In honor of Women’s History month, MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with several women in the Hartford area who are successful company leaders and team players.
The second in our series, Sarah Bodley, is the new Managing Director at reSET. Sarah spoke about her new role, what encouraged her to move from Washington, D.C. back to Connecticut, and why she’s passionate about sustainability.
NAN PRICE: Give us a little background. How did you connect with reSET?
SARAH BODLEY: I’m from Connecticut. In 2015 I was visiting my friend Evan Dobos, founder of Civic Lift, a platform that connects people with their communities. He was involved with the reSET Impact Accelerator and brought me to a community forum-type event. I got a good vibe from reSET and I loved the mission right off the bat.
I wasn’t necessarily looking to leave D.C., where I was working at Empowered Women International, a nonprofit that works with low-income, immigrant, and refugee women to help them create viable businesses. But I had reSET on my radar ever since my first visit in 2015. I get the newsletters and follow them on social media. When I saw the opening for the Managing Director position, I felt like I had to reach out and have a conversation.
From my first meeting with reSET Founder and Board Chair Kate Emery, it felt exciting. I knew it was a good fit for me. I feel very much like I align with her vision—and the mission of reSET.
NAN: Let’s talk about what you’re bringing to the role. You have a lot of background in sustainability and you’ve worked with startups.
SARAH: I’m passionate about sustainability—and that’s a necessity in a job like this. The challenge is developing a better understanding of what social enterprise means. It’s still a relatively new term and it means different things to different people—but at the heart of it is thinking about impact and values.
One thing I can bring to this role is the connections I’ve made in New York and other cities. I have to credit Bard College, where I earned my MBA in Sustainability. It’s given me an amazing network. Fostering collaborations will be helpful because reSET has a goal of being the go-to spot for social entrepreneurship in Connecticut—and beyond. So how do we bridge that gap?
I believe collaboration and partnership are a huge part of the social enterprise space. I remember hearing the history of how reSET was founded based out of collaborative community conversations.
Bringing in some outside perspectives can broaden that conversation. And we can look at other cities’ examples and case studies. I’ll also be connecting with outside experts for conversations about our strategic plan or bringing them into the Accelerator for more social enterprise-specific content.
Beyond that, what I personally bring to the Managing Director role is I’m a strategic thinker. Also, because I haven’t been in Connecticut for a few years, I provide a new perspective and I’m coming in open to possibilities.
NAN: Where do you see the future of reSET and what you hope to accomplish in 2019?
SARAH: reSET has been in the beginning phase of a new strategic plan, which we’ll continue. We started with a community forum. In a soft way, it was a kickoff for our strategic planning, to get the community engaged and talking about what we need to be doing more of or thinking about going forward.
The next few months to the next year we’ll be digging deep to find out: What are the big questions we need to be asking and how do we go about answering them? This will help ensure reSET is bringing relevant content and a specific focus to all the amazing accelerators that are starting right now like the STANLEY+Techstars Additive Manufacturing Accelerator and the InsurTech Accelerator.
There’s some very cool stuff happening in Hartford. reSET still has a key place within that, which is to elevate the message about what a social enterprise is and get more companies interested. As a social impact-focused organization, we’re thinking about problem-solving. So, my goal with our accelerator program is to help people with problem-solving business ideas be successful and sustainable.
Another thing I want to work on is ways of serving more entrepreneurs along a spectrum of readiness. Some groundwork has already been laid at reSET. The Impact Accelerator is for folks who are at a certain point within their business. They’re already making money. They have enough of a sense of their operations that they can start to tear that apart and put it back together and be more sustainable.
NAN: But once they reach that point, where do they go from there?
SARAH: Exactly. We’re doing some research and listening to our alumni to learn what they need and then do what we can to help. Of course, a big part of that is always access to capital. We’re looking at how we can help with financing. That’s one of the big challenges and opportunities right now.
As far as pre-stage companies, in September reSET announced a collaboration with Wesleyan University to offer a startup incubator course for undergraduates taught by reSET. It’s the first time reSET has partnered in a university context. I’d like to build on that. We’re also working on an incubator for folks interested in starting food businesses, to help during that early idea and business planning stage.
NAN: We talked about entrepreneurship and sustainability. Let’s talk about innovation. How do you see it playing a role in startup activity in Connecticut?
SARAH: I think social enterprise is all about game-changing solutions, which requires thinking broadly and approaching things from new angles. To me it’s fostering that in people and creating space where folks can think outside the box and get creative.
Another aspect of impact-driven business is about not just finding Band-Aids for problems, but really looking at ways to shift the root cause issue. Ideally, you’re digging deeper with any kind of innovation or just thinking about creativity in that context. And that manifests in many different ways.
I also think innovation can be a team effort. I never knew the power of brainstorming until a little into my career, when I began to realize you don’t have to be so tied to one idea. I realized there are ways of helping people think more collaboratively and learn to think more innovatively—and then you can embed that way of thinking within organizations too.
One of my favorite books is The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter Senge. A big part is about becoming a learning organization and how to imbed certain things into your culture as you’re building your business. I think reSET has always had a strong culture of innovation and community, and I’m excited to leverage and deepen that as we keep evolving in the ecosystem here.
NAN: Given that you’ve left Connecticut and returned, where do you see the entrepreneurial landscape here?
SARAH: I’m psyched that I’m getting here this at point in time. It’s clear there’s so much momentum right now and my hope is that I can also play a part in building that culture.
I do worry about that “if you build it, they will come” mentality. It’s beneficial to provide resources, but that doesn’t mean people will want to stay in Connecticut. We can all build up the message that this is a great place to live for outsiders, students coming out of school, and folks who grew up here and maybe want to leave.
In terms of Connecticut entrepreneurs, there’s room in the entrepreneurial space beyond tech and manufacturing startups and beyond the “typical” entrepreneur. There’s been a wave of growth and support in the three big pillars here—insurance, healthcare, and manufacturing—and it certainly has been great to build up an environment that’s welcoming to entrepreneurs.
But there’s also a space for businesses that can help change the lifestyle and perceptions in Connecticut, like Blue Earth Compost, which came through the reSET accelerator. The company provides composting services for Connecticut residents and businesses.
It’s wonderful if a startup can scale so huge that it becomes national, but I think there’s still a need for some folks who are going to create jobs locally, without necessarily wanting to sell their company or take it out of state. And that side of the spectrum can also do a lot to help with the perceptions and some of the economic issues here in Connecticut.
It’s been invigorating meeting with all the partners and stakeholders in Hartford, from the public and private sectors to the very grassroots community-driven entities. It feels like there’s a sea change coming, now that Hartford has made some great progress in becoming a hub of activity and support for entrepreneurs.
I’m excited to play a part in connecting the dots and bringing impact into that conversation. There’s always more we can do to support businesses throughout their evolution. I’d love to find more ways for reSET to bring the impact lens to businesses at every stage of development.
Ideally, every business is thinking about its impact, whether it’s at a global scale or the block it sits on. Our challenge is to help more people understand the importance of thinking this way and help businesses ensure they can thrive while making a positive impact.