Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine, November/December 2008. Copyright 2008. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
Massage therapist Bonnie Brown is a delight. She's friendly, funny, energetic, and an extremely positive person. If you read The New York Times
, November 12, 2007, story on Brown's rapid rise to wealth, you may think the fact that she's a multi-millionaire is the reason for her view on life. True, the money she got from working at Google doesn't hurt, and it has made Brown's life easier in some ways, but her positive outlook is an inherent trait, which becomes evident when talking to her. And her subsequent philanthropic efforts with that money also sheds light on what makes Brown special.
Brown's life hasn't always taken the path of least resistance. As a matter of fact, in 1998, her Cinderella dream life (as she describes it) began unraveling and eventually ended up in cinders. After 20 years of marriage, she found herself divorced with two grown children. In an effort to move forward, Brown closed the Christian day school she successfully operated for a decade, sold her home, and "held the garage sale to end all garage sales," totally breaking free from her old life.
It wasn't until after Brown closed the school in Canyon Lake, California, though, that she realized how much stress she had endured. "I got really tired," she says. "[The school] was a labor of love and, as in any extreme endeavor, you don't see what you're going through until you're removed from the scene." And Brown knows that stress can kill you. "You get addicted to it," she says. "I had lived through the stresses of a failing marriage, a move, and trying to raise two teenage girls by myself during this time but, I was too tired to realize the magnitude of all these changes."
One day, while sitting around with a couple of girlfriends, Brown finally began to realize the extent of her stress. "One [of my friends] pointed out a test in one of those women's magazines," Brown says. "She started reading it out loud: 'You are likely to suffer a major illness, if you have experienced two or more of the following in the last year...' As she went down the list, I stopped counting because not only would I have a major illness by now, I'd also be dead."
To escape the stress and to begin her new life, Brown went to live with her sister in Los Gatos, California. Chris invited Brown to come and stay for awhile and get herself together. "I slept for the first month of my new life," Brown says.
Slowly Brown began to slow down, de-stress, and savor life. One day she was sitting at home with a cup of coffee, admiring the poppies on the table, and she actually saw one open. "'Well, God,' I thought, 'do you think this is slow enough? I just watched
a poppy open.'"
As Brown emerged from her emotional coma, she decided to enroll in a local massage school. "I wanted to add to the massage techniques I already knew and used, and further my knowledge of anatomy," she says. It was also high time to use the $100 massage table she bought on a whim from a fitness center.
After attending three months of night school, Brown received a certificate in massage. She then discovered a school offering a more advanced study of massage therapy, which she wanted to acquire. Going for more advanced training would also force her to perform massage on the public--something she had avoided--rather than just massaging close family and friends.
During her advanced class, Brown realized she loved giving massage. "It felt very natural to me, and after the stress of the previous years, this was very relaxing. The therapy was perfect for my state of mind and body at that time." Going to massage school was also very healing to Brown because she was receiving massage, as well as giving it. "Over time I was able to calm down and become healthy again," she says.Right Place, Right Time
Shortly after Brown received her advanced massage and bodywork training, she received a phone call from a friend who had seen an ad in the newspaper. A small, relatively unknown company, called Google, was looking for a full-time massage therapist.
Not having heard of Google before, Brown interviewed for the job anyway, but she wasn't the company's first choice. She didn't really care, though, because she had built up her own massage therapy business and had the freedom to travel frequently thanks to a business opportunity with a longtime friend, a travel agent/tour director who puts together high-end tours. The friend offered massage as part of her upscale travel packages and took Brown along with her on trips around the world to work as the tour massage therapist. Brown loved to travel and give massage, so the arrangement was ideal.
Google called Brown back when they couldn't get a response from their top applicant. When speaking to the recruiter, Brown suggested that the job might only require a part-time massage therapist (since there were only 39 Google employees at the time) and offered to work for Google as a subcontractor, which would allow her to make her own schedule, plus keep traveling.
Brown agreed to work for 10 hours a week at $45 per hour, but she also wanted stock options--a perk that was unheard of for a subcontractor. With some experience in the stock market, she knew the possibilities a startup could offer and saw this as a great opportunity. The recruiter agreed to all of the terms and Google hired Brown in November 1999.
A loose translation of Brown's job description at Google was to manipulate muscles and soft tissue of eligible Google employees and assume a key role in promoting their relaxation and health. "That's a pretty challenging order," Brown says, "considering my clients worked long hours under incredible pressure, and sat and stared at computer screens without moving much, for longer periods of time than some people sleep at night."
Brown loved her job and began building longtime friendships with her clients. She felt privileged to fill a void she observed in the engineers' lives. "Many engineers do not have touch in their lives because of their relationship with their computer, and they exclude all other possibilities because of their work. Massaging engineers was a really unique experience for me and I felt like it did them a lot of good. And they told me it did. One guy told me 'This is my favorite thing in the whole week.'"
