How Athena Blackburn Is Living A Luxury Lifestyle With Purpose

Timothy Blackburn and Athena Blackburn at Festival Napa Valley's 2018 opening night
Timothy Blackburn and Athena Blackburn at Festival Napa Valley’s 2018 opening night

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

Athena Blackburn is one of the most influential philanthropists In the San Francisco Bay Area. A Greek native, Blackburn grew up in Lebanon where she was taught five languages: Greek, English, French, Arabic, and Italian. She studied at the American University in Beirut and earned a degree in business administration. On a whim, Blackburn decided to visit America in 1969. She stayed for five years, but when she returned to Lebanon in 1974, she realized that the country no longer felt like home. She returned to the United States and became a citizen in 1977.

In 1980, Blackburn and her then-husband, Doug Troxel, founded Serena Software. She served as the chief financial officer and co-owner. Serena became a software giant and allowed Blackburn the financial capability to generously give back for the past 30 years.

Blackburn is an active member of both the Napa and San Francisco philanthropic communities. For the past 34 years, she has devoted countless time and funds to various organizations including the Junior League, the Hillsborough Concours d’ Elegance, The Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, the San Francisco Symphony, Project Open Hand, the San Francisco Ballet, UNICEF, California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC), Grace Cathedral, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, the Fine Arts Museums, the Metropolitan Museum and Lincoln Center in New York, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Russian National Orchestra.

She was on the board of governors of the Commonwealth Club of California for ten years where she served with distinction. From honoring those who acquired the San Francisco Giants to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Charter, she chaired countless events at the Commonwealth Club. She was the chairperson for the 100th year gala of the club.

Athena Blackburn wth her Susan G. Komen Visionary Award
Athena Blackburn wth her Susan G. Komen Visionary Award

Photo Credit: Ando Caulfield for Drew Altizer Photography

In 1991, Blackburn was asked to chair the opening-night gala for the San Francisco Ballet—which she turned into the must-attend event of the season. Because of this success, she was entrusted with the 1993 party celebrating the 60th anniversary of the ballet. That same year, Blackburn beat out over 700 nominees to be named one of the 20 top volunteers in the Bay Area. In 1996, Blackburn went to Paris as part of the delegation to establish a sister city agreement between San Francisco and Paris. The mayor of Paris renewed the deal in 2012 at an event held at San Francisco’s City Hall. Blackburn also was on the board of directors of the San Francisco Opera for seven years and is currently on the board of governors of the San Francisco Symphony where she serves on the youth orchestra committee, the education committee, and the acquisitions committee. She’s also on the search committee for a new artistic director/conductor for the orchestra. Blackburn often gives intimate dinners at her home—Sherwood Estate, a magnificent setting in Napa Valley—for guest artists and conductors.

Despite these achievements and accolades, life was not all wine and roses for Blackburn. In 1999, two years after her divorce from Troxel, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. This double blow made her stronger, and after the successful treatment for her cancer, she helped fund the Athena T. Blackburn Radiation Therapy Suite at CPMC.  Shortly after that, she helped support new state-of-the-art MRI and biopsy equipment. She also funded more than 800 mammograms for women who could not afford them or whose insurance would not cover them. Blackburn continues to donate generously towards women’s health issues. During this difficult period, she reconnected with Timothy Blackburn, whom she met several years earlier, and they have been in a happy, loving relationship ever since.

I sat with Blackburn in her favorite room, the sunroom that overlooks a gorgeous garden at Sherwood Estate, to learn about her amazing life and philanthropic endeavors.

The Blackburhs at a tribute to Sophia Loren at Far Niente
The Blackburns at a tribute to Sophia Loren at Far Niente

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

Tell me about your childhood as a young Greek girl in an Arab country. 

During the time I was growing up in Lebanon, it was considered the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ and had a French culture. My schooling was in French up to my last two years when I moved to a British school to prepare myself for the American University.

Your father died at age 52 when you were only 22. How did this loss affect you?

My father was wholly devoted to his family, and as his favorite, instead of indulging me, he expected me to be the best that I could be. This carried into my later life and accounted for my success in each of my endeavors. His death was a massive blow to me because it was so sudden and because he was never sick.

