Lead(H)er - Sandy Kreis, Director of Labs, North America: Lab of Forward Thinking (LOFT) at John Hancock / Manulife
“While at my first job at Shearman & Sterling in New York City as a litigation legal assistant, I learned a few things. I learned how to work long hours with a positive attitude, I learned how to ask the people around you for career guidance and, probably most importantly, I learned that I didn’t want to be a lawyer,” explained Sandy Kreis, the Director of Labs, North America for the Lab of Forward Thinking (LOFT) at John Hancock/Manulife.
Growing up in Setauket, New York, Sandy knew she had big shoes to fill. Her father worked as a surgeon, established the trauma center at the local hospital and secured some of the first medical helicopters to better serve the East End of Long Island.
“I grew up in the shadow of a giant. He was incredibly smart, a graduate of both Harvard and Yale, and he dedicated his life to making the world a better place. When I was seven years old, he passed away from esophageal cancer. It was a traumatic event and it has continued to shape a part of who I am today.”
Through the tough times, Sandy’s mother acted as a strong role model, helping her become strong-willed, studious, and very involved in school and her community.
“Growing up, my mom went to work every day. She definitely taught me about having a solid work ethic and being strong through tough times. I have an older sister and my mom also took in two other neighborhood kids who were having trouble at home so there were four of us in the house! My mom is also incredibly cool, she’s a big fan of the Grateful Dead and so she took us to a handful of shows. She taught me that there’s a lot to live for and that you will win some hands, lose some others, but the key is to maintain hope and keep going.”
When Sandy started looking into colleges, she was drawn to Georgetown in Washington DC because of her passion for politics. After being the high school class president, she felt it’d be a good fit.
She went on to be an American Studies major, which focused on the interdisciplinary study of American culture, politics, and history. During her time at Georgetown, she also had the opportunity to study internationally in Spain at a large university in Madrid.
“Going abroad during that time was a really formative experience for me because it was when we invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003. It really opened my eyes to just what kind of presence America held on the world stage. I felt like so many foreigners cared more about what my government was doing than my peers.”
When senior year of college rolled around, Sandy didn’t know what the next step was but she knew she wanted to be in New York City. “I sent a bunch of applications out thinking I should work in a law firm before I actually pursued a degree in the law. During my first job at Shearman & Sterling, I spoke with a lot of the lawyers and learned law wasn’t for me. So I saved myself $150,000 and didn't pursue a law degree.”
In those conversations with her colleagues, Sandy also learned a lot about energy markets as a legal assistant on the Enron litigation. Realizing her interest, she began looking into jobs at a nonprofit in the energy or environmental fields.
“I was also ready to leave law and I was also ready to leave New York. I wanted something different. I applied for a job at Environment California, which was part of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. I got the role as a political department associate and I moved out to Los Angeles.”
Although it wasn’t her official title, Sandy was known as the celebrity organizer. Her job was to go to events where powerful people would be, pitch them on what Environment California was trying to do and then get them to give support in some way such as putting their name on a campaign letter, being a member of an event’s host committee, or writing a check to donate.
“It was my first job in sales. Even though I wasn’t selling a product, I was selling the vision and mission of our nonprofit, which was a pretty easy thing to be selling at the time because climate change was a very hot topic in Hollywood. What was challenging was, I was selling the vision of a nonprofit to people who are very busy and who didn’t have a lot of time to talk. I learned to get my message across quickly and efficiently to the right person and to be memorable enough that they would meet with me again. Learning that really helped me later on in my career.”
Although she loved her role at Environmental California, she yearned to take her career to the next level. She decided to apply to graduate school programs that focused on energy issues.
“There really weren’t that many energy policy programs at the time. This was pre-Tesla, energy wasn’t a sexy subject 10-15 years ago! That’s actually what brought me to Boston. Out of all the schools I applied to, the Fletcher School at Tufts University had the most unique offering of being able to focus on energy & environmental issues while simultaneously taking the core courses offered in a traditional MBA program.”
While she was at Fletcher, Sandy co-founded the Fletcher Energy Club. Because she was also interested in entrepreneurship but there wasn’t a course offered at Tufts at the time, she created a workaround for herself by joining a course offered at MIT.
“I found my way into a course called Energy Ventures, which was focused on energy and entrepreneurship. It was a newly formed course being taught by two incredibly smart and thoughtful practitioners, Bill Aulet and Tod Hynes. They were soliciting students of other school programs, so I applied. They wanted to get Sloan MBAs, Harvard Business School, MIT engineering students and then policy folks from the Harvard Kennedy School to come together and form multidisciplinary teams. The idea was when you get an energy startup off the ground, you have to understand the policy landscape, you need someone who understands the business and someone with the technical expertise. So I applied the second year it was taught and I was accepted even though Tufts and MIT didn’t have an official exchange program.”
Through the class, Sandy was introduced to a variety of people from MIT and worked her way into Boston’s entrepreneurial community. While she was at Fletcher, she interned for a clean energy research startup called Emerging Energy Research in Kendall Square. After graduation, she went on to work there full-time.
