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P1: Helen Pastorino - Founder & Board Member Pertria, Startup Sandbox, World Tomato Society

Helen Pastorino

Founder & Board Member | Pertria, a real estate investment firm President & Board Member | Startup Sandbox, Biotechnology Founder & Board Member | World Tomato Society

A consummate innovator who moves with passionate concern, Helen is one of the Bay Area’s leading real estate and social entrepreneurs. As Founder and CEO of Pertria, a Los Gatos-based real estate investment firm, formerly Founding Partner and President of Alain Pinel (acquired by Compass) and Regional Vice President for Fox & Carskadon her expertise leverages over 40 years of experience in the real estate and technology industries. Helen has an uncommon ability to surround herself with extraordinary people and her regard for the fundamental principles of natural law reveals itself within the ranks of the many interdisciplinary professionals who surround her. Featured In:

  • Can Email Cachet = jpmorgan@park.ave?, Steve Lohr, New York Times,

  • Case Study: Real Estate Reinvented, Jonathan Littman, Forbes Magazine

  • Fastest-Growing Private Companies Part 1, Silicon Valley Business Journal

  • Tech Changes Valley Companies, Ralph Jennings, Technology Silicon Valley

In the interview we talked about:

  • The big drivers of change in Silicon Valley in the early 90s when Silicon Valley started to break away from the norm and become what it is today.

  • Sharing a journey to grow a Monster of a Real Estate company. The norms that can be broken and advice on how to separate oneself from what their competitors are doing.

  • Helen shared her interaction with Steve Jobs, right from the start of being one of the largest customers of Next.

  • Sharing stories when to use our innovative thinking to help a client solve a problem and getting the best results.

  • Being in Silicon Valley sharing the experience of working with the leaders of some of the biggest & most powerful companies in the world.

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The transcript was generated using an Artificial Intelligence program and then scanned over; we would like to thank you in advance for understanding that there might be some inaccuracies. While reading, one might also notice that there are times were the sentences are not grammatically correct and due to changes in advertisements, the timestamps do not always align with the show. We are keeping the text as true to the interview as possible and hope that the transcript can be used for a reference in conjunction with the Podcast audio. Thank you and enjoy it!

Intro: 0:01

This is Silicon Valley Tech behind the scenes a podcast hosted by Shawn Flynn and Sunil S Ranka. Here's where we talk to the real heroes to find out how decisions are made, and how they're executed to create the thriving businesses of tomorrow.

Shawn Flynn 0:01

Helen, thank you for taking the time today to be on Silicon Valley Tech with myself, Shawn Flynn and Sunil S Ranka. We are very excited about this interview, we got to talk to you off camera before and when we found out you have 45 horses we found out about your family, your history, your neighbors, Steve Wozniak of all people, one of our heroes, and one of the people we look up to and, you know, we are very excited about this. And I know everyone at home is going to love this episode, but before going too in depth, can you give us a little bit of background up to this point of your career in your time here in Silicon Valley?

Helen Pastorino 0:35

Well, thank you both for having me. I came to the valley in 1968. And my parents were looking actually located a small, obscure little town of the peninsula that they wanted to move to. It was called Palo Alto and they looked at resale homes in Palo Alto but could not afford them at that time or resell average resale home in Palo Alto was $42,000.

Sunil Ranka 0:59

You said $42,000?!

