Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?
Sarah: People are usually surprised to learn that my graduate education was actually not in business. I have a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies and studied Arabic along with French and Spanish. I have an immense love of history, which is what I got my undergraduate degree in. I had always thought I would go on to academia and actually started out as a teacher very early on in my career.
Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Sarah: For much of my career, I worked for really large companies, as well as a number of VC-backed startups. While I loved what I did, and held those I worked with in high esteem, I always felt something was missing. I had a strong foundation in service throughout my primary and secondary education. Whether it was mentoring, teaching in local schools, volunteering in soup kitchens, the notion of giving back was fully integrated into my education. So there was always a bit of a nagging feeling that what I was missing in my career was impact – feeling that at the end of the day, my work was somehow contributing to a better world. When I met Lauren, who I had always admired, and had a chance to spend some time with the FEED team, it became very clear that I had found my calling.
It took a lot of time and soul searching to get to where I am today. I created a path for myself that allowed me to have a breadth of functional experience in diverse settings and types of organizations. About 5 years ago, I left a highly funded ‘startup’ to go at it from the ground up at a new venture. It was a risky decision, particularly financially, but making that move paved the way for a wealth of experience in entrepreneurship. And while we weren’t able to realize the full market potential of that business, the lessons learned and experience gained were invaluable. My experience being an entrepreneur has made me value scrappiness and quick action immensely, both of which are incredibly important to building businesses.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Sarah: The best leaders build trust, promote agency, and are quick to act. Earning trust is key to having tough conversations and getting folks on board with new strategies or plans. Your team will trust you if you’ve proven that you listen and value feedback and that you follow through with what you say you’re going to do. I think the most effective leaders are also those that step back and let their team members lead themselves and others to successful completion of projects (but help problem solve and prioritize along the way). Letting go can be hard but allowing your team to make mistakes is what will ultimately create a sense of autonomy and ownership that makes good teams great. Lastly, the best leaders are decisive. Hemming and hawing over decisions does not inspire confidence and I don’t think anyone gets anywhere by wasting time.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Sarah: Take risks. Validate with data, but lead with your gut. Build a trusted network that can help along the way.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Sarah: Do what you love. My go-to interview question has always been what do you think you’re good at and what do you love? And it’s important they’re answered together, because how similar they are is usually a good indication of how successful someone will be.
Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?
Sarah: Mentoring. I am grateful for the mentors I’ve had throughout my education and career. The best bosses are those that take an active interest in not only your career path but in you as a person and carry that relationship beyond even working together.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?
Sarah: I am a passionate cook. I love the beauty of food and thinking about how ingredients work together. For me, the process of creating a meal is calming and a way to unwind. It requires focus but is almost like an artistic release. I used to do a lot of visual arts in high school and college and cooking has somewhat replaced my love of drawing & painting. In addition to the artistic process, I love that food brings people together. Some of my most meaningful memories are from around the table. Both of my parents are physicians who work incredibly hard, long days. Yet, growing up we always had a home-cooked dinner together as a family. Now that I have a son, I hope to create those types of memories for him as well.
I also love to read, particularly fiction. These days most of the books I read have titles like “Goodnight Moon” and “Moo Baa La La La,” but when I do get a chance to read something for myself, I’m particularly fond of historical fiction, as well as mysteries. My love of books was something that I built the greatest friendships on throughout high school and college.
Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Sarah: Since we’re talking tips, I’ve learned some valuable lessons now that I’m a new mom. I think when you love what you do for work, you’re never really able to fully step away. But I value my time with my son more than anything. So when I get home at the end of every day, I do my very best to put the phone away and soak up each minute with him before putting him to bed. While carving out me time might have been important before, dedicating time for us is critical. It keeps me grateful and also more energized. In addition, in order to get home to have that time with him, I’ve had to cut my office hours back a little. There’s been somewhat of a learning curve for me and even my team, but now I feel even more strongly about working smarter over working longer.