Interview with Audrey MacLean

Audrey MacLean Photo
Interview Subject: Audrey MacLean
Release Date: July 30, 2008
Duration: 18:35
Interviewer(s): Lucy Sanders, Larry Nelson, Lee Kennedy
Series: Entrepreneurial Heroes
Transcript: An Interview with Audrey MacLean Co-Founder & VP, Network Equipment Technologies; Co-founder & CEO, Adaptive


Audrey MacLean has been on the Forbes Midas Touch list and named by BusinessWeek as one of the 50 most influential business women in America. She also has been featured by Forbes in a cover article on angel investing. MacLean has over three decades of combined experience in the computer and communications industries. She was a founder and VP of Network Equipment Technologies (NET), which went public in 1987, and later co-founded and was CEO of Adaptive which merged with NET in 1993. Building on her own entrepreneurial success, MacLean has been instrumental in helping to launch and grow successful companies through her work as a mentor capitalist and as a professor of entrepreneurship. The companies she has seed funded which have gone public include: Pure Software, Pete’s Brewing Company, AdForce,, and Selectica. Successful acquisitions include: Avidia/PairGain, Firefly/Microsoft, InternetMiddleware/NetworkAppliance, Amplitude/CriticalPath, specialtyMD/Chemdex, Gigabeat/Napster, Achieva/Kaplan, Ironport/Cisco and Centrality/SiRF. Other start-up portfolio companies include: db4O, Finesse, Future Point, LimeLife, Loopt, and Open Lane. MacLean is also an affiliate and advisor to a number of leading venture funds. In her teaching capacity at Stanford, she is the lead professor for the Technology Venture Formation course in the Stanford Technology Venture Program in the School of Engineering. She is also a contributor to the annual STVP roundtable of university leaders from top technical institutions nationwide. MacLean also serves as a board member of the Kauffman Fellows Program, The University of Hawaii Maui College, and Santa Clara University’s Center for Applied Ethics.


Lucy Sanders: Hi. This is Lucy Sanders. I’m the CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, or NCWIT, and this is one of a series of interviews that we’re doing with IT entrepreneurs, people who have fabulous advice about starting companies. With me, I have Larry Nelson from Hi, Larry.

Larry Nelson: Hi. I’m happy to be here, of course.

Lucy: Why don’t you tell us a bit about w3w3.

Larry: We’re an Internet based all business radio show. Our focus is high tech, which is why we are here.

Lucy: Well, wonderful. Also, Lee Kennedy, an NCWIT director and a serial entrepreneur and also co founder of Tricalyx. Hi, Lee.

Lee Kennedy: Hi. Thanks for having me today.

Lucy: Welcome. Today, we’re really fortunate to have Audrey MacLean as our interviewee and I can’t say enough about her by way of introduction. Audrey, you have such a reputation for helping entrepreneurs for mentoring them. I know you’re going to have a lot of great advice for our listeners today. But, you have such a great track record. You’re a founder of the Network Equipment Technologies and also Adaptive. And, you’re an independent investor and also a consulting associate professor at Stanford University where you deal with ethic entrepreneurship. So, there’s a lot to say and I think we just want to jump right into the interview. So, welcome.

Audrey MacLean: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Lucy: We like to start our interview series with a question about technology and really pick your brain about the up and coming technologies. And somebody, such as yourself, you work with a lot of entrepreneurs so you see a lot. I’m very curious to know what you think are the emerging technologies and how they’re going to shape the landscape.

Audrey: Well, as you mentioned, in terms of my own personal background, I cut my teeth in the industry in the networking field; in ET, Adaptive and a lot of other companies that I’ve participated in the growth of. So, as a network bigot, if you will, I continue to believe that some of the most exciting innovation we’re going to see across, at least the next decade or two, has everything to do with the Internet and mobile technologies. Having said that, I think there’s going to be a lot happening on the clean tech and the med tech front as well that is going to change lives.

Lucy: Well, and I happen to be a network bigot myself.

Lee: Yes, you are.

Lucy: So, we really like that answer. Say a bit about clean tech if you will. What are you seeing there?

Audrey: I see a broad spectrum of applications emerging, literally, every quarter over at Stanford. There’s the obvious big things with the big entrenched utilities and the search for alternative sources of energy. But, there’s all kinds of little opportunities as well that I think you would find just as amazing. We’ve had companies that are building LED lanterns for applications in India. I think that the clean tech front is one of the most exciting places that I’m seeing my students have interesting new innovations in.

Lucy: Wow.

Larry: That really is a hot topic here, excuse the expression.

Lee: Oh, stop.

Larry: OK. I’d better stop.

Lee: Well, Colorado is really into some of these things as well.

