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#RebelsTakeChances When They Dream Big

Sara Leoni, the College of Urban Affairs Alumna of the Year, finds that a great team can last a lifetime.

People  |  Apr 25, 2017  |  By Brian Sodoma

Sara Leoni, ’96 BS Communication Studies, has 20-plus years of strategic marketing and management experience in Silicon Valley technology companies. She served as CEO of Rafter, saving students over half a billion dollars on course material expense. She also held a leadership position with CafePress, helping the company grow revenues to more than $100 million, with a clear path to IPO.


Sara LeoniEntrepreneurship is risky, but even more so when you’re asked to turn around a broken venture-backed business. In February 2014, the Rafter board of directors asked me to step in as CEO to do just that. The company had weathered a massive layoff, a failed IPO, and an unsuccessful acquisition. The team was tired and defeated, yet still passionate about the mission.

With re-discovered focus, I led the company down a strategic path to change the landscape of course materials in higher education, ensuring all students, regardless of financial status, would have access to the textbooks and courseware they needed to succeed in the classroom.

In just two years, we built a thriving multi-million-dollar business. I thought we had the magic bullet – an amazing team tied to a high-growth, high-impact business. In reality, we were a yet-to-be-profitable “re-start” who had raised over $50 million in venture capital in our early days, which was spent by the time I stepped in. After searching for new investors, by late 2016, we were out of cash and runway. I had to tell 52 talented employees we would be shutting our doors in the days ahead. I made personal calls to our many wonderful partners, announcing Rafter was closing. It was the single hardest moment in my professional life.

In spite of the ultimate outcome, my time at Rafter was a gift because in the end, it’s all about people and relationships. I had the opportunity to work with an incredibly talented, dedicated team – and even through the worst moments, I knew they had my back. Companies come and go (especially in Silicon Valley), but a great team can last a lifetime.

We accomplished incredible things. We took big risks for a bigger mission. And given the chance, I would do it all over again.