Talking with A rabble-rouser and PR innovator

Name: Sylvia Paull
Age: 68
City: Albany
Position: Silicon Valley networking strategist, publicist


J.: You are known as a “connector” in the tech community. What’s your background and how does one become a connector?

Sylvia Paull: I worked as head of marketing for a software company started by William Randolph Hearst III in Berkeley in the ’80s. While going to industry conventions like Comdex [held in Las Vegas from 1979-2003], I got the idea to throw parties there and get luminaries like Bill Gates to come. Getting famous people to come made me famous, too, so I quit my job and started working as a publicist.

You also started Cybersalons 25 years ago in your Berkeley living room. And shortly thereafter you launched Gracenet, a networking organization for women in tech. Why did you feel that was needed?

SP: There were very few women in high tech in the early years, and we felt it was important to have — what’s the equivalent to an old-boys network? — an old-girls network to support each other.

Sylvia Paull

J.: What was the DisGraceful Award in Advertising that Gracenet handed out for several years?

SP: Around 2000, I got a call from a tech reporter. He had two young daughters and complained to me about a billboard near the Bay Bridge. It showed the body of a woman wearing a leather corset and slashing a whip, with no head. The caption said, “Whip your database into shape,” and was sponsored by a big data company in Kansas. This reporter told me, “I feel embarrassed for my daughters to see this.”

We had a board meeting and someone thought of giving out the award. We made the press releases funny; humor really works. We got many front-page stories, and got five major companies, including IBM, to pull their ads. The CEO of the company with the dominatrix billboard pretended he had never seen it and knew nothing about it. But because it made front-page news in Kansas, it was very bad PR for him. He fired his entire marketing team, so that made even more news.

What’s it like to be 68 and working in the tech world?

SP: Ageism doesn’t affect me at all. I have two clients who are about 27, which is younger than my son, but I don’t think it makes any difference. It’s your attitude that counts. I’m a troublemaker, and am way more “out there” than a lot of my clients are.

J.: You were born in Germany in 1946 and got a visit from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.  What’s that story?

SP: My father, who was in the U.S. Army, was Eisenhower’s bandleader. My mother was a Holocaust survivor; my father met her when he was looking for missing relatives. I was born at the military hospital in Frankfurt, and was the first legitimate American child born in Germany after the end of World War II. Eisenhower came up to my mother’s room where I was, and we did a photo shoot.

J.: What was your Jewish upbringing?

SP: I had an Orthodox upbringing, and Hebrew school starting when I was 6. I wasn’t allowed to do anything on Saturday because of Shabbat. My father was in the Army, and when we were living in Germany when I was young, there was no Jewish chaplain and my father knew Hebrew fluently so we started holding services Friday nights in our house. On Sundays I taught the enlisted men Hebrew. I’m no longer involved in anything Jewish, but I think it’s a good idea to help the Jewish community thrive in the East Bay.

Is it true you don’t own a car and are an avid cyclist?

SP: I recently rode up Mt. Tam starting in Fairfax. It’s an extremely difficult climb and I think I was the oldest person by three decades on that road. Last year I did the Marin Century (62 miles) with my son, and the year before I did the Climate Ride California from near Humboldt to San Francisco. I hate cars so I don’t have one. I’ll borrow a car to go to Palo Alto if I have to, but I don’t like them. I prefer walking or cycling. You experience the world differently when you’re cycling, and I love that.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."