Alum Profile: Lucinda Duncalfe ’81
Lucinda Duncalfe Holt ’81 grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The year she started at BFS as a seventh grader her family moved to Carroll Gardens. “We walked to school uphill both ways in the snow, all that,” she joked. It wasn’t quite that bad but she had indeed come from a different world academically than the one she encountered at BFS.
“I had gone to a little school called Woodward, and it was tiny,” she said. “BFS was enormous to me. I thought it was overwhelming. I don’t remember this but I’ve been told that for the first week all I did was go to school and sit on a bench in the lobby. I was scared to death. It was a big move and a big change.”
Lucinda’s mother, Marjorie Duncalfe, was a music teacher here in the Upper and Middle Schools. She was known for orchestrating ambitious Middle School performances of Gilbert & Sullivan plays among others. “One year I was in Once Upon a Mattress,” Lucinda said, but that was the end of her career in the performing arts. “That was a great thing about the school. You could try so many things.”
During Middle School, Lucinda started a basketball team. “It’s the only thing I can think of when I’m asked about an early entrepreneurial spirit.” She also played volleyball, softball and ran track on the school’s teams. “I was definitely on the jocky end of the spectrum.”
Lucinda had a fiercely independent–some might even say devilish—side while a student here. Among her many memories are the consequences of the skip day she took with a few senior friends, while she was still a junior, to spend the day at the beach. “We got horribly sunburned. When we came into school the next morning, Ms. Magzanian was waiting for us, but when she saw our pained expressions on beet red faces, she burst out laughing and told us that we had clearly suffered the consequences of our actions already.”
Then there was the time she and classmate Martha Smith, whose father was Head of School Stuart Smith, decided to play a practical joke. Martha got Jim O’Brien to take her father out for the day. Next, “we got the school secretary to let us into his office. We opened the door from his office out to the lobby, and carpeted the floor with paper cups stapled together in a honeycomb, each cup with filled water. We were helped by students, faculty, and staff as we spent hours covering his entire office floor. When Stuart arrived at school the next morning, he just walked right in, stomping on the cups, and sat down and started to work. Because he couldn’t shut the door, all the students got to see our masterwork as they filed into morning meeting.”
Lucinda went on to UPenn on a basketball scholarship to major in Psychology. “But the truth is,” she said candidly, “I majored in basketball. I started as a freshman and only played two years.” Lucinda had gone to Upenn partly because of the allure of Philadelphia–away from home but still in an urban setting. “I wanted to be in a city,” she said, “and that was great. And I thought I wanted a bigger school like UPenn—and that was a mistake. I think nine of us seniors at BFS applied to Brown that year. Eight of us got in and I was the only one who didn’t go.” At the time, Brown’s relatively pastoral setting was a turnoff for her.
After college she returned to New York for a time, then was off to San Francisco for her first real job, “at a little startup.” True, she was in another big city but far from home. “I wanted to be back on the East Coast. I wanted to go back to school.” She applied to graduate programs in art history, psychology, and only one business school.
She was accepted to Wharton School of Business’s MBA program and wound up back at UPenn. She admits that the decision was half-hearted at the time but “it turned out that I loved it.” She was especially drawn to entrepreneurial management. In the end, she says, “I knew I wanted to something small.”
Today, however, she is known as a major mover and shaker in the male-dominated tech world. Has her degree in psychology helped her in business? “Yes. The whole thing is about people, and the degree to which you can understand them better is very helpful.” In retrospect, BFS has also had an “enormous impact” on her business life. “One course was called The Face of War, a multidisciplinary course. The subtext was pacifism but what I learned was how all the pieces fit together.” She was also a strong math student.
The specific course work at BFS had an impact on her, she says, “but the bigger impact was the school’s philosophical underpinnings. I think I carry around a respect for every human being,” she said, “literally every human being, but it was made conscious and specific through my experience at BFS.”
She elaborated. “At a company, for example, when you’re managing, the power of the voice of the minority is so critical, because if you’re thinking what everybody else is thinking the odds are you’re going to do what everyone else is doing. The minority view gives a competitive advantage.” One might find that last statement surprising, but as she illustrated, ‘If you’re looking to hire someone and you’ve met 50 men all dressed alike with nearly identical resumes, who are you going to remember? You’re going to remember the 6 and half foot tall blonde woman.”
With so much career success under her belt she has a hard time pinning down specific career highlights. “I’m very much a journey person,” she said, “and now is now. I don’t spend much time thinking of the future or reviewing the past. We sold this company, TurnTide,” and that would have to be a highlight. That was a big win for everybody involved.”
She was the president, CEO and founder of TurnTide, a Philadelphia-based company which unveiled the world’s first anti-spam router, a piece of computer hardware designed to prevent spam. This promising little appliance in 2004 was a welcome tool to network administrators and their e-mail users everywhere, and led the company to be named one of the “ten startups to watch in 2004” by Network World magazine. Symantec wound up buying the company for $28 millon.
Another modest little highlight that comes to her mind was the culture she created as CEO at Destiny Software. “It was a really special place. Our clients were really happy and deeply trusted us. I still hear from people from there. We were doing great work with an underpinning of common values.”
Today she is the CEO of Monetate, which she joined in 2014. “I had been on the board since 2009, and in ’14 the founder, who I’d had another company with before, bought it. What we do is help big brands in the US and Europe personalize their online customer experiences, so if you and I went to the same site we’d have different experiences.” Clients include Adobe, QVC, J. Crew and Talbott’s, among other noteworthy brands.
Despite her tremendous successes, she at first took her minority position as a woman in the tech sector in stride, and for years had a hard time viewing herself as a iconoclast. “Now that I’m older, looking back, I do think in some way that I was one of the few women starting in the ’90s who was driving companies. There’s a lot of talk about it now, women in technology. I didn’t think about it when it was happening but hopefully I was one of the people who started the struggle. Being an early pioneer there will, over time, feel deeply meaningful to me. I don’t wear that jersey comfortably yet.”
Outside of work, it’s not a jersey this “jocky” woman wears but a gi, or karate uniform. She’s currently a 2nd degree black belt in Shotokan karate. “I’ve been doing it virtually forever,” she said. “It’s mind-body-spirit in the same way as yoga…except you hit people,” she said. ‘It’s a global community. I train every weekend with a shifting group. That’s been a really important aspect of my life and there’s a lot that I’ve learned there that I bring to everything else that I do.”
She also enjoys cooking and spending time with her two daughters, aged 14 and 16. “They are the real highlight of my life,” she said. Have they inherited her tech gene? “The older one is in college already and she wants to do computer science, which is more her dad’s aspect of it. My little one wants nothing to do with tech at all.”
Today she lives in Fort Washington outside of Philadelphia. But, she concedes, “I still love being in New York City more than anything else. I feel like I’m home. Everyone else around me is hyper and I’m relaxed.”