A Knack for Reinvention
High-tech founder. Cosmetics maven. Organic farmer. Alum Sandy Lerner has done it all—and more.
by Sarah Digness
Sandy Lerner has led a remarkable life. Perhaps best known as co-founder of Cisco Systems, she helped make the first commercial router available to the public in the 1980s, enabling computers to network with one another.
“The technology was available,” says Lerner (BA, International Relations, ’75), who presented the address at CSU, Chico’s 2012 Commencement, where she also was awarded an honorary doctorate. “Getting it to the public and the Internet community was just something that needed to be done.”
While Lerner’s work at Cisco earned her numerous awards and recognition—she is the only female recipient of the prestigious IEEE Lifetime Achievement Award and one of her Cisco-era dresses (covered in red dollar bills to celebrate the start-up’s IPO) hangs in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View—it has not been her professional dénouement. Not by any stretch.
Lerner’s departure from Cisco came in 1990, after she was released from the company by a newly hired CEO. “Out of every disappointment arises opportunity,” says Lerner, who sold her company stock, earmarking 70 percent of it for charitable purposes. She then professionally reinvented herself and the cosmetic industry with a raw, edgy line of designer cosmetics called Urban Decay. The line was a response to what Lerner saw as a gaping hole in the beauty industry. For Lerner, who was not “a pink kind of girl,” there were few options.
If you love work, you will always love working even if you don’t really love your job.
“I was 39, and my aunt told me I needed to start wearing makeup and lose the T-shirt and jeans. T-shirts and jeans were not on the table, but makeup was.” Just not makeup for the masses: the corals, reds, and tangerines. She needed something a little more gritty.
It turns out Lerner wasn’t alone. When Urban Decay launched its first products in 1996 with the slogan “Does pink make you puke?” they resonated with consumers and left the cosmetic industry reeling. Nail polishes with names like Roach and Acid Rain started flying off the shelves. Lerner, an acclaimed computer scientist with master’s degrees from Claremont Graduate School and Stanford University, suddenly became a cosmetic industry revolutionary. Other cosmetic brands caught on to the growing trend of alternative colors, but they didn’t have Urban Decay’s same street cred. The edgy company had connected with a new generation of beauty consumers, and they were a loyal group.
Lerner simultaneously juggled Urban Decay and a number of other projects before finally selling the cosmetic company in 2000 to Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton. Now that she had made turquoise nail polish a household item, she could devote more time to her research facility for early women’s English literature and her 800-acre working farm.
Yes, that’s right. Lerner also happens to be a renowned Jane Austen expert and an organic farmer. She discovered Austen while a graduate student at Stanford. “This wonderful Jane Austen BBC production came on, and it opened up a vein,” she recalls. “I could leave my world and go into that world, and that world was much, much better.”
Lerner’s world at the time was the rigorous statistics and computer science master’s program, something she remembers as “inhumane.” She credits Austen with having provided her an escape during challenging times and laughs about how she would tuck tiny Jane Austen novels into her pockets at Cisco and find bits of time to steal away to the bathroom and read. “I’m not the only one who has wandered into that beautiful space,” says Lerner of Austen’s pull. “Winston Churchill read Pride and Prejudice on the eve of D-Day.”
Lerner’s love for Austen led her to the English county of Hampshire, where she purchased a 275-acre Austen family estate. The 400-year-old home had once belonged to Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight; it was Austen’s last home and the site where all of her novels were published, including Sense and Sensibility. After a decade of extensive historical restoration, the home and grounds were reopened in 2003 as Chawton House Library and The Centre for the Study of Early English Women’s Writing. The library houses an expansive collection of books from 1600 to the 1830s, all of them authored by women and many of them read by Austen herself.
“I’m proud of what Chawton House has grown into,” says Lerner. “We now have a master’s and PhD program with University of Southampton, and to watch those kids coming through and reading those novels, it’s almost surreal.” The estate is also open to the public for tours and events. Its grounds form an impressive backdrop of 18th-century English gardens and low-intensity agriculture. Rescued Shire horses and factory-farm chickens, and grazing livestock dot the landscape and hark back to Austen’s era.