Helen Pastorino 1:02

$42,000 was a little bit over my father's budget. So he ended up taking them moving the family to Cupertino. And we bought a brand new home up off above road in the foothills and paid $31,000 for that. And he borrowed a little bit from his life insurance policy to make sure he could make that down payment on that home. Now, I recall not too long ago or not too long from then I have a copy of the San Jose Mercury News. And on the front page of the Mercury News, it says Saratoga housing prices hit $100,000. And the conversation was how could this be and who can afford these houses? So the decision was they were celebrities. They were movie stars or they were athletes, but the average family could not afford $100,000. Home employment in the valley at that time was Moffett Field was Stanford. Closer than we were affected by whether we had a Republican or a democratic president. So when you talk about the swings of real estate in the valley at that point in time it was if we had a president that would support Moffett Field, then we were booming with VA loans all over the valley. And if not, then we were in a recession until the next election. So agriculture, as everybody knows and reads about was prevalent in the valley and some of the key locations were also Sherry's in Sunnyvale, and the Del Monte insignia in Campbell, downtown San Jose, Kelly brothers, of course in in Cupertino, and I think all the kids at some point or another were employed by Cali brothers and I know I work there. And for 50 cents a tray, we were asked to cut the apricots in half, splay them on the tray, and then those trays went as far as you could see in the trays were eight by eight feet by four feet. You were paid 50 cents to tray. So can you imagine how long it took for you to cut? Well, of course, you ate one and you cut 5, but there was no 85. So 85 was on the map. So it's been on the maps for a long, long time. 35 years. So it actually appeared on the maps, but there were houses completely all the way through 85. And then there was a decision made that Okay, that was the 85 was in fact going to be built. Yeah. And there was going to be five to six years. So we had to start talking about moving houses out of the corridors, we had to start talking about the exit ramps. So at that point in time in my career, I worked at a company called Fox and carsguide and I manage their Saratoga office. And we had a we had a meeting Deanza College at the Flint center and it holds about 23 2500 people we had five mayor's we had counted Trans we had a couple of managers, a few lawyers and basically talked about where the off ramps for 85 are going to incur. And in what cities and where Los Gatos was adamant they would not have any sort of 85 off ramp. They were the most difficult of all the towns with regards to accepting an off ramp, what they didn't want people to be able to come from different areas and just land in their town. So they did not want one. So the rule became that every town had to have one. The minimum you were going to have to identify within your town or city where you were going to have an 85 offerings. So we're driving to the valley now I drove here today and I had a smile on my face when I jumped on 85 in Los Gatos, because you can only go one way 85 off ramp in Los Gatos is only North you can't there is just so I jumped on and I laughed. I thought, Yeah, I remember this. I remember the argument about this on ramp. So I've had an opportunity to see a lot of things take place in this valley. How those are just some examples.

Shawn Flynn 5:01

And then your career path currently and in the past 20-30 years, what sector has it been in? And can you talk about the development of that?

Helen Pastorino 5:11

Yes. So I started in real estate in 1975. I was 21 years of age. And at that time, I was a sole practitioner. I was an individual real estate broker and sold real estate in the valley. And the valley was full at that time have very small offices independently owned 5, 15, 25 people at most in those offices. Most of them were gentlemen, most of them were male, probably in their 50s retired or second careers very unusual to see a young woman in the industry and rarely saw any woman who was the broker of record or actually owned a company. So I learned my mentors were mostly men, middle-aged, retired are second careers, and they taught me very well. So I went on in 1998 I was 27 years old and I began to manage the fox and car scanning office in Saratoga on prospect and I winner. Fox and Carskadon was a very well known real estate company. It was founded in the Peninsula 1929, one of the top three in the valley and Saratoga office, you know, the when you were in the peninsula in those days, and I'm not so sure it hasn't changed. The South Bay was kind of a stepsister or stepbrother. It was unfortunate that you had to identify yourself as a South Bay real estate for and the peninsula firms, you know, did their best to accommodate us, but we were really South Bay. So Fox and Carskadon was a peninsula firm, as was Grubin was Cornish and Carey. And those were the big three firms in the valley. And we took on, I took over Saratoga and we became one of their top first, second or third offices. So now they could no longer dismiss The South Bay because one of their top offices were there. In 84 I think I was 30 years old then. And now you can figure out how I old I recalculating, I saw you Shawn.

Shawn Flynn 7:13

Luckily, None. None of us are engineers. We don't have we're not good at math. So we're all we're all good here.

