I was busy this past weekend writing a series of funny stories about people who walked right by me, assuming someone, not me, was the CEO.  Apparently, I was undercover, as the CEO of my own company.

Tuesday morning I learned about the passing of an exceptional man, Arne Sorenson.  

I was shocked at how personal this loss felt to me, as I was not a close personal friend of Arne.  Mom called me and said, “Honey I am so sorry about the loss of Arne, I know you really admired him”.  In fact I got several notes, calls, and text messages of condolences which made me realize how much my personal circle, and my team at our company, had heard from me about how Arne had impacted me through the years.  In tribute I’d like to share my story about how I met Arne.   

Many, many years ago, Arne Sorenson was a speaker at Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year program in Palm Desert, and I was in the audience as a regional honoree.  Arne spoke about entrepreneurship and how he saw technology as a differentiator for the guest experience, technology like my company and I were building. After the event, he left the ballroom and was flanked by a group of stern dark suits, headed towards a waiting car. I ran down the hallway like I was trying to make a touchdown, and pushed myself right in front of Mr. Sorenson.  Breathless from my sprint, I spewed out as if one giant word: Mr. Sorenson, I-I-mean-my-comany-we-are-proud-to-be-working-with-your-team-on-the-technologies-you-mentioned-in-your-speech.

He looked at my name badge, shook my hand, and said in his soothing deep, deep voice, “Call me Arne, Vanessa. It’s nice to meet you.   I look forward to hearing about your progress.” He started walking away, and then stopped, turned back and said, “Oh, and Vanessa, congratulations.”  

Several months later, I was invited to a Marriott owners conference to showcase our new platform for a select group of owners and executives.  I brazenly sent Mr. Sorenson (but I can call him Arne? :)) an email reminding him of the fuzzy-haired woman who almost tackled him, and that I would love the chance to show him the new technology at his the coming week. I didn’t get an answer. 

I arrived in Grand Cayman and was standing poolside at the Ritz Carlton, at the peripheral of a group of Marriott executives and their spouses having cocktails. Suddenly, there was a shifting in this crowd of very important people that felt odd. I looked over my shoulder, and Arne was standing JUST THERE.  I smiled and choked out “Hi”, but he did not smile. He said very seriously, “Vanessa, when are you going to show me that tech?” 

All the air wooshed out of me and I said, “Anytime you want Mr. Sorenson.”  

“Now Vanessa, you know I asked you to call me Arne. What are you doing tomorrow morning?”  

I replied that I was scheduled to play in the golf tournament.  He then pointed at me with his finger and poked at me and said strongly, “This is a critical moment in your career Vanessa. What is more important: golf or a meeting?” I answered that of course a meeting, and he said loudly, “WRONG!  Golf is always more important.”  He smiled a huge grin. “I’ll see you tomorrow after the golf tournament,” and he walked off, still smiling. The people around me had their mouths hanging open, and I took a serious gulp of my cocktail. Oh.  My.  Goodness.  

The next day (after the golf tournament), Arne showed up in the demo room and let me show him this idea we had been pitching to his team for almost two years, to put the Marriott logo onto every screen of every television and the TV channels in the same order, no matter where in the country the room was, or who was providing the service.  He saw the demo, used the remote, and then said, “Well that’s pretty slick Vanessa, but my kids really only want to watch Netflix. Too bad you can’t make it do that.” I told Arne, not a little defensively, that I could make Netflix work on my platform, I just couldn’t get anyone at the tech giant to return my phone call.  We were a tiny, woman, minority owned company… the proverbial flea on the tip of the tale of the dog.  Arne made me a playful bet that I couldn’t get Netflix to work, even if someone had the stroke to get them to call me back.  I told him it was a sucker bet, but he was ON!  

That evening I was on the beach at the official corporate event walking around barefoot and looking at all of these people I did not know, who clearly had known each other for years.  It was intimidating to say the least.  Barefoot Arne walked right up to me, I suppose he noticed I was uncomfortable, and started a conversation.  We ended up talking about family and having grown up Lutheran (of all things).  He acted in kindness and found common ground.  He then walked me over to a group of owners and introduced me and encouraged the potential customers to visit the technology showcase the next day.  What a gentleman.  

A few days later, we also got an email from an executive at Netflix that said “they wanted to have a meeting with us. ”WHAAAAATTTTTT?

Netflix is a story for another day about other men who gave me a chance.  The last time I checked, my engineers still hold the record for the fastest integration by a tech company in the Netflix labs. 

We are now in year 8 working with Marriott and their owners, and we sit here today with more than 80,000,000 guests each year watching Netflix and other streaming services from the comfort of their hotel rooms on my systems all over the world.  

The business impact was immense, but the person-to-person impact was truly without measure.  I was (and am) a vendor in the hospitality world, but was never treated that way.  I was treated as a valuable partner, and as a person. Arne stopped and said hello to me by name each and every time he saw me.  Over the years that included at his headquarters in the cafeteria, in the hallway, at conferences, industry speaking engagements, and hotel visits.  He always took the time; he always saw me. 

Arne also accepted me as a working mother.  I remember how Arne and Ruth greeted my daughters in a hotel lobby when surrounded by associates and direct reports, when the children were tiny and still accompanied me on business trips.  He showed he was delighted to see them, openly praised my choice of blending motherhood and being a CEO.  Years later he never failed to ask about them.  

I will miss Arne.  I will miss hearing him speak words of wisdom and compassion.  I will miss his business, economic, and political insights given in his wonderful deep soothing voice.  I would occasionally send a small note to Arne when he did something in the public eye that touched me.  He never failed to answer those inconsequential notes.  I will miss hearing him brag about how proud he was of his children, I will miss watching him clearly adore his lovely wife.  

I wish I had taken the time to tell him how much his kindness meant to me.  The news is full of stories of men in power who are corrupted or use their power for personal gain. My experience with Arne was that he used a superpower of kindness and respect. For those of you who were associates, friends, and family; please accept my condolences on your loss.

Copyright 2021 Vanessa Ogle, All Rights Reserved