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In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
For entrepreneurs, sometimes the hardest thing isn’t recognizing a great idea, but figuring out and getting your hands on the right tools to get it out into the world. Sarah Heck wants to help.
Since last February, Heck has worked for web and mobile payments company Stripe, overseeing external affairs for a platform called Stripe Atlas, which aims to help entrepreneurs all over the world start and scale internet businesses. To date, the company says that thousands of business owners in 126 countries have used Stripe Atlas to grow their companies, and Heck says they are just getting started.
“No matter where you are geographically or demographically, there is a place for you to be an entrepreneur. I think it’s critical that nobody feels like they don’t belong. You don’t have to start from scratch. There are tools out there. We’re building some of them, and we’re also trying to connect people with resources,” Heck tells Entrepreneur. “I don’t mean to say that there is not a tough road out there. But our our goal is to change the paradigm. We want to be the equalizer for entrepreneurs no matter where they are.”
Building bridges and breaking down barriers for business owners has always been a career priority for Heck. Before joining Stripe, Heck worked under President Obama as the Director for Global Engagement on the National Security Council focusing on policy around diplomacy and entrepreneurship at home and abroad. She also worked at U.S. Department of State, where she served as Chief of Staff for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
In addition to her duties at Stripe, she is also is an advisor on international entrepreneurship and youth programs to the Obama Foundation.
Heck shared her insights about making sure that everyone is heard, the value of hard work and not being afraid to share your goals with people who can help you get there.
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Why is your work at Stripe meaningful to you?
We know that talent is everywhere but opportunity and access isn’t. I have seen first hand from my previous job was the impact that entrepreneurs play in communities and countries here in the United States and around the world. I get so excited when I hear their stories and so sad when they hit roadblocks. I feel like the work that we are doing here at Stripe and with Stripe Atlas is bringing down those barriers to entry, creating a well-lit path for entrepreneurs no matter where they are.
I also get to be an evangelist for entrepreneurs, telling the stories of the entrepreneurs that use Atlas. I get to build partnerships with accelerators, incubators and ecosystem players and influencer groups [that are supporting these entrepreneurs]. There’s lots of people out there in the broader world that know the value of entrepreneurship, but they don’t necessarily know how to make it go. So I love helping people outside outside of our world [of tech] realize that there are opportunities to support this kind of work.
[I’m also] making sure that we are [as much] an international company and a tool provider as we possibly can be. We have entrepreneurs from a 126 countries using Atlas. The hypothesis that we have here at Stripe [is] that there there are amazing, talented people everywhere. We want to make sure that they are contributing to their economies and communities and that we can help them take what they’re doing locally and reach a global audience.
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What was a mistake you made and how did you move forward from it?
When I think back to moments where I wish I had of done something differently, it’s always around making sure that everybody in the room is heard. I remember this moment I was briefing President Obama with some colleagues, and we were all going through the issue and the President stopped everybody else and said, ‘I want to hear from Sarah, because she’s the expert in this.’ I realized, ‘I am the one that has the expertise, and I didn’t speak up? This is my moment to speak up.’ But, on the flip side of that, I think being a leader, especially in fast-paced environments, you can often just get in a rut of going too fast, and I want to always make sure that I’m hearing from everybody on my team. People are here for a reason: They’re smart and capable. I think making sure that I’m always including people’s viewpoints and perspectives and expertise [is so important], because that will make what we all do as a team better and more effective.
When was time in your career when you advocated for yourself?
When I was at the State Department I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. The thing that I really wanted was to go work in the National Security Council. It was my dream. I had a new boss who came in and said, “I’d like you to stay and continue working for me.” It was sort of a political transition. I said, “I would really liked to.” And she said, “Well, what do you want?” And I said, “To be honest, what I really want is to go work for the National Security Council, and I think I have something to contribute.” And that was a person who heard what I wanted, because I had verbalized it.
A year and a half later, she gave me that opportunity to go interview for that job. I think sometimes, for women, they feel a little strange speaking up and advocating for themselves. But being very clear about what your goals are, and then being able to take feedback in order to reach that place [will serve you well]. It was actually such a relief to be candid and frank with somebody. Then, she knew exactly what I wanted, and I knew exactly what she wanted. I did really good work for her to prove that I was capable of going to the next level, and as a result, she supported me in doing that.
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What was a piece of advice that a mentor gave you that you still use today?
When you work really hard for somebody, they will support you. That translates really perfectly to what I see everyday at Stripe and the entrepreneurs we support. The entrepreneurs that work super hard [for their teams] end up succeeding the most, because people want to help them. There’s sort of a sense of loyalty. The other thing is relationships. I would not have had the opportunities [I have had] if it wasn’t for my building good relationships with my bosses and mentors and with [the people around me].
I think that I was well known in government as a somebody that wanted to get things done and build relationships across teams and offices to get to the goal line. That’s also something that for entrepreneurs is critically important. We often, especially in the tech space, find people that retreat behind our laptops. We use Facebook messenger and Slack [and all these tools], because we’re trying to be efficient, but sometimes getting up from your desk and going to somebody else’s desk or meeting someone for coffee — making sure that those human connections are really strong — end up being the edge for for people. I see [the power of relationships] demonstrated every day with entrepreneurs we work with.
How have you grown and changed as a leader?
I think especially being in government [early in my career], there are so many people that are so much wiser and have so much more experience. I always grappled with know how do I make sure that my my voice is heard? And when I have strong opinions about things that I share them while continuing to be respectful and understanding that people that have much more experience. Now I think I’m much better at making sure that I can see around corners. I know what I’m good at and what I’m not good at. I can feel confident in both of those things and making sure that the team I work with compliments the things that I’m not good at and that I help make their voices heard and help us all get to the goal line. I’m definitely more confident in who I am, what I know and the ability to bring others along with me.
What is your advice for someone about to make a career shift?
The most important thing is to be humble, know what you’re good at and know that you’re clearly there for a reason, even if it’s for an alternative perspective. Find mentors that can help you make that transition. I’ve been so inspired in this career transition that I’ve made by the women entrepreneurs I work with all the time. [A successful career shift] takes a lot of grit. It takes a lot of ability to say, “I’m just going to try new things, and I’m going to be okay when I fail.”