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Silicon Valley Goes to Charm School

By Alisha Green

Victoria Hitchcock.

When Bay Area techies come into wealth, these are the people they turn to for help upgrading their lives.

 

It’s a rite of passage for founders and early company employees in the Bay Area’s booming tech sector: achieving the big exit by being bought or going public. These windfall moments or even a big promotion can catapult people into a level of wealth they might not be familiar with firsthand, not to mention a whole new social echelon. When it’s time for those techies to graduate from jeans and sneakers to something more sophisticated to fit their new status, they turn to a cadre of local experts to help them upgrade their wardrobes, their homes, and even their love lives as they realize the perks — and challenges — that new money can bring.

The connections start coming via word-of-mouth referrals from others who move in the same social orbits the techies are now joining. More often than not, they young and wealthy find themselves pointed toward Victoria Hitchcock, a personal and professional stylist based in San Francisco and founder of Victoria Hitchcock Style. For 25 years — spanning both booms and busts — Hitchcock has been a titan of good taste. Her clients include venture capitalists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and top talent for well-known companies like Google, Uber, Apple and Genentech. Some clients have been with her for more than a decade, calling on her to ease the transition from idea-obsessed 20-something to tech rock-stars poised for professional liftoff.

At that point, “they are talking and managing at a level where they want respect for more than just their intellect—they have to reach further and be able to connect” with other people on their level, Hitchcock says. She adjusts their wardrobes and appearances accordingly.

For some, it starts at the basics, as in, “let’s maybe get a haircut and wear deodorant,” Hitchcock observes. She works at her client’s pace, focusing on what they’re trying to achieve with a new look and, often, a whole new lifestyle afforded by business success.

Hitchcock has an entire portfolio of strategic partners who jump in to provide clients everything from in-home fitness sessions to dental work and hair care. Her team will also do things like arrange food to be ready at second homes and ship clothes ahead of time to a person’s next personal or business travel destination, so they have everything they need to look and feel good at their fingertips upon arrival.

The benefit to clients usually extends beyond mere convenience. Hitchcock’s guidance and practical resources pay dividends with respect to confidence and productivity as well.

“They walk differently, speak differently, and they close deals rapidly,” Hitchcock says.

Making a house a home 

Once the nouveau riche manage to nail down their wardrobe, they often turn their attention to their living situation. When techies are able to make the big move from a San Francisco shoebox to a 5,000-square-foot Atherton estate, they turn to someone like Mead Quin, principal at Mead Quin Design in Emeryville. Clients go to Quin’s team for a soft modern look centered around beautiful and functional spaces. The company handles everything from decorating and minor renovations to full-scale remodeling.

There’s a wide range in how people who’ve recently come into money want that reflected in their home,Quin has found. Some want splashy displays of their newfound wealth, she says, while others would rather downplay their riches, “almost like they are uncomfortable with it.”

“With old wealth, when you have been around it for a long time, you have appreciation for really fine things that have longevity and might cost more but you understand why. People that are newer to that kind of wealth don’t understand it,” Quin says.

The new normal

Jorge Gonzalez, the home department director and general merchandise manager for Draeger’s Market, also helps clients navigate the learning curve. Draeger’s offers a variety of flatware, glassware, tablecloths from France and other high-end goods in its home department.

It’s clearly all very new to some visitors.“It will take a couple visits —sometimes three — for them to really decide on what the look is and how comfortable they are in having that kind of luxury that they are not used to,” he says.

Gonzalez is there to explain to those clients why a double old-fashioned glass from Czechoslovakia is worth the $95 when they could go buy a set of tumbler glasses at Macy’s for $12.

“Once you emphasize the artistry in these items, they really get it,” he says.

It can be a big adjustment, though. Some go from never having thrown a house party to having a home with 10 bedrooms and six bathrooms and trying to figure out how to entertain there.

“They are very anxious to know how to live this lifestyle,” Gonzalez observes of his customers. And even though many of them have made their money in the Bay Area’s Internet-centric tech scene, they’re finding there are perks to being able to see something before they buy it.

“Though they are ‘Internet people,’ they still want to come to a brick and mortar to touch it, to see it, to have someone explain to them why this is what it is,” Gonzalez says.

Finding love

Their wardrobes elevated and homes decorated, some of the newly affluent might also turn an eye to other parts of their lives they want to improve, like finding the right partner.

Dr. Nina Clark Ericson, a Palo Alto-based life coach who covers dating, relationships and leadership, has many tech clients and has seen some patterns in what brings them to her office.

“Many people come in not knowing at all how to date,” she says, adding that tech people who seek her services can tend to be “frankly a little bit nerdy, very bright, but maybe not as good on the social-emotional scale.”

For clients who have recently come into more money, Dr. Ericson often needs to help them establish who they are with that newfound wealth.

“Some people really like to have the bells and whistles,” she notes, “and that is fine as long as they are comfortable with it and not doing it to make up for any insecurities.”

New wealth can bring a new set of challenges, too. People want to make sure that they aren’t being pursued just for the size of their bank account. Dr. Ericson guides them on how to look for red flags without clamming up too much and turning people off.

Still, there are some clients who take advice too far one way or the other. One client took a woman on a hike for their first date and, not wanting to be liked for his money, treated her to McDonald’s for lunch afterward. Dr. Ericson had to explain to him that any woman he wants to be with is not going to want a lunch date at McDonald’s.

“And he lost that chance,” Dr. Ericson says. “She never returned his calls.”

In the brave new world of sudden, massive wealth, sometimes you need a team of advisors to teach you the social ropes. With a cadre of experts behind him, maybe Ericson’s unnamed client will have better luck next time.

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