From Free-Spirited to Forbes: How This San Antonio Entrepreneur is Leading A Tribe of Creatives to Top Industry Ranks
The name Sara Helmy is one that has been on many an impressive list in this city for the past few years. Sara and her digital marketing firm Tribu became a blip on my radar last year when my dad handed me an article from the San Antonio Business Journal announcing it’s finalists for the 2016 Tech Titans awards. He pointed to Sara’s picture and said “this young woman is someone you need to know.” Fast forward almost one year later, and there I was getting ready to meet this powerhouse San Antonian for lunch at The Pearl.
When I first envisioned this Grit + Grace series, Sara’s type of profile was one of the pie-in-the-sky stories I dreamed about telling. There are dozens of admirable women in San Antonio who make waves professionally, but Sara is doing it in her twenties with a team behind her proving millennials are indeed willing to put in the effort needed to produce great work. Clearly, the proof of Sara’s leadership is in the pudding. With extreme dedication, a highly talented team and lots of savvy, Sara and Tribu have been awarded a litany of prestigious industry honors, and she recently had this article featured in Forbes.
Sara’s leadership is putting San Antonio on the map in the digital entrepreneurship space, and as a fellow digital entrepreneur here in town, I’m both in awe of her and inspired by the work she has accomplished in the past six years. We did indeed hit it off at lunch, with a connection as if we had always known each other, and look forward to our scheduled happy hour soon. 🙂 I am confident you’ll find many moments in this interview as relatable as I do, and just by reading about Sara and her values you’ll want to schedule your next happy hour with her too.
What was your upbringing like here in San Antonio, and how did it influence your path to entrepreneurship?
I am a San Antonian, born and raised. I grew up with a younger brother who I really loved to pick on (and sometimes still do!), my mom Mona Helmy, and my dad Ibrahim (Abe) Helmy. My parents were an entrepreneur team. They founded their company Helmy Plastics in 1988 – the year I was born. At every stage of my life I was able to observe the experience of entrepreneurship from their example. Even though they were extraordinarily busy, family always came first.
Growing up, they exposed us to the gift of travel, and that influenced me greatly. In years when the business performed really strongly, we were able to take all sorts of trips to many different parts of the world. Being exposed to different cultures expanded my view of the world and of people in general. Learning about other cultures also encouraged me to experiment with several “identity phases”…the most notable of which was my tattered beach bum phase when I died my hair pink, pierced my lip and spent as much time possible on the Texas coast.
Still, each and every one of those phases made me who I am, and I like to think I kept the good in each of them. Many aspects of all of my experiences shaped my business beliefs, fueled my drive, and helped me form the foundational principles of how visions should be achieved and how to treat the people who help you get there.
My dad passed away after losing a brave battle with cancer when I was 20. Through this experience, I learned that life is short. I mean… I really learned that. I saw how hard my parents worked, how they put everything into me and my brother, and for the first time I actually began to think seriously about the way I wanted to live my life. I began to wonder what I was capable of, to take things more seriously and to find my true identity.
What was the dream career you envisioned for yourself when you were in undergrad at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi?
I actually thought I’d become a dentist. It seemed like a safe career. I never really thought about what I wanted to actually be at a personal level. A job and a career just seemed like something you had to have to be acceptable to society, so I picked one I thought was safe and started going through the motions.
I was majoring in biology. I hadn’t yet learned that you’ll likely be spending the majority of your life doing whatever you pick…and that you’re probably better off if you genuinely like what you’ve picked. One day a professor asked me if I actually wanted to be what I was pursuing. That was the first time I had even wondered that. I realized I didn’t want to be a dentist, so I took some art classes instead.
I tried a bunch of different things while I figured it all out and eventually landed on business. I can’t tell you why I love business and marketing specifically, but I really do. I switched my major to marketing and everything started to come together. I never really had a dream career in college, but college did help me learn that I needed to find something I would enjoy doing. After that, I just accepted internships related to my field – I found one San Antonio agency that I liked and I interned there every summer.
Was there a traditional office job position you held before launching Tribu that inspired you to be your own boss?
The agency I interned with in college hired me to run their SEO division as soon as I graduated. SEO was completely new at the time and I was very lucky to land that job. That was my only experience at a traditional 9am to 5pm work life. I learned by fire and it was exciting. I was responsible for hiring and firing, for leading the execution of our work, for developing and maintaining processes, and for collaborating with sales.
I learned so much there about business in general, and about teamwork – a lot of the non-classroom stuff that you really can’t learn any other way. I also learned that the job was not for me, and that was a tough realization and a difficult thing to admit to myself. Some people value financial security and there is nothing wrong with that, but I personally couldn’t stand that my input was not completely my output. Maybe I have authority issues too (although, deceptively, there are a lot more authorities to answer to when you are your own boss than there are when you’re not).
