A 33-year-old Utah startup founder went to Silicon Valley on business and was found dead in her car a week later. Erin Valenti's friends and family search for answers following her mysterious death.
Courtesy of Erin Valenti's friends and family; Women Tech Council; Samantha Lee/Business Insider
- Erin Valenti, a seemingly successful and ambitious tech founder, was on her way home from a business trip to California when she called her mother. She became confused and rambling.
- Her family reported her missing after Valenti missed her flight. On October 12, she was found dead in the back seat of her rental car on a residential street in San Jose, California.
- Two months later, her friends and family still don't know how she died. A police investigation is pending the results of the medical examiner's report, which takes several months.
- She is remembered as a dogged chief executive and a gatherer who started a meetup for tech workers in her adopted home of Salt Lake City.
- This is the story of Erin Valenti's rise as an entrepreneur and untimely death, based on interviews with almost two dozen friends, family members, current and former colleagues, and police.
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On the night of her wedding anniversary, Agnes Valenti pushed roasted cauliflower around her plate at the restaurant while her husband talked on the phone. Their daughter, Erin Valenti, was calling from 2,900 miles away, in Palo Alto, California, where she had just left a friend and couldn't find her rental car.
The couple called her back after dinner. The 33-year-old entrepreneur from Salt Lake City who was traveling on business, had finally located the gray Nissan Murano and began the short drive to San Jose International Airport. She talked fast and erratically. And she wasn't making much sense.
"She would say to me, 'I'm coming home for Thanksgiving,'" said Agnes, whom everyone calls Whitey because of her platinum hair, the same color as her daughter's locks.
A bit later: "It's all a game, it's a thought experiment, we're in the Matrix."
And "I'm going to miss my flight."
On October 7, a Delta flight for Salt Lake City left without Erin Valenti on board. Her husband, Harrison Weinstein, and her mother took turns talking to her on the phone until almost midnight local time.
Five days later, Valenti was found dead in the back seat of her rental car on a residential street in San Jose. According to the family, there were no clear signs of physical harm.
The mystery of how a tech founder went missing and died in Silicon Valley has left a family, her friends, and a group of entrepreneurs in Utah's rising tech hub searching for answers. To some, the easy explanation would be suicide, that her story was among the many stories of a founder's quiet battle with depression, exacerbated by the stress of starting a company and trying to change the world. Her peers know all too well that mental health is especially a problem in Utah, where suicide is the second leading cause of death among people age 15 to 34.
But her family does not believe she killed herself. That just wasn't Valenti, whose nickname was "Armageddon Erin" because of her boisterous energy and a proclivity for being places when natural disasters hit.
"When you don't know everything you start thinking about everything," Chris Valenti, Erin's youngest brother, said.
Valenti had gone to California to be inspired. She was the chief executive of Tinker Ventures, a web-development shop that had one founder in Salt Lake City and the other in Pakistan. The startup builds applications for other companies, using a remote workforce of engineers. Valenti's close friends said the business was profitable and never took outside capital, having been funded from her savings and revenue.
As chief executive, Valenti worked to find new customers and keep them, a relentless task. A web-development shop typically earns money on contracts, not subscriptions, so the business had little recurring revenue.
Valenti told friends in the months before her trip that she wanted to do something new.
She arrived in Orange County in early October for a professional-development workshop and then flew to the Bay Area to visit former colleagues and friends. Some who met her for dinner said she talked excitedly about a new business venture. She did not return to see it through.
Her family and friends agree on a few things. Valenti had no history of mental-health disorders or substance abuse. She surrounded herself with friends and was not the type to bottle her feelings.
And there are some things that remain murky, such as her confused ramblings on the day her husband, Harrison Weinstein, reported her missing. Weinstein also asked police to make a welfare check. According to the family, the police called Valenti on the phone, and she told an officer she was only a joking around.
This account of Valenti's rise and untimely death is based on interviews with about two dozen friends, family members, current and former colleagues, medical professionals, and police.
A 'complete refusal to fail'
Up until her death in October, the story of how Valenti became a startup founder was the sort of narrative that countless entrepreneurs aspire to.
Her first job out of college was an associate position at a private-equity firm, Summit Partners, where she learned how to cold-call and source deals for the partners. Valenti showed a "complete refusal to fail," a former coworker said, recalling their late nights studying the markets and eating gyro wraps at the office in Palo Alto.
After four years at the company, she got the itch to build something of her own.
Salt Lake City was not the setting she envisioned for pursuing her startup dream, but her husband, whom she met on a ski vacation when she was 18, had followed her to California. Having completed his doctoral studies in psychology, he had been offered a fellowship at his top choice, a veterans hospital in Utah, and family say Valenti felt like it was her turn to follow him.
Valenti, who had a booming voice and no apparent filter, became a linchpin in the area's up-and-coming tech scene. Local entrepreneurs say that she willed a community into existence, gathering the people and companies of the "Silicon Slopes" in meeting rooms and bars.
