After ‘winding road’ to a data science career, Sadie St. Lawrence helps women find a home in the industry

At some point during her first year at Sacramento State, Sadie St. Lawrence ’13 (Psychology) realized she was sick of taking care of rodents.

Sadie St Lawrence

She was working in a lab called “The Neurobiology of Emotional Learning and Memory” and loving the opportunity to learn about science and conduct research. Working with animals? Not so much.

“It was another kind of life crisis where I said, ‘OK, how do I keep the things in my life that I love but get rid of things that don’t bring me joy?’ ” St. Lawrence says. “I honestly don’t even know how I came across data science, but as I read more about it I realized I had some of the core competencies, and then the other ones I thought I could develop.”

Just four years after graduating from Sac State and a little more than a year after earning her master’s degree online from Villanova University, St. Lawrence is the lead data scientist at Rancho Cordova-based VSP, heading up efforts at the United States’ largest vision insurance company to develop data-driven solutions to a variety of business challenges.

When she’s not working, St. Lawrence runs the nonprofit she founded two years ago, Women in Data. The organization – which is focused on raising awareness about the field of data science, educating businesses on how they can use data, and helping to advance women in the field – is borne out of her experience both as a woman in a male-dominated industry and as someone who did not realize until later in her education that the career was an option in the first place.

“The only way the field is going to continue to progress is if we continue to create diversity,” she says. “Any time we shut that off, we’re going to see things slow down. I love my work, I love what I do, so I’m just taking my two passions, data and women, and combining them to make them more diverse and make a better work environment for everyone.”

The lab “life crisis,” was actually the second of its kind along what St. Lawrence calls the “winding way” to her career. An Iowa native, she initially attended Casper College in Wyoming on a piano scholarship before transferring to Sacramento State, which had an exchange program with Casper that allowed her to receive in-state tuition. At the same time, she fulfilled her dream of moving to California.

By the time she came to campus for orientation, however, she realized she didn’t want her hobby to become her job. She had become interested in studying how the mind functions after reading a book about music disorders of the brain, which is how she ended up switching her major to psychology – and how she ended up working in labs like Evolutionary Ecology of Fishes and, yes, Emotional Learning of Memory.

“Sac State was great because I was able to explore so many different ideas with excellent teachers to guide me along the way,” St. Lawrence says. “I meet a lot of people who say, ‘I don’t know what I want to do with my life,’ and my stance is, sometimes figuring out what you don’t like to do is the best way to figure out what you do like to do. Sac State gave me a lot of options to figure out who I really am and what my passion is.”

While concurrently starting her career at VSP and taking graduate courses, she became dismayed that the only opportunities for women data scientists to network seemingly were only in the Bay Area. Drawing on her involvement with the American Association of University Women’s Sacramento State chapter as a student, she decided to take matters into her own hands, founding Women in Data in 2015.

The first meet-up drew just four people. But two years later, it’s an entirely different story. The organization now boasts nearly 600 members, just received tax-exempt status, and is looking to expand to other cities. Events include data science presentations that are open to the community, technical training, and other networking opportunities.

St. Lawrence’s hope is that Sacramento’s data science community becomes as strong as or even stronger than that of the Bay Area or Silicon Valley, especially as she has grown to love the region. In her spare time, she’s a dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner as well as an avid outdoors enthusiast – paddleboarding in the summer, skiing in the winter. And she continues to play piano, a thread that leads back to the start of the sometimes-meandering road to her present.

“At the end of the day, we’re all trying to just find our path,” she says. “You may take a different route to get there, but if you know your end goal and what you want to accomplish, you’ll find a way.”

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Salon owners’ love story began at Sac State

Lorena Martinez ’07 (Accountancy) was a junior in high school and taking a tour of Sacramento State organized by the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) when something unexpected happened that would change her life: Her tour guide, a Sac State freshman named Alfonso ’08 (Computer Engineering), asked for her phone number.

“You meet a cute kid and you think, ‘He’s never going to call,’” Martinez says. “I really didn’t think much of it.”

A week later, however, Alfonso phoned her house. Soon they were talking daily, Alfonso making regular trips to Watsonville, where Lorena lived, for supervised dates. Eventually she joined him at Sacramento State. In 2008, they were married.

