Sarah Wills Carlsson, hailing from a small town in Indiana surrounded by cornfields, may seem an unlikely candidate for a future language and culture enthusiast. However, her father’s work at General Motors introduced her to his colleagues from Vietnam, Taiwan, and other countries, igniting her fascination with language at an early age. From trying new foods to learning a few words, Sarah’s curiosity was piqued. Her interest in reading the Gideon Bible in various languages during hotel stays further sparked her love for understanding how things were said in different ways. With her parents’ support, she enrolled in language classes from elementary school onwards, exposing her to French, German, and Spanish.
As Sarah approached the end of high school, she sought a career that offered a wide range of options. With her father’s guidance, she explored engineering through mentoring programs and realized that it was a way to work on projects with different people and traveled the world. To attend Northwestern University, a private out-of-state university, she made a deal with her dad to try engineering for one year. If she didn’t like it, she could study anything she wished. However, to her surprise, she found classes like basic electrical engineering logic fascinating as they helped her understand the world.
At Northwestern, Sarah pursued engineering and combined it with her love for languages. Having taken French in high school, she was fortunate enough to study abroad, which allowed her to test out of some courses. She also delved into economics, sociology, Spanish, and German, even in combination with her engineering degree. While this combination may seem unusual to some, Sarah’s background in writing and English and her fascination with foreign languages led her to see the bigger picture of how everything comes together. She never envisioned herself sticking solely to engineering but instead sought a more holistic approach to her education and future career.
Sarah embarked on her professional career at General Motors’ electronics division, now known as Adaptiv. Initially, she joined the company as a Co-Op student at Delphi AT&T, which was a part of General Motors at the time. Her primary objective was to gain practical work experience while pursuing her degree. Over time, Sarah’s dedication and commitment to her work paid off, and she was offered a full-time position.
During her early years at General Motors, Sarah was assigned to an advanced engineering project with BMW in Munich. Despite many of her colleagues being less than enthusiastic about traveling, Sarah was thrilled at the prospect of the project and the opportunity to interact with people from diverse cultures. Her willingness to communicate and collaborate with people from different backgrounds allowed her to become an indispensable project team member. As a result of her exceptional work, Sarah gained visibility and was nominated for a company fellowship.
The fellowship offered Sarah the unique opportunity to continue her professional growth by covering her tuition and half her salary while attending Stanford to earn a master’s degree, MS in Management Science and Engineering.
While pursuing her degree at Stanford, Sarah Wills Carlson enrolled in a Global Project Coordination class, which would prove to be a transformative experience. The class was taught in partnership with universities in Sweden, and Sarah’s participation resulted in her traveling to Sweden as part of the program. During her time there, Sarah had the pleasure of meeting two exceptional professors, Tom Kosnik and Lena Ramfelt. Sarah enjoyed working and conversing with them so much that she extended her collaboration with them beyond the global project they worked on together.
The impact of Tom and Lena’s mentorship on Sarah’s life was profound., “Tom and Lena, I think, were professors that really helped set a lot of my future life.” Tom was an individual who believed that anything was possible, and his attitude rubbed off on Sarah. In his presence, she felt that anything was achievable. Lena, on the other hand, was supportive and had a keen analytical ability and thought process. The combination of these two beliefs – that anything is possible but that good analysis and thought processes are necessary – has proven invaluable to Sarah throughout her life. It was a perfect balance between the two, much like the yin and yang in Asian philosophy.
In 2015, Sarah founded Nspire with a clear mission to inspire people and make the world a better place. Alongside her passion for identifying talent, Sarah also had a fascination with cultural differences and dreamed of teaching. While working between Sweden and China, she recognized the need for her team to understand and work with cultural differences, leading her to create a training course. To her surprise, the course caught on and spread throughout the company, even to the point where Sarah traveled to China and Russia to train for the parent company.
With her company Nspire, Sarah currently focuses on connecting cultural training with helping teams, team members, and leaders work with differences and diversity. She aims to make diversity and differences easier for people to navigate. In order to achieve this, Sarah works with teams to identify their purpose, target audience, and values. She helps them find common ground and value in their differences doing so.
In addition to her work with teams, Sarah believes it’s vital to teach children skills to interact with others who are different from themselves, using curiosity, compassion, and courage. As a result, she is working on a children’s book that introduces the idea of global cooperation and collaboration while teaching kids how to develop these essential skills.
The book, The Adventures of ‘ittle Bear, is set to be released on April 29th. It tells the story of a small bear that travels in a suitcase belonging to a big person. While the big person works, the bear goes out and has adventures. As the bear encounters different challenges during its journey, it uses its superpowers of curiosity, compassion, and courage to solve problems. The book is aimed at children between the ages of four to six and promises to be a charming tale that will inspire and educate young readers.
Sarah advises women to let go of perfection and aim for “good enough.” She acknowledges that life is full of trade-offs, and it’s not possible to be perfect in every aspect of life. By knowing your purpose, mission, and legacy, Sarah believes that you can decide what is good enough for you, “knowing that purpose, that mission, what are you here to do? Who are you trying to reach? What are you trying to achieve? What do you want to be the memory of you when you go? Your legacy. Then you can decide what’s good enough.”
Finally, Sarah’s motto is “see the difference.” She encourages everyone to help each other see and appreciate differences, recognizing that diversity leads to better results in all aspects of life. Through her work and philosophy, Sarah inspires others to embrace the beauty of differences and appreciate the unique qualities that make each individual special.
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