Shaping Her Own Path
Whether it’s landscaping, adding muscle to help a nonprofit change people’s lives, or sticking it out as a young working mother determined to get her college degree, Sara Neel, President/CEO of One Advocate Group, agrees with Nike: Just do it. “Whatever it is, just do it. I think oftentimes we say we want something, then we’re not willing to put in that hard effort,” she explains.
As CEO/President of One Advocate Group, Neel’s current efforts are focused on serving the wealth management firm’s clients. Founded as an insurance practice in the 1990s, it evolved to become a wealth management firm that helps its clients make conscious decisions for their future. Neel joined the One Advocate Group as an executive assistant in 2012, growing as the firm grew to become Managing Director, then President, before being named CEO/President in late 2017.
But that wasn’t in her plan, because she didn’t have one. “I didn’t choose this. I didn’t come with the position that this was going to be my career path. That wasn’t my goal. My goal was to come in, help someone out and make a difference. The rest fell into place.”
That may sound like an understatement, but to someone who believes in hard work and sees value in starting at the bottom and earning your stripes the hard way, it’s a natural fit. “Why wouldn’t we want to start at the bottom? There are so many dense life lessons in that that can help us be a better CEO or leader or mother or whatever, so I embrace that.”
She landed at One Advocacy Group after jobs in banking and lending, as well as a stint as a contractor supporting U.S. forces in Baghdad during the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, working on the border between what was then known as the Green Zone and the Red Zone. “I really felt like we were contributing to a bigger mission.”
Her time in Iraq solidified her desire to give back, which she now does as president of the Grand Purpose Foundation, a nonprofit created by One Advocate Group. Committed to serving women and children directly experiencing physical and emotional abuse, the foundation does direct work in addition to making a financial contribution. That means that the team at One Advocate Group puts in sweat equity to help a cause, like renovating rooms at San Antonio’s Magdalena House. “We could just write a check, or hire someone to do the work, but what does that do? For them to come in and out of that home and see us, they know our heart was in it and it meant that much more to them. That’s truly connecting.”
Neel’s drive to help others fuels her. “Progress in others and seeing people evolve with me working with them is where I feel on fire. Seeing others…seeing where maybe something I’ve helped them with or was able to give them guidance on propelled them forward in a good way. It motivates me to be better.”
She credits her drive and attitude to her grandmother. “She had a totally different, uncharted path. She left her family, went and got a degree, went to Europe — all when this was not something that women did. Her example and words to me over so many coffee table conversations were, ‘You can do anything if you want it bad enough.’ That was her advice. If you want to do it, you go do it. If you set your mind to something, you can do it.” She advises other women to listen to their inner voice.
“Don’t let yourself talk you out of your original goal. Just execute on that.”
When she was home with two young children — now 13 and 11— working on her undergraduate degree, that idea kept her going. “It was really, really hard with two kids and a husband doing shift work and I was stuck at home. I had to keep asking myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But I was doing it because I had an end goal of wanting X — my degree.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m so done with this. What am I doing? I can’t do this anymore.’ But you have to pick yourself up. This is just temporary. Get back on the computer. Fix the babies. Fix the dinner from burning. And finish it. Listen to your inner voice. Execute. Stay positive. I had to tell myself, ‘I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.’ so many times.”
That laser focus on her end goal kept her going through her MBA as well, and now she’s pursuing her Doctorate in Business Administration. Juggling school, her family and her role at One Advocate Group has challenged that, but she stays focused. “I’ve gotten really good at saying no, I can’t do that. It’s out of my limits. Everything needs to be in harmony. If I am too heavily weighted in the work, I’m not going to be good at home. If I’m saying yes to too many things or if I’m out of whack in an area, it’s going to reflect in all of that.”
To help maintain that harmony, she sets time aside for “white space,” a time for quiet focus and reflection. For Neel, that means getting up at 4 a.m. “I’ll go for a walk or do some physical activity for 30 minutes, set my mind, come back, have coffee and have quiet time—‘white space time’. Just coffee and a candle.
“Even on the weekends. I can’t get out of that. It’s a staple for me now. If I go on vacation, same thing. It’s part of my balance.”
That unwavering commitment ties back to her “just do it” philosophy—and holding herself accountable. “There’s really no excuse as the end of the day. Mean what you say, say what you mean and follow it up with actions.”
By Dawn Robinette
Photography by David Teran