“Career paths do not need to be linear”, With Penny Bauder & Sarah Gulbrandsen

Career paths do not need to be linear. My path took a few turns that eventually brought me to leading a company that I adore. I think that if you stay curious, ask a lot of questions and are willing to try new things, your path can take you down some interesting roads. My career […]

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Career paths do not need to be linear. My path took a few turns that eventually brought me to leading a company that I adore. I think that if you stay curious, ask a lot of questions and are willing to try new things, your path can take you down some interesting roads. My career has had many twists and turns, but the one thing that has stayed consistent is the ability to choose roles that cater to my strengths. When people work from a place of strength and passion, it makes everything that much easier & more rewarding.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Gulbrandsen.

Sarah has spent the last 15 years helping companies tell their story. As RingPartner’s President, she leads day-to-day business operations, develops company strategy and oversees RingPartner’s growth across departments. Sarah has worked in a variety of roles leading marketing communications strategy, including at digital marketing companies, a Fortune 500 retailer, and also a brief stint in television. Her uplifting and outgoing personality not only gets things done, but motivates others to do the same.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My first job out of college was working at a local TV station. I was ecstatic to be there. After a couple of years (after making minimum wage & dealing with station politics), I knew that traditional media was not for me. Then I stumbled upon a job post for a start-up that wanted a publicist. That’s when I met my current business partners and suddenly a whole new world of digital advertising opened up to me. After the start-up was acquired, I spent time working with some amazing teams in San Francisco. After a few years in the Bay Area, I realized that I wanted a change of pace and decided to move to the west coast of Canada. That’s when I started working with RingPartner and held a variety of different roles. Ultimately that’s what led me to my current role as President & leading the daily operations at RingPartner.

Career paths do not need to be linear. My path took a few turns that eventually brought me to leading a company that I adore. I think that if you stay curious, ask a lot of questions and are willing to try new things, your path can take you down some interesting roads. My career has had many twists and turns, but the one thing that has stayed consistent is the ability to choose roles that cater to my strengths. When people work from a place of strength and passion, it makes everything that much easier & more rewarding.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

There are so many stories that have happened since I began leading the RingPartner team. All of these stories revolve around either the people on my team or the clients that we work with. Our business is all about connections, both connecting our clients to untapped consumers and connecting our team members with opportunities to grow both personally & in their own careers.

I would say one of the fondest memories I have is of our company entering our new workspace a few years back. The leadership team stayed all night to get the space ready & personalized. The next morning, we did an official ribbon cutting and one of our team members was actually in tears because he was so excited to be there in our new space. It was worth the sleepless night for sure.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I once hit the dreaded “Reply All” to a large group of people at work. I replied with a very personal answer and didn’t hear the end of it from my team for months afterwards. Lesson learned the hard way. I triple check before I send anything out now.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

RingPartner is nimble and great at making shifts. The RingPartner team is a group of incredibly talented individuals that all come with their own strengths, but everyone is great at making things happen in an efficient way. One of our core values is “drive it forward,” because momentum is key to the success of our business.

As an example, we were growing a new part of the business and it heavily depended on a third-party SaaS product. This product was not meeting our needs, so our Development Team said they would build out a custom solution. This happened in about three months and the product is being used today. We are in a much better place to scale our business because of people who are willing to try new things and have the courage to take the next step and make it happen.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

RingPartner has been focusing a lot on the consumer leads side of our business (outside of just phone calls). In the midst of COVID, small and medium size businesses are still looking to connect with new customers (even if their customers are not visiting in person). Our consumer leads allow these businesses to continue to operate and even grow in this tricky economic environment.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

This is a loaded question! I don’t think anyone should ever be satisfied with the status quo. There is always room for improvement and optimization. I think the shifts in STEM leadership are going to start with how we educate our girls and allow them to realize what opportunities are available to them. To continue to normalize women in leadership roles & specifically in STEM.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I think the biggest obstacle continues to be gender bias in the industry, which I have faced in a number of different situations. While traveling with male colleagues, I have had potential clients or others in my industry assume that my male colleague was my manager or even my husband. When they learn what my role is, they are sometimes taken off guard. We all need to work on our bias in general and be careful to vocalize assumptions without doing some research first.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