Eventually, I got to a place where I didn’t care if I was risking the possibility of making nothing at all for a period of time. I just wanted my input to be completely my output and that’s when I realized I wanted to start my own business. The idea of Tribu was born because I couldn’t see myself being happy doing anything else. It creeped in slowly and eventually became the only thing I could see myself doing. I was willing to take the struggle and face the risks. I have a total of 6 months of post-graduate working experience for another company, and that’s it. The rest I’ve learned through Tribu – and many things I’ve learned the hard way, but I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.
How did you carve out Tribu’s niche in digital marketing services, and what were some methods you used to “stay in your lane” while growing authentically?
When we first started Tribu, we thought that our calling was to be an advertising agency. We quickly realized that we were pitching against people that had thirty years of experience and far more resources. That forced us to take a hard look at ourselves. What do we excel at? What do we enjoy? And how can we really contribute value? We landed on digital technologies and mesmerizing design. Our youth gave us an advantageous opportunity in this space and these technologies fit really well inside of our mission of “building tribes for our partners’ brands.”
We also felt that in San Antonio, at least in 2011, companies weren’t fully realizing how they could benefit from combining cutting edge technology with mesmerizing design. What we ended up finding was that the organizations we served needed the combination of young energy and technology, and we could build a client base in this space. We carved out this niche in early 2012 and decided that digital and design is where we would put our energy, our resources, and our hustle to develop an ultra-powerful expertise, and most of all, real value. It has been one of the best decisions we’ve made so far – we believe in it, and we’ve grown a lot because that belief shows in our work and the results we produce for our partners. Most importantly, it gets us closer to realizing Tribu’s mission.
What was the largest lesson in self-discovery you learned throughout the process of Helm(y)ing Tribu through its first 5 years of business?
Leadership has many equivalents to standing naked in front of a crowd. There’s no personality you can wear in leadership that people can’t see through. I’ve learned to embrace authenticity – which is a lot tougher than it sounds, and requires more bravery than one might guess. In leadership, people see your character regardless of how you try to present it to them, so you have to constantly work on improving yourself. There is no shortcut and there are no “tricks” that can be employed to substitute the responsibility of showing your tribe that you’re in it for the right reasons and that you are honestly committed. You’ve also got to fearlessly be yourself and be true to the right things in order be someone worth following. That all sounds very idealistic and rah rah, but the truth is – it’s hard. That’s the toughest lesson I’ve learned and am still learning every day. I am a perpetual work in progress and so is Tribu. It’s also an enjoyable thing to always be learning, and I think that it has helped me become a better person.
What has been a challenge you have faced as a “female CEO,” and how have you worked to overcome it?
Honestly, I don’t feel I’ve ever been personally hindered from winning an opportunity because of my gender. If I have, then I’m unaware and that’s probably a good thing. If there’s any challenge at all that I’ve experienced in being a female CEO, it’s merely personal – even then, I’m not sure it’s a challenge that belongs to females…it might just be a challenge that belongs to me for other reasons entirely.
There are times I’ve had to work hard to compartmentalize my emotions and just do what’s best for the business at an objective level. There have been tough calls along the way in which feelings don’t excuse me from not making a decision, taking a stand, or executing an action that I know deep down must be taken to ensure Tribu’s health, growth, or overall success.
That has been a challenge I’ve faced that some might argue is because I’m female, but I’m sure that there’s a male CEO somewhere that can relate to having to do the same thing. The last thing I’ll note is that I believe the fact that I’ve never felt any sort of discrimination for being a female CEO is a testament to how far many great women before me have come – and I’m very grateful for that.
I love Tribu’s focus on cultivating community, or “tribes,” through digital strategy that targets the millennial market. How have you built an office culture that fosters creativity and delivers the best product possible for your clients?
Thank you! We work on our culture every day. We believe culture is one of those things you can never stop nurturing or ever take your eye off of. We don’t have age restrictions on what makes a perfect candidate at Tribu, we’d never do that. But…we do gravitate to spirits that are “young at heart” and that bring huge energy to the table.
The team is constantly learning and it naturally gravitates to progressive ideas. We want people that will bet on positive outcomes and “try the impossible” as we seek to innovate. The culture is definitely built to foster that. For one, most of us work in an open space (which actually has its drawbacks too!). Due to the open office layout, there is a lot of dialogue and collaboration. That includes the tough conversations too. Conversely, there are a lot of jokes and also a lot of happy hours.
We teach the people at Tribu to have thick skin – to crave constructive criticism and understand that criticism isn’t personal, it’s about better work. Our Tribe (capital “T” in the word “Tribe” is how we say “team”) can relate to millennials, or Gen Z, and sometimes even Gen Y or older. It’s more so about practicing your ability of understanding all tribes, and being able to see the good in all types of interests, perspectives, and people in general that makes the Tribu culture awesome.
