Zig-zagging to success: A career in motion

Zig-zaging towards sucess
Credit: Marian F. Cook

Jaleh Daie is managing partner at Aurora Equity. A life scientist and Women in Technology International hall of famer, she is a strategic leader with extensive operational and board experience. She has served the administrations of three presidents, Rutgers University and University of Wisconsin-Madison, as head of science at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and as the “first woman” in numerous leadership positions.

Thank you for your time today. You have a broad and varied set of experiences. How would you describe your career trajectory? It has been a total surprise, a wonderful ride, and an upward zig-zag fueled mainly by curiosity and passion for discovery and innovation. I’ve been fortunate to acquire varied skill sets by serving in public and private institutions, across industries and in all economic sectors, and have not experienced much difficulty adjusting to change. In fact, I get energized and scale quickly into new positions.

You began your career as a professor. Did leadership in academia interest you? Yes, initially. When I got my Ph.D., I was strongly urged to seek a professorship at a major university. Thanks to hard work, I made full professor in six years instead of the more customary 12. Then I moved into administration while keeping my research as a backstop in case administration was not my thing. This early move was certainly an uncommon path for a woman in my field. 

But if I experienced anything like a summons to new career vistas, it was the opportunity for a sabbatical in Washington, D.C., without having to leave my position at the university. That work, plus leading a number of national organizations, changed my perspective. I realized there are other interesting things to do with a science background besides academic research and administration.

Did you retire from academia to pursue these other possibilities? At first I was able to do both because senior academics have some flexibility. But I did eventually give up tenure and left academia, landing as head of science and engineering at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. It was a dream job, identifying the best ideas, the best people, and enabling some of the most exciting science through over $100 million grants. When the foundation was reorganized after the dot-com bubble burst, there wasn’t the same need for my expertise, and I had to find the next arena.

How did you keep your skills honed during the interim until your next gig? I never stopped working. I continued to serve on boards, doing panels, speaking and keeping interactions with initiatives I had been part of in Washington. I did some introspection, but I am a firm believer in not letting self-assessment go on too long or letting unforeseen setbacks define me. Contributing to something important is like muscle tone: If you lose it through inaction, it is very difficult to gain it back. Even when I had interruptions in my job, I was committed to not having a long break in my career. It is this “career-but-not-job” mindset that led me to venture and angel investing.

Was there a steep learning curve to becoming successful at investing? Not as steep as you might think. In some ways it was the Packard Foundation job with a profit motive: understanding what the major investment criteria are, what we invest in, who is the entrepreneur, how we help the company grow, when the firm is mature enough for exit, etc.

I have always been a strategic thinker by temperament, so connecting the dots and glimpses of trends and patterns before they are obvious is my stock in trade. This is important not only in venture investing, but has propelled my career in other areas. I also have a high network quotient (NQ). I can access my superb network for help in areas I do not have domain expertise in.


As an aside, I want to emphasize the importance of having a high NQ to women who are coming of age right now. It takes years to build one, but it is very perishable.

Good advice. Expand on the strategic thinking aspect of your approach to leadership. Strategic thinking is much more about the “big what” and less about the “how.” It is important that the rising crop of leaders cultivate strategic thinking. For example, if you are thinking strategically about your career, figure out what you really want to do, where you want to add the most value and apply your passion. It is not plotting to get a specific job/promotion that’s open. Stay open, realistic and flexible. Pivot when necessary.

What are the “big whats” that you are working on now? First is personal philanthropy. It is energizing to decide on how, when, where and with whom to work on something significant. Not as a substitute for my job, but as a parallel avocation. Second is the issue of the dearth of women in top positions in science and technology, from corporate boards to C-suite to executive positions. It is astonishing how much accumulated experience, wisdom and success (of women) isn’t making it into the top levels of companies who are changing the world. I’m especially keen on seeing more women on corporate boards. Perhaps there is a way to combine the two. 

What are you learning right now? I want to learn computer coding. I am taking classes and going to hackathons. My strategic sense tells me that in the next five to 10 years basic coding is going to be an essential skill that every worker will need in order to be successful. Look how fast computer literacy went from hobby to essential daily tool. I want to be prepared for new opportunities when my next "big what" takes shape and I know where I want to go.

Thank you for your time and insights. I know our readers will find them valuable. You are very welcome.

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