Why did you leave Serena Software?

I left Serena Software in 1997 when I divorced Doug Troxel. As you can imagine, it would have been very uncomfortable for me to have stayed.

In 1996, Blackburn was a part of the delegation to establish the San Francisco-Paris sister city agreement. Here she is with then Mayor Willie Brown at Paris’ City Hall.
In 1996, Blackburn was a part of the delegation to establish the San Francisco-Paris sister city agreement. Here she is with then Mayor Willie Brown at Paris’ City Hall.

Photo Credit: Athena Blackburn

You did your first charity work with the San Francisco Junior League. What made you chose this organization before others?

In 1982 after being a full-time mom and CFO of the company, I was introduced to the Junior League by Cynthia Porter. It was the type of organization that trained you to volunteer, fundraise, and develop skills for serving on various boards. I now consider myself a graduate of the SF Junior League. In 2014, I was honored with the “Women at the Center” award and received a proclamation from the mayor of San Francisco.

You funded the Athena T. Blackburn Radiation Therapy Suite at CPMC and the new state-of-the-art MRI and Biopsy equipment. This must have been an enormous task at the time of your illness. How did you do it?

This occurred after my treatment and was my way of giving back to the hospital for saving my life. During that time, Timothy gave me the support that someone needs while going through cancer treatment. He, along with my other friends, helped me when it was most important.

The Blackburns on their wedding day
The Blackburns on their wedding day

Photo Credit: Athena Blackburn

How did you and Timothy meet and what made the relationship blossom into a long happy marriage?

I met Timothy several times over the span of three years at various professional events. My then husband and I had hired him to help turn around our company which was experiencing some challenging issues. In 1999 out of the blue, he called to inquire how I was doing and how the company was doing now that it had gone public. I broke the news to him that I had breast cancer and he asked if, after returning from a business trip he could check in on me.  He helped take care of me during a tough time in my life. During that time, we discovered that we had much in common and the rest is history.

You were honored by the Susan G. Komen Foundation as a visionary philanthropist earlier this year for your contribution to breast cancer treatment. What is your advice for breast cancer patients?

Breast cancer is indiscriminate. Early detection is paramount. Make sure you self-examine and get yearly mammograms. Most breast cancers are treatable if caught early. Also, having a support system around you can make all the difference in the world.

In 2016, you established an endowment for the American Gastroenterologists Association (AGA) for research on the causes and possible treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Why chose to support IBS?

In 2006, my sister, mother, and mother-in-law all passed away after long illnesses. During that time, I developed IBS, a gastroenterological disease. Given that the medical community doesn’t know how it starts or how to treat it, I decided to help fund research with the hope of helping others with my condition.

Audrey Hepburn and Blackburn
Audrey Hepburn and Blackburn

Photo Credit: Athena Blackburn

Tell me how you became one of the founding members of Festival Napa Valley in 2006 and what your involvement over the last 13 years has been.  

I had met Rick Walker when I first became a patron of the Russian National Orchestra in 1995. When he approached me with the idea of creating a festival in the Napa Valley, I wholeheartedly jumped at the opportunity for people to come to Napa for a cultural event in addition to enjoying wine. Since then I have been on the board and in 2017 chaired the auction committee.

You and Timothy funded the Blackburn Academy of Music at Festival Napa Valley in 2017. What inspired you? Do you and Timothy play musical instruments?

We are very dedicated to the arts and go to the Symphony, Opera, and Ballet. When the Festival academy was started, we thought it was a perfect opportunity to help develop the next generation of musicians. Timothy plays the guitar, and I have taken years of piano lessons.

Who was your mentor or role model?

My role model has always been Audrey Hepburn. I admire her grace and style. I thought the world of her. She was an ambassador for UNICEF and wanted to help the most impoverished children in the world. In 1991, I had the great honor of spending three days with her while I chaired a fundraiser for UNICEF as a tribute to her. I discovered during that visit that she was one of the most genuine and down to earth people I have ever met.

What are your philanthropic plans for the future?

My plans include continuing the contributions I have been making for as long as I can, but to also enjoy traveling with my husband and watching my grandson grow.