Anne Sanquini: Just Give it A Whirl

From "Landing a Second Career: Six Executives Who Got it Right"
by T. A. Frank, Issue #17 May-June 2017
Anne Sanquini.jpg

For Anne Sanquini, the realization the she needed to do something else came at age 50.

The year was 2002, and she was a vice president of Mentor Graphics, where she managed a $200 million software division. Sanquini had rich executive experience—she had also been a vice president at Sun Microsystems and National Semiconductor—and she was being recruited by companies to be a president. But to her surprise, she says, “I didn’t want to do it.” Work had come to involve too much high-level management and too little fun. Sanquini had plenty in savings, so she quit.

The question was what to do next, especially given the possibility that Sanquini would be like her parents and work into her 90s. “Even if I take 10 years to get an education,” Sanquini recalls thinking, “I could still enjoy a 30-year career from age 60 to age 90.” So she began to take classes at West Valley College in Saratoga, California, to see what might interest her. At the same time, she laid out five things she’d require for her career going forward: challenging work, good colleagues, time in the outdoors, no rush-hour commute and something that was doable into her old age.

She wound up hitting on geology. “I absolutely loved it,” she says. “It was how the earth works. I liked hiking, and now I understood what I was seeing.”

She decided to get a master’s degree in the field, enrolling at San Jose State University, from which she graduated in 2010. She excelled in class, impressing her professors enough that she decided to pursue a PhD. That wound up being at Stanford University, where she immersed herself in the intricacies of tectonic geomorphology.

An unlikely turning point came when she took a multidisciplinary class on hazard and risk that brought together students and lecturers from different fields—among them geology, engineering, public policy and social science—for a project about improving disaster preparedness in the developing world. The presentation on which Sanquini had worked so impressed her advisor that he recommended she shift her focus toward this multidisciplinary area and build on the work she’d done in that class.

In the years that followed, Sanquini took multiple trips to Nepal, where she combined the insights of structural engineers and seismologists with the social science of how to change behavior. Her research, which involved designing randomized trials that involved 16 schools in the Katmandu Valley, found, among other things, that showing a persuasion-heavy film about safety precautions had a statistically significant effect on predictors of behavior. During her final trip, in April 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, killing almost 9,000 people. The experience was harrowing, affecting people she knew well, and it underscored the importance of her work.

Later that year, Sanquini defended her dissertation, wrote technical articles and completed her PhD. When opportunity next knocked, she didn’t hesitate. It took the form of a job offer from a Menlo Park-based nonprofit called GeoHazards International, which brings together civil and structural engineers, geologists, seismologists, social scientists and other specialists to collaborate in ending preventable death from natural disasters. Sanquini now works there on strategic development, putting her education and life experience to use. Not only does it fulfill all of her five criteria for this stage of her life, she says, but it also adds an unexpected sixth one: major social impact.

Sanquini’s counsel to those casting around for something new: Go for it, because you can change what doesn’t work for you. At community college, she says, her classmates were gamely trying new things, even as many were overcoming extraordinary life challenges that made her own worries seem small.

“You don’t have to live in doubt or fear,” she says. “Just try.”