From college student to CEO
Northwestern alum talks about the value of taking risks in order to do what you love after graduation
- Link to: Northwestern Now Story
Sarah Ahmad, co-founder and CEO of a new San Francisco- based startup called Stable, spent the summer before her junior year of college literally watching paint dry. She was an intern in the research and development department of a paint company while studying chemical engineering at Northwestern.
A class of 2019 McCormick student, Ahmad opted to take on traditional summer internships throughout her early college years, but when asked to look back on her time as an undergraduate student for The Garage at Northwestern’s new podcast, “How I Got Here,” she shared that she always knew she was setting herself up for a career in startups.
In the months leading up to her senior year, Ahmad found herself with a difficult decision — take the internship (and the money) or spend the summer working on her own idea for a startup. After seeking advice from many mentors and professors, she took the plunge into being a full-time founder of a startup. Looking back, Ahmad said this was the catalyst that shifted how her career would ultimately take shape.
She was already demonstrating some serious entrepreneurial chops when she pivoted to work on her startup instead of her lucrative internship. Ahmad quickly recruited a team and got to work. Her app, HotPlate, amassed more than 500 users in the Evanston area. By the end of the summer, she was pitching to an audience of more than 100 investors, family and friends at The Garage at Northwestern’s annual Demo Day.
Despite the grit and commitment required to work on her startup following graduation, ultimately Ahmad’s first startup folded, and she opted to make the trek to Silicon Valley to work with a small healthcare startup where Ahmad knew she could gain on-the-ground, valuable experience.
From building her own major to building her own company, Ahmad’s story is one of six highlighted on a new podcast series, “How I Got Here,” which traces the journeys of inspiring Northwestern alums who are living their career dreams — and more interestingly, how hands-on experience in entrepreneurship helped them get there. For many, the winding roads that lead them to their dream jobs are varied, unique and packed with lessons that “How I Got Here” aims to highlight.
Giving up a paid internship to focus full time on her startup in college was a tough decision. But fast forward a year after Ahmad’s move to San Francisco, leaving a steady paycheck to work on a new side hustle with a fellow Northwestern alum, the decision now seems easy. And this is where Ahmad’s entrepreneurial experience from college really shined.
With a pitch deck in hand and a few key supporters, she and her co-founder began raising pre-seed funds for their startup and were accepted into Y Combinator, a prestigious accelerator program for early-stage startups.
While Ahmad and her co-founder were already working on tools for remote teams when the pandemic hit, in spring 2020 they were starting to see the shift to remote happening faster than expected, but in a different way than they initially thought it would.
More companies were abandoning their physical offices in light of the global pandemic, and the same question continued to come up: If teams are completely remote, what is the address of their businesses? Where is their mail going?
This prompted Ahmad and her co-founder to pivot to their current venture, Stable. Stable provides a virtual address for businesses to use on important documents, such as tax forms. They even handle mail for customers, “digitizing the physical world,” for them. Ahmad and her co-founder moved fast to get Stable up and running as quickly as possible to meet the changing needs of customers. Today, Stable has grown immensely and is currently working with over 250 companies to help them manage teams around the world.
Along the way to becoming a full-time entrepreneur, Ahmad said the questions and doubts about whether she’s doing what’s right, the “series of bets” she’s making at any given time, never really go away. But at an early stage of a company, Ahmad points out that the co-founders are the company, so investing in yourself and your relationships are vital to your success.
“You want to be someone people want to continue to work with, and being intentional about this early on is an easy investment in the future,” Ahmad said.
If she could talk to her younger self, the one watching paint dry, the one questioning if she should commit to her startup idea, Ahmad offered valuable advice: “If you know you want to be an entrepreneur someday, flex that muscle — whether it’s during the evenings and weekends while working full time or keeping your networks intact as you navigate new ideas — keep hustling, follow your passion, curiosity, and intuition, and always take the path you are more excited about.”