If there’s one thing you need to know about Dr. Sarah Petschonek it’s that she would make an excellent reporter. I went to four years of journalism school (MIZ!) to learn the ability to interview and actively listen that she naturally possesses. When you’re chatting with Sarah, she has this ability to make you feel like the most interesting person in the room in a way that is ordinarily reserved for the likes of Beyonce. Yep, Sarah makes you feel like Beyonce. Pretty awesome, right? What’s even better than her ability to get you to tell your story, is hearing hers.
The founder and CEO of Volunteer Odyssey has an impressive list of accolades, including being named to the Memphis Flyer 20 Under 30, the 50 Under 40 Social Entrepreneurs in the US by American Express and most recently Sarah earned the 2018 Memphis Business Journal Super Women in Business Award.
I sat down with Sarah at her home in downtown Memphis to learn how she did what all of us at some point have wanted to do - quit her job with no game plan and then started something she was passionate about. It was bold, risky, scary, and completely worth it.
Okay, your path to get where you are has been a little bit unconventional. You graduated from college with a ton of degrees (Seriously - Sarah has her bachelors, masters and doctorate!) moved to Nashville and started this job. And then you quit. So tell me about that.
One day in Nashville, at work I was standing at a window overlooking the courtyard and there were these guys working outside. It was one of those days where you sweat as soon as you walk outside. I'm watching them working and thinking about my job and my paycheck. I suddenly wished that I was out there with them instead.
That was the moment that I realized that I hated my job.
How did you get from, "I need to leave, I'm not happy in Nashville doing this job," to, "I'm going to be a CEO of Volunteer Odyssey?"
When I was thinking about quitting, a very smart person said, "Why don't you see this as an opportunity? For the last 10 years you've been in school, you've been working, you had a dissertation, you've had a job. This is really a clean slate. Why don't you take 30 days and work on anything that you want to, whatever that is?"
So I started thinking about that, and if I had 30 days to spend on something, what would that be?
Volunteering is something that we'd always done since I was really young. I decided to do– 30 days in a row of volunteering at 30 different non-profits and write about it every day. (Check out Confessions of a Volunteer and the beginning of Sarah’s journey, here)
That was really what sort of sent me down the path of thinking about, "How do I get everybody else to be interested in volunteering? Because if everybody cares, then we can really make a difference.” That was the beginning.
So how did it become a business?
I wish I could say it was a straight line, but it wasn't. I finished the blog project and then I had an opportunity to drive cross-country and experience how other cities match people to volunteering. Comparing how we volunteer in Memphis to other cities really showed me what we were doing well and where we could improve.
I specifically wanted to focus on people who were unemployed. Both of my parents were unemployed during the 2008 crash. They continued to give back and volunteer through that as a way to help other people and keep their priorities in perspective. I wanted to create a program for people who are job seeking to get involved in volunteering. The challenge with that is that I did not want to start a business.
Why were you opposed to starting a business?
The idea of starting and running a business was such a foreign one. We don't really have many entrepreneurs in my family. Now I spend a lot of time around the entrepreneurship community in Memphis, but that I also means I understand all the pain points, understood how hard it is, and how expensive it is.
I was still thinking I was going to get a job somewhere. That was still the plan.
I had so many doubts and worries. While I was first working on Volunteer Odyssey, I was thinking, “Should I be doing this? Should I be searching for a job instead? Is this even going to work?” It’s important for people to hear that because a lot of times we get the cliff notes version. The sugar-coated, “and voila, I had a business!”
Right, yeah that’s something we’ve talked about before.
One of my favorite examples is this picture of a guy on a lion. The lion looks ferocious, clawing, and roaring. Everyone who sees the picture is thinking, “Wow! Look at that guy who is riding a lion! He’s so brave." Meanwhile, the guy on the lion is thinking, "Holy crap, how did I get on this lion and how do I stop it from eating me?"
My point is, from the outside I think you get a lot of, "Oh, this is so great. It's really exciting." But on the inside you’re thinking—
You’re thinking, “I’m on a lion.”
Yeah, you're on a lion! And I don’t know if you ever feel like you tame the lion. Sometimes you can have your best moment and your worst moment back to back in the same hour.
I'm really glad you said that. People in successful positions often gloss over the facts.
I think if people ever do talk about the challenges, it's more they pick one sort of specific character defining moment. The hero overcomes and that's like the one big bump, and then it's onward and upward from there. It's really more of peaks and troughs, and peaks and troughs. You're sort of gradually making an ascent.
When you left that job what did that teach you about yourself? I definitely felt like I failed.I felt like I would be losing my identity if I quit that job, because I was the PhD student who took the high paying job. Eventually I realized I wasn't losing my identity—I was just losing a label. I was still me. This was an opportunity for me to be more me, and work on things that I thought were important.
Before I started recording, we were talking about how you guys had just gone to the beach. (P.S. - Sarah's sitting here with a broken foot, so I'll let her tell that story later) I had asked if you had gotten time to relax.
You're going to use this against me.
Essentially we determined that you’re a workaholic.
Yeah. I'm Sarah, and I'm a workaholic.
So how do you flip that switch and let yourself mentally recharge?