“I was an energy storage and geothermal power analyst—very technical subject matter. We were eventually acquired by a larger company called IHS. I stayed for a while to see how the acquisition went but ended up leaving after a few years to return to New York for two very unique opportunities. I had the chance to work with Micah Koch, who was establishing the New York City Accelerate for a Clean & Renewable Economy (NYC-ACRE) and to join CB Insights as an analyst, working on tracking investment trends in the cleantech space.”
Although she was only back in New York for just under a year, Sandy’s time at CB Insights was incredibly valuable, as she learned a lot from the founders on how to launch and sell a product and how to build out a founding team. While at a networking event, she met someone who worked at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) who offered her a job working for Governor Patrick’s administration. And so, it was back to Boston.
“I didn’t anticipate coming back to Boston so quickly, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity at MassCEC. I worked in the innovation and industry support team, tasked with creating a policy to build up the ecosystem around clean energy innovation in the Commonwealth. We worked on so many unique projects, from connecting startups to large corporates looking to source innovation to creating a program to fund Greentown Labs, which has grown into the largest clean energy incubator in the world.”
“I learned a lot in my job and my role. Mostly how to listen to what people’s needs are, pick up on trends and come up with a way to address those needs or trends. In addition, I was asked to staff Gov. Patrick’s team for a number of international economic development trips. I came up with the programming on the energy side of things and we went to six or seven countries. I learned a lot about international business and how culture really determines how business gets done. It was a fascinating experience.”
After seven years in the clean energy sector, Sandy decided to take deeper dive into digital technology. She read about an incubator downtown called Blade, which at the time was a $20M venture fund led by Paul English, co-founder of Kayak.com.
“I looked on Linkedin to see who I knew who knew Paul and my professor from MIT was one of those connections, so I reached out to Bill Aulet and asked him if he would introduce me. I met with Paul and I explained who I was and what I was looking for. Paul saw a track record of hard work so he opened the door for me to join the team. I really credit the leadership behind Blade with helping me pivot my career.”
While at Blade, Sandy learned a lot there about product design, product market fit, and the importance of hiring a solid engineering team. She ended up going to one of their portfolio companies called Drafted, where she served as the Chief Commercial Officer, helping bring initial customers on board.
“At the time, Drafted was a mobile app in the recruiting space. I was there for seven or eight months and I learned a lot. It was more valuable to me than an MBA, being on the ground at a venture-funded startup.”
After spending a few years working in startups, Sandy took her current role at John Hancock to focus more on technology.
“I’m the Director of Labs, North America for the Lab of Forward Thinking (LOFT) at John Hancock/Manulife. In this specific role, I work with engineers, data scientists, and strategists who are building with cutting-edge technologies that could be opportunity areas for our various lines of business. That includes blockchain, artificial intelligence, and voice technologies.”
In addition to working at John Hancock, Sandy has also taught an undergraduate course at Tufts for the past three years through the Experimental College.
“I teach one full credit course in the Spring called Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Startups. The students learn what role the government, anchor institutions, academia, and company culture play in creating an innovation ecosystem. Every class, I bring experts from the local community in to talk to students about how they can engage with Boston’s startup culture.”
Sandy’s students meet entrepreneurs, leaders of corporations, heads of academic institutions, and government officials. They work in teams to launch their own startups, focusing on public speaking, the art of the sell, how to pitch an investor and how to pitch themselves.
“I’m essentially teaching the class that I wish I had been able to take. I’m very happy where I am right now. I’m always the kind of person who has two or three different things going on. It’s very fulfilling to share what I’ve learned with others in order to help them in their career paths.”
Rapid Fire Questions
BS: How do you manage stress?
SK: I run or I take my dog for hikes in the woods. The expression “take a hike” exists for a reason. I get out into the woods and I’m able to see things a little bit more clearly. By the time I emerge, usually, I have some sort of game plan to address the issue.
BS: How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?
SK: One, first thing in the morning with goat milk and honey. Although I am trying to make a switch to tea.
BS: What do you like to do in your free time?
SK: If I have chunks of free time, I really like to travel. I’ve been lucky to visit over thirty countries. You can also find me practicing Bikram yoga, hitting up Home Depot with my husband (we just bought a house), or reading. Last year I averaged about a book every two weeks.
BS: Where is your favorite spot in Boston?
SK: The Middlesex Fells.
BS: If you had to choose one thing, what would you say is your greatest accomplishment?
SK: I’d have to say my biggest accomplishment was rescuing, training, and raising my dog on my own. He’s a pretty big dog, about 65 pounds, and was tied to a tree for the first year of his life down in Georgia, so he needed some serious rehabilitation. Having a dog is a big responsibility, particularly in a city, but it is incredibly rewarding. Plus you have a built-in hiking buddy!
BS: Ten years ago, is this where you would have seen yourself?
BS: What one piece of advice would you give to a recent college graduate?
SK: Work for at least four years before you think about going to graduate school. I was 25 when I went back to school and I think I contributed enough with three years of work experience but nowhere near as much as my peers who had spent significantly more time out there as a practitioner. The folks who came to my graduate program right out of undergrad had no real-world experience to compare it to. You just value it more when you’ve been working, you appreciate it a bit more and you take it more seriously. You also are more confident in your decision about what to study and if it is worth the time and price.