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Charting Your Own Course and Uplifting Others: An Interview with Sara Schaer

by Katie Mansfield '20

Sara Schaer

Recent employee accounts from major tech companies have indicated that, in the tech world, much work still needs to be done to improve the climate for minorities.  Women, for instance, still hold a smaller percentage of tech jobs in many companies, and even fewer leadership positions.

Cognizant of this dilemma, many women involved in the tech industry are actively working to shape its landscape by nurturing each other and inspiring younger generations.  Recently, I got to sit down with Sara Schaer from Stanford’s Class of 1992.  Graduating with a B.A. in Political Science, Sara recently launched Kango, a rideshare app for kids.  She also mentors girls through Technovation, a program that gives middle and high school girls more exposure to careers in STEM. Sara’s work with Kango reflects a culture shift in tech attempting  to make life easier for women in the workforce. Her career journey shows that you don’t need to have a computer science degree to be a startup founder. Above all, what matters most is a commitment to solving problems thoughtfully.

Q: While you were at Stanford, what paths were you initially considering whenever you were thinking about your future?

A: I arrived at Stanford coming out of the French education system.  Slowly, I discovered the American school system and the very wide world of “you can study with anyone, the best of the best.”  So I was very overwhelmed. It took me over two years to decide what I wanted to major in. I took all sorts of courses to narrow it down; computer science, math, biology, economics, literature…

Eventually I realized that what I liked to spend most of my time on, coming from such a mixed cultural background, was international relations.  I ended up majoring in political science, which had quite a bit of flexibility in terms of how I could structure courses, and decided that perhaps I’d pursue a career in international law.

Q: How did you end up getting involved in the tech world?  You had this interest in international law, so what guided the pivot to tech?

A: At the end of my undergraduate time at Stanford, it started to crystallize to me that I really liked to solve problems, and to think about problems, whether macro-level or analytical.  That was what got me excited—finding solutions for things.

I ended up deciding to apply to business school in France and moved directly to France within a few weeks of graduating from Stanford.  When I graduated I was hired at what was then Andersen Consulting, now Accenture.

Sara spent the next few years in consulting, dealing with clients ranging from consumer insurance companies to large banks with offices in Paris, Luxembourg, London.  Eventually she moved to San Francisco, where she became a product manager at Snapfish.

“We were acquired in 2005 by Hewlett-Packard, which was a big change, but I stayed on after the acquisition,” said Sara.  “It blended the best of both worlds—I was in the preserved business unit of Snapfish, but we had the resources and charter to expand into 22 different countries at the time.  That was exciting to me, scaling a product that was in the sweet spot of photography and evolving global markets

That’s how I got from liberal arts; narrowing it down, going abroad, becoming a solutions designer as a consultant, relocating to the Bay Area to work on new technology, and being acquired by a larger company…”

Q: During this journey, what were some of the challenges you faced in your career?  How have you coped with them?

A: In the banking industry in the 1990s as a consultant, it was not uncommon for me to be the only non-administrative woman in the room.  So I realized that was a new situation not just for me but for the executives around the table. It actually turned out to be a very positive experience for me in that I realized, you have so much visibility if you stand out on your team.  That puts the spotlight on you so that if you do an outstanding job, you’re going to be noticed and given credit for that.

After I became a parent, I had the same type of turning point and self-examination that I’d had to undergo as an undergrad, thinking of what I wanted to do next.  I thought, “Okay, what do I want to do? What’s best for me, both professionally and personally right now?”

Just like I experimented taking different types of classes at Stanford, I experimented with different types of schedules before founding my own company.  I tested being at home for a few months with the baby… I tested being on a flexible schedule where I had one day working at home. I always ended up 5 days in the office, no matter what the different permutation.  That amount allowed me to be more confident and serene in the idea that what I was doing was right for me.

What Sara was doing was founding her own company, Kango.

“[At Snapfish] I was not only managing for the Americas, but the Asia-Pacific product team. So I was working in all these different time zones.  Meanwhile, I had my kids to drive to preschool, and it can be difficult to figure out how to get these little ones where they needed to go when I was in the office managing the team,” detailed Sara.

“Long story short, my technical counterpart at Snapfish, who is my cofounder today, joined me. We put our heads together and came up with what is today Kango, a mobile-based solution here in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.”

Q: You’re also currently a mentor for middle and high school girls looking to pursue careers in STEM.  Could you talk a bit more about some of the mentors who have been most important to you?

A: As a young girl, I was conscious that my mom had gone far in math in high school.  So very early on, I thought, ‘if she can do it, I could do it.’ Secondly, in the intense consulting environment at Accenture, there were a few women managers, top managers, whose performances were just really outstanding.  They were charismatic, motivated… They stood up for themselves, outperformed everybody, and that was really inspiring to me.

Q: How has that informed your approach to mentorship through Technovation?

A: Technovation is a program that has girls pick a problem they want to solve and build an app to solve it.  They go through a mini curriculum to learn what it is to be an entrepreneur: develop a business plan, product design, pitch… It was an incredible eye-opener for me to see that these kids were so entrepreneurial and had such refreshingly different ideas that they were passionate about solving because they were young girls from this new generation.

One of the teams—9th graders at the time—ended up being semifinalists for the whole U.S. It’s a huge confidence booster to them. I saw them getting up and pitching in front of a public audience, having to defend their idea, having to structure a project and get their feet wet in coding.

I think that really opens up people’s eyes, and young girls’ eyes, that they are able to create something from scratch.  It’s no more difficult for them than anyone else.

Q: Since you were involved in consulting and tech, which are both very fast-paced environments, what are some of the ways you deal with stress or burnout?

A: Certainly in startup environments, you always hear people say it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.  I view it more as a series of sprints, like interval training. At the core of it, you really have to be inspired by your mission and your vision, the problem you’re trying to solve and the difference you’re trying to create.

Number one, you have to be really passionate about what you’re striving to obtain.  Number two is you have to manage your rhythm. Each person has a different one; interval training is not so much you stop working in between but more about how you manage your workload. You have to be mindful of juggling it.

Last but not least, especially as a startup founder—have a co-founder or co-founders that you’re really tied at the hip with and whose skills are complementary to your own, who will support you. You can help each other with your respective rhythms.  If someone has a down day or a dip in energy, you can leverage each other that way.

Q: What’s been one of the most helpful pieces of advice you’ve received?  What’s a piece of advice you’d want to pass on?

As a high school student, I had college applications and SATs happening at the same time.  The French school system also had exit exams, so I was completely exhausted, both physically and mentally.  To this day, I still remember my dad telling me, “you’ll get through this.” And I thought, “How can he possibly know that I’m going to get through this?” But I did.  I think that’s something to keep in mind—that no matter how tough or scary or unknown the situation may seem, you are strong enough to succeed and you’ll get through it.

As for what I’d want to pass on; Believe in yourself. Determine what it is that you want to do, even if that involves experimenting and trial and error along the way.  Don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t good enough. There will be naysayers, sometimes many of them; people are resistant to change, and there are responsibilities, stereotypes, things like that—but really, it’s okay to chart your own path and believe in yourself and set your mind to it.  That’s the mantra that I have in mind every day.