The power broker of Silicon Valley

ozy powerbroker
Jana Rich—one of Silicon Valley's top recruiters—has more connections than a switchboard.

When I ask Jana Rich to work her magic on me, I have the warm yet affirming sensation of being in a nurturing therapist's office.

She leans forward across the light-wood conference table, clasps her hands together, and asks me: Why did you move across the country for that job? What is it you really wanted to do? And what about that other dream? Occasionally she interrupts, as though testing my storytelling abilities as much as my professional narrative, to clarify, to draw me out.

It makes sense that Rich, in another universe, imagined herself getting a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Where she has ended up is cushier: She is one of Silicon Valley's top recruiters, with a hot roster of clients. "Who's your favorite person to name-drop?" I ask her. "Sheryl Sandberg," she says with an almost girlish giggle. (Sandberg's a friend, not a former client, but, y'know ... six degrees.) On Rich's client list, past and present? Jack Dorsey and Dick Costolo of Twitter, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, Dropbox, Uber, Square, Eventbrite.

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Still, because those big companies are reluctant to dig too deep into the startup world, says Andreessen Horowitz partner Matt Oberhardt, it's a pretty open market for someone like Rich. And there are possibly huge payoffs: During the first tech boom, executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles bought into Google as part of its agreement to place the company's new executive chairman (Eric Schmidt). After the company's initial public offering in 2004, a spokesman said, Heidrick sold its Google shares, netting the company $128 million. No surprise, then, that Rich Talent Group wants equity as part of its fee "whenever possible," Rich writes over email — which makes her especially hungry for early-stage clients.

Rich is high-flying amid these amazingly fast-growing companies and exorbitant evaluations; she is the insider's insider, and yet she is obsessed with giving self-defined misfits a way in.

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Right smack in the middle of this frenzy is the friendly yet seemingly unremarkable Jana Rich, a 47-year-old headhunter with an uncanny skill for connecting. Her work is "touchy-feely," as she puts it — she doesn't hunt down coding whizzes but rather charismatic and public-facing leaders in the C-suite: chiefs of executive, marketing, public relations, people operations. In person, she is professional (duh) and warm, with auburn coiffed hair; but she keeps a long jacket on the whole time we speak, and a young member of her team hangs nearby at all times, as though waiting to jump in if I ask the wrong thing. Rich's touchy-feely work is an $11 billion industry worldwide, according to the Association of Executive Search Consultants. And Peter Felix, president of the organization, explains that an industry like this one, which is dependent on wealthy clients doing well, has benefited from the tech boom.

Every day, Rich, the sole partner of Rich Talent Group, based in San Francisco, uses those psychoanalyst-style questions not just on ambitious individuals hankering for a new corner office but on the growing companies themselves. "Sometimes founders don't know what they really want, or they think they know but it isn't really what they need," she tells me. A case study is when top dogs at Twitter, including Costolo and Dorsey, she says (and Twitter confirms), came to her undecided about what they wanted in a marketing hire — a product marketer? A PR whiz? It was up to her to get it, to figure out not only what the three of them wanted and what a potential hire wanted but also what the company itself, breathing entity that it is, needed. Warby Parker's Blumenthal adds that while she searches, Rich is a kind of behind-the-scenes executive coach, which, for young founders like Blumenthal, is a nice security blanket.

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And though being a startup adds a nice sheen of cool to the operation, it isn't scrappy. Rich is already profitable and is certainly well-paid for the touchy-feely. Recruiting experts say Rich's fees could be cheaper than the hundreds of thousands most search firms charge per placement; her group is small and should have low overhead. Generally, recruiters are paid a retainer and may also take a third or more of the future hire's first year salary (a strategy some, like Blumenthal, say is awkward, because headhunters are also involved in salary negotiations). Rich says she follows the retainer model and won't tell me how much she's taken in or talk specifics — but says the group is already profitable.

The risk could explode in her face. Executive search is one of many peripheral industries in the Valley; if the tech boom continues, Rich and others will keep raking it in. If it doesn't, it could blow up; lower-level human resources professionals struggled after the first bust and the financial crisis. "Many search firms consider high-tech very risky and don't put all their eggs in one basket," Felix said. That said, there are some competitors, like Daversa Partners (which made some high level placements at companies like Uber); then there are companies with storied corporate histories like Russell Reynolds, Rich's old stomping ground, or Spencer Stuart.

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Entrepreneurs are snobbish about working only with other entrepreneurs.Luckily, San Francisco is mecca for former weirdos, geeks and nerds turned powerful. The latest outsider-turned-insider is Jonathan Mildenhall, the new chief marketing officer of Airbnb, whom Rich calls the placement she is most excited to have made — "if it works out" (he started in May). Mildenhall, externally, like Rich, is no outsider. He came to Airbnb from Coca-Cola, a marketing machine if ever there were one. But on closer inspection, he too seems like an unconventional fit. He jumped from the corporate world to the startup one, from Atlanta to San Francisco. He's a gay black man in an interracial partnership who knew he wanted to head to the left coast; and Rich more than understands that itch. (Airbnb's press team declined multiple requests for comment.)

Rich's own itch to strike out alone might be more aptly described as persistent pebble-in-shoe syndrome, borne out of her sense of her own pariah status. "Everyone wants to find their unicorn — and she's sort of the ideal unicorn hunter," says Neil Blumenthal, co-founder and co-CEO of the eyeglass startup Warby Parker, who's retaining Rich to hire a VP of human resources. He adds: "And the other thing is, she just knows every single person."

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"Sometimes founders don't know what they really want ..."

That's kind of important these days, in the land of money and opportunity. Perhaps no stretch of town is as red hot — economically speaking — as Silicon Valley, from San Francisco to Oakland to San Jose. Remember that crazy startup activity that launched the greatest tech boom (and don't forget bust) in history? According to job growth figures from Santa Clara and San Francisco counties, the Valley is right back where it was back then, and even surpassing the first time around. Plus, there's some $17 billion in venture capital funding out here — compared with $3.9 billion in New York, according to data from the National Venture Capital Association.

At Russell Reynolds, being an outsider meant loving startups more than big corporations. At Stanford Business School, it meant being part of the group that called themselves "the poets"; they cried after math exams together in the middle of campus. And before all that, it was being gay in the "backwoods" Maine town of Norway where she grew up. Adopted by a 45-year-old bank teller mother and a machinist father who passed away when Rich was 6, she said she "always knew I was different."

Today, Rich is married — has been for five years; they've been partners for 18 — to Jill Nash, a communications exec whom Rich met on one of her first search jobs ever, as a junior recruiter working on a placement for Charles Schwab. "At first, when I met her, I thought: country club, conservative Republican," she laughs. An ironic lapse in judgment for someone whose job it is to judge personality.

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She looks at home in casual attire at her office, located in a white cabinlike building inside San Francisco's impossibly beautiful Presidio Park; a deck looks out toward the Golden Gate Bridge and a pen of horses — yes, horses. (Rich tells me: "It's so nice, if you're having a bad day or something, you just go talk to the horses a little!") The office is entirely well-coiffed women (all white, on the day I'm there) puttering away in front of Mac screens and big windows. It looks like a chic, wealthy summer camp.

Rich's real advantage, though, isn't her years of experience or her Rolodex or her fashionable "outsider" label. It's that entrepreneurs are snobbish about working only with other entrepreneurs. They want fewer lawyers in the way, quicker movements, all the stuff of the "move-fast-and-break-things" economy. Which means she had almost no choice in the matter: To work with startups, you've gotta be a startup.

This article originally appeared in Ozy. CNNMoney and Ozy are partnering to tell stories from the "Real Economy."

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