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How She Got There: Sarah Cronk, Founder & President of The Sparkle Effect


Name: Sarah Cronk
Age: 21
Job Title and Description: Founder and President of The Sparkle Effect, a nonprofit that generates and tangibly supports school-based cheerleading and dance programs that include students with disabilities.
College Name/Major: Whitman College/Psychology
Website: www.TheSparkleEffect.org
Twitter Handle: @SarahCronk1 and @Sparkle Effect

What does your current job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day?

Sarah Cronk: My job situation is pretty unique—I founded my nonprofit, The Sparkle Effect, after seeing how inclusion on a school sports team positively impacted my older brother Charlie (who has an autism spectrum disorder). A cheerleader at the time, I wanted to use my sport to provide the same opportunity to other students. Since 2009, my organization has grown to include over 130 inclusive cheer and dance teams nationwide.

Since I’m balancing my Sparkle Effect responsibilities with a full college course load, my days tend to vary pretty dramatically. I’ve been known to jet off on the weekends to attend conferences and speaking engagements, but most of the time I’m taking calls and managing our staff from the comfort of my campus. I oversee the creative direction and promotion of the organization, develop and implement training curricula for new teams, manage our volunteers and (of course!) fundraise.

What is the best part of your job?

SC: My biggest inspiration is hearing back from cheerleaders, students with disabilities and parents who have benefitted from their own Sparkle Effect team. I also love to hear from teachers and administrators who say The Sparkle Effect has inspired a resurgence of school and community spirit.

Several students across the country have reported that their involvement with The Sparkle Effect has changed the trajectory of their lives—many have decided to pursue special education. Some of our high school participants have even gone on to form inclusive teams at the collegiate level. To know that The Sparkle Effect has provided such a positive experience for so many people is very rewarding.

What was your first entry-level job in your field and how did you get it?

SC: Technically, my job with The Sparkle Effect is the first and only job I’ve held within the nonprofit industry. I’m lucky that a project that I started as a teenager has grown into a full-blown career. I plan to run the organization full time after I graduate in the spring.

What is one thing you wish you knew about your industry when you first started out that you know now?

SC: When I created The Sparkle Effect, I believed that the key to running a great nonprofit was simply to do great work for the world. In the beginning, I underestimated the importance of storytelling; people will only buy into your vision if you can articulate it concisely and powerfully.

Who is one person who changed your professional life for the better?

SC: Nancy Lublin, the current CEO of DoSomething, stands out as a woman whose tenacity and wit have inspired me for years. Nancy runs a tight ship at DoSomething and pushes her colleagues to both think big and think outside of the box. Nancy has also given me an important gift: Some tough love.

A few years ago, she sat me down and outlined everything I was doing wrong in trying to grow and sustain my nonprofit. Criticism is often difficult to stomach at first, but Nancy helped me realize that "yes men" may work wonders for my ego but, in the long run, do nothing for my progress. I admire Nancy's direct and fearless approach to every challenge thrown her way.

What words of wisdom do you find most valuable?

SC: Work smarter, not harder. So many of the highly competent and driven women that I work with have a do-it-all mentality. But, sometimes doing it all yourself isn’t the most efficient way to get work done. Instead, it leads to quicker burnout and denies us the opportunity to receive valuable feedback from peers. Delegation and collaboration are essential to success in any job, and especially in leadership positions. 

What is one mistake you made along the way and what did you learn from it?

SC: When I first created The Sparkle Effect, I was afraid to ask for help for fear of seeming stupid or incompetent. I felt insecure about my young age and worried that adults would fail to take me seriously if I revealed my lack of know-how. When I finally reached out for guidance and support, people were eager and excited to lend a hand. I wish I had realized earlier that asking for help is sign of strength, not weakness.

What has been the most surreal moment of your career thus far?

SC: The week before I started my freshman year of college, The Sparkle Effect won $100,000 in front of millions of television viewers at the 2011 DoSomething Awards. The award took me by surprise and also changed the game for The Sparkle Effect.

As I transitioned from high school to college, The Sparkle Effect simultaneously transitioned from a local nonprofit to a nationwide movement for inclusion. In the year that we won the award, the organization doubled in size. The year following the DoSomething Awards, I was chosen as a “Women of Worth” honoree by L’Oréal Paris.  Programs like these have helped to increase visibility and awareness for The Sparkle Effect and the resources and support I’ve received through these awards have been instrumental in our growth.

What do you look for when considering hiring someone?

SC: I look for passion, eloquence and optimism. I find that one of the questions that applicants have the most difficult time answering is “Why do you want this job?” Learn to articulate your goals, interests and vision. Partner that with an upbeat attitude and eagerness to learn and you’ll stand out from the sea of people who may have excellent past experience but whose personality fails to shine through.

What advice would you give to a 20-something with similar aspirations?

SC: I have a lot to say about this one.

First, adopt an unwavering belief that you can and will make a difference. Absorb yourself in your mission. Eat, sleep, and breathe it.

Second, if and when you get stuck, let go of the uncertainty about the big picture. President Herbert Hoover once said, “Wisdom lies not so much in knowing what to do in the ultimate as in knowing what to do next.” So, do something! Then do the next thing and the next thing and the next…

Third, no matter what happens, stay open. Assume that people are good, helpful and well-meaning. (People love to live up to the expectations we have of them.) When people prove you right, take the time to thank them. (People also love positive reinforcement. They, just like you, want to believe that they have done something meaningful.)

Finally, never be afraid to be totally excited about your work. The world needs more unbridled enthusiasm. Enthusiasm generates all kind of positive energy and leaves little room for ego.

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