Spiritual Life

Silicon Valley Prayer breakfast speakers send strong messages about God's calling

Kirk Perry, Google Inc. president of brand solutions, discusses his faith at the March 13 Silicon Valley Prayer Breakfast. Alicia Castro/Town Crier

When God calls, you have to listen to reap the benefits.

That was the moral of the story for two keynote speakers at the 21st annual Silicon Valley Prayer Breakfast, held Friday at the Hyatt Regency in Santa Clara. Formerly the Los Altos Prayer Breakfast, the event draws successful leaders in the business world who discuss their faith.

For Neil Ahlsten, not listening to that calling left him homeless in San Francisco. For self-professed “slow learner” Kirk Perry, it was the influence of his wife Jacki and ultimately his 6-year-old daughter surviving cancer that changed his lifestyle from secular to spiritual.

The personable Perry grew up in a nonreligious family, in poverty, in Detroit. He overcame his circumstances to attend the University of Cincinnati and pursued a career in business. The first hint that God was helping was an “angel” who provided him a full academic scholarship. Procter & Gamble hired him and he found success in the workplace.

“I was doing all these things on my own, changing the trajectory of my life,” he said, but he realized in the process that he was more dedicated to “my work than my family. I didn’t see that until I had a pretty traumatic wake-up call.”

The news that his daughter Carly was diagnosed with cancer, he said, “took my breath away.”

He was at LaGuardia Airport at a pay phone, openly sobbing, as he absorbed the news. Then someone he described as a little woman in her 70s embraced him and wiped the tears from his face.

“We didn’t say a word,” he said. “I’m pretty confident God put an angel behind me at that pay phone.”

But it wasn’t until Carly fully recovered that Perry recognized God in his life.

“God was with me all along – I just didn’t know it,” he said.

Perry announced to the 700-plus attendees that he had just been diagnosed with cancer but it is treatable and operable. He’s scheduled to undergo surgery in May. He expressed confidence that God would help him through it and “open a new chapter” in his life.

Perry concluded his speech with these thoughts: “God’s always with you. In every situation, God redeems everything that goes on in our life. God cares more about your character than your comfort. God never gives you more than you can handle. God always has a better plan for you than you have for yourself.”

Risky decisions

In both Ahlsten’s and Perry’s cases, God called on them to make risky professional decisions. For Ahlsten, it was leaving a secure position at Google Inc. to form his own company. For Perry, it meant leaving his entrenched Cincinnati community and Procter & Gamble to assume a senior management position at Google.

Ahlsten heeded God’s calling when he left Google to co-found Carpenters Code, a startup that makes mobile apps for spiritual needs. Its first product is a prayer app named Abide, which offers prayers based on users’ belief systems. Ahlsten said his new company has begun to “take off.”

Ahlsten, who also managed humanitarian projects in Africa for the World Bank and U.S. Department of State, began his career as an investment analyst for Parnassus Investments. The firm specializes in socially responsible investing. He and his wife, Nadia, have four children, two of whom were adopted from Congo.

A self-proclaimed analytics-obsessed “math geek,” Ahlsten underwent a major change in his life while at UC Berkeley. His Bible study group opened to the Book of Luke, Chapter 10, in which God sent 70 of his followers into the desert with nothing and asked them to spread His Word.

“So I decided to do it,” he said.

He ended up on Haight Street in San Francisco for approximately a week. He met Jon Sugar, a former radio personality popular in the gay community. Despite thinking “I could use a place to stay,” Ahlsten declined Sugar’s offer for housing. Ahlsten concluded that it was actually God’s offer, and “God saw the world in a much different way than I saw it – in more powerful, purposeful ways.”

Sehin Belew, a former Miss Ethiopia, acclaimed author and motivational speaker, also gave a short talk on her humanitarian work, including five years volunteering at famine relief camps, inspired by her Christian faith.

The Silicon Valley Prayer Breakfast is organized and moderated by Skip Vaccarello of Los Altos.

For more information, visit svpb.net.

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