Inside Track: Taking calculated risks
Sarah Abel, self-described ‘typical millennial,’ embraces new challenges and opportunities.
Sarah Abel was reading a job description when she told Kim Bode it looked like a wonderful opportunity.
Bode, the founder of 834 Design & Marketing, had been recruiting Abel for at least two years when she had Abel read over the job description. At the time, Abel was the development communications manager at Rockford Construction and often used Bode’s firm for work.
As Abel expressed her feelings about the position, Bode told her it had to be her.
“I need someone I can trust and can hit the ground running,” Bode told her.
Until that moment, the timing never seemed right, but Abel said the opportunity to help lead a successful communications organization into the future as managing director was a chance she couldn’t pass up.
“At the end of the day, the real reason I said yes was I was a little more terrified than I thought I would be,” Abel said. “As I read it, I realized that’s a big opportunity. That was scary and the point of life isn’t to be comfortable.”
It was a measured risk and a job Abel knew she could handle, so she plunged into the role as 834’s new managing director in June.
“Sarah is the perfect addition to our team,” Bode said of the hire. “Her experience in strategic communications and leadership will allow us to leverage the skills of our team and support our continued growth in a sustainable way.”
At 33, Abel calls herself a “typical millennial” having held six jobs in her career as she embarks on the newest venture. Each of those career changes has come through a natural evolution and wasn’t the result of Abel seeking out new opportunities.
“Most of my jobs have been very project-oriented, and I’ve been able to go in and do a thing and get to the other side,” she said. “I don’t get bored, but things start to normalize and that’s the time someone reaches out and says, ‘I think you’d be a great fit for this opportunity.’”
There are times Abel will sit back and think about where she’s ended up in life and if she’s supposed to be doing the substantial tasks she’s been trusted with, but she finds the spark each time to keep moving forward.
During her stint at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, helping organize the Leadership Grand Rapids program, a company retreat exposed her to the concept of generational dynamics through a presentation. Through the discussion, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers recalled their formative years.
That’s when she realized she was truly from the generation where anything is possible. She spoke up and said as much to the group.
“When I was young, I literally thought I would be president of the United States and no one told me that wasn’t really a viable option,” Abel said. “I am an absolute millennial. I remember losing soccer games, so it wasn’t all perfect, but my parents were extremely supportive of me and my brother.
“We were always going to go to college and be whatever we wanted. So, I was going to be a lawyer, then a president.”
Despite growing up in Fruitport, Abel’s parents wanted their children to have a diverse upbringing. Aware of the school district’s shortcomings, they exposed the children to a variety of activities, media and food from across the globe. She’d go to school one day and realize not every fourth-grader was taken to see Schindler’s List during the weekend.
“That was an important piece of our childhood, they constantly were seeking out experiences to broaden our worldview,” Abel said. “They didn’t want us to live in a small town and keep that mentality.”
Another trait from early in her childhood: she speaks her mind — and loudly.
As she moved through her schooling, however, she realized a law career wasn’t what she wanted, as law school seemed like an overwhelming proposition. Instead, she realized public relations was her new route.
Her freshman year of college was spent at Albion College, where she maxed out her extracurricular activities.
“It’s a very small school and I had a great time, but I was doing everything right away,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘What will I do the next three years?’”
Her brother, who was a student at Northern Michigan University, sent her a packet and she soon fell in love with the school and Marquette. Abel was an RA for the three years at NMU, meeting plenty of people and ensuring “safe fun.”
“It was a great fit and a nice, big school,” she said. “It’s focused on keeping students active. It snows a lot, so there’s a lot going on to keep people occupied.”
At NMU, Abel met her future husband, Nic Winsemius.
She graduated in December 2005 and Winsemius followed in May 2006. His career opportunities led to Holland, near the hometowns of both — Winsemius grew up in Spring Lake.
“We had gotten engaged, and when he was graduating he had two (engineering) job offers, I had zero, so if there was ever a lesson about majors, it’s there,” she said. “Both were in Holland, so we came down and just figured it out.”
The first year of marriage, 2006, was eventful. They bought their first dog and a house.
“We are the reason the market crashed,” she said. “I remember walking into a bank and just asking if we could buy a house. They asked if we had a job and we said yes.”
The house in Holland posed an odd predicament. Most of Abel’s jobs have been in Grand Rapids — American Cancer Society, Chamber of Commerce, Grand Rapids Public Museum and Rockford Construction — so she ended up often saying, “I sleep in Holland but live in Grand Rapids.”
Working at the chamber, she got to know many of Grand Rapids’ movers and shakers, and with so many jobs in the city limits, her friends and daily conversations revolved around the city.
Recently, Winsemius, despite owning Big Lake Brewing in Holland, suggested a move to Grand Rapids; the couple and their two Golden Retrievers settled into the Fulton Heights neighborhood.
“Now, I get to vote for city commission,” she said. “I would live and breathe these things, but at the end of the day, I wasn’t a citizen so I couldn’t impact it.”
Her work at Rockford Construction continued to cement her love for the community, and she calls Rockford CEO Mike VanGessel the most influential person in her career.
“Working for Mike was very transformative,” she said. “He doesn’t take the work lightly. The thought and attention Rockford puts in is incredible. I learned so much being a part of that team.”
Abel has come to terms with the shrinking likelihood she’ll become president, but she still tosses around the idea of going to law school, just to see what happens. No matter the case, she’ll remain committed to relationships and the doors they might open up, immediately or three years down the line.
She has plenty of years left in her career and she hasn’t defined success, so she has limitless possibilities as she moves forward, even as her résumé continues to grow longer.
“Success to me isn’t a certain thing by a certain age or a specific title,” Abel said. “I just hope I continue to have opportunities to do exciting things.”