Alumni Spotlight: Elena Sanina '10

Chosen by Forbes as one of the promising national "30 Under 30" in education , Elena Sanina is blazing the path she started at Cal as an Economics undergraduate.

If you ask Elena Sanina why she chose to major in Economics, she won’t hesitate, in her words, to “channel her 18 year old decision-making self”.

“I was always interested in how people create systems that make sense of their environments and constraints, and ultimately agree on ways to work together to improve conditions,” says Elena. “For me, Econ was a way to analyze and quantify decisions and their impact, while also understanding the human aspect behind them. While I didn't necessarily see myself as a business major, Economics was very much in line with my interests in understanding how markets operate and create conditions for upward mobility, which as an immigrant, coming from a different economic system, was very alluring.”

Elena immigrated to Oakland, CA from Kiev, Ukraine when she was four. She grew up watching her family and members of her community work tirelessly to rebuild their lives in a new country, in a different economy, and in a different language. Understanding the challenges of immigration and witnessing the benefits of upward mobility deeply impacted Elena.

“I was interested in how markets create the conditions for increasing economic freedom. For me, the most reliable way to achieve that freedom is through education. A Labor Economics course that I took my senior year solidified that I wanted to work in education. When you look at the impact of high quality education on society at scale, from worker productivity to rates of incarceration, it’s clear that better educational outcomes improve our economy and create a more equitable society.”

After graduation, Elena started her career as a consultant at Deloitte, but she says she always knew she would land in education.

“The path to making the most impact in education wasn’t always clear. I went back to the same thoughts: why are educational outcomes uneven in this country? For example, the California Education Equality Index shows that performance varies widely even between schools just a few miles apart right here in Oakland. To me, that doesn’t represent the best of this country. I became more and more focused asking what role I could play in addressing that inequity”.

In 2017, Elena was able to put these questions to work when she joined the Impact Team at Charter School Growth Fund, a national nonprofit that identifies the nation’s best public charter schools, funds their expansion, and helps increase their impact.

“We identify the best ideas in K-12 education and the conditions that impact how they scale. As a director on the Impact Team, I then focus on figuring out ways to accelerate how quickly those innovate practices spread, and if our fund can play a role in making that happen. The best part about my job is working with world class entrepreneurs every day” Elena says.

“To me, work in public charter schools presents a very real application of how markets operate. I believe that when families have options on where they send their kids to school, they make the best choices for their students. When this happens at scale, the quality of the institutions increases. I’m not sure I see a more reliable path to improving outcomes than providing more high-quality options for families.”

Elena was recognized for her dedication for education by being chosen as Forbes' 30 Under 30 in Education list. Elena says that Cal gave her tools to pursue her dream career, but that only became apparent years later.

“Cal’s immense resources, breadth of pathways, and incredibly intelligent community allows you to identify and double down on what you're passionate about. However, the path at Cal is not carved out for you, which is how you hone your entrepreneurial instinct. At Cal, I explored what mattered most to me and what I wanted to pursue after I graduated.”

Another important experience for Elena was her time in Berkeley Consulting, an undergraduate management consulting organization.

“In Berkeley Consulting, I worked with fellow students serving external clients who were both nonprofits and for-profits. The application process was extremely competitive. You had to make a compelling case for why you should be a part of the team and my Econ background certainly helped with that.”

During her time in BC, Elena also met a fellow Berkeley Consultant, Andrew Tweed, and the two quickly became inseparable. They celebrated their wedding this past month in Nevada City, California, with family and friends. “Meeting Andrew was definitely one of the biggest upshots of BC, no doubt”, she says, laughing.

What do you want to wake up and tackle after you graduate? What challenges do you want to help other people overcome? When you can answer these questions clearly, you’ll pursue a pathway that will suite your talents and passions.

Elena Sanina

On a more serious note, she adds, “it was truly a stepping stone. My BC experience prepared me for the real world and the practical skills that I learned helped me land my first consulting position. Economics, more broadly, helped me analyze scenarios and decision making. You realize that there's not always a black-and-white answer, or a right and wrong. Econ also offered me technical skills that opened up doors to very diverse fields.”

Her advice for graduating econ students? “Figure out what you're fired-up about. What do you want to wake up and tackle after you graduate? What challenges do you want to help other people overcome? When you can answer these questions clearly, you’ll pursue a pathway that will suite your talents and passions. When you work on what you care most about, you’ll have longevity and continued enthusiasm in your career.”

“I believe everyone should find something that they care deeply about improving. For me, that's education.”

“Look back at what matters to you. What got you excited about solving tomorrow’s problems? If Econ is what helped you get there and work on what you care about, then you will find ways to give back.”