That means having a lot of love and respect for humans (all types of humans), period. After that, some stellar digital marketing and creative skills go a long way. Last but not least, we don’t penalize failure. We want people to “fail fast” (inspired by Pixar’s desire to get their people to do the same – as far as I know, they fathered the “fail fast” mentality in creative environments). That doesn’t mean that we want people to fail for the sake of failing, but we also believe that the faster we fail, the quicker we learn, and the stronger we become. We believe that failing means we are chasing big things – the safe zone is a dangerous place for us to be. I like to think that our culture supports that, which is critically important in digital environments – where everything changes as fast as you blink.
What is one piece of advice you can offer young women aspiring to launch their own companies?
Go for it. Use your naïvety as a tool that works in your favor. You’re only going to have it once and then it’s gone. There are some serious advantages to naïvety and chasing what others think might be impossible. At the same time, prepare for “hard” and don’t be so naïve that you think you won’t have a rainy day, quarter, or even years at times. Just learn to enjoy the hard things. The faster you learn to turn bad situations into blessings in disguise, the faster you’ll find success. And last but not least on this one – learn to work with people, and work really well with people. All types of people. You can’t do it alone.
What are your main sources of inner strength?
I’m a Christian. So I pray. That’s helped me personally at many times. I’ve got a really awesome, handsome, witty, stellar, and supportive husband. He’s committed to this journey with me (he’s our current CFO) and the type of life we hope to live is a really big energy boost on the days that I need one. I’ve also got an amazing family, and a dad in heaven who I hope to impress with the life that I live using the great things he’s taught me.
Your husband works for Tribu, and you’re the #bosslady. How have you found ways to balance the CEO-employee dynamic in your marriage?
It hasn’t always been easy. Yes, I’m the boss at work – but I’m not the boss in our life. In our life, Jason is my equal partner. Finding that balance has been critical to both of us. It’s important to me that Jason doesn’t feel like his whole life is Tribu. A large part of both of our lives is Tribu – but we’ve also got our own stories to write and those matter to us too.
My husband and I both know when it’s time for me to stop being in charge, and when it’s time for us to be equal. There are other times too, when it’s his turn to be in charge – and I respect that, and genuinely look forward to those times in our life. A fun example: he’s the adventure planner in our lives. I’d probably work myself to death without him. He’s the person that says “time to pause and enjoy the fruits” and he’s very much in charge of when that happens.
We maintain a lot of respect for our roles, and we try not to cross those lines or abuse our various responsibilities to one another. A lot of communication makes this possible. He has his functions and I have mine…and they are both equally important and responsible for the outcome of our quality of life. It really takes two to make it work.
Did you have a mentor that helped coach you to where you are now, and has that influenced your commitment to empowering fellow female entrepreneurs on their own journeys?
I have so many people I see as mentors who have made all the difference for me. I’ve got my mom – she took over the company after my dad’s passing and showed me what real strength is. I’ve got CMOs that generously shared their roles with me so that I could better understand some of the highest levels of marketing and advertising, and the pressures of a high stakes role. I’ve got mentors who have sold their businesses and are entering retirement or busy with passion projects and philanthropy. They share agenda-free and bias-free advice and really understand what it’s like to have the role of CEO. They challenge me and they give it to me straight. They also hold me accountable at times. I once asked one of my mentors how I could thank him and all he said was, “pay it forward.” From that response, I’ve formed my own love for mentoring others when the opportunity naturally arises. I see it as paying it forward, and I hope that they’ll pay it forward one day too. I asked another mentor how I could thank her and all she said was, “make a donation to charity in my name one day.” Mentors are amazing people. Flat out, ah-mazing. They make so much difference. I learn my best from them. And they inspire me to give back too…several people did it for me, and I hope I can do the same for many others.
If you could have lunch with any woman in the world, (living or deceased) who would it be and why?
Probably Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. I really admire the way she handled her grief (with plenty of grace!) when her husband suddenly passed, and I admire her openness at a time when it must have been very difficult to remain open.
I also admire how she’s used her well-deserved position of influence to spread positive messages she really believes in. I admire that she’s one of the first self-made female billionaires in this world, and it doesn’t seem that money was her sole motivator. I love that she took a leap from Google, where she had a lot of security, to Facebook before the world knew what Facebook was going to be.
I’m a big fan of her “rocket ship” theory and her respect for growth potential (it goes something along the lines of: when someone offers you a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat, you just hop on). I’m not sure I 100% agree with everything she believes in to the degree that she believes in it, but I admire her approach and the way she conducts her career in general. She’s someone I’ve never met but have such a tremendous amount of respect for. I’d just like to tell her that and pick her brain for an hour. Also, lunch would have to be over pizza or some food that’s just messy and acts as a total ice breaker to the stereotypical professional song-and-dance.
Edited from an interview by Eleanora Morrison.
To learn more about Tribu, visit their website and follow them on Facebook @wearetribu, Instagram @wearetribu and Twitter @wearetribu. To follow Sara Helmy and her career on her personal social networks, she is on LinkedIn @shelmy, on Instagram @sarahelmy12 and Twitter @TodaySaraSays.