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Women Living & Working the Dream: Anne Van Lent
This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 3, 1999. All rights reserved.
At age 50, Anne M. Van Lent has her dream job. Since
October she has been the vice president of ventures at Sarnoff
the first female vice president at the former RCA Laboratories. She
is a coach, helping scientists get their technologies to market, and
a recruiter, attracting investors looking for hot picks (http://www.sarnoff.com).
Van Lent has worked both sides of this game before; she worked on
Research Way for eight years at the Liposome Company, leaving as the
chief financial officer. But at Sarnoff — which has dozens of
products in the pipeline and spins off several companies a year —
she is pulled many ways at once. "I view myself as a juggler and
a complex problem solver," says Van Lent, "but I have never
juggled harder in my life."
Juggling, in fact, is the story of her life. She trained as a
but went into business. She married young, but soon was faced with
a commuter marriage. She was working for organizations going through
major changes before "change management" was a popular term.
"I thrive on that kind of chaos," says Van Lent. "I think
women tend to fill voids. If they see something that isn’t being taken
care of, they say `I’ll handle it.’ In a situation of flux, women
rise to the top."
Van Lent has a long commute to Princeton, but not for the first time.
When she worked for Liposome in the ’80s, she lived in Connecticut.
Now she commutes from north Jersey but softens her schedule by staying
at Novotel two nights a week. "I’m used to trying to balance
and business life," says Van Lent. She is engaged to Sam Castimore
VMD, large animal/equine veterinarian. They have been partners for
seven years, and he has children ages 19 and 21; it will be her second
"I learned at Mount Holyoke that a degree in science produces
complex problem solvers. I always thought of myself as a complex
solver," says Van Lent.
In the 1970s she was at the leading edge of women going into business.
"I come from a good old solid Midwest background," says Van
Lent. Like her parents, she was born and raised in Muscatine, Iowa,
a town that appears to be "in the middle of nowhere" but
boasts a handful of big firms.
Her father worked for Hon Industries, office furniture manufacturer,
in sales and marketing. "That was an emerging growth industry
at the time. My mother worked a little on the side and took care of
my grandmother, who died when I was 18." She has a younger sister
who has taught grade-school art.
The example set by her parents focused on a work ethic, "that
you can accomplish anything if you put the right amount of effort
into it. And they had constant support for anything I tried to do,
never wanting to hold me back." For instance, when she was accepted
to Mount Holyoke, the idea of her going to the East Coast "was
a stretch both psychologically and, very much, financially."
But she set her heart on it. "I was very impressed with several
of the women I met who were Mount Holyoke graduates. Uncommon women,
bright, involved, gracious — how welcoming they were. If these
are the kind of women who come out of this school," I thought,
"this is where I want to go. I was taken aback by the stature
and poise that I saw in those women."
After college she had been accepted for doctoral work in biophysics
at Northwestern but first she took advantage of a Rotary scholarship
to study for a year in Strasbourg, France, partly to get in touch
with the heritage of her grandmother. "When I was in grade school
I would come up the stairs after school to see my grandmother and
she would make me recite the French alphabet," says Van Lent. (She
has had occasion to use her fluent French during joint venture
with European firms.)
When she returned from France, she took a summer job in her hometown
at the Heinz tomato processing factory, and she never returned to
academe. At that time Heinz was just getting into computer oriented
"McKinsey was doing major productivity studies at Muscatine, and
I was exposed to the senior executives who came out there," says
Van Lent. Heinz created a position for her to monitor the profit
programs initiated under the study. "It was appealing to stay
home for a year, rent an apartment and save money. I enjoyed watching
things happen. Then I had an offer to be assistant to the president
at Heinz USA, Ray Good, in Pittsburgh." The job was much more
than being the president’s assistant; it was to start the first
"The food industry was shifting in the mid ’70s and early ’80s
to be more marketing driven," says Van Lent. "Because of my
hands-on experience in the tomato plant, because I had the base level
knowledge, I was promoted into the first ever financial planning and
analysis group for tomato products. It was my first financial
She met and married her first husband in Pittsburgh, and when he was
transferred, she followed, taking a job involving financial analysis
for International Harvester. "My leaving Pittsburgh was definitely
influenced by his career move," says Van Lent. "In today’s
environment I would not have left that position when I did."
