any other in the world. The tale of Cisco is interesting, but stacked next to Lerner the person, the artist and the activist – the hard business angle seems ho-hum.
“Sandy is just wired differently than most people,” says Laura Clark, a friend of Lerner's and owner of Wylie Wagg pet shop. “She's a very interesting person to spend time with. She's devoted to knowledge and never backs away from a challenge.
“With Sandy, there are just no boundaries, and I say that in the most endearing way.”
To give an indication of Cisco's depth and success, it employed more than 70,000 people and listed revenues at $46 billion in 2012, according to Wikipedia. Its stock was added to the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 2009, and is also included in the S&P 500 Index, the Russell 1000 Index, NASDAQ 100 Index and the Russell 1000 Growth Stock Index.
Then there's Urban Decay, which Lerner started with several partners and sold to Moet-Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 2000. The line, which has since 2000 been sold again, offers grungy cosmetics for those consumers looking for a little extra flair in their everyday style.
“Our story opens 15 years ago,” reads the current “about” section of Urban Decay's website, “when pink, red, and beige enslaved the prestige beauty market. Heaven forbid you wanted purple or green nails, because you’d either have to whip out a marker, or risk life and limb with that back alley drugstore junk. Flying in the face of this monopoly, Sandy Lerner (cofounder of Cisco Systems) made a bold decision: if the cosmetic industry’s 'big boys' couldn’t satisfy her alternative makeup tastes, she’d satisfy them herself.”
And so she did, branding the company as the hot, eclectic alternative to the status quo of lipstick, nail polish, eyeshadow and the like.
After selling Urban Decay to the luxurious Louis Vuitton, it was on to her next venture – a true “pet project.”
The Arms of Ayrshire
|Loudoun Business Journal Photo/Beverly Denny|
In 2010, the entrepreneur was honored by the Land Trust of Virginia for her conservation efforts at the three farms, all of which are considered branches of the marquee Ayrshire.
Ayrshire is the first farm in Virginia to meet both Certified Humane and Certified Organic standards. That's because of Lerner. Her mission, she says, is to preserve genetically viable herds of rare and endangered breeds of livestock and heirloom-variety crop production to both self-sufficiency and profitability, while producing on a limited commercial scale.
Lerner has shelled out the money to back up her principles on the essentials of humane and authentic farming practices. In addition to the Upperville compound, she owns two separate farms in Loudoun County, Mount Gap Farm and Jubilation Farm, which she saved from near-certain death by development. The 350-acre Mount Gap in Leesburg and 300-acre Jubilation Farm were approved for 50- and 60-lot neighborhoods before Lerner's purchase and ensuing protective easement.
In 2010, the entrepreneur was honored by the Land Trust of Virginia for her conservation efforts at the three farms, all of which are considered branches of the marquee Ayrshire. For Lerner, it's merely a matter a social consciousness; ensuring the natural beauty and ecosystem of the land is preserved, being aware of what people are putting into their body and guaranteeing animals are never seen as collateral damage for businesses looking to grow a profit. She says her traditional, labor-intensive approach to farming produces high-quality meat and produce that is sustainably raised, providing consumers the best in taste and quality, while protecting breeds that would otherwise be lost.
“I am committed to ensuring that this historic, working farm remains a sustainable, working farm forever,” she said during the Mountain Gap purchase process.
Like preserving classic literature (we'll get to that), Lerner believes it's essential for unparalleled land to be saved for future generations. This is but one aspect of her connection to life abroad in England.
“When you're in England you don't have this nagging stress at the back at your mind that if you look at a beautiful view and a beautiful meadow and some trees and some cows that the next day it's going to be a strip mall,” she says.
While rumors have been making the rounds this year that Lerner is ready to jet-set away from Old Dominion, she said there are no such plans. The scuttlebutt surely stems from the fact that the farming aspect of Ayrshire, the main castle and 600 acres, is on the market. Lerner readily confirms this. But where she lives, in a more modest but still magnificent cabin tucked away on the property, is going to be hers for the foreseeable future, if not the remainder of her life.
The rolling hills and green grandeur of Lerner's Ayrshire aren't unlike those in the England, and that's not by happenstance. A self-professed Anglophile, Lerner has long drawn inspiration from the pure confidence and visceral writing of Austen. The prolific 19th Century author provided Lerner “an enormous escape from an absolute hideous program in computer science and math at Stanford,” she says.
That affection for the English way of life has by no means withered since her Stanford days, as the 1970s eased into the 1980s – rather, it has only vivified. Lerner has taken her enchantment with Austen – and Austen's England – to extreme levels. In 1992, four years before she purchased Ayrshire, she brought and refurbished Chawton House, a 300-acre manor house and farm in Hampshire, England. The estate at one point belonged to Austen's brother, and it now features an expansive collection of early works from English women writers.
For the first half of our conversation, Lerner was reserved. “I have other things I should be doing,”seemed to be the mindset. Then came a distinct moment when everything turned – her posture became looser, her face more kind, and she seemed like someone who isn't a millionaire with a house in England and seven businesses, including Hunter's Head Tavern in Upperville and The Home Store in Middleburg.
The transformational moment of warmth came when recalling an editing session for her new novel, “Second Impressions,” sequel to Jane Austen's “Pride and Prejudice.” Editing session is too dry of a term; Lerner and a few girlfriends were sitting around in Chawton, sipping wine and discussing the book, which Lerner spent 26 years writing and researching. All that work had come to fruition, it was realized during that session in Chawton. And the book has opened strong in its first few months.
“Unlike other sequels,” notes Jocelyn Harris, an Austen scholar, “’Second Impressions,’ politically, geographically and historically faithful to Austen’s time and writing style.”
Is there a next big project? Lerner says she no longer needs to work. She'll be happy getting “one big check” for the farm, keeping her cabin, and going back and forth to England. With her ongoing philanthropic and conservation efforts, Chawton and that lifetime quest for knowledge, Lerner should have ample tasks to keep her occupied. But is that enough to keep her fulfilled? Will she be OK without immense, monumental obstacles placed before? She says yes; her track record, well ...