Stateside, Lerner lives the pastoral life at Ayrshire Farm, her 800-acre organic estate in Virginia. A self-professed “grass farmer,” she lives on-site in a small stone cottage (the 42-room main house is used mainly for charity functions). Lerner and her staff raise rare breeds of heritage livestock and poultry—with names like Gloucestershire Old Spot (pigs), Scottish Highland (cattle), and Silver Gray Dorking (chickens)—and heirloom fruits and vegetables. Food from the farm is made available to the public at Lerner’s nearby butcher shop and tavern, both of which are the first in the country to be Certified Humane. Her love for animals has also led her to open a patent for a safe and comfortable pet carrier.
In meeting Lerner, one gets the impression that living on a farm suits her just as much as living in Silicon Valley. Perhaps it’s because farming is in her blood. She was raised on a working farm in California’s Placer County. It’s where her family raised cattle and she learned to drive a truck at 9 years old. A natural businesswoman, she also participated in 4-H and Future Farmers of America, using the profits to put herself through CSU, Chico.
Surprisingly, it was political science and not agriculture or technology that she studied at Chico. “It was the Vietnam era, and I wanted to be a public-interest lawyer and right every wrong there ever was,” says Lerner, who graduated with distinction at the age of 19. It was because there were few jobs available after graduation that she pursued a master’s degree. “My advisor at Chico State, Steve Newlin, got me to the next place. He made sure I got a scholarship to any school in the state of California.” The next place for Lerner was the econometrics graduate program at Claremont Graduate School, where she accepted a full scholarship.
“When I got to Claremont, I was totally overwhelmed to be with students from places like Stanford, Yale, and Harvard,” says Lerner. “I was so intimidated. But when I got in my classes, after two or three meetings, it was clear they didn’t know what they were talking about. The difference was I had worked really hard and they hadn’t. It was clear I had gotten a superb education [at Chico].” She also praises CSU, Chico faculty, saying, “They let me use their typewriters and their offices. They were so generous, so kind, so giving. When I got to Claremont, I sailed through.”
It’s this affinity for work that seems to define Lerner. In her address to the CSU, Chico class of 2012, she encouraged graduates to find that same affection: “Of all the success that I owe to my parents, what has been the greatest source of happiness in all of my careers … is that they taught me to love work. If you love work, you will always love working even if you don’t really love your job. More importantly, you will not be afraid of work, as are many people. I feel so sorry for people who spend their life trying not to work too hard, trying to get by with the minimum effort, doing anything to avoid work. To live this way seems, to me, to be a lifetime spent marginalizing yourself and your abilities. Even more important is that a love of hard work will give you the flexibility and the courage to change careers, go back and get another degree, invent something, learn another language, or anything and everything you may ever want to do.”
This past year, Lerner had the flexibility and courage to change it up once again. She debuted as a novelist in 2011 with Second Impressions, a continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. “I wanted more Jane,” Lerner says nonchalantly of her motivation to write and publish the novel in Austen’s idiom and under the pen name Ava Farmer. So far the book has received glowing reviews from the Austen community and an honorary mention at the Beach Book Festival in New York.
And that’s Sandy Lerner. In her own words, she “doesn’t get a lot of juice out of what other people think.” She’s done the things she has simply “because they needed doing.” That the things she has done have come out brilliantly is a testament to her vision and dedication. As for what is next for Lerner, it’s hard to say. It would seem, in her case, anything is possible.
About the author
Sarah Digness (BA, English, ’01; Credential, ’03) lives in Petaluma with her family. She mostly chases her daughter around and sometimes writes grants for a nonprofit consulting firm.
(BA, Recreation Administration, ’82), a former firefighter/EMT, is an insurance agent with New York Life in San Diego.
(BA, Journalism, ’01) is a partner at FSB Core Strategies, a public relations firm in Sacramento.
(MA, Kinesiology, ’06) is the head athletic trainer at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.