Sarah Buhayar has spent 14 years at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she is currently Director of the Foundation Strategy Office and senior advisor to Melinda French Gates. She also serves as Chair of the Board of the Science Museum in Seattle and an Emerita Board Member of Treehouse, a leading nonprofit impacting foster care in Washington state. Before earning her MBA from Kellogg (Class of 2011), Sarah worked for the Academy for Urban School Leadership and as a math teacher for Chicago Public Schools. As a Board Fellow, she supported the Chicago Chamber Musicians.
Sarah, why did you apply to the program?
There were really three reasons. First, I came from a nonprofit organization before business school, and even though I didn't engage directly with the board, it was very clear to me that it was an important governance mechanism which made decisions and drove the organization forward. I knew that I wanted to understand better how it worked, and I wanted to be a part of it. Secondly, a key reason I went to business school was to learn more about leadership and deepen my own practice. The program seemed like a really productive way to do that—especially because it was so hands-on. Thirdly, I liked the longer-term nature of the commitment, with the coursework, mentoring moments, and ongoing experiential learning. It was an exciting combination.
What impact did it have on you?
One immediate impact was that I sought out opportunities in a way I otherwise wouldn’t have. I have colleagues in their fifties who are only starting to think board service as a way they might like to lead or to contribute to their communities. But because I had formal board training, I not only knew that board service existed, but that it was something I could do and was something I wanted to do. It wasn’t daunting at all. I'm so glad I learned that in my twenties and was able to take on subsequent board roles, which were great learning experiences in their own right.
Did anything surprise you about the experience?
I knew I would benefit from the board placement, but I don't think I expected to learn as much from it as I did. For example, I can still remember sitting the conference room in the law firm where we held our meetings feeling so surprised at how often board members would keep coming back to the same feelings and how much of the decision-making process took place in offline conversations. Those aren’t lessons that really stick until you see them play out in front of you.
And how have those lessons stuck with you?
The program provided a comprehensive foundation. I'm surprised when I come across board members who don’t seem to understand the core aspects of what board services means and requires. I feel like I have a good grasp on what falls within my purview and what doesn’t. The program also gave me the chance to observe and navigate board dynamics. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to influence, who I needed to listen to, what the executive director thought about an issue and what the board needed to do to support them. And I reflect on those things a lot now. Case in point, I graduated from business school in 2011. I’ve moved a lot. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of books and papers. But one of the few binders I've saved is my Board Fellows binder; I still go back to it and find those reference materials to be hugely helpful: either for me or for sharing with colleagues, mentees, and others.
Has it changed your approach to board service?
Absolutely! One thing I internalized from joining a board was how big a commitment this kind of role is— even if you’re only spending a few hours on it a month. I was really struck by the realization that if a nonprofit’s cause isn’t important enough for you to ask your friends to donate to it, you probably aren’t the right person for that board. That litmus test has really helped me filter the commitments I take on.
What do you like about being a board member?
It lets me ‘fly at a higher level’ and practice leadership skills and muscles that are different from my day job. For example, I tend to prefer working behind the scenes. That’s something I do a lot as Melinda [Gates]’s chief of staff. But in my board chair role, I can't do that; I have to think about how I use my limited time in front of the board to motivate this group of highly accomplished local executives who each have 10,000 other priorities.
As a growing leader, and in a particular as a woman, the Board Fellows program—along with the board roles I’ve taken on—have made me more confident in voicing my opinions without worrying that I don’t have every single piece of data. I’ve really found my voice, and this experience was part of that process.
You mention working with Melinda Gates. Does your board experience help there?
It's hugely helpful that I understand what the chair of an organization is supposed to do. I’m always reluctant to ever compare my experience to Melinda’s—the Gates Foundation is a $9bn per year family foundation. But knowing what is and is not (or should and should not be) her responsibility as Board Chair helps me lead her team.
Do you recommend board service to other people?
Lots; especially in the various roles I’ve had at the Gates Foundation. I think it provides a different mental model. I encourage my colleagues to consider nonprofit board leadership because I think it builds a real sense of empathy and understanding for what our grantees are managing against and where our funding plays into their overall growth. Even more broadly though—I sit in our internal strategy group which has lots of junior people who go on to business school or public policy school and I'm always recommending to all of them that they find the equivalent program at their institution. They’re good people and I want them on boards!
What would you say to current MBA students?
Be really intentional about what type of nonprofit you’re looking for. Chicago Chamber Musicians had such an impact on my learning and I loved it, but I would have learned different things if I’d been matched with a bigger organization. Each board is so different and brings you new experiences, new networks, and new lessons to keep you growing. Take advantage of that!