One of the foundations of Sonal Shah’s A.M.’93 successful career was waking up early during graduate school to make coffee for other people.
In the early 1990s, there was no coffee shop on campus that was open early in the morning, so Shah and some fellow students started a coffee cart at the Bryan Center. They would rise at 5 a.m. to get the java going.
“It was a test to see if we could run a business,” Shah says. “It was funded by Duke, but it was entrepreneurial and we had to run the cart for profit.”
While learning how to make a mean cup of coffee, she got basic lessons about what it takes to make a business work and how to communicate with customers – good experience for a budding economist.
That caffeine-spiked venture jump-started a career notable for moving deftly from sector to sector – government, nonprofits, corporations, philanthropy, politics, academia – while always aiming to make the most impact for people. Now, Shah’s experiences in the U.S. Treasury Department, Georgetown University, the White House, Google, United Way and Goldman Sachs have led to a new challenge in her home state of Texas.
Shah took the helm of the nonprofit, nonpartisan, public-service, news website The Texas Tribune at the beginning of this year. As CEO, she must ensure a sustainable business model that enables reporting on government accountability and Lone Star State issues to continue. The Tribune was founded in 2009 in response to the collapse of newspapers’ traditional financial mix of advertising and subscription revenue. It operates somewhat like National Public Radio, with member support, events, a paid newsletter, and backing from foundations and corporations. That formula has the Tribune on solid ground for now, but Shah is hyperaware of the shifting sands of the media industry.
Despite the fact that this is her first job in media, Shah understands from her economics, politics and policy background why her role as a defender of truth is critical. “Can we tell those stories that help people understand how the policies affect them?” she wonders. “And vice versa – if we can show policy makers how the policies they’re making are impacting the lives of their constituents and their communities, it matters.”
Shah has built trust throughout her career thanks to her skill in bringing together all sides of an issue to find solutions. “Sonal has the generosity of spirit to create community and family wherever she is,” says Cheryl Dorsey, her friend and fellow social innovation executive. She is widely revered and respected by peers, who also mention how she uplifts and mentors young people.
Born in India and raised in Houston from the age of 4, Shah got a solid grounding in international trade in her Duke master’s program (plus auditing a few classes at The Fuqua School of Business). She launched her career at Treasury, working for economics luminaries Robert Rubin, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers — all eventual Treasury secretaries. Shah worked in global development until she landed at Goldman Sachs in 2004 to build its environmental policy from scratch. From there, her career continued to pick up speed and influence. She was tapped in the fall of 2008 to lead President Obama’s transition group on Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform. The following year she created the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.
“The thread across all of the positions is how to have the greatest social impact within whatever industry you’re in,” Shah explains. “That thread runs across whether I’m in media or whether I’m in finance or whether I’m in technology. It’s always the same.”