Out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly noticed a man, wearing a black suit, smart eyeglasses, Starbucks coffee in hand, with a big smile, walking alongside me into the building. Unusually flustered by this interruption, my thoughts were racing. Who has time for a stroll to Starbucks this early in the work day? He seemed so out of place – an overly confident, well-dressed and well-spoken man did not embody the traditional Valley look-thus my skeptical first impression. T-shirts, hoodies, jeans and flip-flops are clearly the fashion trend here. I clumsily held my to-go coffee container with now cold, and unappealing homemade drip coffee, trying desperately not to drop anything from my full grip. I spit out a quick response.
“Yes, yes, I’m new”. Hurrying to the front door now at an accelerated pace, the man rushes alongside me and opens the door for me. The interruption was now notably worth something. Up the stairs and down the hall, the front door to my office in sight, I see my client through the glass wall, reading the morning’s Wall Street Journal, waiting patiently for me.
Mentally I am already sitting at the conference room table, my client reassuring me that traffic jams are a part of Silicon Valley life, and not to worry. When my daydream breaks with another intrusion; “We should grab coffee sometime!” It is that man, in the black suit, still alongside me! Is he going to invite himself into my office? I do not have time, for coffee, or any other proposal. “Um, sure. Coffee, yeah.” Can he please leave now; I need to go to work! “Well, I have to go now. Bye.” The arrogance of his gesture quickly passed, as my hectic day unfolded.
As a young lady working in Silicon Valley, the revelations of the work culture in the San Francisco Bay Area were quite surprising. Coming from the East coast where I was used to a more formal culture, and even more traditional and conservative Europe (Czech Republic), the first few years in the Bay Area, were an adjustment. Commuting daily from San Francisco to San Jose (a 110-mile daily commute that included most Saturdays), I had a lot to prove. The underlying competitive nature of the Valley (masked by the casual attire), means you are obligated to perform above what the person sitting in the next cube or office is willing to, or you will not get noticed. Clearly, there are limits. The early Googlers, for example, went further than my highest threshold, by working all day and sleeping under their desks at night. I considered sleeping in the office many times, yet managed to drive back to San Francisco, every time, even at 11 p.m.
Reflective of my energetic, and will-do-anything demeanor, my early twenties were full of opportunities that presented themselves such as the one to run the local Berlitz International School language center, and then the daily commute due to a recent promotion. I was involved in all aspects of the local business, with collaboration and some direction from our headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey. An opportunity I could not pass up, even if it meant driving the distance for over a year and a half – one of the many sacrifices I would make. Lost relationships, lost friendships, due to my time spent at work, were all worth it.
The company I founded in January 2015- Our Happy Box (www.ourhappbybox.com) is focused on not only bringing in high-quality products into the US market, but also treating employees well, giving back to our local, and global communities and setting an example for businesses through social responsibility. Well into the second year of operation, the entrepreneurial spirit in Silicon Valley is alive and well. We carry around an insatiable work ethic, which creates the task of finding time for love near impossible.
And, remember the man, at the beginning of this story, in the black suit? He turned out to be…my soon to be husband. Imagine that. About a year after that morning when he so graciously “interrupted” me, our paths crossed again. Working in the same building, it only took another year for us to run into each other for the second, serendipitous moment. Apparently, he walked through that same entrance, at the same time, for many months, hoping to run into me again. The issue with that strategy was, that the fateful morning I was late (with my typical arrival being 8:15to 8:30 a.m. And even though he knew where I worked, he was too timid (unimaginable, right?) to come into my office to ask me on a date.
The day we met again. The Berlitz offices were going through renovations, and I had to walk a different direction to the temporary suite, when my future husband, was walking to, well, um, the restroom. My first thought was, not that guy again! As he got closer, something was different. I guess that first morning I didn’t take a good look at him, since I was too focused on my work. This second time, on a Friday, he wasn’t wearing a suit, rather a lovely blue button down, with dark green corduroy pants, and no glasses so that I could see into his eyes. They say you can see a man’s soul through his eyes.
As we began talking, the place transformed into another time. Possibly carrying me into the future, to the moment now – 12 years later, on a Sunday morning – as he reads the paper on the couch, and I sit across from him, typing this story. We are listening to classical music on the radio as our two young children play in the other room. We will soon be going out on our Sunday morning hike, a tradition we have kept for many years. Even when the children were babies, we carried them in a baby Bjorn, then a large carrier on our back, and finally a double jogger stroller. The love in the house vibrates.
On Monday, as with every Monday, we resume our hectic Silicon Valley life, battling significant traffic. Rushing the kids to school, attending various meetings, celebrating achievements and bracing for disappointments. With my husband running his thriving law practice, and with me running a new start-up company – that will surely beat the odds and become part of the fortunate statistic – the 2% of startups that make it.
Many ask about the keys to successful relationships in Silicon Valley. In our experience, it is trust, respect, understanding, a positive outlook and balance. Allow the other person to be who they truly are, to fulfil their career dreams, or if one prefers to stay home with the children; that will work too. For us, having our careers satisfy us. Listen carefully to understand your spouse, respect them, and maintain a balance by keeping your work at work. Even though my husband is a savvy businessman, and we love to share our passions for business, we ensure that weekends are for family, play and fun. And remember, never judge a person by their suit, or flip flops for that matter.
Sonia Whitfield was born in the Czech Republic, escaped the communist-ruled nation with her family at the age of 8 and received asylum in Salzburg, Austria. The journey was an adventure for Sonia and her brother, while it was a terrifying process for her young parents. She and her mother are writing a book about it to not only pass on to the children, and grandchildren, but also to educate readers on the dangers of becoming a refugee. Living in many countries, Sonia explored countless cultures. With English becoming her third language her appetite for new languages and cultures is forever ingrained in her character. Now, living in Silicon Valley, her passion for business allowed her to move up the corporate ladder, complete her Bachelors of Science Degree in Business, and ultimately helped her start her company, Our Happy Box. Sonia lives in the city of San Jose, with her husband Travis, daughter Chloe and son Calvin. When she is not working she is spending time with her family, hiking the Silicon Valley hills, or spending long weekends in Tahoe. Sonia also enjoys running, yoga and dance classes.