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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For Grocers Association president, career comes full circle

Ron Fong ’83 (Psychology) grew up, literally, in his family’s community grocery store. It’s where he and he sisters went every night after school to eat dinner, do their homework and, once they were old enough, work. So when a friend reached out to him in 2008 with a job opportunity at the California Grocers Association, it was a natural fit.

“I didn’t know much about the grocers association,” Fong says. “I went into that hiring process more out of curiosity than anything else, but sitting in a board room with grocery store owners was like coming home. I knew exactly the struggles they were going through. I knew the issues already, from my years of owning a grocery store.”

As the president and CEO of the association, Fong is the statewide voice for approximately 500 retail members and more than 250 suppliers, advocating on their behalf in Sacramento and overseeing the organization’s strategic direction and staff. He also serves as president of the association’s Educational Foundation, which funds scholarships to member employees and their family.

Much of the work Fong does at the Grocers Association involves lobbying for or against legislation that affects those in the grocery industry, from small, community store owners like his parents to corporate giants like Safeway and Albertson’s. The organization just finished 10 years fighting for a statewide ban on plastic bags, a battle that ended when a plastic bag industry effort to overturn a 2014 voter-approved ban failed last November.

Bringing together multiple and often competing voices to develop a unified position on legislation can be difficult, Fong says, but it’s an area in which he can draw substantially on the education he received at Sacramento State. When he began at the campus, he decided to study organizational psychology, believing it would be a good complement to the business skills he had picked up during his years at the family store.

“The skills I learned (at Sac State) are things that I still use in my job as president and CEO today,” he says. “I learned how to deal with problem solving through understanding the culture of people. That’s what organizational psychology does. It helps you understand people.”

Sacramento State also opened his mind to a world beyond what he called the limited environs of his high school and the family store. In one class, he says, he began a friendship with an LGBT woman who was 20 years his senior.

“Without Sac State, I would have never been exposed to a friend like her,” he says. “We ended up keeping in touch for many years after graduation, she was a terrific person. The exposure to different people, different lifestyles, and different cultures was just beautiful at Sac State.”

Of course, like many Sacramento State students, the campus was attractive for practical reasons as well: attending the University allowed him to earn his degree while continuing to work with his family. After he graduated, he began working full time at the store, eventually becoming the corporate president before deciding to get his law degree.

Shortly after he finished law school, his parents decided to sell the business that had been started in 1941 by his grandfather, who had immigrated to the United States from China in the late 1930s. Fong worked for two years as a prosecutor in the Sacramento County District Attorney’s office, then spent 13 years with the California Credit Union League, where he eventually became the chief lobbyist, before moving to his current position back in the grocery industry.

“Your career path sometimes takes unusual turns, and you just have to be open to it,” Fong says. It’s a lesson he hopes current Sac State students take to heart.

“Stay fluid and be open to career moves and choices. “What you plan with your degree at Sac State will not necessarily be what you end up doing as a career. Be open to that.”

Alumni couple are community leaders in West Sacramento

Oscar and Katie Villegas’ first date was probably not the most romantic – they were working on a Sacramento City College professor’s campaign for the Yolo County Sheriff – but it certainly presaged their years as a couple since.

VillegasThe Sacramento State alums have been active in politics and in the community virtually their entire post-graduation life, Oscar ’89 (Criminal Justice) as a longtime city councilmember in West Sacramento and now as a member of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, Katie ’89 (Psychology), MSW ’92 as the executive director of the Yolo County Children’s Alliance and a former member of the Washington Unified School District Board of Education.

“My parents were always involved in social issues,” says Katie. “It was a natural thing for me to go into this. It was just kind of what we always did, like my kids have always been involved in social issues. It’s a cool thing to do that as a family and feel like you’re making a difference in your community.”

Katie spent plenty of time on the Sacramento State campus growing up, since she lived in East Sacramento just a mile from campus. But no matter where she lived, she would have been connected to the University: Her mother, brother, and sister are fellow alums. Oscar, who grew up in West Sacramento, was the first in his family to attend college. Both of their children now attend Sacramento State, making three generations of Hornets in the family.

Throughout both Oscar and Katie’s careers, public and community service is a common thread. After graduation, Katie went to work for the Sacramento Children’s Home before returning to Sacramento State for her master’s degree. From there, she trained HIV counselors at the state’s Office of AIDS before moving to the Yolo County Children’s Alliance, where she has been since 2006. She also served on the school board in West Sacramento from 2012 to 2016.

Following his graduation, Oscar landed one of several newly created positions in the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs’ (ADP) investigations unit. He stayed with the department for more than a decade, was appointed by Gov. Gray Davis to be the deputy director of the California Mentoring Partnership in 2003, and in 2008 began working as a field representative with the Board of State and Community Corrections. He was a member of the West Sacramento City Council from 2000 to 2014, when he was appointed to the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.

While at Sacramento State, both Oscar and Katie participated in internships that ultimately led to jobs following graduation: Katie worked at the Office of AIDS as a graduate student, while Oscar interned at ADP. Both say the ability to learn from professors with real-world experience was instrumental in preparing them for their careers.

“I actually got to sit in a class and listen to a former FBI agent, a Sacramento County district attorney, the current probation chief for Sacramento County, police chiefs,” Oscar says. “These were folks that had very real-world experience and could share their experiences in a way where they engaged you in a very real way.”

For the Villegas, West Sacramento is a town on the rise, where everyone knows each other and has bought into the city’s success, and where it’s easy to see the impact of your hard work.

“In West Sacramento, one of the things I hear often is, ‘Hey, I want to get involved,’” Oscar says. “And I say, ‘What are you actually interested in? Not what you think will get you where you want to be, but what are you interested in today? Where does your heart tell you that you want to be impactful, and in what arena is that? And I can guarantee there’s an opportunity for you to volunteer, to participate where you can make a difference.’”

And as for the advice they would offer to current Sacramento State students like their two children?

“Just soak it all up, really enjoy your college years, make friends and have fun” Katie says. “Appreciate it for what it is. You’re not going to love every class that you have to take, and that’s OK, because in the real world, you’re going to be working in environments that aren’t necessarily the best. It’s important to learn to know what you like and learn to know when you need to make a change.”