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2020 30 Under 35 Profile: Sarah Volk Stenson

Sarah Volk Stenson, 33
Alliance Sourcing Supervisor, Procurement
Border States Electric

“From fashion design to electrical distribution—that’s my path,” said Sarah when asked how she ended up in electrical distribution. Sarah, who has been with Border States for about three-and-a-half years, previously worked in apparel for a small retail company in the Midwest. “That was my first job out of college,” she noted. “My undergrad is in apparel construction and design, but in that job I had transitioned into sourcing and product development.”

After the apparel company went out of business in 2017—partly due to the surge in online purchasing—Sarah was left with a choice: “At the time I was also in grad school, earning my MBA,” she recalled, “so I had a choice: Do I continue to pursue this industry that I’m really passionate about but looks really unstable, or do I pivot and take the skill set that I’ve grown and find out what’s next for me?”

It was about that time that Sarah saw a posting at Border States for an alliance sourcing specialist. “Only one of those words really resonated with me and that was sourcing,” she laughed, “but I applied and got in for an interview.” Sarah believes her retail experience gives her an edge. “Working with the apparel company gave me a view of the wholesaler/retailer side of things,” she said. “While there I worked with overseas suppliers and directly with manufacturers. I was able to take that knowledge and say, ‘Okay. Now how can I apply what I know to the distribution model; how can I close the gap in the chain.’ ” A few months after she was hired her supervisor was promoted. Sarah interviewed for that position and was offered the job.

Asked what appeals to her about electrical distribution, Sarah replied “It’s a constant learning opportunity. I consider myself a forever learner and if I can always find one more question to ask about something then I continue to be intrigued by it.” The industry’s rapidly evolving status also appeals to Sarah. “Every year brings new challenges. We see customers that are starting to look at their plans for 2050—and beyond. And while that seems like a very long way off, it’s exciting to know that we could be part of the evolution—and the next big thing.”

But keeping up with all the change is also a challenge, Sarah noted. “Everything from the supply chain model to how we interact with vendors to how we negotiate pricing and how materials are priced out—we constantly needed to pivot and be agile in our way of thinking,” she explained. “What I’m working on with my team right now is how we can be thinking upstream in terms of knowing that there’s always going to be a challenge around every corner,” she explained. “How do we protect our customers and insulate them from risk as we look forward to the next year and beyond? We are formulating an upstream process of thinking that will help us be prepared for the next big challenge—whether it’s another round of tariffs, tariffs being rolled back, a product change where customers suddenly switch from one material to another, the next big supply chain challenge. How do we can stay ahead of that change and help our customers adapt.”

Looking ahead, Sarah is focused on one day growing into a leadership role within the company. “My goal is to grow my team to be prepared to do the job that I do today so someday I might be able to take on new challenges in leadership and the industry,” she said. “I’d really love to be able to start delving into markets outside of electrical or gas utility, such as wind or solar or geothermal, where our customers might someday take their business. It’s about understanding where there is a future need or opportunity or risk. I’m interested in the next big thing and how Border States can get its hands on the information and the process and start preparing for it.”

When asked what advice she might give someone new to the industry, Sarah said “Be willing to acknowledge that you don’t know everything—even when you think you might know everything! Admitting that I’m new and I have a lot to learn—and I’m eager to learn—has helped because people are willing to work with me to help me get up to speed. It also teaches me how to do the same for the next person.”

Sarah also stressed the ability to think outside the box. “Challenge the status quo,” she said. “I know that probably sounds cliché, but it’s how the industry is going to evolve—trying something different and testing it to see if it works. And if it doesn’t work, discovering what did you learn from it and how can you share that knowledge with others.”

When she’s not working, Sarah is busy with her 20-month-old son. “He started walking when he was 10 months old, so I’ve really been chasing him everywhere,” she laughed, adding that spending time with her family watching her son explore the world has been filling the time during the pandemic. “My husband and I are both passionate about our careers, personal development, and our growing family. It’s been challenging trying to figure out life these past few months, but I think the best thing about that is having a small child and future goals to focus on.”

 

Each year tED magazine recognizes 30 of the industry’s best and brightest under the age of 35. Please visit tedmag.com/30Under35 for nomination information and updates about the 2021 program. Questions can be sent to tED Editor Misty Byers at mbyers@naed.org.

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