I mean, I can't really. I think that's part of the problem. Well, I guess problem/reason for success. If you think about something all of the time, then you are always open to inspiration or something that will spark a creative idea. So as an example, we launched this virtual reality volunteer experience, and I got that idea from reading an article about somebody who used that kind of experience to show what it's like to be in a dog kennel to try and get more dogs adopted. If I hadn't always been thinking with my Volunteer Odyssey lens, I would have never made that connection. The only way I don’t think about work, is when I do things like rock climbing or a pottery class or something where my brain is fully engaged in something else.
So essentially you can only switch off from work when you’re switched on to something else. How do you stay balanced in your life?
I did that exercise a couple years ago, where you fill in the wheel of all the parts of your life and everything was sort of terrible except for work. I realized I wasn't being intentional about spending time with the people who I really wanted to see. I would run into a friend or see something on social media and think, “I consider this person to be one of my closest friends and I have not talked to this person in months.”
One of the things that I struggle with and will always struggle with is, I'm very goal-oriented and very task-oriented, especially at work or something that I set my mind to. And then everything else kind of falls to the wayside.
Obviously you can't be great at everything all of the time. There are always going to be things that get less of your time, because it's finite but at least seeing it and measuring it made me really face the idea that there are things that weren't getting my attention that were important to me.
So is that what you did to try to compensate for that?
It wasn't a perfect switch flip. I think it's just trying to do small things gradually. One thing I started doing was, I stopped using social media. And then, whenever I felt tempted to check social media, because I was feeling disconnected from people, I would just instead text a friend. Or call someone. Or send someone a note. And so I replaced that sort of fake interaction with real interaction. And that was how I was able to start spending more time with friends, and doing other things. And that really helped a lot.
Your boyfriend, Eric, also has a career that he's passionate about. How does that work in your relationship? I
I think that we enable each other. And that's not always good, because, if you're in a relationship with somebody who is good at taking vacation, when you pull out your phone to check email on vacation, that person is saying, “Why are you doing that? We're on vacation!” Whereas if I pull out my phone to check email on vacation, then Eric pulls out his laptop to send a couple emails, and before you know it, it's been two hours and we haven't done any vacationing.
It’s a double-edged sword. We are also more successful in our careers because of each other, but, when it’s time to slow down and focus on other things, there’s nobody to put the brakes on. So, you know, pros and cons. But it does help, whether your good at vacationing or not, to be in a relationship with somebody who understands what's important to you, and is supportive of that.
What advice would you give to somebody who's thinking, oh I want to start a business?
Usually the first question I ask is, “Do you want me to talk you into it or out of it?” I think it depends on what people want to do, and I tend to just ask lots of questions at first. Things like, “Why do you want to start this? What's the purpose? What would you need to do it? How do you know if it's working?”
People can accomplish what they want without having to start a new company, but sometimes it is what they need to do. The main thing I try and show people is, yes you can be successful but there's also a lot of pain and difficult things that come with being successful.
I just try and be really transparent about the things that I've struggled with so that people aren't surprised when they get there.
So what's something you're struggling with now?
I think I really see my role now as giving my team the best possible work environment so they can go and be excellent, right? But I don't really have anybody doing that for me on a day to day basis. I pour everything I have into them. They’re wonderful and as supportive as they can be, but ultimately it is not their job to support my work environment. Sometimes I really miss having some kind of boss or supervisor or somebody who's ultimately in charge.
On that same note, who would be someone that you admire?
Sally Heinz, who's the executive director of MIFA has been an incredible resource over the last couple years, and always has something very matter-of-fact and level-headed to say. Another person is Jenny Koltnow, who works at Church Health. . She has this sharp perspective on how all the pieces intersect and has given me incredible, valuable advice over the last couple of years.
So, what's next for you?
For me it's about building Volunteer Odyssey into the best it can be by doubling down on what we’re already doing; getting better at the things we already do. One of the things that my team and I always talk about is continuous improvement. We talk about it all that time. It's written all over the office. And so I think there's a lot we can do to just keep getting better, being excellent at what we're doing.
So, I want to kind of end with something that related back to, obviously, gifts, because I can't not talk about them. To me, gift giving is much more than an obligation or even a physical item – it’s a way to show someone that you care. Can you tell me about the best gift you ever received? That's what I gift is, to me. So along those lines, can you tell me what would be the best gift that you feel like you've received?
One of the first things that comes to mind is, I have all these plants sitting on the balcony. Varying levels of success, obviously, as you can see. But my mom always gardened, when we were growing up and the idea that you can grow something from basically nothing, and use it to feed people that you love really resonates with me. One of the best gifts that I have gotten is her teaching me not only how to garden, but showing me how much you can love it.
Where can people find you? You're not on social media. But ...
The best way is for people to come volunteer with us. You can go to volunteerodyssey.com, Facebook or Instagram to see what opportunities there are or just to connect. People are always welcome to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can talk about volunteering, gardening, or starting or not starting a business, you know—whatever you want!
This interview is part of the Gift Exchange - a community for successful women to connect and exchange ideas, failures, and advice about advancing their careers, improving themselves and achieving balance in their personal and professional lives. It gives women a chance to learn valuable ways to reclaim and restructure their most precious commodity – time. Join the Facebook Group here.