Helen Pastorino 7:20

Well, I took over, I became their senior vice president, I stayed managing Saratoga, which was considered a very large office at that time, it was 50 people. I took over I oversaw Palo Alto to Carmel. So I had seven other offices that I was responsible for. In addition to the office I managed at 1989. My boss, who was the general manager of Fox & Carskadon applied for the position of President of Fox & Carskadon. And he was denied that and shared that with me and shared who the President wouldn't become and I resigned, so I left Fox & Carskadon. And when I was maybe 34 with my boss Alain Pinel and we didn't quite know what we were going to do. We thought maybe we'd go to work for another one of the other remaining large firms, but we decided instead that we would open our own firm. So in June of 1990, we opened Alain Pinel Realtors with myself, Alain and Paul Hume. Paul Hume was a client of mine, I reached out to Paul, he was not in real estate at all. And he said, Sure, I'd love to do that. So the three of us opened the company in June of 1990. In June of 1990, we were in the middle or just at the beginning of a five year recession phrase on the street was survive till 95. That was we were all hoping that we would make it to this five year downturn. So here we are starting doing a startup in June of 90 being told that we're heading for a major recession I had signed on to follow I was going to be a follower in this organization. Alain told me to do because he was a superstar. He was just amazing. His marketing skills were just ridiculously impressive. Well, what happened was we had to make a decision. We were a small firm of 17 people, we had leased a 7800 square foot office. So a large office was 50 people, 7800 square feet is 150 to 200 people. That's what it'll accommodate. So one of our decisions was to go from small to large, there were no large firms in the valley. Second of all, was how to survive this downturn. We had 17 people. You can imagine how that felt to have 17 people in 7800. It was a ghost. It was in a bowling alley. It was there was nobody there. So we had to figure out how to compete with these big companies with 17 people. And everybody was saying you won't make it you'll never survive Virgo heading for a recession, bad timing. So we came up with a decision. And what are we going to do? We looked at the standards of practices in all three of the other firms. We had worked in them. So we knew what standards of practice were, how are we going to beat those standards. And so you can mark it a little more, spend a little more money. And at that point, all the advertising because there wasn't technology in the public domain of any extent, buy more advertising, buy more marketing, buy more magazines, Business Journal, San Jose Mercury News, luxury magazines, homes, and Lance will just buy more pages, or we couldn't buy more pages. We were competing against 1500 brokers or agents and other firms with 17. So the decision came down to which I didn't know at the time, technology or magazines, none of us knew anything about technology. We couldn't even I mean, we didn't have the language like we didn't even know how to talk about it. We only knew the word technology and there were computers.

Sunil Ranka 10:58

This is a perfect segue for the next question or the. So being in Silicon Valley, you have seen so many changes from food arcade into turning into 85. You know, moving the houses last galas, not letting you build around. What was that inflection point where you started seeing technology as a prevalent market share within Silicon Valley?

Helen Pastorino 11:19

Well, you know those things when you look back, you can always identify that point. But when you live through it, you're never really sure where that point was, for us at Alain Pinel. It was a very distinctive point because there were three of us co-founders, and we had to make a decision where we were going to invest our money to ensure this firm survived this recession. And even if it survived could compete against these companies that have been in the market since 1929. major players we had to decide and it was almost like Scissors Rock what is that game Rock, Scissors Paper. You wonder how decisions are made? Yeah. Are we gonna? Are we gonna buy more magazines? Are we gonna buy this technology stuff rocks, scissors, paper. So Alains concern was that this was a passing fad that these would end up being as he called them paperweights at some point in time, and that the real core of all success for real estate firms or firms in general was marketing press release, very difficult to argue with because it was a proven practice to argue technology because nobody had a clue. But the vote came in and then when it was Paper, scissors Rock, two of us decided technology and Alon decided magazines, newspapers, marketing, he resigned, and in December of 1996 months after we were founded, he returned to Paris and left you did not believe or in least according to what I believe he stated he did not believe the technology would allow us to survive.

Sunil Ranka 13:06

So what made you think that technology is the right way to go about your business?