Brown, who strongly believes that human touch is very important in a person's life, began noticing an interesting pattern with her massage clients, both inside and outside of Google. "When [my clients] were in a romantic relationship," she says, "they got less massage. As soon as they broke up, they came to see me more frequently. I observed that there was more to massage than just relieving muscle pain. [Massage] filled a void left in someone by rejection or abandonment."
By 2003, rumors started circulating around Google that its stock may go public any day. If these rumors were true, the employees holding stock options would soon become multi-millionaires. This information, though exciting, put Google's employees on an emotional rollercoaster ride and the days leading up to the filing were extremely tense. Employees began seeking medical help for the stress, some were taking extended leaves of absence, and some just left and took other jobs. "In my position as Google's massage therapist," Brown says, "I literally and figuratively felt the pulse of the company."
On the morning of April 29, 2004, Google finally proceeded with its intention of going public--much to the relief of stockholding employees. "It felt like everyone had exhaled at once, and you could feel it and hear it ... like when everyone in yoga class does it right," Brown says.Reassessing Values
On August 19, 2004, Google's initial public offering (IPO) gave Brown another chance to reinvent her life--this time without the money worries. She would soon become a rich woman. "Money slowly, but steadily took on a new identity in my mind," she says. "It was as if everything I thought I wanted in life, but couldn't afford, didn't have the same appeal anymore."
One of the first things Brown did with her newfound wealth was pay off her bills. "One of the greatest feelings in life is to be debt-free," she says and paying off her car and a credit card took a big load off of her shoulders. "I licked the envelopes closed and whistled down the driveway to the mailbox." Then she smiled and walked back to the house feeling a lot lighter. "That act was the beginning of an amazing transformation in my life," Brown says.
Brown also made a huge decision not to work when she was sick, which was tough for her. "Rain or shine, in sickness and in health had always been my work motto," she says, but now money wasn't an issue for her. She could work for the complete enjoyment of working. And then a funny thing happened; work just wasn't bringing her the same satisfaction anymore. The Way Of Philanthropy
It was a trip to Mexico that finally motivated Brown to break away from Google after five years of kneading engineers' backs. She found that she loved living the carefree life of a woman on vacation. "I was never the same after that week in Mexico," she says and, though she hated to leave, Brown was ready to start some new adventures and resigned her position at Google.
At first retirement didn't work too well for Brown. "It's a frightening feeling when you have no plan. I don't recommend it," she says. "I got up one morning and took my pajamas off and then put them back on, took them off, put them back on, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I have no idea what to do with myself,' and it was terrible."
Brown's lack of a plan and her unsettling freedom prompted her to start a private foundation. Brown had always done charity work, but now she was excited that she would be able to offer her help in a bigger way. Today, Brown travels the world investigating ministries and, once satisfied that they are in need of her support, she helps them.
"My foundation is involved in giving to missionary efforts around the world that meet the needs of the whole person, including their spiritual needs." Brown says. More specifically, she has helped during natural disasters by providing clean water; empowered the Joshua Fund in Israel to provide basic necessities for victims of war; provided the basic human needs of food, clothing, shelter--and hope--in several African countries; and provided electronics to facilitate those on the ground who are reaching out to the lost, hurt, and dying. Brown also feels blessed to have helped the Bible Archaeology Search and Exploration Institute in locating and researching biblical artifacts.
Currently Brown is working with a mentor to learn about biofeedback and alternative medicine in hopes of bringing medical advancements to those in need. "[My mentor] is teaching me how to utilize medical devices--coupled with my background in nutrition counseling--to help those that my foundation has given grants to," she says. "For instance, I brought a solar powered colloidal silver generator to an orphanage on my last trip to Africa. I showed them how they can make 'silver water' to kill bacteria both in the body and on everyday living surfaces."
Although she enjoys travel, Brown lives in Nevada and loves hanging out with her two daughters and four granddaughters. She also gets her own massages at least once a week and takes private Pilates classes.
Brown has written a funny and encouraging memoir, Giigle--How I Got Lucky Massaging Google
, garnered from journals she wrote while at Google. In the book, Brown offers an insider's look at the Google culture, offers her thoughts on the benefits of massage therapy, and takes you trotting the globe with her on her crazy adventures. Brown's memoir will captivate you, make you laugh, and you'll feel like Brown has been a lifelong friend--one of your favorite, upbeat ones. Lisa Bakewell (www.writerlisabakewell.com) is a full-time freelance writer in the Chicagoland area. Her areas of expertise include profile pieces (which she loves to write), as well as articles in the areas of health and exercise, parenting, practice-building articles, and money-saving tips.