Stories of husbands who would defer to a wife’s career were just
to surface in the 1970s. "People were just beginning to write
about issues such as who is the dominant partner. Our relationship
was definitely on the cutting edge. We were struggling with that
Now, I would have been able to say, `Now is my time, not your
Later, she says, "I definitely learned that I had probably damaged
my career. But I don’t look back. My career took other directions
because of that."
After she moved to Chicago, her husband was promoted to a position
in Minneapolis. This time she did not follow but initiated one of
the early commuter marriages. In her eight years in the food industry,
she looked back — not too sadly — at the academic
she had forgone. "I really missed my science, but I really love
the more practical side. In Chicago we would drive by the Batavia
Linear Accelerator labs, and I would wonder, `What would have happened
if I had stayed in science.’ The whole area of biophysics and
was coming to bloom in the ’70s, which had been the focus of my
"But I don’t think I ever would have been happy as a bench
I am more of a social animal, and I really enjoy working with teams
and inside organizations. I don’t think I would have been happy as
a research scientist."
"One of my strengths is being able to blend the science background
with the business side, being very comfortable with dealing with
and analysts in explaining the technology, because I understand it
at a fairly high level." She used this combination to move to
Liposome, then a start-up biotech with about 25 employees, and in
1983 she worked there part time. "When I joined Liposome it had
just finished its first true round of venture capital and had had
one corporate deal." By the time she left in 1992 she was chief
financial officer. She had concluded six stock offerings raising $200
million, directed development of a raw material distribution division
from a start-up (Princeton Lipids) to a sales rate of $750,000 per
year, and participated in joint ventures in both Europe and Japan (http://www.lipo.com).
Van Lent takes pleasure in working in life sciences "and
to an organization where we made a difference in peoples’ lives. At
Liposome we all donned suits and went into the clean room to mix test
batches around the clock. Letters came thanking you because a child
was alive. It is worth everything to know that you have been part
of something that changes peoples’ lives."
Next on her resume is a two-year stint at Trophix Pharmaceuticals,
a venture capital financed neuroscience company in South Plainfield,
where she was chief financial offer from 1993 to 1995. She had her
own consulting business in life sciences, from 1995 to 1998, and one
of her clients was Roderick Mackenzie of Gynetics, which came out
with a daring emergency contraception pill for women.
As a consultant Van Lent worked with Sarnoff on a joint venture on
DNA diagnostics, and she was asked to join Sarnoff as vice president
in spring, 1997. Sarnoff hired her, she says, because she had been
in small companies and worked with venture capitalists, and was
with issues that the scientists had not dealt with, and also with
relationships in investment banking.
"Anne has added a lot of value not just in the venture area but
with her overall broad business background," says Susan Gauff,
who is the second woman to receive the title of Sarnoff vice
hers is in communications and human resources. "It is very
at Sarnoff for each team area to take the larger view and be willing
to pitch in and share their experiences with everyone else. She has
made a very big difference here and will continue to do so at her
When Van Lent came to Sarnoff, she had the title of vice president
and reported to Curtis Carlson, who soon was promoted to be president
and CEO of Sarnoff’s parent company, SRI. Now Van Lent is one of eight
people who report directly to the CEO. "Her job has not changed,
but her visibility and her influence is much greater," say Gauff.
Van Lent has been acting president for VideoBrush Corporation and
has just sold it to a joint partner, Picture Works, in California
(U.S. 1, December 2, 1998). "We thought the market would move
faster than it has," she says. "Given how competitive the
PC software business is today, the best way to maximize the value
of the assets was to merge it with a company already dealing with
more basic ways to introduce images."
Mentoring, to any man or woman who needs it, is a big part of her
job. She describes it as "an overall obligation and responsibility
of my position as an internal consultant on how we build value from
our technology to create viable companies. I like to feel my door
is open to everyone."
"I have always tried to ignore gender issues in business,"
says Van Lent, "and I have tried not to use my gender." Yet
circumstances sometimes differ for women and men, and she does find
herself reaching out to women on a social level. "If I am going
to be in town for dinner, for instance, I will call another woman
rather than a man."
"I have always taken every job based on my gut reaction,"
says Van Lent. "I want to be surrounded by people challenging
me to be creative, open, and deal with problems. I am not a political
animal. I am much more focused on getting things done. Of all the
things I tell people, I say, `Grab onto any situation you think you
can handle. Step out in front to get ahead.’"
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