Helen Pastorino 13:11

It was different. It was leading edge not leading edge. It was really me It hurt. It really hurt. It was bleeding edge. It was just at the forefront where people were starting to talk about it. It was something like a wave that was coming. But it was a risk because waves come in, they fail. But I thought I thought there was a high probability when you had companies like HP, Apollo, Sun, IBM, there were enough companies around that I thought it was going to stay.

Shawn Flynn 13:44

Now, could you tell me when you're saying technology, what exactly do you mean?

Helen Pastorino 13:49

I don't know.

Shawn Flynn 13:51

That definition can be so broad technology was it at the time.

Helen Pastorino 13:56

Actually, at the time, the time it was hardware, everybody talked about hardware, hardware in towers and computers, you know, hardware and and almost all of it was enacted was in academics or in government. There was very little of it in the public domain. So and if it was in the public domain, it was a single person had it. So you had one and you used it, that there was no connectivity, not a tremendous amount of connectivity.

Sunil Ranka 14:25

So the thing which we called to the internet was not existing back in the days.

Helen Pastorino 14:31

I have a few little dates here that was kind of surprising that ran along the same timeline as Alain Pinel. In 1990, the first web browser was announced. I remember we incorporated in June of 1990. Wow. So we're talking bleeding edge, not leading edge, not on the edge, but we really and then the next thing I think, in 91 was Linux and then 92 the first text message went out. In 94 Amazon was founded, PlayStation was created and banner ads began to happen. In 95 of course, Windows 95, Java, SSL 96, the first Palm Pilot first handheld. Remember that the first so the Palm Pilot was in 96. Now remember, we incorporated in 1990-97 Steve Jobs returned to Apple after the Scully debacle. And in 1998, Google was founded. So the valley right now thinks is really hopping in those eight years. And that's just a few in eight years during a major recession. Those are some of the things I have.

Shawn Flynn 15:40

And then all this technology your company was starting to utilize. Were the agents did they have their palm pilots did they have was there a website and coded HTML? No WordPress and that for I'm really curious about everyone, all the other real estate agencies just looking at you going, they're doing what!

Helen Pastorino 15:58

Actually, we had more of a problem. The outside real estate companies thought this was a ploy, a job, you know, a short term, you know, trying to get our name out there type thing and we had more trouble inside our company than we had outside the agents inside just didn't. It was just they didn't understand how this was going to help them sell real estate and nor did we. So it was very hard to explain to them because we didn't know how this is going to help them sell real estate. And what we ended up doing, we ended up buying a number of towers. I think they were from HP. We went to sun, we went to Apollo, we learned about proprietary software versus open. We're here we are real estate agents, right learning all this about and we bought the towers because it was all about the towers and all about the hardware. And a friend of

mine said, you know you ought to look at these workstations at next. And I said, Okay, what's a workstation, I'm just getting the tower thing down and now we're moving on to workstations and they said you know, they're more powerful, the connectivity is different. It's a collaborative piece of hardware. It's not an individual piece of furniture. So I said, Okay, and then we called for a meeting with Steve Jobs, because he at that time on next, so I said, great. Let's go talk to him and find out what this is and how it works. So I was 31. He had to be 29.

Sunil Ranka 17:20

Just for the listeners, you're talking about The Steve Jobs from the Apple, right?

