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Sara LeMesh

Co-founder and CEO, Owly

How did you decide to develop Owly?

I always had an interest in the older adult population. When I was young, I volunteered to sing in nursing homes and I saw the impact music had on vulnerable populations. I came to Rice to hone my musical skills and, when I went home, I continued singing in nursing homes. Eventually, I earned a master’s degree in music.

After school, I relocated to the Bay Area and eventually I transitioned from a professional classical musician to working at a tech start-up and singing on the side. Then I saw the effects of isolation on my grandfather. As a result of those experiences. I realized I wanted to leverage technology to decrease isolation by making it easier for people to connect with one another. We built Ayuda, which we launched in April 2018 to help assisted living communities find engaging classes and entertainment. Initially Ayuda was a side project. When the side project started taking more time than my day job, then it became clear that we needed all hands on deck. [You can read Sarah’s moving article “My Story: Founding Ayuda Care”]

Then, as happens in startups, the idea works but you realize it is not going to be venture scale. We heard from customers and potential users that they were looking for a way to connect with others and to find inexpensive things to do, so we pivoted to Owly in February 2019. We are building Owly as we speak [in June 2019] and are working on the private beta with a cohort of users. The launch of the publicly available app is scheduled for later this summer.

What takeaways from your Rice experience has helped you get to where you are?

Studying music at Rice University is different from studying at a conservatory, where you don’t take regular courses. At Rice, you have to balance a lot of responsibilities other than music. Also, you’re part of a very small cohort, so there’s a pressure to be a contributing member of your class. This is a nice foundation for having what it takes to build a product a customer will use.

And studying music, in particular, requires so much discipline and time and solitude and patience to hone your skills and takes many, many years to obtain a certain level of ability. That does not happen overnight. It’s not a race, it’s a marathon. It’s the same for entrepreneurship.

How has being a musician helped you as an entrepreneur?

Musicians, like entrepreneurs, need to be able to present themselves publicly. Ultimately the success of a musician is based on the ability to market one’s self, to create a website, and to create a presence on social media. Any successful musician is running a business.

We also audition, which is essentially a pitch, and that is a talent I bring to entrepreneurship. People say it can take 100 pitches to get a check if you’re raising capital, for example. That’s not any different from a musician saying I want to go to France on a 24 month contract with a working visa. It could take many auditions to get a role that coveted.

We develop a resiliency to criticism. I’ve observed some entrepreneurs who haven’t come from a background of constant rejection. They can take things personally and that can cause burn out. Musicians have a strong sense of grit.

Additionally, with music you are constantly identifying your strengths and weaknesses in a really transparent way. As entrepreneurs we have to do the same. Some entrepreneurs are great at pitching and not as great at executing day to day. Some people are terrible at pitching and amazing at executing. You need to know that about yourself.

Music, especially classical music, gives you an ability to learn things on your own and break down systems. That’s extremely helpful as an entrepreneur. In a startup you are part of a small team and you have to learn to do new things that you’ve never done before. That’s Entrepreneurship 101.

Speaking to Rice students who are interested in entrepreneurship, what advice would you give them to prepare for success as an entrepreneur?

Be exploratory in course work. So many skills can be acquired along the way, especially now with the advent of pretty amazing online tools. A perfect example is the Rice coding class I took that is basically free on Coursera.

And make friends, as trite as that sounds. They will be there for you after the four years. You could be talking to your potential co-founder and not even know it.

Finally, if there’s somebody in the alumni network who is doing something that’s interesting to you, you can always reach out. Alumni are really nice people.

One final question, are you still singing professionally or are you totally committed to your entrepreneurial work?

I am still singing. In August 2019 I’ll be singing a role in Oakland, CA.

Music, ironically, has become a relief. It’s still high pressure because I do it professionally, but it’s a relief to sing and take a break from entrepreneurship.