Life is full of pick one-or-the-other choices. Things like chocolate or vanilla. Uber or Lyft. Heels or flats. Nothing too life-changing here.
The set of choices Sara Mazzola was facing was not your ordinary either-or. She could either go for the big leagues of the investing world, venture capital, or change the world for the better. Tough call, right?
Turns out, Sara didn’t have to choose between her passion for business and social good. The 24-year-old is an analyst with Tampa, Florida-based Stonehenge Growth Equity Partners, evaluating high-level investments in early growth tech companies. She’s also the founder and president of IMPACT Microfinance, a nonprofit startup aimed at providing the under-served entrepreneurs in the Tampa-St. Pete community with the small loans and mentoring they need to start small businesses.
The former Jersey girl says she’s spent her whole life preparing for both roles, business and good works. She just didn’t know she’d be doing both so early in her career.
Sara points squarely at her parents for her divergent investing passions.
“I developed a keen interest in business from my dad, a finance executive,” she explains. “He came at business from a practical side, teaching me QuickBooks, but also the ethical side. He talked a lot about how tough business is and how important it is to take the ethical path, even though it’s sometimes the more difficult path. That stuck with me.
“My mom was very involved as a volunteer in our community, including a nonprofit called Family Promise that helped homeless families break the cycle of poverty. I’d tag along with her and help prepare meals and set up shelters. It sparked my interest in social causes,” Sara says.
Her biggest takeaway from her parents was this: access to resources is critical to success.
“I was very fortunate to grow up in a wealthy community where everyone had tremendous resources at their disposal,” she recalls, “but I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a greater spirit of giving. It became my motivation to make a difference when I got out in the world.”
The University of Tampa’s Sykes College of Business proved to be Sara’s launch pad. She chose accounting as her major and started mentoring younger students in her free time. While doing the latter, she discovered a truism that guides her to this day:
“If you have a large group of people, 10 percent will rise above and beyond if you give them the right support. Something as simple as listening, offering advice or connecting people can make all the difference in the world,” she explains.
It was during her freshmen year that Sara’s love of business and helping others finally converged. She heard a lecture on the Hult Prize, an international competition for social entrepreneurship in which collegiate teams from around the world are challenged to solve a pressing global issue with a startup.
“My perception of entrepreneurship was traditional, you start companies to make money. I had never thought about entrepreneurship for social good. It really opened my eyes,” she says.
Typically the domain of upper classmen and graduate students, Sara founded teams that competed in the 2015 and 2016 Hult Prize competition. One of her teams placed second at the University of Tampa with an idea that would educate 10 million preschool children living in Africa’s urban slums.
Sara’s path forward continued to crystallize with a series of internships. Her very first, with MetLife, was pure corporate America. She enjoyed her team, high achievers from diverse backgrounds who knew how to excel together. Next she headed to Madrid, Spain, to work with Nalba Advisors, a financial consulting firm with fewer than ten employees. There, Sara was given more responsibility with the added benefit of a more laidback business culture.
Her last internship, with Stonehenge Growth Equity Partners, turned into her first full-time position. “What I love about Stonehenge is being an active member of highly professional, respected venture capital firm. My age is not an issue; my colleagues, our investors and portfolio companies respect my work.”
There’s one other thing Stonehenge has done for Sara: encouraged her side gig, IMPACT Microfinance, which Sara founded in late 2018 with a professor at the University of Tampa. The nonprofit aims to provide all the resources underserved entrepreneurs need to start businesses, including micro investments in the $500 to $1,000 range. That; however, is just a start.
“In business, it’s often who you know that gets you in a door, that makes an introduction and ultimately lands a deal. Under-served entrepreneurs don’t have those kind of connections,” Sara explains. “So a big part of what IMPACT does is connect our entrepreneurs to people and resources that can help them professionally and personally so they can build their own professional networks. We also partner them with university students who mentor them and help write business plans.
“Our ultimate goal is to create opportunities for entirely new communities of entrepreneurs and successful businesses,” she says.
While IMPACT Microfinance is still in startup mode—the official launch is in 2020 once donors and local partners are in place—Sara has tested her vision with a handful of struggling entrepreneurs. This includes Trinity, a photographer whose camera and laptop were stolen, and Rickey, who needed professional scissors and razors to pursue a hair cutting business. IMPACT helped both with equipment, mentorship and even launched fundraisers to sell Trinity’s work.
As a woman who is only now beginning to make a name for herself in the high stakes world of venture capital, Sara is determined to help other women with fewer resources than she’s enjoyed rise above.
“Women are well represented in the under-served entrepreneur group so we are looking at partnerships with nonprofits that will connect us with women who need a boost to take off. One target is single moms. If we can get them thriving in their own small businesses, their kids will thrive,” Sara explains.
“The impact is exponential.”
This blog post is the work of Melanie Lux, an entrepreneur who went out on a limb 25 years ago to launch Lux-Writes, a highly successful business that took her all over the world as a branding, marketing and public relations strategist. Today, Melanie is an angel investor and founder of “Women Making It,” a social network and blog that celebrates female entrepreneurs and those who support their success. If you know a female entrepreneur you’d like to celebrate, connect with Melanie here. If you provide resources for women entrepreneurs, we invite you to connect.