Helen Pastorino 17:26

Yes. And I had had a lot of success at a relatively young age in my career. So when you're 30 years old, and you've had a lot of success, you have attitude, but he was 29. And he had more success and he had more attitude. It took us a long time to get past as gatekeepers because we were late people, we were out in the public, he was not selling to late people he was selling to academia. And he was selling to governments, he was selling it not to the average user. So it was really hard. To get through the system to get to him, and it was persistence and tenacity and maybe being a little bit inappropriate, but we got through, and we got a meeting and all of us, dressed up like in our sunday baths and brought our briefcases and did our hair and put on our makeup or a three piece suit. I mean, we were like, going up to and we went there in this huge conference room, it was so big, and waited and waited, and waited. And we were 45 minutes into our meeting time, no Steve Jobs. His staff was at the table with us. And I was asking, how long do we have to wait? Are we too early? Did I get this wrong? Where is he that type of thing? He'll be here. He'll be here. Finally. 45 minutes. He said, Okay, that's it. I'm done. Everybody we're leaving. So everybody stands up, I stand up and we start to go out or die. So just a few. I said, No, I'm done. I'm done. I'm out and the door opens in there, Steve. He had on Levi's and you know, back then that has become protocol. You're supposed to dress up to go to big important meetings, no came in and the minute he opened the door and the table was probably it was quite a distance from the front door. The charisma was absolutely I could not believe that a man could walk in the door and produce that kind of charisma from that distance. So I thought, I am in trouble here. I'm in trouble. I've got to lose the charisma immediately just chop it down to nothing. There is no charisma, but it was very apparent there was so he came to the front of the conference room table, as you can imagine, and the first like nine chairs on both sides were empty. We started at the 10th chair with his team across the table at the 10th chair, I looked at that I thought, okay, so this is how this is going to go.

Sunil Ranka 19:51

How is it like interacting with Steve Jobs because you talked about attitude success is not willing to sell to an outsider, how was your interaction went?

Helen Pastorino 20:03

You know, part of me went to I had to quickly analyze how this was going to unfold, what role I was going to play, what role he was going to play and what the outcome was going to be in. In a meeting like that, you have to decide where your walk point is, at what point Am I going to walk? And at what point will I trigger him to walk? So you start out not that you would ever know but you have to analyze and draw it somehow. Otherwise, you lose total control. And next thing, you start agreeing to things that never in your life would you have agreed to if you. I think he came to the meeting fully prepared to tell us we were inappropriate, and it wasn't gonna happen. But there was some little part of him that was curious. And he loved that next box. I mean, it was just an amazing piece of technology that there was a little part of him that thought but what if and I think that's the part of Steve Jobs that made him who he was probability Not going to happen, but what if and We were what if so we started talking, he said, What are you gonna do with it? I don't know. Why would I sell it to you? I don't know. You're a real estate company? Yes, we are. Do you know anything about technology? No, we don't. Yeah, I'm not selling it. That was come yet. And I said, okay, but everybody has to learn your Apple computers are in schools. Now. That's telling me that your horizon of time says that you are preparing these for the public market. You want to sell these things to the public market. So give us a chance we're here and we'll be a successful introduction to that market for you. And he said, we're going to talk to who's going to talk and we'll let you know. And weeks went by and I called and I wrote tonight can email right you can I called and I wrote, I went up and I waited in the lobby, and they told him I was in the lobby, and he didn't come out and I got a phone call and his call typically come like this. Hi, it's Steve. Steve, who I know a lot of Steve and why won't you tell me your last name was so I can At least, you know, figure out what I learned over the years. That's how he placed his calls. Hi, I'm Steve, or it's Steve. So we call them he said, Listen, I think we can do this. He said, But are you prepared to pay the price? And I said, Well, I don't know what is the price and he said, these, these boxes are $5,000 a box, you could buy technology for 11 12 15 1800 dollars from proven HP, IBM long term and a stay around predictable companies. And this was a risk. So and it was a monetary risks. That's a huge amount of money. But here's what I learned from him. Once we decided it was a go, he completely changed his posture. Now we were on the team. Now we were going to do this together. Now he was going to do everything he could to make this a successful exchange and a successful purchase and engagement and he started to teach us about object oriented software. Now mind you, I'm a real estate broker back then he says, Listen, this is what it's all about the box is necessary to run the software. But what you want to look at what you want to buy a software, how long is it going to take to write the software to provide you the suites, the custom suites that you want? And what's it going to cost? Well, we know that because when we went to HP was hundreds of thousands of dollars and years for them to write custom suite that we wanted. He said $70,000 90 days? I mean, how can those be that extreme? And then he explained why he taught us about linear programming, how you program linearly. And if you want to make a change what that programmer has to do to make that change and how object oriented software and allows you to build objects that you put in a library that you can pull down and modify as you wanted to change. So instantly, I thought, well, that makes perfect sense. If you want to write software, why would you want to write it on that kind of a platform rather than a linear binary linear, I guess. So I was in he took us up to Oakland to some programmers did this amazing men just amazing. And they wrote our software for us in I think it was a little over 90 days, they wrote seven custom suites. And I think it was $82,000. So that's my experience with technology.

