Sarah Hlavinka ‘86: A successfully selfless Aggie businesswoman
From small town Texas to New York City to the Lone Star State’s capital, this successful Aggie businesswoman has put her liberal arts education to good use in both business and philanthropy.
By Rachel Knight ‘18
Editor’s Note: This piece started before the coronavirus crisis and was finished at the end of April. This story may not acknowledge or reflect the challenges of a global pandemic; however, we believe stories like this from the College of Liberal Arts provide an important source of light during these dark times.
They serve as a reminder that Aggies make a difference in the best and worst of times. We hope you find inspiration in what you are about to read, because you continue to inspire us. Thank you for all that you do.
Sarah Hlavinka ‘86 might be the Aggiest Aggie you’ll ever meet — just ask her friends from the University of Texas at Austin School of Law where she was in fact voted the Aggiest Aggie. After graduating from Texas A&M University as a history major and Spanish minor, Hlavinka headed to Austin to study law. She made it clear that while she was studying at the University of Texas, she was an Aggie through and through. She took old and new friends to Texas A&M football games, and made sure they all had a good time—even the t-sips.
After graduating from law school, Hlavinka started her career working for a private firm in Houston. When she thought she had enough experience to market herself as an experienced employee to companies and their in-house legal departments, she started looking for a new opportunity. Her job search initially led her to Cooper Industries, and she’s held a series of in-house positions since then.
In 2007, a job with ABM Industries, a facility services company, took Hlavinka to New York City for a decade. While in New York, she became a member of the 2017 Class of the David Rockefeller Fellows Program and of the Women’s Forum of New York. She was then general counsel for Xerox in Connecticut for an exciting bit, before deciding to return home to Texas. Today she is a senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary for a company called Itron in Austin.
Throughout her career, Hlavinka has made time to tap into her Aggie roots every chance she gets and support the College of Liberal Arts. We chatted on the phone with Hlavinka to learn more about her story, her time at Texas A&M, and the legacy she plans to leave. This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, may awe and inspire you.
Tell me a little about your childhood.
I was born and raised in a very small town called East Bernard, Texas, which is about 50 miles south of Houston. I was one of six children born in seven years, none of whom are twins, so there was a lot of activity in the house.
Some of my very first memories are in the car going to see Aggie football games. My father is class of ‘56, so we grew up being involved at Texas A&M to the extent that we could with so many children. Sometimes it was hard to get us all into the car to go to ball games, but we did it. It was a great way to grow up.
What was your first job?
My first job was actually working as a janitor in my father’s business. My family started a tractor dealership business more than 75 years ago, which we still run today. My father is trying to retire at the age of 85! My brothers are actively involved and have grown it with the help of wonderful employees. We have multiple locations in the Gulf Coast region.
My family has an incredibly strong work ethic and this was instilled in all of the children. I was probably 11 or 12 when I started working at the shop. I would clean the bathrooms, stock the shelves, mop the floors, things like that. I translated that work ethic into babysitting at some point, and then worked at a grain dryer when I was in high school.
How do you think your first jobs influenced your life and career?
I certainly think that having a sense that I needed to work and that work was very important had a great impact on me. Particularly, my parents instilled in me and my sister that we needed to be able to support ourselves, because one never knows what life will bring. (My sister has a Bachelor of Science and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Texas A&M.)
My parents were both incredibly supportive, but it was a bit unusual for fathers in the late 60s and early 70s to tell their daughters they could be anything they wanted to be. But my father did and I am forever grateful. In fact, he will probably be a little disappointed when Joe Biden doesn’t select me for his VP running mate (even though it’s not the party Daddy aligns with)!
How did you decide to study at Texas A&M University?
My family has two topics of conversation: Texas A&M and agriculture. Still, we could have studied anywhere we wanted. My family values education of all kinds.
Texas A&M was just the natural fit. When I went to college in 1982, my oldest brother was there as a senior, my sister as a junior, my next oldest brother as a sophomore, and then I was there as a freshman. It was very special to have all four of us there together at the same time. And then my brother was a yell leader and my parents were Parents of the Year in 1986 (how could they not be). How fun is that!
How did you choose your major?
I took general studies as long as I could while deciding which direction to head. Then I took a World War I class from Dr. Betty Unterberger, who was a world-renowned history professor. One class with her and I was hooked. I then concentrated on World War II and the Vietnam War.
What is your favorite tradition?
Muster is my favorite because of the deep meaning and how unique it makes Texas A&M University. The fact that soldiers during World War II held Muster on Corregidor Island while they were staring death in the face makes it even more special. That kind of courage takes my breath away.
And who ever thought that Aggie Muster would be virtual-only? But on April 21, 2020, Aggies throughout the world gathered over laptops and smartphones to remember the Aggies who died in the previous year. Texas A&M is just a one-of-a-kind place.
You said you’ve always known you wanted to work for private companies instead of a law firm. Why is that?
Watching my family’s love of our family business growing up and the loyalty and devotion to that one business is what moved me to choose a career in-house. I enjoy having a relationship with one client and partnering strategically with one client as opposed to having a number of clients I don’t know as well.
Tell me a little about Itron and what you do as a senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary there?
Itron is a $2.5 billion publicly traded company with 8,000 employees worldwide, which enables utilities and cities to deliver critical infrastructure services such as gas, electricity, and water.
I do something different everyday as general counsel. I might be working on intellectual property issues or working with the board of directors or answering questions for the CEO. I have a wonderful team who supports me and helps me think those things through.
What role, if any, have the liberal arts classes you took in college played in your life so far?
In my opinion, the wonderful thing about a liberal arts education is that it opens the mind to always appreciating the various shades of any situation. It makes one appreciative of diversity and the great things that different perspectives can bring.
Throughout my life, this liberal arts education has opened my mind to be receptive to new challenges and prepared me to do things like live and succeed in New York City!
Why is it important for successful people like you to recognize the value of a liberal arts education?
Graduates with a liberal arts education are trained to think about things from so many angles. It’s not math. It’s not a science. It’s an art! And I think the world needs a lot of that right now.
You also have a degree from the University of Texas, so what makes Texas A&M stand out as a place you want to support?
It is the most special place to study in the world and is transforming into a true world-class university. I want to contribute to that transformation, where we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any institution in the world.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which is something that’s an escape for me. It’s a diversion so I like to read it at the end of the day as relaxation.
The other one, Love Does by Bob Goff, is Christian focused and composed of excerpts from the author’s life. One of my favorites is where he asks his children “If you could influence the world in any way, how would you make it a better place?” They told their father that if they could talk to the heads of state and find out what’s really bothering them and communicate that to others, it might make the world a better place. He commits that if the children will write to heads of state and ask for a visit to have that conversation, he will travel with them to all the heads of state that accept! And several did respond and ask the children to visit and they went! Now that is a way of looking at the world differently.
What do you want your legacy to be here at Texas A&M University?
I don’t think about it in that way so much. I don’t have children, so I think about having an influence on future generations and how I might do that without children.
I want to contribute resources to enable students to attend Texas A&M and maximize their potential. Maybe one of those students will change the world by curing cancer. Or maybe one of those students will go on to be an incredible teacher in rural Texas who then influences a young child in his or her classroom to grow up and be that person who cures cancer.
You just never know the way you might impact lives.