Sara Strope: Serial Entrepreneur, IBM Marketing Executive, and Seasoned Triathlete: Her Journey to Head a Fortune 100 Company
By Tom Adams
While most people are familiar with the IBM brand, few really grasp the extent to which their inventions impact our daily lives. The ubiquitous magnetic stripe on the back of our credit cards, automated test scoring, and the UPC barcodes on the bottom of virtually every consumer product are just some of the innovations that trace their roots back to IBM. Today, with their Watson Data Platform and Artificial Intelligence (AI) efforts, IBM is once again on the forefront of technological revolution. It wasn’t until BU Marketing Club hosted Sara Strope, a Marketing Executive at IBM, that I was able to truly grasp the influence IBM has within the business world and beyond.
Sara’s Road to IBM: It All Starts With Advocacy
While Sara’s current position at IBM is focused on global marketing for the Watson Data Platform and other cloud services, she was quick to inform us that her career didn’t initially start within the business or technology field. She completed her undergraduate career at Washington University in St. Louis majoring in both English and French, where she moved on to obtain her Masters in Social and Economic Development. While her areas of study initially seem disparate from her professional work today, the positions she held prior to IBM actually helped sharpen and diversify her marketing skills.
She began her career in Washington D.C. working in the nonprofit sector. She set up various advocacy programs and participated in lobbying for various social issues. This is where her marketing skills really began to take form. In order to be successful in this field, Sara had to understand the representatives that she’d be speaking with, and come up with a compelling message to effectively persuade these representatives to take action in her favor. That meant bringing in the right constituents from various parts of the country to talk firsthand about these issues and convince the appropriate representatives that it was worthwhile to step in. Even though she never had a “formal” business education, Sara became aware how powerful and applicable marketing skills can be in developing a successful career.
Following this experience, Sara moved into the for-profit arena, entering as just the 34th employee at a company called GetActive as a Senior Account Manager. She translated her experience working in advocacy previously to thrive and grow immensely in her position. Before she knew it, the firm grew from a just few dozen employees to a few hundred and eventually went public after an acquisition from Convio, Inc. From here, she moved to various other Marketing-related positions, like event-planning and managing digital strategy for Ogilvy & Mather, which is a massive advertising, marketing, and public relations agency.
After her successes working in the for-profit space, Sara got bit by an entrepreneurial bug. As many aspiring entrepreneurs do, she packed up and moved from D.C. to the Bay Area, a thriving hub for startups. She took over as Vice President of Events & Client Services at Cleantech Group, while also doing consulting work on the side for a few years. Eventually ready to head her own company, she became Founder & CEO of Share ICE, a mobile-based platform that managed “In Case of Emergency” information in one convenient space while also continuing to do one-off consulting jobs. While her professional experience is extensive, this is just the tip of the iceberg in delving into all the efforts she headed over a span of almost 15 years.
IBM had already begun to take notice of her technological and business expertise, and had asked for her to come onboard as a Marketing Director through Cloudant, a data services organization. While Cloudant was initially outside of IBM, it was eventually acquired underneath the IBM umbrella of products. This was a key strategic move as the IBM became more focused within the cloud/data services arena. Due to Cloudant’s initial separation from the larger IBM corporate entity, Sara described her work within this position as managing “another startup within a large enterprise.” While Sara voiced that it was difficult decision to move from the close knit startup world into the colossal, corporate world of IBM, she made it clear that this career maneuver was definitely the right move in the long run. Her intuition proved to be entirely accurate, as she quickly rose from Marketing Director to her current executive level position as IBM’s Executive Director of Cloud Data Services.
Sara traces her quick transition up to IBM upper management from her willingness to be an “instigator,” meaning that she has never afraid to jump into projects or initiatives that she’s initially unfamiliar or uncertain with. She noted this while referencing an entertaining story about entering in an intensive triathlon on a whim, and somehow still leaving enough energy to cross the finish line “with a smile on her face.”
Sara’s 5 Tips for Undergraduate Students Looking to Start Their Career Within Tech and Beyond
Here’s a few tips Sara highlighted in our Q&A session after her talk.
1. Develop and continually refine your communication skills. Make sure when communicating in-person or virtually to always be respectful of others time. This means being concise when explaining different needs and asks to the appropriate team members. It’s always appreciated and valued, especially for higher-level executives like Sara who may be limited on time.
2. Know what’s important and what’s not. Applicable to most emails and presentations explaining large projects, make sure you highlight your key takeaways/points from your work. Even though it may be an extensive and impressive project, readers will ask for further details if they need it.
3. Grow close relationships outside your direct team. Projects where teams must work cross-functionally is continually growing. Establishing and maintaining relationships with employees outside your direct department/team is important when it comes time to collaborate on a project with others.
4. Know the product. This rings true especially within the technology field, since some of the products/services offered can be rather complex and not initially intuitive. Working within marketing in tech requires an even deeper knowledge and understanding of the services your company provides, so taking the time to fully grasp how they add value is essential.
5. Always “manage up.” This is a term that’s talked about extensively in BU career classes, but it definitely translates directly into the professional world. Being able to understand and communicate effectively with your supervisor will develop a mutually beneficial relationship. (See this article to learn more about “managing up.
Overall, it was an absolute pleasure and privilege to learn about Sara’s trajectory into her role at IBM. Personable and knowledgeable of all things from technology to triathlons, she is making huge strides to fuel IBM’s next big innovation.
Want to learn more about Sara Strope? Check out her article relating her impressive triathlon experience to leading an effective career.
What exactly is the Watson Data Platform and what can it do? IBM explains it here.
If you enjoyed this article, make sure to come out to BU Marketing Club meetings every Tuesday from 5pm-6pm in HAR 408! We have plenty more exciting events planned this semester. Thanks to all that came out this Tuesday!