“Water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing, in the end, can stand against it.” –Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
Sandra Saathoff, our new VP of People and Culture, is a breath of fresh air at UP42–and not just because she hails from the evocative and breezy Baltic Sea. That’s where she began her search for adventure after German reunification, along with her pursuit of a meaningful career.
Along the way, Sandra learned that HR isn’t just payroll and that women can have a say in the future of a company. She learned that labels don’t matter, and she saw what people can accomplish if they pour their heart and soul into their goals.
All she needed to do was believe. And believe it or not, here she is, sharing her journey with us.
Q: Tell us about yourself. How did you start your career?
A: I joined UP42 to lead the People and Culture team for a company of about 110 people. I've worked for many consumer brands over the past ten years, so I’m comfortable with growing and scaling companies, and helping them achieve their long-term vision.
I grew up near the Baltic Sea. I'm still very connected to my childhood neighborhood, so I travel back to the waves at least once a month. Berlin is lovely–I feel at home here after eight years–but it’s also crowded. So from time to time, a little escape doesn't hurt…
I started my career in payroll 15 years ago, while looking for my Ausbildung (a typical German educational program). A company offered me a training opportunity in its payroll department, where I stayed for four years. To my surprise, I found that I enjoyed making sure their numbers were accurate, and that social security contributions were properly deducted.
10 years ago, I moved into the startup scene in Hamburg, and that’s where I started doing more than just administration. HR needs to have a seat at the table and influence the business. I learned that you can grow a team and ensure everybody understands the why behind the growth. That gave me a lot of hope. I became an HR business partner and then, over time, People Manager.
Q: So, how did you land at UP42?
A: By accident! I was approached by our recruiter Tomris last summer. I wasn't looking, and I had no touchpoints with any geospatial company. I had a rough understanding of satellite imagery, but not very deep; I didn’t know it could be used in so many different ways. After our first contact, I started learning about the company and the team.
The early interviews hooked me. Geospatial was obviously very different from my previous company, which provided encrypted communications. After my first conversation with Sean, the leadership team, and the rest of the team at the office, I thought, “Well! This is a connection you don’t feel very often.” So I followed my gut feeling.
In the beginning, I was almost overwhelmed. A entirely new product, industry, and function in a new company facing a new phase: it was a lot. But all this ensured that I understood product, engineering, marketing, and the other myriad functions throughout UP42.
Q: How so?
A: For me personally (and I think few would agree!), it’s probably different because the company sits in Kreuzberg. When Tomris approached me and I looked up the office location, I didn’t respond for two weeks. I thought, “It’s an amazing company in a very interesting industry, but I don’t know that area and I’m not sure if I want to work there.” But during the interview, my team said, “Dear Sandra, we will make you fall in love with Kreuzberg. We’re going to get you a cold drink after work, we’ll sit next to the canal in the summer, and you’ll enjoy this neighborhood.” So here we are!
But again, UP42 itself is very different. When people explained the product to me, I thought, it's probably a small ecosystem, but the deeper you go, the more you see how passionately product managers and engineers talk about the different use cases. What we are doing is for more than just the industry. I see how this impacts the world and everyone's search for purpose. I found that purpose in UP42’s business model.
Q: What person or experience influenced your search for purpose growing up?
A: I’m from a very small city on the Baltic Sea. I was born in 1986, when Eastern Germany was separated from the rest of the country and had travel restrictions. I’ll never understand why people should be restricted in where they can go, what profession they can choose, and even where they can live.
My whole family and friends are still stunned when I come back and say, “Well, I'm working in a company with more than 36 nations. My language is English, and I connect with people all over the world online.” That's still new to them; even now, the full reality hasn’t reached every corner of Germany.
When I was about six or seven, I got a thousand-piece puzzle of New York’s skyline. New York was just that, a picture you couldn’t watch in films or even dream of visiting one day. But I was really fascinated. I wanted to be there in person and connect with the locals, where nobody would label me as “Sandra from the German seaside.” I wanted to be a cosmopolitan woman. Luckily, when Germany was reunited, I got to choose my profession and travel wherever I wanted. In my early 30s, I joined a company headquartered in New York and moved there. This was my goal growing up: to be a “Frau von Welt”–a woman of the world–and connect with people from every part of the world.
Q: Now, you’re also a woman in a leadership position. What challenges have you faced to get there?
A: We’re in a unique position right now: coming out of a pandemic, and dealing with the economics connected to the wars around us. Reuniting people in a new office is not easy, and we’re all in the same boat, trying to navigate this together. It can be a lot. Personally, I found a good balance by moving outside of Berlin, where I have a small garden. After work, I sit there and just bloom. I harvest fruits and take care of my plants. The older I get, the more complex my thoughts become. It’s not easy to stop the brain carousel, so finding something that the brain can soak up instead of running through endless scenarios is essential. After 8 hours in an office, this is where I find my inner peace.
Also, when I joined UP42, more men were on the leadership team. I was the only woman. It was important for me to make sure they understood I was there to support, regardless of who I was or my gender. Sometimes, though, I would appreciate it if there were more women. Having Julia Ganitševa on the leadership team now makes me feel more empowered–and makes our team more inclusive.
Q: What’s your advice to leading women in a male-dominated industry like tech?
A: Whether you're a woman or a single parent, or part of another underrepresented group, I would first love to encourage you to network. Berlin is a vibrant city, and you can literally join a meetup any day of the week. Do that, build your community, make sure you know about business trends, and connect with like-minded people, even if it's just for getting a good dinner in the evening.
I was lucky to have had lots of mentors or supporters who saw the potential in me and helped me along the way. So, I was never confronted with the challenge. Yes, I'm a woman in a group full of men, but I never thought of it like that. I encourage people to remove labels. When you are with others, ask yourself, “What do I bring to the table?” and request the same from them, regardless of gender. It’s not about me being a woman here. It’s about being united by the same purpose.
Q: You now have a chance to influence UP42’s culture. What will it look like moving forward?
A: It's a very exciting phase. The company is four years old, and it feels like a gold rush moment where anything is possible. One of the reasons I joined UP42 is that the company doesn’t grow no matter what at all costs. It's a very conscious investment into growing special functions or professions to ensure we accomplish a company goal or meet a specific segment. I would love to continue this. We’re fortunate to have a very mature leadership team, especially our CEO, Sean Wiid, who’s thoughtful about growing and positioning our company.
At the same time, I appreciate that I have a strong connection to the team. The HR function is often seen as a team that you should be careful around. I want us to use our function as an enabler to give feedback–and rest assured, feedback will not get lost. Our engagement survey, for example, is a safe place that people trust, and with that feedback, we can work together to grow into something that makes sense to all of us. We can do better by ensuring everybody knows what to do and how this fits into our purpose, mission, and vision.
But it’s not just me supporting the company and my team doing the same. For me, having a safe space with your team where you can feel authentic and recognized as an individual is something I strongly believe in, and hope to continue to support at UP42.