Cisco Co- Founder Sandy Lerner – Entrepreneur To Animal Advocate
Sandy Lerner is the co-founder of Cisco Systems, Inc., a makeup maven of Urban Decay, Jane Austen fanatic and an animal philanthropist. Here, the multi-talented Ms. Lerner gives Animal Fair an exclusive tour of her Virginia home.
Sandy Lerner knows what she wants. And gets it—usually through sheer force of will. Everything about the slim, 40-ish Ms. Lerner suggests action. She speaks quickly, moves quickly, and carries herself with the kind of self-confidence most people only dream of having. Of course, Ms. Lerner has good reason to be self-assured. She has been wildly successful in business, a fashion iconoclast and a philanthropist of extraordinarily varied interests.
Back in the mid-eighties, Lerner was managing computers for Stanford’s graduate school of business. Her then-husband Leonard Bosack ran a computer science lab just across campus. The two wanted to communicate electronically, so Bosack rigged up some gizmos called routers and switchesto let the computers connect network to network. Hmmm… Different computers in different places, running different software, all networked and talking to one another… Good idea, eh? Kind of like a computer web. Maybe even a World Wide Web.
Cisco Systems Inc. was born and, an amazing amount of hard work later, became a dominant force of the New Economy. When Lerner left Cisco for (literally) greener pastures, she and Bosack took a considerable fortune with them.
Not content to rest on her substantial laurels, Lerner started a cutting-edge cosmetics company, Urban Decay. The firm rocked the house of conventional beauty, offering strident, often metallic shades with names like Buzzkill, Bruise and Uzi. Decay’s devotees have included Sandra Bullock, Drew Barrymore, Madonna, Cameron Diaz and Cher— not to mention NBA free spirit Dennis Rodman.
In addition to changing the face— and the fingernails —of American womanhood, Lerner was also turning herself into one of the country’s most prolific and diverse philanthropists. Through her Bosack-Kruger Charitable Foundation, Ampersand Capital, and personal resources, Ms. Lerner has given a mammoth amount of money and time to an exceptionally varied array of charities. Lerner and Bosack’s foundation is, for example, looking for aliens.
The organization is co-sponsoring part of the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project. Specifically, they are helping fund the construction of a 160-million channel, dual-beam receiver which will use a megachannel spectrometer to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. No, we don’t know what a “megachannel spectrometer” or “160-million channel, dual-beam receiver” is either, but they sound really cool, don’t they?
A Jane Austen enthusiast, Lerner is refurbishing an estate once owned by the great author’s brother. There, at Chawton House, she is creating the Centre for the Study of Early English Women’s Writing—an academic resource to include an extensive collection of books by Austen’s female contemporaries. This collection is being donated by—you guessed it—Sandy Lerner. Lerner’s great love, however, is animal welfare. (Why else would we be profiling her?) The depth and breadth of her commitment to our fellow creatures is truly astonishing. She has, for instance, significantly upgraded the Folsom Zoo, a Northern California facility know as “Misfit Zoo,” because its animal inhabiatants are either deserted pets or animals injured or abandoned in the wild. Lerner created ‘LabRat,’ a computer program which educates scientists about the humane treatment of lab animals. She is the power behind PetNet, whose software ‘PetWhere 2.6’ helps shelters reunite lost pets with owners and find homes for adoptable animals, among many other cool animal apps. Lerner is also building a 24-hour critical care animal hospital to serve the Virginia piedmont she calls home.
Speaking of home, there is the farm.
Ayrshire Farm, that is; eight hundred bright emerald acres set among the mystic Blue Ridge Mountains. Animal Fair arrived at Ayrshire on a sun-dappled day, following a long, tree-lined drive towards a stately stone abode.
Lerner doesn’t live in the big house. We found her in the kitchen of the smaller cabin she calls home. Wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt to match the blue streaks shooting through her long, dark hair, Lerner is the calm center at a minor storm of human activity.
This is, you see, no tech millionaire’s ornamental farm. This place works. Ayrshire produces hay, orchard produce, chickens, hogs, and turkeys, has roughly three dozen horses, seven dozen head of cattle, thirty-five acres of organic vegetable gardens—- and some seriously pampered pets. The folks surrounding Lerner in the kitchen represent just a few of the forty people it takes to run the place.
Ms. Lerner greets us graciously and is off. The tour has begun, and we find ourselves struggling to keep pace as she strides purposefully through the estate. Lerner is a champion of holistic, horse-drawn farming— and it shows. The place has a remarkably calm feeling, far from the heartless mechanical churning sense one gets at a typical corporate food factory.
Lerner is legendarily blunt and just a bit eccentric, a role she seems to relish. (Asked by Forbes Magazine to provide a picture for a cover story, she sent one of herself posed nude on horseback.) Her tone today is rapid, but perfectly polite and filled with a well-deserved sound of self-satisfaction. “This is what farming is supposed to be,” she beams. “Farming isn’t about having a whole bunch of one thing; of having it so the animals can’t move. All the animals here—even though we raise them for production— are all free-range and organic.”
As the tour continues, she gestures towards buildings and fields. “Back here, we’ve got our rare breed turkeys and our new hog-barn is going in. The chickens are somewhere back there. And the Shires…” She pauses, then her voice fills with admiration as we approach the stables. “These are the Shires.”