"It's not that she came to like Salt Lake City," said Ryan Kruizenga, a former coworker who stayed a close friend. "She made it into something she liked better."
Utah's tech hub was still overlooked when Valenti arrived in 2012. Investors tended to put their money to work closer to their offices in the Bay Area. Many of the software companies sprouting on a stretch of highway from Ogden to Salt Lake City to Provo, Utah, operated for years without outside funding. They grew slowly, careful not to spend more than they earned. Valenti, who wanted to start a company, admired their prudence.
She took a job as head of product at Overstock.com's headquarters and found pleasure in her new home's ample outdoor pursuits, learning to slot into the sandstone canyons and climb out. She enjoyed hiking and, on idler days, floating down the Provo River in an inner tube.
Courtesy of Erin Valenti's friends and family; Samantha Lee/Business Insider
Looking to meet new people, Valenti started organizing a monthly meetup for tech workers at a downtown sports bar. At one of those happy hours, she met Utah tech booster Clint Betts, who wanted to throw the state's biggest-ever tech gathering. Valenti pulled strings at Overstock to sponsor the event, which was attended by more than 4,000 people.
In Silicon Slopes "you could almost not find someone who didn't know Erin," Amy Stellhorn, a Utah entrepreneur, said.
Building a successful startup
Office politics at Overstock grated on Valenti, a former coworker said, and after 10 months she left to start her own company.
She had already tried running a startup before moving to Utah, creating a work-for-hire service called Skycrane. It let people offload their administrative tasks to freelancers helped by automation.
The business wasn't making money, and Valenti shut it down after a few years. But she used an insight about the flaws of that business to inform her new idea for an app-development startup. And after Valenti talked it over with Amir Khan, an entrepreneur in Pakistan whom she'd hired for the previous startup, the pair founded Tinker together in 2014.
This time around went better for Valenti. Tinker developed a reputation for building great products on schedule, said Stellhorn, whose creative agency would send clients Tinker's way. And it charged based on the number of hours its offshore team put into the project, rather than an estimate. Sometimes Valenti, who started her career as an investor, would even barter services for equity in a client's startup.
While Khan oversaw the company's operations in Pakistan, the American founder was responsible for landing customers and keeping those already on its rolls. Valenti mined networking events and tech conferences for business. One friend said Tinker had sold out its capacity for the current year by March.
"She was their rainmaker," Stellhorn said. But it wasn't easy work.
Tinker's customers were mostly young startups with between one and 11 employees. Many fizzled out, and the promise of repeat business with them, Khan said. The few startups that succeeded took venture funding and hired in-house engineers. Valenti's job also involved getting clients to pay its fees. Two days before she went missing, she texted a friend to grumble about a vendor dispute.
Scott Rafferty, a Utah entrepreneur, said his friend talked all the time about quitting what had become a multimillion-dollar business, but never meant it. She told him she felt responsible for the welfare of more than 130 engineers and their families on the other side of the world. With a difference of 12 hours between them, Valenti and her cofounder rarely talked on the phone.
In five years as head of Tinker, Valenti was its only long-standing employee in the US. She was lonely working from home, her youngest brother, Chris Valenti, said. After he dropped out of a medical residency last year, Chris said his sister insisted that he live with them for a few months. He remembers she liked having the company and home cooking.
Erin Valenti found other ways to fill her need for human interaction. She met clients for coffee, joined a coworking space in Salt Lake City, and began hosting "art hours" on Friday nights at home, where friends would bring their own supplies.
Courtesy of Erin Valenti's friends and family; Samantha Lee/Business Insider
Time for a change
In the last year, Valenti seemed ready for another change. What she wanted to do next, though, was unclear.
She'd told Clint Betts that she wanted to buy billboards along Interstate 15 to announce a venture fund that would invest in companies led by women, with the intent of starting a conversation and not a firm. Stellhorn knew her friend to be working on a clothing line for professional women who "slay at work and sex." And Rafferty, who saw Valenti the week before her death, said she wanted to support artists and filmmakers.
Others say the entrepreneur had plans to finance a startup accelerator inside her company. Her cofounder, Khan, said the two had discussed the idea only casually.
"She had a million half-cooked ideas and mini projects and prototypes floating," said Weinstein, who believed his wife wanted to work on a travel-inspired business. She would call friends on car rides to discuss, or gather them at home to brainstorm over a bottle of wine.
Her feelings of restlessness grew and, in late summer, Valenti reached out to Rafferty about wanting an executive coach. It happened that his coach was about to organize a retreat in California.
A search for inspiration in California
She arrived in the affluent beach town of Laguna Niguel on a summery October day, warmed by the Santa Ana winds.
