Martha Dennis talks tech, arts

Martha Dennis, Ph.D., is principal at Gordian Knot, an advisory firm to emerging technology businesses in San Diego.

She currently serves as chairman of the board of Netsapiens, Inc. and a director of Space Micro Inc. and Clarinova.

Dennis is immediate past chair of the City of San Diego Science & Technology Commission, immediate past president of the board of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and past president of the boards of The Bishop’s School, UCSD Athena and Commnexus.

She is a trustee of Harvey Mudd College, La Jolla Music Society and the San Diego Museum of Art. She is chair of the San Diego Foundation Arts and Culture working group. She is also on the advisory boards of the San Diego Opera and the UCSD Rady School of Management.

Dennis holds a doctorate from Harvard University and a bachelor’s degree from Smith College.

What brought you to La Jolla?

My husband’s first job brought us to La Jolla - he’s still in that first job as a professor at the UCSD Medical School. We had been graduate students at Harvard and moving to the diagonally opposite corner of the country made us feel like pioneers. The event that gave us the courage to make the move was meeting Ellen and Roger Revelle at a cocktail party at Harvard in 1969 just before we moved. When I inquired about La Jolla, Ellen took my hand in hers, patted it kindly and said, “I think you’ll like it there, dear.” She certainly was right!

What makes La Jolla special to you?

To sound a bit corny - La Jolla is a jewel with many facets. Its physical beauty is unsurpassed, the climate demands nothing of its inhabitants but enjoyment, its institutions are excellent and, more than anything, the local population is beyond talented.

If you could snap your fingers and have it done, what might you add, subtract or improve in La Jolla?

A violent thunderstorm and a good snowstorm very occasionally would be nice for variety. More seriously, our city is suffering great economic hardship, so we La Jollans need to bear more of the burden than we currently do to improve our village. Imagine having visitors pass through “the throat” and comment that they’ve never seen such a beautiful entrance to a village.

Who or what inspires you?

What inspires me the most is people who build institutions of excellence. These are what ultimately make us most proud of our community and leave the most impressive legacy. During my years here, I have had the honor of knowing two people who have grown world-class institutions in La Jolla. One is Mike Teitelman, headmaster of The Bishop’s School since 1983, who developed Bishop’s into one of the most highly respected independent schools in the nation. Another is Dick Atkinson who, as UCSD Chancellor from 1980 to 1995, grew UCSD into an entity that was the major stimulus for the explosion of San Diego’s internationally known high-tech and biotech industries. They have both put La Jolla on the map for good.

If you hosted a dinner party for eight, whom (living or deceased) would you invite?

My husband, Ed and I - to cherish the evening and enjoy the lobster we’d serve; Abraham Lincoln - to keep the political discussion inspirational; Galileo - to help us to challenge current scientific thought; Sigmund Freud - to observe our behavior and provide the cigars; Socrates - to keep the conversation flowing, Mozart - to accompany us with “Eine kleine Nachtmusik;” and my dad - a curious scientist with an exquisite sense of humor.

What are you currently reading?

The New York Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Wall Street Journal, “The Nine” by Jeffrey Toobin, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” by Diane Ackerman, and, of course, the La Jolla Light. Oh, and blogs on my Treo - all to keep current and to contemplate the lessons of history.

What is your most prized possession?

Not exactly a possession, but my family is what I prize the most.

What do you do for fun?

I partake of the visual and performing arts, which are increasingly abundant in La Jolla.

Describe your greatest accomplishment.

I am told that I have been a role model for many younger women in my career as a technologist, entrepreneur, venture capitalist and corporate board member in a predominantly male professional world. If I leave a legacy for other women to follow, I consider that to be a significant “accomplishment.”

What is your motto or philosophy of life?

Keep on movin’!