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What I’ve Learned: Sara Lafrance '73

Sara LafranceI’ve learned that life is a progression where you learn different things at different stages. After graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno, I moved with my husband, Leonard, to the San Francisco Bay Area. We co-founded a software company (Century Analysis, Inc.) that we managed for 23 years and saw it evolve and grow to significant size.

Looking back, I recognize the value of our employees and their individual contribution to the whole and how important that contribution is for any entity to succeed. I also recognize that many of our key employees were educated, thoughtful individuals who not only used their education for academic endeavors, but also for thinking, reasoning and continuing to learn.

For me, the seed of philanthropy started with travel. When we had our company we did a lot of international business and traveled mostly to westernized countries, but also to some developing countries. I saw the contrast between the ease and availability of education in westernized countries—where a large percentage of the populace has access to higher education, which in turn greatly impacts the economic level of those countries—versus developing countries where education is less available and not as many people receive it. I started to see the correlation between an educated populace and what it can do for a person and a country.

A big catalyst for starting our foundation, Educational Pathways International, was a trip to New Guinea, a protectorate of Australia. Education was not that available there and we were in a very remote part of the country down a river far from any larger town. We visited an elementary school where the school children gave a performance. We looked out over a sea of children and there was one girl who stood out—she was more animated and seemed interested in giving a better performance than the others. My thought was that here’s a child who will probably never have a chance to leave this village and get an education. What could she do for her country if she had an education?

On this same trip, I was reading a book about a man who was born in New Guinea in the early 1940s. As he was about to enter elementary school, his island was invaded by the Japanese and he was unable to attend school. He finally entered elementary school at the age of 10, but his village only offered an education up to the sixth grade. However, he did so well that the islanders sponsored him to go to high school in the capital city. From there he received a scholarship to go to a university, went on to earn advanced degrees, worked in government, and made a tremendous impact on his country. When he retired, he returned to his village to help other children and students to realize their potential. While watching the young girl perform and having read this book, our thought was that if we could in some way help the best and the brightest in a developing country to get a higher education, then potentially they could help contribute to their country and its growth.
Later, we were introduced to the country of Ghana in western Africa as a country to start our work. Our criteria were an English-speaking country, one that had not seen a lot of civil strife or corruption, and that had potential to grow. Ghana fit all of that. It had been independent since 1957, had never had a civil war, and its leadership had been centrist.  It also looked to have potential to develop into an economic force within western Africa.

In Ghana, we work with two universities—the University of Ghana (public) and Asehsi University (private)—and offer university scholarships for gifted students of need to study in their own country. We search for the brightest students who come from the most remote, impoverished areas and give them an opportunity to get an education. Upon graduation, there is a requirement that they stay in Ghana for at least two years with the hope that they establish themselves in a long term, in-country career. We have discovered that most want to stay and don’t want to go abroad. We have a group of students who just finished their first year with grade point averages ranging from 3.6 to 4.0 and we are accepting applications for the next group of students.

Such philanthropy is inspired by the idea of what you learn in life builds.  It builds on the importance of education and how it helps in your life. Education resonates when you have a company with a strong base of educated employees who enable your organization to be more successful. It goes back to the importance of many creating a more successful whole which translates to helping developing countries. A more educated populace helps a country be more prosperous.
We also offer scholarships locally, providing for three National Merit Scholars to attend the College of Engineering. We hope to continue in this endeavor. I also chaired the College of Engineering Advisory Board until June 2009, helping with the new Dean’s search and writing for the college’s newsletter.

A lot of students don’t finish college, but it is important to persevere. I don’t think the discipline matters. You learn your subject matter, but you also learn how to think, question and work through problems. The lesson of life-long learning is about being open to things you get exposed to and knowledge that passes by you – staying curious and interested.

If I had been asked as an undergraduate at Nevada what my life would be like, I never would have imagined the path it took. I never dreamed that I would be working with engineers, as a result of starting a technology company. My majors in English and journalism taught me a lot of comparative and interpretive thought, which benefited me greatly in my company. Therefore, it is not necessarily what you major in, but how you apply it. And sometimes what you focus on is not necessarily what you do later in life. Life is not a straight line and being willing to be flexible is very important.

From a conversation with Sara Lafrance in September with director of foundation operations Crystal Parrish. Lafrance, a 1973 English and journalism graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, is the 2010 Chair of the University’s Foundation Board of Trustees. She is president of Educational Pathways International, an education-focused charitable foundation she and her husband, Leonard, founded in 2005. From 1975 to 1998, Lafrance served as president of Century Analysis, Inc., a software manufacturer that provided integration solutions to large commercial, industrial and healthcare enterprises. Since moving to Nevada in 1998, Lafrance has acted at an advisory level for several early stage businesses as well as served on and chaired many local boards, including the University of Nevada, Reno College of Engineering Advisory Board; the University of Nevada, Reno Foundation Board; KNPB Channel 5 Public Television; and the Reno Philharmonic. She is a member of Sierra Angels and active on several philanthropic/charitable organizations including READ Global and Guide Dogs for the Blind. She holds a M.A. in Organizational Change from Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York.

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