In episode 13, Sarah Smith share many learnings and advice from her leadership experience in tech companies, ranging from how to get started investing, to hiring and getting hired, to effective negotiation.

This episode is also available on iTunes and Stitcher Radio.


Sarah leads Sales and Operations at Quora. She’s been with Quora for over four years, initially serving as the VP of Recruiting, HR and User Operations. Before Quora, Sarah held multiple leadership roles at Facebook, including establishing and leading operations in the Austin office for several years. In addition to her operating role at Quora, she is also a partner with Graph Ventures, investing in and advising companies at the seed and Series A stage.

Show Notes:

What is Quora: Quora’s mission is to share and grow the world’s knowledge, using a format of questions and answers around every topic. Trying to get knowledge from people’s heads to the web in a high quality way.

Examples of interesting Quora exchanges Sarah has seen:

  • Lots of gossip around Zynga executive departure. He came on Quora and answered a question about why he left. Really impressed her to see a real-world example where you could hear a person’s story first-hand, unedited. “Here’s one place a person can tell their truth”
  • Every day people sharing what it’s like to be new parent, to struggle with depression, to be a product manager at Google, etc.
  • Holocaust survivor shared her story, another way to leave her legacy
  • Hillary Clinton popped in and answered question

Her recent transition (from VP HR/Recruiting back to Ad Sales) – Background was in advertising and operations. When she joined Quora, there was no ad product to sell. She knew the founders and believed in the company, so came to help build the people and ops side of the business. Late last fall, felt ready to take on new challenges. Had open conversations with CEO. They had started to think seriously about monetization plan. Her interest in getting back into advertising aligned with the business need. It was fortunate that she understood both the company and the ads business – was a real advantage to have someone internal who could take this on.

Leading a People organization – have to be 100% aligned with the CEO’s long-term vision for the culture and how they want to operate the company. Sarah really enjoys the process of finding people, keeping them challenged and fulfilled.

Investing as part of Graph ventures – Some of her former classmates and roommates started this fund. At some point she asked them why they hadn’t included her – they (all men) didn’t realize she would be interested, but she was. She joined them later when they raised the third fund. Really enjoys the process of talking to entrepreneurs, has learned you need to be on the lookout for companies needing money– they best deals don’t always come to you. Seven partners are all operators full-time – being on the ground inside companies makes them better investors.

We’re better investors because we’re on the ground inside companies working on very similar challenges day-to-day that our founders do.

Women investors – Women are often intimidated by investing, Sarah personally talks to women often about  how to get started.

 Frankly, this is how a lot of the big money is made. If women are not making money, then we’re not really capturing the full power that we can have in this ecosystem. We’re really losing out on a lot of economic power by not being investors.

Her advice on investing – Do not discount your ability to do it. Doesn’t take millions to start – maybe an investor you know will take a $5K check. Start small so you can learn and plan, then you’re better prepared once you have the economic resources to be an investor. Or maybe you can invest on someone else’s behalf – people in early-stage of their career often have good ideas, recognize trends, might be the best investors.

Core beliefs around hiring –

  • Before hiring anyone, must be very clear about the “must haves” vs. the “nice to haves” to stress test the importance of every requirement. Can help open up a more diverse pool, or get more focused on a more specific pool of people who will be successful in the role
  • Design your interview loop to evaluate for those must haves.
  • Diversity – Recommend to everyone to take Joelle Emerson’s Unconscious Bias training. Easy to be enamored by someone who is similar to you. Need to think about something different they will bring to the team. Many companies don’t have enough men in recruiting/HR – Sarah sourced more men and achieved a more gender-balanced HR team at Quora.
  • Protip for hiring a big role – Put together a list of skills and attributes that might be applicable to a job. Specific skill proficiencies, type of degree, personality traits, etc. Then send as a survey to everyone who might report to them, work with them and determine on called of 1-10 the importance of each trait to the role. Everyone has refutable data about the areas the team cares about.

Tips for job seekers –

  • If you think about getting a job, you should devote the preparation time that would warrant that type of huge decision. Don’t walk into an interview and try to wing it – you wouldn’t do it on a final exam for school.
  • Use the product, think through answers to the basic questions, know what you’re going to say and rehearse. People do whole rehearsals for their weddings, why wouldn’t they rehearse for an interview?
  • Read about the company, watch podcasts of the founders, use the product and ensure you’re energized by it. Most common reason is that people are not educated on how to do this.


Memorable fail –

Interviewed for a big job she really wanted, but they picked someone else. Realized she wasn’t thinking enough about her audience. The other candidate had a bigger vision, said they could bring $X million dollars in. She was very pragmatic and practical about “how” to get there. But clearly that other person better understood the audience and their desire to see the big bold picture. It isn’t always important to have all of the details figured out, versus being able to paint the bigger picture.

Sarah and I both have male friends from business school who have no problem selling a big idea with confidence – any time we find ourselves questioning whether we’re overselling ourselves or our ideas, we think of those men and ask what they would do.


Negotiation –

  • Very passionate about this topic, it can have a life-long impact on you. It’s really important that women get better at this.
  • Women don’t negotiate well for themselves, but are excellent at negotiating on behalf of someone else.

    When you’re feeling intimidated about asking for more: think outside of yourself. what good could you do for the world (for your partner, your children, etc.) if you negotiate more money?

  • Also when working with recruiter, recognize how hard they have worked to get to that offer stage. They really want to make it work. Work with them in a solutions-focused way vs. being combative. Brainstorm other options they could throw in the package. Usually the salary has a max limit, or the entire package, but maybe they can throw in more training, a relo bonus, education stipend, executive coaching, etc. It’s harder for the recruiter to go the extra mile if they don’t feel that you re excited and bought-in.

Final advice for women –

It’s great that diversity is becoming a bigger topic and focus for companies, but women need to pay attention to how much more time you are being asked to work on these projects, conduct more interviews, etc. It’s not necessarily fair that you should be more taxed than your male colleagues that you could be spending on your core job.

Be conscious of how much extra time you are putting into these projects, that it’s recognized, and you’re being compensated for it.


Please feel free to reach out to Sarah with questions on any of these topics:

Reach out on Quora: