Sara Vescio, ’00: Community Changemaker
January 3, 2017 by Lisa McMahon, MA'09
For some, the journey of life is on a winding road, filled with false starts and abrupt stops, wrong turns and do-overs. For others, like Sara Vescio, ’00, the path is straight, the direction clear, and each sojourn along the way prepares them for their next destination.
Sara grew up on Grand Island, N.Y., the third of Ralph, ’71, and Mary (Lauzau), ’70, Vescio’s four daughters, and a member of a generational Niagara University family. Wanting to make a name for herself, Sara decided early on that she would not consider NU when it came time to choose a college. But the lure of the Ridge was strong, and after agreeing to tour the campus to “humor” her parents, she was sold.
“The school won me over on the tour,” she says. “There wasn’t any doubt that I felt like I fit when I came here.”
At Niagara, Sara studied communications and minored in sociology with the aspiration to be the next Oprah Winfrey.
“I felt like Oprah was one of the few people who utilized her platform and her powerful voice to try and bring positive impact to society,” she explains. “I always admired that in her, and I wanted to have that kind of positive impact on the community.”
In her sophomore year, Sara began working in NU’s Institutional Advancement office’s call center. She was quickly promoted to call center manager, then senior gift chair. In her senior year, the position of associate director became available, and she was the natural choice.
Still, her interest in social justice was strong, and when a pamphlet advertising a brand new master’s program in executive leadership and change crossed her desk, she was immediately intrigued.
“It put together my sociology interests with my leadership and drive for making change,” she says.
She completed her graduate degree while still working at NU, where she was promoted to reunion giving and volunteer manager, a position she envisioned and pitched to the IA vice president.
In 2005, Sara was ready to take the next step in her career, so she accepted a position as an account executive with a recruiting firm. She quickly realized that she was happier working for an organization with a mission that aligned with her vision and values, so she resigned.
She then obtained her real estate license and worked briefly in that industry, but again, was not inspired by the work.
Now the mother of an infant, Sara realized that if she was going to continue to work outside the home, it would have to be for an organization whose mission she could be passionate about.
She found that opportunity with the Boys and Girls Club. As director of development, Sara built a program that raised public awareness in addition to funds, and loved being an advocate for families who were struggling to balance the challenges of work and family, just as she was.
In 2012, a loss of state and federal funding forced the organization to let several employees go, and Sara was among them.
Faced with having to look for work again, Sara was determined to find a role that would build on the skills she had developed at NU and the Boys and Girls Club. She found the ideal opportunity at the Women’s Business Center at Canisius College. As program director, Sara would be able to draw on her fundraising and marketing background while managing the operations and developing the programs for the organization, which endeavors to empower women entrepreneurs to succeed through education, connections, and community.
Just a year later, the executive director left and Sara was promoted to that position. Under her leadership, the center has developed two new categories in the center’s advisory group program: Launch, for women who are beginning their entrepreneurial careers, and Grow, for women who have operated their businesses for a year or so and are now ready to take the next step. Sara also established a relationship with First Niagara Bank to sponsor those two programs, offering substantial scholarship assistance to the participants.
“I’m really proud of that because I think it’s a huge contribution to our community to have that support for women business owners,” Sara says of the programs and sponsorship she created.
As executive director, Sara spends much of her day building collaborative relationships within the Western New York corporate community to support women entrepreneurs through all stages of business ownership. Again, her professional role dovetails her personal life, she notes.
“Especially since I am divorced now and a single mom, I feel such a passion for helping women find their own financial stability and more control over their destiny,” she says. “The greater level of success they can achieve with their businesses, the greater level of financial stability they will have with their family life. I want to be a part of that.
“I relate to these business owners because I run the business of Women’s Business Center,” she continues. “I put together the product and the strategy of the business, the roles of the team, and do the hiring, all of the things that the business owner does as well. So I know it’s tough and it’s a lot of work and I relate.”
Her hard work has not gone unrecognized, however. The Small Business Administration named her the Women in Business Champion of the Year in 2014, and last year, Daemen College named her an Alumna of Distinction for its Executive Leadership and Change program. This year, she is one of Business First’s 40 Under 40 honorees.
“It’s been really nice to see that the community feels like I am being impactful, because that’s what I aim for,” she says.
Sara plans to continue her advocacy for women business owners until there comes a time when she feels there is true equity for women in entrepreneurship. At that point, she’ll find another focus for her desire to make change.
“This is my space, jumping into something that I’m passionate about,” she says, adding that she is grateful for the opportunities she has had thus far in her career. “I feel blessed, and I don’t take that lightly.”