Somerville’s chemists follow many paths. Val Rahmani’s career path has taken to her to the top of the technology industry, while her hobby has taken her into the skies for her country.
It all began when Val Rahmani was at Somerville and IBM recruiters set up an evening at the Randolph Hotel. Rahmani was interested in the sales side of science, although she says the offer of a free bar was probably just as important.
Three decades later, Rahmani has achieved remarkable success in the world of technology and start-ups. Forbes Magazine has described her as “the poster child for moving from a large company to a small company and dealing with risk.”
At Somerville, Rahmani says, she was introduced to a new level of intellectual independence.
“Somerville was an amazing place for me. Everyone was so smart!” says Rahmani. “I remember my first tutorial assignment: ‘Electrons – are they particles or waves?’ We were given a list of about 40 articles in various journals to read, and I was supposed to come to my own conclusion. Wow! This was not the type of work I’d done at school. And with only two of us in the tutorial to discuss this two weeks later, there was nowhere to hide.
“Once I got over the shock, this exercise started me on a path of questioning and learning and trusting my judgment that has helped me throughout my career. I was never again afraid to look into something I didn’t understand. I had the confidence to be able to gather data and make decisions and I’ve used this every day of my life since, as I’ve moved from technology to management to raising money for a start-up,” says Rahmani.
And she has, indeed, kept moving. Manager, board member, start-up mentor, technical risk management consultant and public speaker, Rahmani continues to combine different roles. She has worked in Europe and the US in several different capacities (systems engineering, sales, marketing, executive management, strategy) for leading companies, notably IBM. She also drew plenty of senior attention – in 1996, she had to cut a ski holiday in Colorado short as the Chief Executive of IBM wanted to see her. (She ended up working as one of his two Executive Assistants.)
But it has been Rahmani’s knack for attaching herself to the right kinds of technological innovations which has probably proved most important. Her key bets were on mobile and wireless technology. She says that starting IBM’s global wireless technology business in 2000 was a particular highlight for her, with talk of some day streaming TV across devices.
“It became very obvious that mobile technology would be a good route,” says Rahmani. “Mobiles were taking off in Europe and I was based in the UK with a European mandate. Asia was the leader, then Europe, and the US knew nothing about it. Initially my bosses just allowed me to scope out the possibilities by working on mobile technology strategies on my weekends, but then they asked me to run the business around the world. I was basically given a start-up within IBM.”
From there, she took several general management roles, acquiring Internet Security Systems (ISS), a company she then ran for IBM once ISS’s own CEO had left. It was the pleasure of this new position which persuaded her to leave; Rahmani loved the role, but wanted to do it independently. In 2009 she was offered the chance to run Damballa, a three-year-old internet security company founded by a group from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
When she arrived, the company had 19 employees. By the time she left at the end of 2012, there were 85. She describes the work of Damballa, which protects companies from hackers who want to steal data or take charge of your devices, as a little like the opposite of what Google does.
“Google comes up with the right answer because it looks for the behaviour patterns of websites with the best reputations, but Damballa looks for the behaviour patterns of malware sites, which have bad reputations,” says Rahmani.
Rahmani exudes energy and charisma, and it is not hard to see her motivating large numbers of staff. In her early months at Damballa, she put up a counter on the wall with a bell that she’d ring whenever they won a new deal. Champagne would follow and with it, she says, “a growing sense of belonging”.
Where IBM had given her the confidence to try things, Rahmani said two qualities had been key for success in a start-up: surrounding herself with people who had abilities she lacked and remembering that you can never communicate enough, especially when you’ve had a rough quarter.
Her hobby, then, should come as no surprise. She began aerobatic flying in the 90s but in 1998 a member of the British Aerobatic Team, Nick Onn, began to encourage her to push herself further. His instincts were right about her, as he discovered just how quickly Rahmani could master a new skill.
Two happy outcomes resulted. Rahmani competed for Great Britain for the first time in 1998. And, in December 2006, she married Nick Onn.
“She was fearless,” says Onn. “What most students take months of practice to achieve she managed in just a few sessions. There just didn’t seem to be a saturation point for her.”
Rahmani continues to fly and technology and innovation remain important to her. She is a board member for Teradici, a virtual desktop technology company with offices in Vancouver and Silicon Valley, and works as a mentor for various start-ups. One area she’s especially excited about for the future is education and the benefits that can be reaped from applying technology to this most fundamental of provisions. She’s also very concerned that too few are getting the right education to succeed in the new world that’s emerging.
“It’s actually pretty hard for education to keep up with what children can do,” says Rahmani. “You have 12-year-olds writing web apps now, so how is a 40-year-old teacher meant to stay on top of it all?
“One of the most exciting developments is that US schools are embracing online courses in addition to classroom teaching. Some schools have concluded that they don’t need to teach a computer science course when the best guy at Stanford is available online. That frees the classroom teacher up to chair a discussion,” she says.
Despite a Chemistry PhD from Oxford, Rahmani may not be done with the world of education quite yet.