OwlSpark | Rice University Startup Accelerator | PeopleWise: Sarah Groen
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PeopleWise: Sarah Groen

“Always be hustling,” the corporate motto at Uber, also seems to apply fittingly to Sarah Groen personally. The General Manager of UberEverything in Houston, Texas, is helping to bring the logistic services of the future to your doorstep. In just one year, Sarah and her team have constructed a complete product and service that brings food right to your doorstep. Remember last Friday night when you were feeling lazy and ordered Halal Guys via UberEats? That was Sarah.

Growing up, Sarah always knew she would go into business. At the age of 4, Sarah proclaimed that she wanted to own HEB after seeing that it’s where “all the money goes”. By the age of 12, she had set her sights higher, planning to become the CEO of Coca-Cola. On a trip to New York, she visited the headquarters and demanded to be let up the elevator to the top floor arguing that she was going to be CEO one day. The security guard didn’t buy it.

Once Sarah finished high school, she earned a degree from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas where she studied finance. However, her most valuable time in college was spent abroad, when she studied in Singapore, and then later in Vienna. During her time abroad, the most important thing she learned was not found in her schoolwork, but rather what she learned about other people.

There are massively different perspectives around the world in terms of how people think about life, business and everything else. Knowing that gave me the perspective to understand that it’s not just around the world, it’s even within small teams we have. Everyone processes and learns information differently.

Upon graduation, Sarah entered the world of investment banking before moving into a private equity job, and then a consulting gig after that. Working in all three industries, she picked up very different, but important lessons. From investment banking, she learned discipline; from private equity, she gained a deeper understanding of finance; and from consulting, she learned to think through problems strategically. All three have been invaluable experiences and have made Sarah effective in her roles working with startups.

In an uncertain environment like startups, there could be 100 problems at any given time, and if you can’t take those problems and put them into a structure where you can solve them in a purposeful way, you’re not going to achieve what you would otherwise.

Before diving into the world of startups, Sarah participated in the MBA program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business which was transformational, both professionally and personally. “I promise I’m not paid by the university, but I cannot say enough good things about my time there.” The biggest takeaway was the incredible support network she gained.

If I had told everyone at Stanford I wanted to be a clown they would have been like ‘Yes, that’s awesome. What can I do to help you be the best clown ever? Let’s make sure that your clown changes the world.’ Nothing is too weird or too stupid for people.

In fact, when she declined full-time offers for consulting positions post-MBA, she was getting high-fived as she walked down the hall of the business school. Once she graduated, she moved back to Houston to see what opportunities were waiting for her—though some questioned the choice, her classmates nonetheless were there to support her decision.

I was moving from Silicon Valley to Houston to do startups and everyone thought I was crazy, but I love Houston and wanted to be here. It’s the fourth largest city in the country, there has to be some startup opportunity.

By a stroke of luck, Sarah was connected with Kirk Coburn, a serial entrepreneur, and Blair Garrou, a venture capitalist. She learned of their plans to create an energy-focused accelerator and offered to help in any way she could. After seeing her operational and networking capabilities, they brought Sarah on full-time as a co-founder of SURGE accelerator. Working with OwlSpark’s own Kerri Smith, Sarah built out a mentor and investor network that helped take SURGE to being ranked a top 10 accelerator in the country and the top energy-focused accelerator in just 2 years. One of the most important things Sarah came to understand while working at the accelerator is just how hard a startup has to work to succeed. She wasn’t fazed in the slightest.

Through a connection made at SURGE, Sarah was offered a job as Vice President at MicroSeismic, leading all strategy and marketing for the oil and gas startup. Even though it was a position that Sarah felt unprepared for, it was nothing she couldn’t handle. In a extremely tough time period for the oil and gas industry, Sarah was able to help turn a low-functioning marketing team into a high functioning marketing engine—while 20 years younger than every other member of executive team, and the only female.

At a certain point, the industry had taken a significant downturn and MicroSeismic was in a position where they were forced to downsize and execute lay-offs. Forced into a position where she would have had to let the majority of her employees go, Sarah took one for the team, literally, and resigned from her position as VP. However, Sarah quickly found work again at a company that she could truly help grow: Uber.

After receiving an offer to direct the Houston branch of UberEverything, Sarah knew she had found the perfect role for her. As a foodie, the role deeply inspired her and required all that she had learned in her past experiences. From operations to marketing, the position allowed her to build something on her own from the ground up. Developing a three-sided platform has been filled with challenges—but of course, it was nothing that Sarah couldn’t handle. Her keys to success are based in strategic prioritization and execution.

We honed in on the most important things and really crushed those things. Prioritization sounds common sense, but really saying what we were going to crush really help set us up for success in Houston. Where are the opportunities? What is the best subset of opportunities? Then prioritizing those and going after them one-by-one.

In 12 months, Sarah and her team have successfully built UberEats in Houston from the ground-up. Even though Sarah has led the charge, she will be the first to tell you she couldn’t have done it alone.

One person, no matter what your experiences are, no matter how great you are, can’t build something meaningful without having an amazing team around you and without cultivating that team.

When we were able to steal Sarah away from her job to speak to the program, she had some pieces of advice for our founders both in their careers and in their personal lives.

The answer is always ‘no’ if you don’t ask. Always be hustling. Ask for what you want, ask for what you need. You are no worse off than you were before if you ask and they say ‘no.’
Set goals. Reach them and repeat them. Whether they are personal or professional. Have some personal things you want to do, have some professional things you want to do, and really let those be your guidance.

Having learned from Sarah this summer, we know without a doubt that she practices what she preaches.