Lucy: So Audrey, it’s clear from looking at your background that you’ve been an entrepreneur and worked with entrepreneurs for years. What is it about entrepreneurship that you love? Audrey: Everything. I assume you wanted a more complete response to that. First of all, I tell my students all the time, it is an extreme sport. I’ve been on the faculty of Stanford engineering school now since ’94 and I’ve made sure that my students understand that it is not for everyone. It is one of the most demanding feats that anyone can undertake. So, it’s to be – proceed with caution. Let’s put it that way. But, in terms of what attracts me to entrepreneurship, and I have to say to begin with, that I’m sort of an accidental entrepreneur. I didn’t set out thinking, “oh, I want to be an entrepreneur.” In fact, people didn’t talk about it much when I began. It’s just that I had been working for 10 years at a company called Time Net in the packet switching field and came upon an opportunity that was so compelling that I had to quit my job and go do it. I think that’s at the heart of what makes me tick as an entrepreneur. It’s that you want to solve problems that need to be solved and when you do, you want to turn them into reality. It’s that process that’s exciting and it’s that process that got me excited as an entrepreneur. And it’s that same process that keeps me excited about working with a new generation of entrepreneurs to help them realize their dreams. The fact is that to be an entrepreneur, you have to be able to see things the way they could be versus the way they are and you have to believe that if you can see it, you can make it happen and then you have to inspire others to want to do it with you because it always takes a team. So for me, personally, I’m always in search of how things can be improved and I love the process of creating something out of nothing. And truthfully, I’m happiest when I’m collaborating with others to materialize real results and I never give up. So for me, entrepreneurship is a natural habitat. But, I’m not sure that that’s true for everyone.

Larry: You just mentioned the word “inspired.” Along the way, who might be somebody that had a major impact in your direction, maybe had been a mentor to you, a special adviser?

Audrey: Again, you have to consider the time frame in which my career began. I didn’t really have a specific mentor. I was certainly influenced by lots of entrepreneurs early on in Silicon Valley particularly those that cared as passionately about the corporate culture they were creating as they did about the product innovations that they were bringing to market. There were – I don’t know; Bob Noyce, Ken Oshman, Jimmy Treybig – people like that that were inspirations to me. But, my primary source of encouragement and support was my husband, Mike.

Lucy: Well, and we know that spouses play a large role in the success of an entrepreneur for sure.

Larry: That’s a fact.

Lucy: And that’s a fact. And that’s a fact. So, you mentioned building corporate culture which I found very interesting along with the products or the services and that being an important byproduct of entrepreneurship. Often, good corporate cultures will help you weather the bad times, weather the hard decisions. Maybe you could share with our listeners what the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do in your career was.

Audrey: On an umbrella level, by far the toughest thing that I’ve had to do in my career is keep my family life and my role as an entrepreneurial CEO in balance. I obviously was totally committed and completely professionally driven. But, when I look back on my career and I look at N.E.T., and Adaptive, and Peace, and Pure, and all the companies we’ve built and all the jobs we’ve created and all the market value achieved, the truth for me is that when I look back at my life, those things are in the top ten. But, the top three are still my husband, our kids and our family. So, I think that the overall balance is the most important thing. In terms of specifics, career things, I think the merger of Adaptive into N.E.T. was a very challenging transition in that Adaptive had built a very exciting corporate culture where the entire team was very bonded and the extended families of the employees themselves were very connected to the company. We had done that consciously in many ways and it was to support employees in a start up who have to put forward such enormous efforts. We wanted their families to be participants. For example, we gave New Baby stock to anybody whose spouse or themselves gave birth to a child while we were growing the company. Things like that and obvious activities at the company brought families in and engaged them directly. So when we were ultimately merging Adaptive into N.E.T., there was going to be a huge cultural change as Adaptive that had 150 people and had won back to back product of the year awards and everybody was totally on the same page in terms of goals and directions and culture. Suddenly they had to merge into a much larger entity and make that transition. I think that was probably one of the more challenging points in my personal career. But again, I think that the way you get through those things is by being completely clear on the objectives and completely direct and open with your employees. And ultimately, I think that reality drives a situation like that and you simply help people navigate it. Interviewer: Well you mentioned corporate culture as a way to help employees bring balance to their lives. This is something we don’t often hear from the people we interview. We hear, you know, many wonderful things around hobbies or personal things that they do. I’d like to just follow up about a few other things that Adaptive may have done in this area in addition to the New Baby stock because this is such an important issue and we just keep seeing the same corporate cultures over and over again. Audrey: You know, it’s taken a lot of different forms in a lot of different companies. But, I think first off you have to celebrate successes. That could be bringing in a vat of ice cream on a software build or it could be a massive party to celebrate a first customer shift. But, you need to celebrate successes. But on a daily basis, you need to do things as well. So for example, one of the things we did at Adaptive was if you were there in the evening, you had two corporate accounts from local restaurants that you could call up and order dinner. In practice, what ended up happening was someone would start walking around and seeing who was still working and say, oh, you like the garlic eggplant, and you like this, and order up a pile of food. People would end up in conference rooms all over the company eating dinner together and talking about what they were working on. Not surprisingly, they would end up solving different problems. “Oh, I didn’t realize you were doing that. We’ve already done this piece.” So, this bonding and this nurturing where you’re saying, hey, if you’re still working and it’s time to eat a meal, we’re going to make sure you get it as opposed to having to leave and drive somewhere and spend your time and money doing it. So, those sorts of things if you look at companies like Google today, they’ve taken it to the next step where they’ve got a cafeteria where employees at any point can go down and get a nutritious meal at breakfast, or at lunch, or at dinner. The idea simply is that if your employees are working that hard, you want to make sure that they’re being nourished, as well as nurtured. So, I jokingly say feed them. Literally, feed them. So, those sorts of things are important. But then, it’s also the little practical ways in which it infiltrates the culture. I remember one time my C.F.O. at Adaptive came into my office with a look of worry on his face and said, “I’ve got a problem.” And, I said, “what’s that?” He said, “Well, you and I have that 3:00 meeting in 20 minutes and I just got a call from the nanny saying her car broke down and she can’t go pick up Tyler, his son, at preschool.” And I said, “who else is in the meeting?” And he said, “just you and me”. I said, “OK, so it’s not a problem. We’ll get in the car. I’ll drive. You go over the material with me. We’ll pick up Tyler, bring him to the nanny, and we’ll be back in time for our next meeting. And, he looked at me and said, “I never would have thought of that.” It’s that type of thing. It’s giving people the permission to think about what needs to be done that will make their life support the incredible task you’re trying to undertake with a startup company.