Create Powerful is a workshop designed for leaders to reflect and move past their perceived limits. Rafferty, who had used the organizer, OntoCore, to provide coaching for his startup's senior leadership team, likened it to a Tony Robbins seminar for business owners.
The next three days were a mix of lectures, partner work, and time alone spent journaling. The last time he saw her, Rafferty said, she was bouncing from guest to guest at a sunset dinner on the hotel lawn. The workshop had renewed her interest in hiring a local team, which would give her the bandwidth to pursue other interests while still running Tinker, she told him. They hugged goodbye.
On the morning of Thursday, October 3, Valenti flew into the Bay Area for a second tech gathering that week, a two-day conference in Monterey for founders and tech investors to network and learn.
The weekend passed in a series of small reunions - dinners and brunches with former colleagues. According to her father, Joseph Valenti, she also did some shopping. Valenti's credit-card statements show she spent several hundred dollars on vinyl records, though she didn't own a turntable.
On Sunday, she had dinner in Palo Alto with J.J. Kardwell, who was a principal at Summit Partners when he was Valenti's first boss. He recalled her excitement over the workshop - how it had helped her reconcile her work troubles.
"She cared deeply about Tinker," Kardwell said, "and it mattered a lot to her identity. She was very committed to the continued path there. But she realized she could do both. She had elevated enough as an executive and entrepreneur that she realized she didn't have to be one thing. Any normal human can do one thing."
Valenti is believed to have been last seen by a former manager of hers at Summit Partners, Dean Jacobson, on Monday afternoon. He recalls Valenti as "vibrant" and "uniquely talented" in an email, though he did not want to be interviewed for this story.
A frantic search, a lot of theories, but no answers
On Monday, October 7, Whitey Valenti sat in her living room with her son, Chris, in Rochester, New York, as they talked on speaker phone with Erin. She sounded manic and confused, they said. She told them about plans for Thanksgiving. And she told them that "it was all a game."
"Are you in on it?" Erin asked, according to Chris.
Whitey, a retired nurse, asked if she had been drinking or been given drugs. Erin answered "no," Whitey said.
An officer with the San Jose police called Valenti to make a welfare check at her husband's request. She said she was fine. The police later told the family that because Valenti was an adult, her case would be treated as a "voluntary missing person." She could have just taken off for a couple of days without telling anybody, the police said.
Her family mobilized. Weinstein flew out the next morning to look for his wife, and Valenti's parents followed a few days later. They hired a private investigator. People who didn't know Valenti posted her photo to Facebook groups for hikers in the Bay Area, in case someone had seen Valenti on a trail. One friend enlisted the help of a drone hobbyist, who offered to fly over areas where Valenti's phone had last pinged cellphone towers.
On Saturday, five days after Valenti went missing, a friend in the search party found her rental car on a quiet residential street, minutes from San Jose International Airport.
Inrglo Photography; Samantha Lee/Business Insider
Her cause of death is still unknown. An administrator in the medical examiner's office for Santa Clara County said its report could take three to four months to complete, which is standard. A police investigation is ongoing, though a spokesman for the San Jose police would not say more for this story, including whether the police had ruled out foul play.
An autopsy would reveal an obvious cause of death, such as a stroke, a hemorrhage, or a heart attack, said Sally Aiken, chief medical examiner for Spokane, Washington, and vice president of the National Association of Medical Examiners. In cases that are unclear, Aiken said the medical examiner would send samples for testing at outside labs. Some of the tests on the brain or the heart can take months. Labs around the country have long backlogs on toxicology tests because of the opioid crisis, Aiken added.
Weinstein, a practicing psychologist, said his wife had no diagnosis of a mental-health disorder. Her behavior had some of the characteristics of a manic episode, including feelings of euphoria, racing thoughts, and a hard time keeping attention. But Weinstein said the event was "extremely out of character" and she had not shown these symptoms before.
Still, Weinstein doesn't speculate. "When we called the police for the welfare check, we were worried that she was confused, she was vulnerable - not that she was threatening to hurt herself," he said.
The friends who raised the possibility of suicide were all entrepreneurs, who know the cost of loneliness and prolonged stress on members of their community. One friend who runs her own company said wellness checks should be a requirement for chief executives. Scott Paul, a Utah founder, said he's creating a pledge for employers who agree to talk about mental health in the workplace.
"There are not a lot of founders who have been prepared with therapy," Paul said. "You can't just pray more. That's just not a strategy for surviving founder life."
Whitey Valenti is still praying for an answer. In the days that followed the discovery of the rental car, neighbors left flowers and unicorn plush toys on the side of the road, a nod to Valenti's background in tech.
But when Whitey got the call and arrived at the car's location, she found the police and yellow tape around the vehicle with her daughter still inside. She said she only wished she could have held her one last time.
Her family has established a scholarship fund at the University of Utah to honor Valenti's memory, with a goal of raising $100,000 to support female students who share a passion for entrepreneurship.
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