In March of 2000, the dot-com bubble began to burst. Just two months later, the Gettysburg Class of 2000 marched through the doors of Penn Hall in their caps and gowns.
Included in the procession was Lauren Cooney '00, a history and management double major who was signed up to become an AmeriCorps VISTA member in San Francisco. “I had no idea what I wanted to do after college,” Cooney recalled. "I knew I wanted it to be something of importance, changing the norm, making things better for other people, and ensuring that these efforts would stand the test of time.
Fast forward 18 years. Today, as the founder and CEO of Spark Labs, Cooney leads and empowers companies and their executives to create, innovate, and ideate in new ways that grow their business and strategic value in the market. From large, publicly-traded companies to small start-ups, Cooney makes her mark in a way that produces a ripple effect across the globe.
“In August of 2000, everyone was leaving San Francisco and the Silicon Valley, and I was just showing up,” said Cooney.
Cooney did not just show up. With a sense of relentless grit and determination, Cooney spend the next 15 years making her way through the nonprofit realm, into venture capital, and into management and senior leadership positions at some of the largest and most recognized companies in the country, including BEA Systems (now Oracle), IBM, Microsoft, and Cisco Systems. She’s been honored by Business Insider, The Huffington Post, CIO Magazine and many others as a top industry expert in cloud computing, new business strategy and open source software. She’s also passionate about helping women in technology to reach the leadership ranks, where they are vastly underrepresented.
While at BEA Systems, Cooney's vice president asked her where she wanted to be in 10 years. In her early-twenties at the time she responded, after a short pause of uncertainty: “I want to be an executive leader at a publicly run company.”
To work at the executive level, his advice was to become “an all-around,” Cooney explained. "At the start, you need depth in an area or two. You need to be the ‘expert’ in those areas. From there, you need to learn to be an all-around—to manage the various things that come your way, from finance to human resources, legal, acquisitions, media and more,” she said. “You have to network with people out of your comfort zone, and in different areas. You won’t get to the top by just being a single topic expert—you need to fundamentally understand how a business is run so you can lead a business one day.”
It was an explanation Cooney knew well as a liberal arts graduate. She went on to carry various roles at major companies on the west coast, from creating and leading open source software and multiple business divisions to building new software platforms from the ground up.
Being a young female in the technology mecca of the world is not easy. Often mistaken for support staff as she climbed the ladder, Cooney started a women's mentoring program while at Cisco and took on board of director roles at nonprofits that empower women. “I’ve dealt with the politics. I’ve been that new leader that no one trusts at first. I’ve broken down walls and taken the big risks. Sometimes people just need a little advice and a push to get there, and I’m always happy to help.”
All the while, she was expanding and building on her breadth of knowledge that would eventually lead her to starting her own consulting firm in late 2017.
"I wanted to help people do amazing things and change the world in new ways," she said. “I figured if I could be at all of these companies and change the way they thought, built, and delivered new solutions to customers with amazing technologies and advanced lean business models, why couldn't I do this for my own clients as well?”
Cooney took the leap and created a website for her new consulting company, Spark Labs. “Spark” was meant to represent ideas, and the word “Labs” represented the work she and her company would be doing behind the scenes for their clients. At first, she was toying with the idea, but then after discussions with many entrepreneurs, leaders, and mentors, she got serious about creating a company. “I think I talked to maybe 20 people that I trusted in my network about the idea,” she said. “Every single one of them told me to take the leap. So, I decided it was time.”
Committed to launch, Cooney resigned from her corporate position. As she started to build the company, she realized she would need strong partners to round out the offerings of Spark Labs and an advisory board to help direct her, including prominent leaders from Salesforce, Cisco, Amazon, and others. Familiar with new organizations, she prepared to face multiple “nos,” a common response as a company, product, or new solution launches. As a Gettysburg alum, she knew the feeling of resistance was an indication that a new path was ready to be forged.
“I've learned that you are going to face pushback and people who are going to tell you that you are not good enough along the way. You just have to push through it. Believe in yourself, your business and your worth,“ Cooney said. “Entrepreneurship is not just about smarts, about knowing the industry well—it’s also a test of endurance. You don’t just start a business and have success overnight. It’s something you have to work hard at and constantly be learning more along the way.”
Cooney learned this as she faced multiple setbacks this past January, finally signing her first client in February of this year and following it up quickly with five additional clients. She called the first round of clients her “beta group.” Each company understood that they would be learning from each other during the first six months of Spark Labs’s inception. It worked well, and now Cooney is revising a few areas of the business, learning from what her clients taught her. To learn is to be in constant sync and revision of what you see, hear and experience, and one of the tenants of a strong and aware leader, Cooney said.
Today she forges ahead with her new venture, both as an executive and an entrepreneur. Always innovating, Spark Labs utilizes lean models for technology and business to help draw out ideas, strengths and gaps, and, often times, to realign companies and their teams on the same path forward.
Working with amazing companies and people and helping them to change the world in new ways gives Cooney a chance to remember her roots as well, coming full circle back to her first position out of college as an AmeriCorps VISTA member. “In the beginning, I never thought I would be someone who would start her own company. A CEO position does everything, literally. I didn’t think I had it in me—but in taking that leap, I am learning that I do,” said Cooney.
Today she is just that: an entrepreneur, a tremendously successful business woman, an “all-around,” and a liberal arts Gettysburg College graduate.
Learn more about opportunities for exploration for young entrepreneurs at Gettysburg College. Learn more about Spark Labs at www.sparklabsco.com. To reach Lauren directly, you can email her email@example.com or connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.
Article by Devan White ’11