Shawn Flynn 24:22

So once this technology was implemented throughout your company, can you tell us about the growth of this real estate? Your company? Was it just okay, we expanded, you know, 10% every year or was it a hockey stick growth once the technology was implementing customized for your company?

Helen Pastorino 24:41

That introduction of that technology almost brought the company to its knees, I had an opportunity to observe human beings and how they learn. So this was something it wasn't like, okay, we're riding a bike and now we're going to ride a motorcycle, the bike and the motorcycle have very common features. This was I don't know anything about this, the closest we could get was a typewriter that was about the closest we could get. And a lot of them felt it was kind of a useless typewriter because at that time we had IBM'S electric on every desk, and that, put the paper in, roll it up type and put the little white, and it backspace. And that's how you did it. The other problem was, we didn't have anyone to send this stuff to. There's nobody out there. We could remember the first fax machines and you wonder to login effects to and you fax to somebody who had one and then you ran down to see how it came out the other end. It was the same thing with this technology. There was an order to take it in order to send it professors at Stanford would get it government officials and some, but you couldn't send it to another real estate office. We had lots of problems. We had problems with email addresses. The realtors came back and said our client we're not selling real estate because we're ending up in a technology conversation with our clients. And at that time, the majority of a more in fact, engineers in the valley and you had, you know, the major tech, that kind of technology. And they couldn't explain the reason for the email address. People thought it was a typo. People thought it was a gimmick. People didn't understand what you did with it. And they said, we're spending 30 minutes of our listing or selling time trying to explain this thing on our card, we want it off. So we dealt with all kinds of we do not want this on our cards. It's getting in the way of our business. So then, as a CEO, you say, Okay, we'll take it off. But the CEO said, No, we're not taking it off. We're going to learn to explain it and soon our clients will understand what it is we're explaining to them. So we lost some people, not many, but some and we set up classes. There were eight classes a day, everybody had to take at least we had 20 classes, we became a Mini University teaching people How to email how to download how to anything to do with technology at that point, a lot of them had paper and they weren't sure how they were going to get how you got the paper in this thing. And they go back over to their typewriters and type. So I gave him an ultimatum. And I said, at every class they went through, we gave a T shirt, or we gave a pen, or we gave a graduation type game. We had to encourage them to get to these courses. And there were early adapters, which I learned about there are those people who step up right away in one learn everything there is about it, and they lead the way for everyone else. At the tail end I gave an ultimatum by the state at this time, we will be removing your typewriters. So you better learn how to use this because there will be no typewriters. typewriters went under the desks they went into the ladies room. They went into the cars. I mean, these guys were going Hold on to those typewriters no matter what. And I had to find them in the ladies room in the ladies stall, you know, in the supply room under the desk. And I had people go and find them all, and we gave them away. And so I learned a lot about technology I learned. And I think the most important thing I learned, which applies to all anything new is the learning curve of biology. How, how do you teach people a new practice that they've never seen before? And how long does it take them to absorb that to couple with that new learning, and how many of them have the emotional strength he talked about to learn? So as a real estate agent who just wanted to sell houses, I was involved in things I classes, teachers that had to teach the classes, which was language they'd never spoken. I know a little bit about technology.


Thank you for listening to Silicon Valley Tech behind the scenes. To find out more contact the team or to be a guest on the show, visit our website at We look forward to hearing from you and remember to support the show by leaving a review to encourage us to keep creating great content like this.

To be continued...

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