Penny Mayer Finnie ’82’s plan to become a doctor was derailed when she began taking classes at 185 Nassau Street and fell in love with painting. After receiving her art degree, then an MFA and a brief stint in teaching, Finnie moved to the Bay Area in 1990, where she decided to try a new medium: computers. In the process of learning Photoshop, Finnie found herself at the cutting edge of software development and coding. In 1995, she developed the first version of the Ask Jeeves search engine as well as the butler character in the logo. She became Ask Jeeves’ chief creative officer in 1998.
By 2002, Finnie says, “it felt like I had been in front of a computer forever.” She left tech to start “something tangible and in the community”: what would become five Bay Area cafés called Bittersweet, which roasted their own coffee and created their own chocolate. The stores had an educational bent, using tastings to teach about the complexities of chocolate.
After selling the cafés in 2016, Finnie did a painting residency in France and considered herself semi-retired. But in 2018, her husband, investment banker Charlie Finnie ’81, entered Massachusetts’ recreational cannabis market, and the pair moved to Providence, Rhode Island. Shortly thereafter Finnie became the senior vice president of marketing for a cannabis company, drawing on experience to help open the company’s 10,000-square-foot dispensary/café. To demonstrate to customers marijuana’s unique terpenes, or smells, she used a small device now called FEND, which released scented mist.
Finnie would become the vice president of new business for FEND’s parent company, Sensory Cloud, a year later. Invented by a Harvard medical engineering professor, the device, when filled with a calcium-enriched saline solution, is sold as a drug-free nasal-hygiene tool. Finnie has been helping to market and test the device’s efficacy at suppressing inhalation and exhalation of airborne contaminants in various situations, such as factories and schools.
Lessons learned: “Sexism is a real thing, but I’ve found that being on the ground floor of helping to start a business helps alleviate it.”
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