Lucy: I love it. It’s the practical advise. So many companies will feed their employees if they’re working late, but it’s those little things like picking up the kid from school because the nanny’s car broke down.

Larry: Yeah.

Audrey: Exactly.

Lucy: So, Audrey it’s clear you’ve had all kinds of successes, and I’m sure there’s some failures along the way, but everything from building companies, merging companies, culture. If you were sitting here with a young person, what tidbits would you pull from your background to just give them the pearls of wisdom?

Audrey: Well, it’s interesting that you refer to it as “pearls of wisdom,” because I obviously have been on the teaching faculty now since 1994. So, I frequently get asked for advice, and I frequently respond by saying, “I don’t necessarily want to dole out advice, but I’m happy to share some used wisdom.”

Lucy: That’s great.

Audrey: I think that one of the pieces of used wisdom, apart from what we talked about earlier which is, “This is an extreme sport, and it’s not for everyone.” But if it is for you, and you really are going to go for it, one of the important things to realize is you can’t do it alone. You need to create a team. One of the most important decisions you’ll make are who to trust. It’s extremely important that you choose your partners and your advisors wisely. So, I think that that’s probably one of the most valuable pieces of used wisdom or advice that I can leave people with, which is that you need to put the team together. You need to be sure that the label of integrity and commitment is there across the board, and then you need to strap on the ski boots and get your knees forward in these boots.

Larry: You’ve already achieved a great deal. You have lots of interests from clean tech, to just a variety of different topics that you’re involved with. What do you see on the horizon next for you?

Audrey: As you know, I got off the court and onto the coaching bench over a decade ago now, but I can tell you there are more exciting things happening right now that I’m involved with then at any other point in my career. The number of young entrepreneurs that I’m working with right now, and the potential for innovation that will help change the way we will live on this planet is greater today, then it was certainly at the beginning of the last century. I have tremendous faith in the future that this new generation of entrepreneurs can create. I will do exactly what I have done, which is to continue to work in support of the realization of their dreams. I don’t give up, so I expect to be doing this for a long time to come.

Larry: Well, they say, “Persistence is omnipotent.”

Audrey: Well, certainly tenacity is a fundamental tenant of any entrepreneurial endeavor.

Lucy: Well, it’s very heartening to know that you’re out there coaching these young entrepreneurs. I can’t imagine a better coach, a better person to pass along their wisdom. It’s really inspirational. I know that Kristin McDonald was just, “Oh! One of my advisors is Audrey.” I’m sure that she’s one of many, who really depend on your experiences. So, I know that they would all be sitting here saying, “Thank you, Audrey.”

Audrey: Well, like I said it takes a team, so I’m happy to be on their team.

Lucy: Well, thanks so much for sitting down with us for a few minutes and talking about entrepreneurship. We really do appreciate it. We want to remind listeners where they can find these interviews. They can find them at, and also at So, thank you Audrey. We really appreciate it.

Larry: Thank you very much.

Lucy: I want to say that I have now learned a new phrase that “Entrepreneurism is an extreme sport.” Woman 1: Don’t you love it? It’s so appropriate.

Lucy: I love it. So, thank you for that too.

Audrey: You’re welcome, and thank you for keeping and spreading the word. Transcription by CastingWords

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