I think one of the biggest myths about STEM is that you have to be a scientist or a developer to be involved in STEM. Tech & STEM have businesses just like any other industry and there are a variety of roles that work together in order to make these companies successful. I think that some women (and men) might write off being involved with a STEM company just because they don’t feel technical enough.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Trust your gut. One of many valuable lessons I’ve learned along the way is to make decisions with confidence in my team and my own capabilities. If it feels right, go for it. Leaders are tasked with the responsibility of making choices that affect many, and ultimately mistakes will be made so it’s important to keep your head out of the weeds and eyes on the big picture.
  2. Don’t be afraid to be human. I would encourage a certain amount of transparency when leading your team. Yes, there are times when you will need to suck it up & put on a good face, but it’s important to also come across as human and share what information you are able to. Most people are not looking for a stoic leader that keeps their cards close, but rather a real person that can help them achieve their own goals.
  3. Don’t be intimidated by others accomplishments. There have been times when I experienced imposter syndrome & was intimidated by the presence of accomplished CEOs and executives. I realized that we are all continually learning and everyone doubts their own ability at some point or another (even seasoned executives).
  4. It’s better to directly communicate about challenges rather than not address them. I naturally want to be everyone’s best friend but in a leadership role you are sometimes required to make decisions that not everyone agrees with. It can be hard to hear criticism and realize that you might not be someone’s favorite person. In the end if you feel like you have been working from a place of the best intentions and made the right decisions, it’s ok if there are people who disagree or just don’t like you.

It’s better to share difficult feedback or challenges right away rather than pretend that the issues don’t exist. Tackle the challenge head-on and start problem solving to make things better.

5. The challenges make the good times that much sweeter. Rather than bail when things get tough, it’s worth pushing through and making things better. This applies to all things in life & business. Those tough times put the good times into perspective and make them that much more enjoyable.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Act as a resource rather than a manager. In the tech industry, we often test new ideas and build solutions and part of the process at times includes failure. It’s important to build a work culture that encourages trying new things and being ok with failing forward. I see my leadership style as a kick-start for ideas and getting things going, and then I move into a role where someone else can take the lead and I can support their project as a resource rather than a key point person. This provides opportunities for other people to grow and challenge themselves, and gives me the space I need to oversee the company. I encourage leaders in my company to do the same: enable innovation, facilitate forward movement, and support the initiatives in the role of a resource rather than a project owner.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Don’t be afraid to let go of the reins and let your team members do what they do best. You don’t need to be an expert in every area of your business. Build a team of the subject matter experts, and trust them with their projects rather than getting bogged down in the details. The executive’s role is to set the vision and clear the way so that others can do their best work.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Todd Dunlop, my current business partner, is a serial entrepreneur & investor. He has been a big part of my career trajectory. Todd provided opportunities early in my career at his first start-up and has been a huge support to this day. He likes to tell people that he stole me from the government. I had just accepted a government admin role when I first met him & he sold me on all the reasons why I should join a start-up instead. My life would look significantly different if Todd wasn’t willing to take a chance on me.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I offer my time and resources to people & causes that I feel are important. I mentor women looking to accelerate in their work life and act as a resource for W Venture, a program designed to support female entrepreneurs. As a company, RingPartner also works closely with a number of different nonprofit organizations within our immediate community such as our local food bank & different recovery & assistance programs.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I live in Canada, but I’m an American. I had the privilege of experiencing parental leave in both countries. The difference was staggering, and not in a good way. The expectations placed on new mothers in the US is atrocious and does not allow for enough time for healed bodies & bonded babies. The parental leave legislation needs a huge overhaul. I would inspire a movement that looks to other nations where they have figured out that balance of extended parental leave and still empowering women to move forward in their careers (without sacrificing precious time with their babies).

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You get in life what you have the courage to ask for,” Oprah Winfrey. You have to start somewhere and give whatever it is you want a shot. Ask yourself what that worse case scenario could be and based off of that take action. Be brave enough to ask for what you want.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to meet Sheryl Sandberg. I have followed her and her work for a number of years. I was at a tipping point after reading her book, Lean In. The concepts she outlined rang true for me and gave me the push I needed to pave the way for both myself and other female leaders. Her leadership at Facebook & strength in the face of personal adversity are inspiring.

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