These are simply stunning fawn-like creatures. This ancient breed has an immense, powerful body covered with an almost feathery coat. As we approach, they regard us with intelligent, gentle eyes. It is a placid gaze, the unmistakable look of a creature who knows he is of superior stock— and that he is well-loved for it. Lerner then points out her Gloucester Old Spots, a threatened and (dare we admit it?) beautiful breed of swine. “They’re very endangered.” Lerner says. “At one point there were only about a couple hundred left in the world.
Why did she move to rural Virginia in the first place? Her answer, like all her answers, is sharp and sure.
“Water and grass.” she says. “As opposed to California, which doesn’t have water, this place is bursting with life. We’ve got river otters and beaver, eagles and nesting blue herons. There are turtles, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, bluebirds, cardinals, wild turkey. I just saw my first oriole.” she beams. “Oh! And the sunsets! The sunsets are beautiful out here. People are always raving about California sunsets, but they’re better here.”
“Those,” she, says, gesturing towards a remarkable, long-haired, broad-horned breed of cattle, “are Scottish Highlanders. If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Rob Roy’ those are the hill cattle from Scotland. There’s a red one on the far side, and another one in the barn up there.
“Over there,” she points “are milking short-horns. We run our own dairy on the farm. All organic, of course.”
Ayshire is truly an impressive experience. More than merely beautful, it is a strangely comforting combination of rustic charm and cutting-edge environmentalism—a trip to the future by way of the past. We stroll peacefully for a moment, listening to clucks, barks and the occasional moo.
As we near the big stone house, Lerner takes over again as tour guide, “This house was built in 1911. It’s actually a very modern construction, one of the first steel-framed structures, post- San Francisco earthquake.
Looking around, we note that Ms. Lerner has, shall we say, a fondness for the feline form. That is, the house is absolutely packed with cat-themed furniture, pillows, potholders, paperweights, trinkets and towels. If there is any way to make an object look like, remind one of, or even vaugely suggest a feline, Lerner proably has three of them.
We suggest Ms. Lerner would be an easy person for whom to buy gifts. She agrees with a laugh, “I think it’s so charming as an adult to choose a fetish. Everyone knows just what to get you.”
But her cat-o-mania isn’t limited to trifles and trinkets. Ms. Lerner possesses what is likely the largest collection of serious cat-themed artwork in the world. “New Arrival,” an Irish piece from 1880’s, is a heart-tugging little gem depicting a vagabond girl helping an equally forlorn feline friend.
We move on. We are, it seems, always moving on.
“This is my favorite room. It’s called the ‘small room.’ Remember Sir Richard Burton, the explorer who found the head of the Nile River? He also first translated 1001 Arabian Nights into English. This is Sir Richard’s room—all filled with campaign furniture.” (Campaign furniture, by the way, is this beautiful but incredibly portable furniture used by British nobles “campaigning” in far-off colonies. Okay, so you already knew that. We didn’t.)
“Lily couldn’t walk and was starving. She was about six or seven months old and obviously a pure-bred Himalayan. I don’t know how she made it through the first six or seven months…”
Lily, incidentally, is a cat.
“… She was in the euthanasia line. I went by, she was laying down, and she sort of pawed and started purring. I said, ‘I’ll take that one.’ The lady at the shelter said, ‘You don’t understand. This is the euthanasia area. You can’t have that one. It’s a neurological disorder.’ I said, You don’t understand. I’m the largest donor to this shelter. I’ll take that one.’ “Lily couldn’t walk, she was so emaciated. So we just picked her up. She was so bad they hadn’t even filled out any paperwork on her at the shelter.”
It turned out Lilly was Ataxic, meaning she has a birth defect which impairs her motor skills. An extreme curvature of the spine makes her walk almost sideways.
And how is Lily now?
“Lily is the Queen of Ayrshire!” Declares Lerner. “She is just so loving. She never does anything wrong. She’s an angel-kitty. She loves me and she loves life. The world is her oyster.”
Looking at Ms. Lerner’s happy glow, it is easy to wonder if Lily is really the one whose world is an oyster. Ms. Lerner could just as easily be describing herself.
On our way back to the car, we see the cows grazing peacefully on the hillside, and remember to ask a few final questions.
AF: Hey, are you a vegetarian?
SL: Have been for years.
AF: What kind of protein do you get?
SL: On the farm, I eat milk and eggs. But people don’t need too much protein. People get all weird about protein, but we’re actually made for low-protein. People only need about seven grams a day.
“On the farm, I eat milk and eggs…” she said, “On the farm…” Those words seem to echo and, for the first time, we fully realize just what an unbelievable variety of completely organic, wonderfully fresh food Ms. Lerner has at her disposal at Ayshire. Why, one wonders, would she ever want to leave.
“So… Do you watch what you eat pretty carefully?” We ask.
She laughs, “My breakfast of champions is usually Pop-Tarts.”
It’s true. The woman has a deep and abiding passion for toaster-ready pastries.
With that last curious fact running through our minds, we drive into the falling blue mountain twilight. Sadly, we must leave this pastoral paradise and return to our stressful lives. We must abandon Sandy’s world and re-enter the world of urban decay, of cut-throat business and constant electronic communications.
Oh, wait. That’s Sandy’s world too!