Liz Gross, Campus Sonar

IB’s Professional of the Week is the premier way to meet Dane County’s professionals. This week features Liz Gross, CEO, Campus Sonar.
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What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your job and why?

Campus Sonar is a startup that exists within a corporate incubator, Ascendium Education Group (formerly Great Lakes Higher Education Corp.). The most challenging aspect is everything about the job is completely new. Creating a standalone business within our larger company had never been done when I pitched the idea in 2017, and I’m a first-time entrepreneur. Most of what I’ve done to launch and grow the company, I’m doing for the first time, and there’s always another first to follow. I enjoy and welcome the challenge, and I’ve learned a lot about business planning, budgeting, sales, and leadership in the process.

The most rewarding aspect is the people I work with every day, both my 11 colleagues (we call ourselves Sonarians) and the higher education industry we serve. As a leader, it’s incredibly fulfilling to chart a vision and find the right group of people to bring it to life — that’s what’s happening at Campus Sonar. And almost every day I get feedback from a client or member of our professional community regarding the value of the service and insights we provide. Knowing your work matters makes a difference and provides fulfilling employment for a dozen people is an incredible thing.

Who do you look up to or admire in business and why?

Manoush Zomorodi, co-founder of Stable Genius Productions (also author, podcast host, journalist, mother, and many other things), inspires me because she’s willing to be unapologetically herself and do things differently. When she co-founded Stable Genius Productions in 2018, I followed in real time as she and co-founder Jen Poyant transparently shared their journey on the ZigZag podcast and in their newsletter. They want work to be meaningful, sustainable, and profitable. I want all of those things, too, and thanks to her prolific podcast hosting, Manoush’s voice is literally in my ear as I ponder what’s next for our business.

I also look up to and follow Rand Fishkin closely. He’s best known for founding Moz, the company he led for over 10 years. Upon leaving the company, he wrote Lost and Founder, sharing the highs and lows of leading and growing the business. Now he’s trying something completely different with SparkToro. His focus is largely on smart, sustainable companies that solve previously unsolved problems with a clear focus, and I apply his lessons and philosophies to my work every day at Campus Sonar.

While I largely know Manoush and Rand from their public personas, both are incredibly accessible on social media, enabling me to feel connected to them, even if we aren’t personal acquaintances.

What has been the high point of your career so far?

Honestly, I’m living it every day. Although I’d rather be back in the office face-to-face with my colleagues and traveling to conferences and to visit remote team members, this stage of Campus Sonar’s growth is the happiest I’ve ever been in my career. I have a team of talented, kind, and motivated people who work every day to make the business more than I could ever imagine.

I’ve done other cool things, like complete my PhD, win awards, and give speeches to crowded rooms. But the work I do daily with this team to advance this company is absolutely the high point.

Thinking back on your career, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

You really don’t know it all. Ask more questions. Avoid making assumptions. Especially in my

20s, I found myself in an adversarial position with a colleague or supervisor because of a decision they made or an action they took. Looking back, I was almost always missing key information to understand why things happened the way they did. I could have avoided a lot of frustration, stress, and loss of social capital if I asked more questions and avoided making assumptions.

But on a more positive note, I would encourage 21-year-old me to follow my own path. I quickly entered a professional field with a fairly linear path to promotion and advancement and started doing all the things to get to the next rung on the career ladder. It was only when I stepped off that ladder and took a risk that I started to understand how my perspective and talents could be uniquely valuable to the industry. Don’t be in a rush to get to the next job title you think you should have; focus more on collecting a set of skills and experiences that allow you to chart your own course, rather than follow a prescribed path.

What would you say are the best things about living and working in Dane County?

In late 2015, after I’d been working in Dane County for three years, my husband and I moved just over the Jefferson County line from our prior home in Oconomowoc. We wanted to live closer to Madison — but still live in the country — to enjoy performances at the Overture Center and restaurants after work instead of commuting an hour each way. We also enjoy supporting Forward Madison, and I’m involved with FairShare CSA Coalition, first as a volunteer and then joining their board a few years ago.

The best thing about working in Dane County, particularly in a startup, is the network. Although we haven’t been in it much lately, our office is right across from the DreamBank and my teammates and I regularly take advantage of educational and networking events, including Social Media Breakfast Madison.

Do you have any secret talents or abilities that people would be surprised to discover?

I’m a whiz at maximizing reward points and airline miles to use for flights, vacations, and other travel expenses. I started learning about it in 2014 when my husband and I wanted to go to Vietnam. We realized how long the flights were and resolved to fly business class for the first time and use frequent flier miles to pay for it. We took that trip at the end of 2015, and since then have traveled all over the world without paying cash for airfare and rarely paying for a hotel stay. With our summer trip to Germany canceled and our winter trip to Italy in jeopardy, the miles are really starting to accumulate.

What are your guilty pleasures?

I adore fine dining and find it hard to turn down a tasting menu. The fascination started after reading Service Included, a memoir from a server at Per Se, a Michelin three-star restaurant in New York City. My husband and I fulfilled our dream of eating there in 2013. After that, we actually started a savings account for “ridiculous food and wine” so we could plan for indulgences. In November 2014, we were looking forward to our next three-star meal at Alinea in Chicago to celebrate our wedding anniversary. This was before ride-sharing apps, and when we got in the taxi to go to the restaurant, I gave him the wrong address. Instead of going to 1723 N. Halstead, we went to 723. Although we were dropped off at a nondescript building, I’d read the restaurant was hard to find and just went with it. After the taxi pulled away, I realized we were over a mile from where we should be, and our nonrefundable, prepaid reservation was in about 10 minutes. It was rush hour and cold and there wasn’t a taxi in sight. We ended up running to the restaurant (I carried my heels in my hand while running through the streets of Chicago on a dark night), and made it slightly late, but they agreed to seat us. We were a little out of breath for the first course but were able to calm down enough to enjoy an amazing meal. We certainly will never forget it.

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