Even in the fail-fast-or-get-acquired world of Silicon Valley startups, Ellen Levy is a master of reinvention, turning a succession of relatively brief stints in private companies, academia, NGOs, and venture capital firms into a unique role as a super connector, a Lois Weisman of the tech world. Recently departed from LinkedIn, where she was VP of Strategic Initiatives for the past four years, Levy—who holds a PhD not in computer science but in cognitive psychology—started her career at Apple, pre-Steve Jobs’s return. From there, the 42-year-old went on to roles at search engine WhoWhere, Stanford University, the Clinton Global Initiative, and countless advisory boards, becoming a one-woman bridge between the people who are looking for the next big idea in technology and the people creating it. She spoke with Fast Company about her nomadic career, building an authentic network, and why polymaths are the future of innovation.
FAST COMPANY: I count close to 50 jobs and board positions in your LinkedIn profile. Is moving around a lot just in the nature of Silicon Valley—or is it something in your own nature?
ELLEN LEVY: Many of my job changes stemmed from very natural transitions. When you’re working with startups, being acquired is kind of normal. That’s often a time when people will move on to something new. Once you’re a partner at a venture firm—which I have been—I admit it is kind of unusual to leave. But I had a chance to contribute to things in a different way when I went to work at Stanford’s Media X program, for example. I think it’s more circumstances than my nature to say I have to pick up and go after a few years.
And what are you doing right now?
Right now I’m in my home office, while my husband is out with my high-energy two-year-old. I recently left LinkedIn, where I’d been involved since the company was founded and was an executive full-time for the last four years. I guess I’m in transition—or maybe I’m already into my new thing. Sometimes I just say I’m the managing director of a company I started called Silicon Valley Connect, which sounds like I do one thing but is really an umbrella name for a lot of things that make sense to me. That includes angel investing, serving on some boards and advisory boards, and doing some consulting. I call it consulting because I don’t know what to call it—it’s not time-based, there’s no specific deliverable. I just say I’ll learn what you care about, and let you know anytime I hear something that’s relevant, people or ideas I think you might want to know about.
Generally, I’m living in the world of the Internet, working with consumer Internet companies as well as those thinking about "the social enterprise" and changing nature of the workforce. What they all have in common is that they involve good people pursuing good challenges and opportunities. I just invested in a consumer Internet company that it is trying to solve one aspect of the problem in K-12 education. Health care is another very interesting area. I like looking at the interface where technology and people come together—how can technology help as an enabler and an accelerator? I’m also re-engaging with my network in a way that I couldn’t do while in a full-time job. One of the bigger benefits of moving around through such different fields and geographies and industries is that I’ve worked with such an interesting mix of people.
You got a PhD in cognitive psychology—not business or computer. How did you end up as a bigwig in the tech industry?
I did my PhD work at Stanford in cognitive psychology and was particularly interested in information science. Studying how people use information, take it in, and develop expertise interests me as a general principle. I got into the area of how people navigate and process information, and did my dissertation on the graphic display of information. That was my way of looking at the traditional memory and perception stuff in psychology but applying it to the information side. With the evolution of the Internet and information access over the past 15 years, this is something that’s gotten more and more interesting.
The minute I got out to the Bay Area, I saw a whole kind of entrepreneurial business environment that I really liked. I was drawn to the meritocracy of ideas here. Right out of grad school, I met one of the top executives at Apple—right before Steve Jobs came back—and I convinced him to hire me as his right-hand person. I worked out of the CEO’s office for a year, and that was an amazing way to learn some of the business stuff. This was a time of a lot of attrition at the company, which ironically turned out to be the single best way to build a network I could have possibly imagined. People leaving Apple were pulled into all sorts of companies—I ended up running corporate development and strategy at WhoWhere, which was bought by Lycos just before we were going to file for an IPO.
Another contact from Apple was on the board of a company doing e-books 12 or 13 year ago, where I worked for just shy of a year running corporate development and strategy before that company got acquired. After that, I started getting on advisory boards—at one time I was on 10 to 15—of companies where my everyday conversations, insights and relationships could be helpful in solving their problems. I worked in venture capital for about five years, a world that I loved but left to run theMedia X program at Stanford—sort of an intellectual matchmaking service connecting faculty and students with businesses interested in cutting edge research having to do with people and technology. In 2007, I became a deputy chair of the Global Health Working Group of the Clinton Global Initiative. I officially joined LinkedIn as an employee, where I was already on the advisory board, in 2008. I’d met Reid Hoffman through business-social connections. People say I kind of embody what LinkedIn stands for, by living through your network.
And that’s not nearly a complete version of your resume! Have you ever had to really sell yourself to someone you wanted to work with?
No, but only because there were certain things I loved to do, and I met folks along the way who were willing to take a bet on me and see what I was capable of doing. I’ve often joked that nobody would hire me unless they already knew me. What’s fun about being farther along in my career is after 20-plus years a lot of people know me and know my work. I’ve gotten on a lot of advisory boards because people know I can add value, but they don’t necessarily know to hire me for X job. Often where I’m able to help is connecting the dots. I get a big rush out of figuring out the right person, connection, or lead—and it’s more of a rush when it’s not obvious how I would know it.
How does someone go about building a network like yours?
When you talk about networking a lot, it can make it seem like a superficial habit. Probably one of the best strategies is to understate what and who you know, and then overdeliver. The worst time to build a relationship is when you need something—that would be a transaction, and that’s not the same thing. One of the best ways to build a relationship is to help someone when there’s no ulterior motive for doing so. I learned a lot about this working in venture capital. It can be really simple things-–sending you an article about something we talked about that you said was of particular interest to you, for example, makes you realize I put myself in your shoes. When you do that kind of thing every day, you realize all kinds of people are happy to help you.
Is there starting to be more respect for eclectic work experience in the way companies are hiring?
There’s something I call the polymath paradox. Polymaths, renaissance people—we don’t train them well in school; they’re supposed to pick a major and drill down. We don’t hire them well, we mold them pretty quickly, and we don’t promote them well on a grand scale. And yet when you start listening to what’s happening in the world, you see that the ability to move from one type of conversation to the next, to cross between disciplines to get insights, is an increasingly important skill. A breakthrough like fMRI brain imaging came from combining physicists, computer scientists, and neuroscientists. People at the intersections, who can connect these disparate people, ideas, and resources that don’t normally interact, are so important. If I were to go back to the academic world now I would focus my research and teaching on the changing nature of the organization, and look at bridge-building as a way of getting innovation and employee satisfaction. When it works, it works really well. I don’t mind trying to break down some of the walls. I’m already doing it.