When Sarah Knudson grew up in Oklahoma, square dancing was the norm. She had been a dancer since the age of three, practicing ballet and jazz – common forms of dance that might be expected of an all-American girl.
So if her friends from the state could see her now, dancing and teaching the Rueda de Casino – a Cuban form of salsa – they would surely be in awe.
“It’s like square dancing but much cooler,” Sarah says. “I fell in love with this form of dance a long time ago, and it sent me on a path to discover the roots of Cuban music and dance."
Her career path now could not be much farther from where it begun. Today, she is a dancer, entrepreneur and MBA student at IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain – one of the best in the business. Sarah’s company, Alma Cubana Productions, which translates to “Cuban soul” has been running for the past seven years.
But back when she began discovering a passion for Cuban dancing and culture, back when she was on the corporate track, she worked in the mortgage industry. At the time in 2007, it wasn’t doing so well; there was something of a crisis and an American “housing bubble” shortly before the global economic crash.
Sarah wasn’t made redundant, but she accepted a voluntary severance package and used that cash to travel around Latin America and launch a dance-based start-up. It was the silver lining in an otherwise frustrating period of her career.
“I travelled all over, with some of the best instructors in the world,” she says. “I invested that cash in the business, lived in Havana, Cuba and studied there with the major dance troops, and really got to learn from the ‘source’.
“I have a real passion for Cuban culture and, with the embargo between America and Cuba, a lot of people can’t experience it first-hand. It was a privilege to be able to bring that knowledge back to the US.”
Sarah had a professional instructors licence in Cuba, although her business and customers were based in the States.
Yet her background hides the entrepreneurial flair that is evident in her now at IESE. She worked in corporate IT roles in California, but was looking for a more creative outlet – “I have always been entrepreneurial,” she adds.
She admits that many commentators say an MBA is a waste of time for entrepreneurs. And she already had a business. And had discovered her passion for Latin American dance. So why put the brakes on Alma Cubana and fly to Spain? What separated IESE – aside from the international and diverse cohort – was the fact that it is one of the few bilingual MBA programs out there.
Sarah had been learning Spanish, Cuba’s main language, “on the fly” but IESE offered more formal training – teaching her the curriculum in both Spanish and English.
“I felt fed up until that point; I had two different lives,” she explains. “I had my corporate day-job in enterprise IT doing huge tech projects, and then at nights and on weekends I was starting-up these entrepreneurial efforts – some related to business and some to my passions.
“But I wanted to merge these two worlds together. I thought, how can I strengthen my profile so that I could have a global career, where language, culture and creativity is important? But still flex my muscles in analysis and business?
“It’s the classic right-brain versus left-brain. My goal is to transition post-MBA into something that is creative and entrepreneurial, but at the same time using the business acumen I’ve learned. IESE fit the bill.”
If Sarah wanted diverse, she couldn’t have done much better than IESE. 80 per cent of the b-schools’ MBA cohort are international, and it gave her the option to take electives in Spanish during the second year of the 19-month program.
But she is not just content to sit back and study. Her dance business is still running and, like any entrepreneur, she has a few projects in the works.
She won’t graduate from the MBA program for a few months, but that isn’t slowing her down. She wants to use her people-management skills to work with tech companies in Austin, Texas – “the tech industry and entrepreneurial scene in Austin is thriving and growing, and that will be an environment where all my passions lie,” she enthuses.
“The MBA degree is getting a lot of negative press lately, coverage I disagree with,” Sarah says. “IESE does have prestige when it comes to education, but the entrepreneurial environment is amazing as well. We have a business angel network that funds millions through local investors and MBA alumni.
“We’ve also got one of the best venture capital competitions in the world and I have learned a tremendous amount about financing entrepreneurship.”
Sarah says her businesses have been on a small scale so far – “mostly because I loved what I was doing, they just happened to make money” – but IESE has taught her how to put them on the international pedestal. She now has the skills to grow her future ventures on a much bigger scale.
Her greatest challenge was not leaving a corporate career behind. Rather, it was trying to grow a dance business that is limited by its own physical presence. “Most of my past ventures were just a one-woman show,” Sarah says. “Teaching has a lot of one-to-one time and there is a direct relationship between the time I put in and the revenue I receive.
“But that’s how I came up with this new project: an e-learning environment for dancers, applying tech to the dance world. Dance ventures are difficult to scale; it requires you to be physically present to teach.
“But this new idea has a similar debate to Moocs [online business learning programs]: how can we create a solution to allow many students that don’t have access to a physical location and their teachers, to find ways to replicate what they’re doing in class?”
It’s an answer that I’m sure Sarah is close to cracking. Could this be the next stage of the dance entrepreneur? A way to revolutionize the Rueda de Casino teacher? Perhaps. But for now, it is just one of many projects Sarah is working on.
For the MBA entrepreneur isn’t limited to one project. You have to evolve to stay afloat. IESE has taught her that – and a great deal more.
If only the square-dancers in Oklahoma could see her now.