Life Is an Adventure

Sarah Rowell (former project leader, London) is the CEO of Kantola, a US-based e-learning company that offers trainings on harassment prevention and diversity, equity, and inclusion. She sat down with BCG to discuss her adventures in Africa, lessons from consulting, and story-based learning for adults.

Tell us about your journey.

After leaving BCG, I moved to Uganda with my husband in search of adventure and impact, and we ended up staying for ten years, founding and running various businesses along the way. We stayed because we were entranced with the very tangible effects that private sector companies can have on individuals’ lives. At the macro level, we founded a solar power plant capable of serving a whole region. At the micro level, our venture’s adoption of health insurance allowed one of our teammates to get a health check because he “felt a bit funny.” As it turns out, the doctor identified the signs of a stroke early enough for our teammate to make a near-full recovery.

Ten years later, as we moved back to the US (this time with two young sons and two cats), I asked myself, “How can I replicate the direct impact that I had in Uganda?” This was what ultimately led me to acquire Kantola.

We live in an era of massive upheaval, during which society is undertaking the messy process of rewriting social norms. In this environment, what gets me out of bed every day is being part of a team that creates workplace-culture training for large organizations. Our goal is to make work environments better for everyone. We get to participate in a small way to change people’s perspectives, give them the tools to communicate effectively, and build bridges between them. I watch our learner counter tick forward, and I know that each time it does, it represents an opportunity for us to help make workplaces more open, respectful, and productive.


My father founded, operated, and eventually sold his own business, so I saw firsthand the double-edged sword that comes with this level of responsibility and accountability. You have a lot of control over your destiny, get to directly impact people’s lives, and reap the personal and financial rewards if you succeed. However, you also take on the risks and pressures that come with sitting in the driver’s seat. Coming out of university, I was drawn to this life, but it also felt really daunting, and I wasn’t sure that I would ever have the skills and confidence to take the leap.

As my career progressed at BCG, I felt my confidence and skill set growing. I was building a broad general-management toolkit and was exposed to great leadership role models, both internally and with clients. I became comfortable with a structured and rigorous approach that could solve complex, real-world business challenges. Perhaps most important, I saw how a small number of people can change industry paradigms and transform lives through their actions. Becoming an entrepreneur ultimately seemed logical.

My career has been guided by my general philosophy: life is an adventure. Therefore, I always try my best to focus on the journey—not the destination.

Can you share a meaningful experience you had or an influential lesson you learned at BCG that has helped you in your career?

At BCG, my client work occupied most of my mind share. However, as I move further away from that period, the internal case team experiences are what I remember most vividly.

There is one experience that stands out, which continues to guide me as I lead Kantola. I was the recipient of a client’s unwanted romantic attention, which included him showing up unannounced at the office. I did not admit to myself that it disturbed me, but I did mention it to my manager. This was in the early 2000s, well before the #MeToo movement. I was at my most vulnerable, even in denial, and this manager had my back and took the episode seriously. That felt so good. This was a thread that I would pick back up many years later in my current role.

On the client side, perhaps the least glamorous project that I worked on turned out to be the one that helps me the most today. I was working with a sales training academy for a client with a massive field-based salesforce. It didn’t have the allure of strategy work, but it wasn’t exactly a change management case either. However, it gave me deep insight into the importance of helping adults learn through a story-based approach. When I paused to reflect, I realized that I really enjoyed that project—it involved structure and analytics, but it was also creative and grounded in psychology. I drew on this experience when I was doing due diligence on Kantola, and it helps me every day while operating the business.

What's the best piece of advice that you've ever received?

During my early days at BCG, my manager shared that I was too quiet in meetings, particularly client meetings, and needed to speak up more. I am not sure how common this is with fresh associates and consultants, but I had a strong dose of imposter syndrome. I was a keen observer who could read the room and collect useful information. But did I have anything worth saying? I certainly didn’t think so.

It wasn’t until this manager explained that I was holding back the group’s ability to collaborate that I realized I needed to take the leap. I got some really great tips from her and from subsequent managers, and I built these skills over time. The reason this advice was so impactful was because I hadn’t yet experienced the introspective power you get from feedback. Further, it helped me shift my perspective 180 degrees—I was in my own head before, but this helped me understand the impact of my silence on others. As an aside, I think anyone who works with me today would likely be very surprised to read this story. These days I work hard on making sure I don’t take up more than my fair share of meeting time. And I won’t say how often I give myself a failing grade.

What are the greatest challenges facing organizations working on implementing and maintaining a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion?

There are myriad challenges and hurdles. Let’s face it, trying to create a strong diversity, equity, and inclusion program in a world where societal and structural issues are directly impacting workplaces and teams is hard. However, I would say the three greatest challenges are: the absence of a tried-and-tested approach that guarantees success, which makes it extra difficult to get started; frontline and middle managers being often overlooked as part of the solution; and employees not always understanding that others experience the same workplace differently based on their identity.

Regarding the first of these challenges, to make progress an organization must set a clear intention to build a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture. But because no one is a true expert—there isn’t a clear blueprint to follow—it requires setting your intention without fully knowing how you are going to get there. That is very scary and not built into most executives’ DNA (or into their incentives).

The second challenge seems to stem from the fact that leaders see frontline and middle managers as part of the problem and therefore don’t include them sufficiently in the solution-generation process. Supervisors and managers are the eyes and ears of the organization—involving them takes time and effort—but companies that tap into this resource see better results.

Finally, the last of these challenges exists because each of us is the product of our life experiences, and we tend to think that everyone sees the same picture that we see. When it comes to understanding the dynamics of equity and inclusion, everyone has a different starting point. An important foundational step is to provide employees with teachable “aha” moments, and then to equip them with the right language and toolkit to enable interactions that foster belongingness and inclusion.