Sarah Helgeson On Turning Her Bitcoin Interest Into Her First Job At Blockchain Startup, R3
What’s your story?
I graduated from Stanford University in the spring of 2018 with a BA in Economics. During my four years at Stanford, I was a member of the Stanford Field Hockey team. I absolutely loved my experience on the team but I was ready to hang up my field hockey stick to work at a tech startup in New York City called R3.
What was your experience as a student-athlete like?
My experience as a student-athlete was fantastic and formative. Both my parents played division I sports so when I was growing up I wanted to follow in their footsteps and play college athletics. I never thought about life after college sports until my early high school years. I remember the “aha!” moment when I thought about the bigger picture- I was at the pediatrician for a routine check up when the doctor started asking me questions about what I did and what I wanted to do. I explained how excited I was to be playing sports and that I had dreams of playing a Division I sport in college. The doctor said that my goals were great to have and that I was perfectly healthy but then the doctor asked about what I wanted to study while in college playing sports and I had no idea. That is when the doctor said (to the best of my memory as this conversation was 8 years ago), “You know, sports are great and a great way to stay healthy but sports are not forever. Your education is forever. No one can ever take your education away from you”. And from that point on my focus shifted from just wanting to be a collegiate athlete to using my athletic ability to give me the opportunity to get a world-class education.
Why did you choose Stanford?
When it came time for me to choose the school I wanted to play field hockey for, Stanford was an easy choice. I did not choose my school for the coaches, teammates, or field hockey program but I got very lucky with how well I meshed with the program, my coaches, and my teammates. Stanford field hockey gave me an amazing opportunity to study at one of the top schools in the world while physically pushing me to my limit.
What was the biggest lesson you learned and the most challenging thing about your time as a student-athlete?
My time on the Stanford Field Hockey team was formative. Above all the valuable lessons I learned from field hockey, the biggest lesson I learned (and the hardest to learn) was how to manage my time. Stanford academics are no joke and training to your physical limit six days a week is quite exhausting. When I would study late at night or have to go to a review session in the evening, I would be very frustrated at how tired I was from practice. On the other hand, I would stay up too late studying and be counterproductive at practice the next day. My freshman year was a struggle to find a balance between school, sports, and a social life and I was often sick from lack of sleep. But by the time I was a sophomore, I learned how to prioritize my time and pick better classes so that I could be productive at field hockey and school while still finding some time to be social. While at Stanford, I managed a rigorous academic schedule, a constant practice schedule, and a social life. Now that I am working, I feel like I have so much more time but I also know how to prioritize my work to make the best use of my time. Playing sports in college definitely helped me be an efficient employee.
Did you know what you wanted to do when you were at Stanford?
I thought I wanted to do investment banking but after talking to older Stanford student-athletes I quickly learned that the lifestyle of an investment banker is not something I wanted. I started to explore other options. I thought maybe private equity was something I wanted to do. Turns out, it was not.
How did you get interested in blockchain and find your way to R3?
I joined the Stanford Bitcoin club my junior year because I was fascinated by blockchain technology and emerging technology, in general. After realizing that I did not want to do the traditional finance career path, I started exploring other options. I loved New York City so I focused my job search in that city. I saw an internship open up at R3, which at the time was a financial technology company that had their own blockchain software. I thought the combination of blockchain and financial technology in addition to being in New York City was a worthy combination. I interviewed winter of my Junior year, accepted the job offer in spring of my Junior year and worked for R3 three months over my Junior summer. R3 initially said that since they were a startup they could not offer any of the interns a job at the end of the internship. However, by the time my internship was up, they found a spot for me and offered me a full-time job for the summer of 2018. It took me four months to accept. R3 was very flexible in negotiations. I interviewed at other jobs while I still had my offer at R3. I was actually offered a job at another larger investment bank but I decided that I wanted to experience a startup while I had very little risk in my life. Overall, I am very happy I chose to work at R3. It combines my interest in emerging technology and financial markets. I also love working for a startup. I can not say how it compares to a large firm since I only have experience at a startup but I can imagine that a large firm will not offer you as much freedom and responsibility at such a young age.
What were some of the things you wanted out of job?
I knew I wanted the opportunity to see many parts of a business. I still was not 100% sure what I wanted my career trajectory to look like. Working at a startup gives me the opportunity to “wear many hats” in my day-to-day job and to be exposed to many different roles and people. I also am given a ton (too much?) responsibility and freedom. Without the discipline and confidence that I learned while playing sports at Stanford, I could see how my role would be very hard and stressful.
What’s a typical day or week like look for you at R3?
I really enjoy my job at R3. A typical week for me would look like this: 30% of my time is spent in in-person customer facing meetings. These customers include smaller startups building application on R3's software, technology partners that R3's software runs on such as Amazon Web Services, and strategic customers such as the big five accounting firms who meet with me to discuss what cases and projects they have seen the past week that they think R3's software should be used for. 30% of my week is spent answering emails or calls from similar partners that I can not meet with in-person. 20% of my week is spent on internal meetings or operations. Since we are a startup, a lot of my time is spent figuring out and documenting processes. Data collection is very important for a young company and sometimes we do not have a "best practices" approach in place so we create it. And finally, 20% of my time is spent on whatever project I want to work on.
I’ve also chosen to do research on other emerging technology and presented a case to my CEO as to why we should partner with certain companies. We are given a lot of freedom at R3 but I still have important KPIs that I set and are tracked to. Overall, I find my weeks vary as I deal with people a lot. One thing about working at a startup is that the highs are high and the lows are low since every action has an impact to the company. Personally, I like how each action has a noticeable reaction and contributes to the whole company. Lastly, every employee is valuable and our output directly relates to helping the company grow. There is no time to do busy work or to get weighed down by bureaucracy, which I love about working at a startup.
What do you look for in potential employees at R3?
Since blockchain is a new technology and few have extensive expertise in the space, we really value intelligence and willingness to learn in our candidates. Some of the R3 employees come from hardware and software technology backgrounds such as IBM, Thomson Reuters, and Microsoft but we also have employees from large financial institutions. Overall, if you are passionate about blockchain and have done your research about the space, it is a good indicator that you would fit well at R3.
What's been the most challenging professional experience that you've had?
Similar to college sports, the most challenging professional experience that I’ve had so far was learning how to best manage my time. I was recently given a large project to do on top of my existing work. The first day with the new project was stressful and overwhelming. I felt like I did not know where to start. Then I realized that the company had confidence in me to figure it out since they assigned the project and I realized all I had to do was prioritize my book of work, just as I did in college. Without the experience of daily prioritization from college, my recent work project would have taken me twice as long to complete.
Why is R3, and perhaps, working at a startup, the perfect thing for you or someone with an athletic background?
As a former student-athlete, working at a startup perfectly fits my skill set. You have to be adaptive. My day-to-day job is never the same and I love it. You have to be disciplined. I am given a lot of freedom and responsibility and if you take advantage of that you can negatively impact the whole company. And you have to be passionate. Similarly to college athletics where you really have to love your sport to justify spending all this time playing it, you really have to believe in your company to justify the long hours and work you do for the company.
Finish this sentence: My biggest strength as a leader is…
My biggest strength as a leader is doing. There are a lot of talkers out there and few doers. I always try to lead by example by executing.
Ungoogleable fact about you:
I am not allergic to poison ivy and I have a sweet tooth that gets stronger with age.