Fast-forward to today and just down the street from the campus where their story began, Lorena and Alfonso Martinez own the Colour Bar hair salon on J Street near Sac State. The venture combines Lorena’s lifelong love of hairstyling with Alfonso’s passion for entrepreneurship, but the road to being small business owners has been circuitous and often difficult.

Lorena and Alfonso Martinez 2001
Lorena and Alfonso Martinez in 2001.

The Martinezes have more in common than just Sacramento State. Both were born in Mexico and, as children, immigrated to the United States with their families. Both grew up in small California towns – Alfonso in Newman, outside of Merced, Lorena in Watsonville near Santa Cruz. Both spent part of their childhood working in the fields. And both say Sacramento State’s diversity, and the support offered through the CAMP program, were a large part of why they enjoyed their time on campus.

“I came from a small town, and Sacramento was a huge city,” Alfonso says. “But even though it was a change for me, I still felt very comfortable going to Sac State. The CAMP program helped us so much with feeling at home and being around people who we have similarities to, who have similar backgrounds – immigrant parents, working in the fields.”

Sacramento State also provided a “realistic” education, Lorena says, offering flexibility for students who needed to work while attending college and providing the practical skills, through internships and other opportunities, that would become essential upon entering the workforce.

After graduation, Lorena and Alfonso began working in their degree fields. Alfonso had a series of computer engineering jobs, and Lorena began working in the auditing department of a Bay Area accounting firm. But the deadline-driven, heavy workload environment quickly began to wear on her. On Thanksgiving 2009, as she looked at her BlackBerry baffled that she was receiving so many work-related emails on a holiday, she finally reached a breaking point.

“I was so stressed, and I remember having a meltdown and crying,” she says. “I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ because I just felt overwhelmed. (Alfonso) said, ‘You’ve got to do something.’ ”

That something ended up being taking a big risk: Quitting her job in the middle of a recession, moving back to Sacramento and, in a nod to her lifelong love of hairstyling, attending beauty school and, in October 2010, opening her own salon. That’s when her connections to her alma mater began paying off.

“All of my sorority sisters and my network from Sac State made my business work because they all knew me,” she says. “Once they started seeing my work, I had tons of clients from Sac State. Without Sac State and our experience and everybody there, The Colour Bar wouldn’t be where it is right now.”

Alfonso continued to work in computer engineering and on other projects, but gradually has become more and more involved in the business, including building its web and social media presence, as it has continued to grow and serves as its CEO. They expanded to a second location in Midtown Sacramento last year and also are changing how salon owners work with hairstylists. Rather than rent salon space and work as independent contractors, The Colour Bar’s stylists are employees and receive in-house training.

“We got professional development early on from mentorship groups, from CAMP, so we know how crucial it is to someone’s success,” Lorena says. “So we’re trying to change things a bit by creating a training program to grow our talent at the hair salon.”

The couple has kept its close connection to Sacramento State. Alfonso is president of the Sac State Latino Alumni Chapter. Lorena occasionally is invited by CAMP and other organizations to speak to students on topics related to careers and doing what you love.

As for advice the successful business owners have for current students? It sounds a lot like the advice they themselves have taken since graduating from Sac State.

“Figure out what makes you happy,” Alfonso says. “People should do what makes them happy and not what other people think you should do. Nothing matters if you’re not happy. Once you’ve decided on a career path, you have to work hard and always go the extra mile. Be patient with your success, it will come.”

Ana Klein featured in State Capitol as part of ‘Made in the CSU’ campaign

If you take a tour of the State Capitol these days, you’ll find a Sacramento State graduate in the hallway outside the governor’s office.

Nelsen with Klein Poster
President Robert S. Nelsen gives a “Stingers Up!” near Ana Klein’s poster on display in the State Capitol.

Ana Klein ’95 (Accounting), MBA ’10, is one of seven California State University alumni featured in a set of posters on display in the State Capitol this week. The posters are part of the “Made in the CSU” campaign, which highlights outstanding alumni from the CSU’s 23 campuses.

Klein is the vice president and chief financial officer for Sunsweet Growers Inc., the world’s largest handler of dried tree fruits. She was recognized as CFO of the year by the Sacramento Business Journal in 2014 and as the Sacramento State College of Business Administration Alumna of the Year in 2015.

You can read more about Klein on the California State University website.