Helene Servillon is a connector of dots. Sometimes they link people or things or ideas. Sometimes they cross time to shed light on the past or give hints of the future.
Her gift often comes in handy at Orthogonal, a holding company that invests in businesses that want to help people and the environment. Servillon, who is charged with developing partnerships between Orthogonal and potential clients, mentors and provides resources to these companies, including those in the cannabis, cryptocurrency, and health industries.
Servillon, who graduated from Northeastern in 2012 with a degree in communication studies, was already connecting dots in middle school. She was plotting a path to college, preferably far from her San Francisco home, and faced some big obstacles: Her immigrant mom was a single parent of four, and they didn’t have much money. But even in sixth grade, Servillon could make out the stepping stones ahead. The first was landing a spot on the school volleyball team, which could lead, she believed, to a scholarship at a great school such as Northeastern.
When things got in the way—Servillon was a petite girl in a sport that favors the tall and didn’t make the cut—she wasn’t deterred.
“I spent the whole summer going to the rec parks in my neighborhood practicing pickup with the local kids,” Servillon remembered. “And in seventh grade, I actually made the team.”
A few years later, she made the volleyball team at Northeastern and earned a partial scholarship her last two years on the squad—a rare coup for a 5-foot-1 defender. Her job was to pass the ball so the taller players could score—just another example of her role as a connector.
“She’s definitely a connector,” said Caitlin Tittl, one of Servillon’s former teammates. “She’s able to bring people together in a way that everyone feels comfortable.”
At Northeastern, Servillon snagged plum co-op jobs at Puma and Reebok, showing enough talent and drive to take over one boss’s duties. The experiences taught her that corporate life wasn’t for her.
“When you’re at a big corporation, there are a lot more processes to make decisions,” Servillon said. “Whereas at a startup, you get to wear 10 different hats and that’s more fun and challenging to me.”
She spent the next several years trying on hats at startups that sell electric bikes and speech analytics software.
Then Servillon started to become a more conscious consumer and wanted to be part of a community where growth was not just about money. Her search brought her to Orthogonal in 2017, and the fit seemed right. Still, there were doubts. Many of her peers were ensconced in solid, long-term jobs. Did she really want to jump to yet another startup?
In the end, she took courage from Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple. She recalled his advice from a 2015 commencement speech to follow your heart where it leads, trusting that the dots will eventually connect.
At Orthogonal, she said, “I have really been able to pool all the different connections of things that I’ve learned, every experience, into what I’m doing today.”
One of her biggest challenges at Orthogonal, Servillon said, will be working with the cannabis startups in the group’s portfolio, which includes a company that provides quality testing and a medical marijuana delivery service. The industry is an evolving tangle of local, state, federal, and international regulations. But business is booming: Sales of legal cannabis are expected to quintuple in North America over the next decade to $47.3 billion. And these emerging companies offer people safer alternatives to opioids, she said.
“There’s a lot of stigma about cannabis that we have to be open to unlearning,” said Servillon, who is working to help the cannabis industry in the United States receive more positive media coverage. The industry, she said, has an opportunity to “educate consumers on plant-based and more natural medicines, providing more preventive healthcare versus reactive healthcare.”
Being on the leading edge of an emerging industry is, as her friend, Tittl, put it, “Helene’s vibe.”
“She just really loves the startup life,” said Tittl, “and it’s because she can come up with her own ideas and build something from the ground up.”