General Counsel, SVB Financial Group and Joint Venture Board
By Duffy Jennings
For someone who loathed going to camp as a youngster, Mary Dent sounds surprisingly content mentioning that she just got back from a week of llama camping in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park, where her family came across fresh bear tracks in a muddy trail.
“It had just rained that morning, so they couldn’t have been very old or they would have been washed out,” she says, sounding like a wilderness guide. “For a moment I wondered how safe it was for our kids out there. I didn’t count on running into any bears. But we had a great time.
“I was shy, as a kid, really conservative. I hated camp; I was very homesick. I was the most risk-averse person I knew. Now, I’m just opposite.”
In addition to her acquired love for the outdoors, Dent has changed a lot since growing up in Los Angeles as the middle of five children whose father, Robert, was a UCLA English professor and mother, Ellen, held a master’s in English and worked for Hughes Aircraft.
The turnaround is the result of full-circle journey that has taken Dent from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to Europe and back to Silicon Valley, where she is now the General Counsel for SVB Financial Group and a member of the Joint Venture board of directors.
The path from her home town of Sherman Oaks to Palo Alto went through UCLA, Stanford Law School, a clerkship with a Federal judge, a fellowship with the National Women’s Political Caucus, two years on Senator Edward Kennedy’s staff in the Capitol, eight years at a law firm and three years in the Netherlands with a global telecommunications company.
What emerged at the other end was a passionate, committed and confident executive that one colleague calls a true “thought leader” with a remarkable ability to coalesce people, ideas, questions and data into effective outcomes. In other words, a perfect fit for Joint Venture and our regional challenges.
“Harry Kellogg introduced me to Joint Venture when he was stepping down as Chairman of the board because he still wanted us to support their work,” says Dent.
“What I like about Joint Venture is that it has carved out a unique space. It is about doing something concrete and focused, not with partisanship, lobbying or in a way that’s polarizing.
“It has a tangible quality to its actions, finding common ground to do something in an affirmative way. And when one of their initiatives doesn’t work out, they’re willing to drop it and move on to something else.”
She is drawn on a personal level, she says, to Joint Venture’s work in education, having watched California schools decline while dropout rates rise at an alarming rate. Professionally, the emerging clean tech sector and how it fits in Silicon Valley’s future intrigue her problem-solving nature.
“This is a very different game from anything Silicon Valley has ever done before,” says Dent. “Collectively, we’re at a very early stage. There are mountains to move. I worry there are so many opposing forces and incumbent interests that will be more conservative. But I’m optimistic.”
Chris Edmonds-Waters, VP and head of Human Resources for SVB Financial, says Dent is “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met” and her “ability to ask the what-if questions and challenge outcomes is off the chart.”
“She is remarkable,” he added. “Her passion is helping to figure stuff out, to take the complex and make it simple. What you see with her is what you get. Mary is who she is, on or off the job.”
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude with an economics degree from UCLA, Dent worked in the satellite communications industry before entering Stanford Law School, where she earned her law degree With Distinction in 1989.
Stanford also was where Mary met a fellow law student, Allen Weiner, whom she married in 1991.
Pursuing her interest in public policy, Dent spent a year as a law clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington, D.C. before taking a Women’s Law & Public Policy Fellowship with the National Women’s Political Caucus.
The fellowship led to a role on Senator’s Kennedy’s office, where she served on his Judiciary Committee staff, specializing in civil rights law and Supreme Court nominations, and on his Labor and Human Resources Committee staff. Dent worked extensively on the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the nomination of Justice Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court and occupational safety and health reform.
“I have a profound respect for Senator Kennedy’,” says Dent. “He was a true public servant in the traditional sense. He cared deeply about issues of justice and equality, and spent his life trying to make sure that we treat all Americans fairly and with dignity.
“He was always extremely engaged, focused, ready and willing to work across the political spectrum to achieve his goals. He had a way with people. He was warm and welcoming. He listened, and when he didn’t agree he didn’t hesitate to say ‘this isn’t right,’ or ‘this isn’t America.’”
Dent left Kennedy’s office in 1992 to join Goldberg, Godles, Wiener & Wright, a Washington law firm specializing in telecommunications law and policy. Her primary areas of expertise were computer/information technology, broadband and advanced services, unlicensed technologies, satellite communications and the regulation of telecommunications equipment.
That role eventually took Dent to the Netherlands as Special Counsel and later General Counsel for New Skies Satellites in The Hague.
In 2003, when her husband, who had been working for the U.S. State Department both in Washington and in Europe, received an offer to teach international law at Stanford Law School, they returned to California.
Dent joined SVB Financial Group in 2006 as general counsel and secretary. She leads the company’s legal department, guides the management team and board on legal and governance issues, and spearheads SVB’s government affairs efforts. She also has overall responsibility for SVB’s cleantech initiative.
“Mary has a great passion for life,” said her friend Helen Wilmot, Vice President of Ambulatory Services for Stanford Hospital. “She is a quiet leader who can engage in a full range of conversations on a range of topics. People are attracted to what she is thinking, and she really wants to see things done with respect.”
Mary passes her leisure time with reading, exercise and family activities with Allen and their three children, Evan, 16, Joshua, 12 and Katie, 11.
Not to mention the occasional trek into the mountains or forest, where anything can happen. But as Mary would probably agree, the adventure and learning experience are often worth risk.