Rene Syler reflects on success, failure, and persistence

Rene Syler knows a little something about perseverance. So it was no surprise she was invited to speak at an on-campus event celebrating the dedication and persistence of Sacramento State students.

Syler was co-host of CBS News’ The Early Show in 2006 when she announced on-air that, because of her family’s history of breast cancer, she had made the decision to undergo a double mastectomy. Later that year, she was fired from the show. She underwent the surgery just five weeks later.

In May, she returned to her alma mater to speak at the annual DEGREES Project Recognition event, which celebrated graduating students and their families.

“When they asked me to come and speak at this event and said they were looking for me to talk about persistence, I thought, ‘I wish I had all the answers,’ because there really aren’t any real answers to that except three words: Just keep going,” Syler says. “The times that I’ve wanted to quit, just when I wanted to quit I’ve been buoyed by some amazing success, and then I would have this amazing success and just when I thought I could rest on my laurels, I would have this incredible failure.”

“Just keep going” is an apt motto for Syler, who attended Sacramento State in part to be near her ailing father so she could care for him. She spent her college years juggling school and family obligations, then established herself as a top journalist before completely reinventing herself and publishing a book on motherhood.

“When I was let go from CBS, I made the decision that I was never going to let anybody upend my life like that, I was never going to let anybody hold my entire life and career in their hands again,” she says. “I was going to have more control.”

Born in Illinois, Syler moved to Sacramento as a child with her family, graduating from Del Campo High School and then attending American River College. After a brief stint in Southern California, she moved back home to attend Sacramento State.

Syler recalls the campus as “very nurturing” and one that provided a “global education” that helped broaden her outlook and prepared her for life after graduation.

“I really had to grow up and take on a lot of responsibility,” she says. “The expectation was that I would do well. Certainly there were people who shored me up and made sure that I did well, but at the end of the day it was on me to get the work done.”

Her plan after graduation was to get her master’s degree in psychology, but then she read about Liz Walker, who at the time was the highest-paid African American woman news anchor in the nation. Always a strong writer and communicator, Syler took a couple of journalism classes outside of Sacramento State and landed an internship at local TV station Channel 40. That internship eventually led to a job and, after stops in Reno, Birmingham, Ala., and Dallas, she became co-host of The Early Show in 2002.

“The degree in psychology was important but it was not just about psychology, it was about getting a degree in life,” Syler says. “I always say that the degree in psychology made me perfectly suited to go into television.”

Over the course of her career, Syler has interviewed her share of big celebrities, including Beyoncé, Prince, John McCain, Ben Affleck, and Antonio Banderas. In particular, she recalls a warm encounter with former First Lady Barbara Bush and former President George H.W. Bush at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, shortly after she had left CBS.

“I introduced myself and (Barbara) said, ‘Oh, George, don’t you remember Rene from The Early Show?’ And it was just so sweet and genuine, and that was the kind of person she was. I felt grateful to have those kinds of experiences.”

Good Enough Mother: The Perfectly Imperfect Book of Parenting, was published in 2007, and Syler calls it her “missive on modern motherhood, born of the fact that, this is who I was. I really was just good enough. I was just a good enough mother and somehow my kids survived.” Away from the journalism career she had spent so many years building, she now was forced to market herself, creating and cultivating her personal brand. The book’s companion website offers tips and information on a variety of topics, including career, health, and family, as well as an “Ask Rene” advice section.

Syler also has continued her television work, hosting Sweet Retreats on the Live Well Network and Exhale on Aspire, as well as appearing on programs such as The Today Show, CNN Headline News, and The View. A former track athlete, she also competes in “warrior dash” and “mud-run” events, and co-owns a women’s fitness company.

Everything she has experienced has given Syler an appreciation for taking the long view and recognizing that there will be both heartbreaking failures and tremendous successes, something she emphasized when she spoke at Sacramento State.

“It really has to be based on the course of a lifetime, and if you look at it like that, that you’re in it for the long haul, it’s all going to come out OK,” she says. “It will not be what you think it will be, but it will be OK. And you know what? In some cases, better than OK.”

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.”

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.”