Inheriting the entrepreneurship gene from her parents, Sara is an internationally acclaimed expert in technology and innovation, who has helped clients including Sanofi, LexisNexis, Texas Instruments and startups Clickable and SecondMarket make key business transformation decisions. Her successes have spanned many businesses, and her voice has been recognized in The Washington Post, WSJ.com, and as a recipient of the Pepsico WIN award. Sara inspires women to follow in her footprints and launch their own giants as a board member on the New York Board of Directors of the Step Up Women’s Network.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: I was fortunate in that my parents passed on the entrepreneurship gene. It wasn’t just a choice; it was the very fiber of my family. I recall my parents asking us to weigh in on decisions as early as grade school. We were encouraged to think critically and voice our opinions on a broad variety of decisions.
This experience was very beneficial, and yet it was hard for me to envision what work would look like as an adult. Fortunately, the Internet came along, and I was able to start my career during an incredible time of invention. I weathered dot com and dot bomb in strategy roles, and in 2003 took the position of Chief Strategy Officer of iCrossing. Again, I was fortunate to jump into the search industry in its early years. In 2005, I left to explore other options, and quickly found I had built a healthy business, which became Luminary Labs in 2009.
Q: What are 3 characteristics that you believe define great leadership?
A: Humility, compassion and a good gut instinct.
Q: If a business is in a healthy state, how do you know when to innovate?
A: Luminary Labs’ principal focus is to help companies grow, transform and evolve. A wise manager will look to innovate when he or she recognizes that tomorrow will not look like today. If you know that your consumer will change, the competition will change, the economy will change or technology will change, it is time to innovate. Innovation is not just cool – it is necessary in times of uncertainty.
Q: If a business has several, viable ways to grow and innovate, how do you pick the best road to take?
A: We have found that true innovation – sustainable innovation – requires embracing the conditions for success within an organization. The right path is the path that employs the firm’s strengths, while allowing it to grow in an organic fashion.
Q: What’s your best advice for an entrepreneur in an early/bootstrapping phase? Or in a growth/need to ‘now scale’ phase?
A: Learn how to make money. Even if your big idea requires more capital than you can generate today, every entrepreneur should know how to make money before raising money. Knowing how to make money is the most underrated entrepreneurial skill.
Q: A great negotiation can be game changing for one’s business or life. Studies have shown that men are much more comfortable negotiating and asking for what they want compared to women. What’s your advice to women who are uncomfortable negotiating?
A: Do whatever you need to do to get over it. I also encourage women and men alike to deliver tough love. I am known to stop interviews and frankly tell candidates that if they don’t know what they are worth, how can I know what they are worth? Even though it is not in the entrepreneur’s best interest, it kills me when a woman accepts an offer without negotiating a thing.
ON Career Transitions
Q: I don’t feel like this topic is talked about enough in business news. Professionals get laid off, fired, resign or change careers all the time–which can obviously be a difficult transition at first. What was the hardest career transition in your life and how did you grow from it?
A: I agree that we don’t talk enough about the valleys of one’s career. The decision to leave my role as Chief Strategy Officer of iCrossing was really tough. The dynamics of venture-backed companies frequently exacerbate such decisions. Leaving a start-up is often perceived as a vote against the team and company that you have helped build. There are equity situations that also cloud judgment. You are told that a piece of paper will make you rich, and so you start to put happiness and wealth on a balance to see which one wins out.
Interestingly, my departure opened far more doors than I would have expected. I was so focused on what I would be leaving that I didn’t fully realize the value I would create outside of the company.
Q: Do you (formally or informally) mentor anyone? If so, who and why is it rewarding?
A: While I don’t formally mentor anyone, I believe in intentional mentoring when the opportunity presents itself. I see this as an obligation. It would be wrong to not embrace a teaching moment that could alter someone’s life. The best part of this approach is that it frequently incites reciprocity.
Q: Is there an example in your life of a time when others were against you or your dream, yet you persevered?
A: All the time! The majority of people don’t want to see you succeed. Or perhaps it is that they themselves can’t envision success. I was told that I shouldn’t go to business school. That I shouldn’t move to another country. That I shouldn’t quit my job. That I shouldn’t marry my husband. That my business was not scalable. That [name any initiative] would be impossible. They were all wrong. It’s not easy to go against popular opinion. I had to remind myself that great things are not done by adhering to popular opinion.
ON Giving Back
Q: What cause(s) have you chosen to support and why does it resonate with you?
A: I have sat on the Step Up Women’s Network NY Board of Directors for a number of years. I love the mission of connecting professional women to the women they need, and to the teen girls that need them. You have to pay it forward.
ON Personal Finance
Q: What are your top 3 personal finance tips for women?
A: 1). Spending money does not make you rich. Saving money does. I was raised to be very resourceful. It is always a shock for me to hear women complain that they are “poor,” and yet they are wearing Manolo Blahniks and spending $100 a night on dinner and drinks. This does not mean that you can’t have fine things. It means that spending decisions should be made carefully based on your situation. I would add that to the extent possible, save money in your 20s. You’ll appreciate it in your 30s and 40s. It is hard to envision yourself buying a home when you are just starting out.
2). Know what your risk tolerance is. This is important for any and all financial decisions, including which jobs you take, what you invest in, and so on.
3). Get educated. There are plenty of new platforms to teach women the ins and outs of investing. Citi’s Women & Company, Learnvest and DailyWorth are all good places to learn more.