The crisis queen.
Sarah Tuneberg uses tech innovation to help those dealing with present and future emergencies.
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When Sarah Tuneberg got a call from her friend and fellow Coloradan Brad Feld, it didn’t seem like a big deal.
This was the spring of 2020 and the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sarah was the CEO of a small, successful tech startup called Geospiza. Brad, the legendary venture capital veteran, was a mentor to Sarah. He also happened to be a friend and advisor to Colorado Governor Jared Polis.
At the time, little was known about the virus or its effects. “It was so terrifying and new,” remembered Sarah. Brad explained that the governor needed a team to rapidly scale up testing for the state’s residents. However, with things changing by the day, he knew a traditional task force would get bogged down the way that, well, government task forces get bogged down. He wanted a team that would act like a startup, one that would be comfortable with unknowns and pivot quickly when necessary.
Brad and the governor knew that Sarah had spent her career working in both the public and private sector worlds and knew the ups and downs of both. Would she be interested in running the team?
Never one to turn down an adventure or a chance to help, Sarah said yes. She started with a team of four. By the time she left, she was leading 450 people and overseeing a $1 billion budget. Along the way, she became Colorado’s COVID-19 testing and containment chief.
“When I signed on, I thought it would be for four weeks. It turned out to be a year.”
From her first day on the job, Sarah knew lives could be lost or saved depending on her team’s ability to coordinate an effective pandemic response.
What she couldn’t foresee is that her own life would be put at risk in a way that had little to do with a virus.
Blame it on HBO
When Sarah was 10 years old her family got HBO. One weekend, she watched the movie The Killing Fields about the tragic story of two journalists who fled the Khmer Rouge regime and ended up in a refugee camp. Then she watched the film again. And again. She stayed home from school for two weeks re-watching the film. When her parents found out they were livid, but her mission in life was set. She wanted to help refugees. The only question was how.
As a teenager, she considered being a doctor and later a war correspondent before getting a degree in social work from the University of Georgia. She worked in refugee camps around the world before returning to the U.S. and enrolling in a Masters degree program in public health at Tulane University. She was studying in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. “It was the experience of living through the aftermath of that tragedy that I realized there were plenty of people in need right here in my own country.”
One of the most challenging parts of her role with the Colorado state government was the politicization of everything related to the vaccine response. “In Colorado, we have a lot of people who believe COVID is no worse than the flu. They are anti-mask and even anti-testing.”
One elected county leader went so far as to spread a conspiracy theory that the COVID testing was really a secret government attempt to get people’s DNA and use it to enslave them.
Even worse, as head of the testing effort, the official singled out Sarah. “This official went on social media and said ‘If they want a war, we’ll give them a revolution’ and gave out my name and home address.”
When she heard the news, she wasn’t sure what to do. She would have taken her partner and three young kids away from the house but hotels weren’t an option due to the pandemic. In the end, they locked their doors and hoped for the best.
Thankfully, nothing happened, but Sarah was shaken. “Honestly, it was terrifying.”
Then she went back to work.
Replacing one Superwoman cape with another
After a successful year working with the state government, Sarah returned to her role as CEO of Geospiza at the beginning of 2021. The company helps governments and large corporations mitigate the future impact of climate change on their people and business. Sarah started the company in 2018 after her years of emergency management experience and seeing first-hand how poor decision-making and lack of data-driven efforts directly contributed to devastating human loss and financial instability.
Selling her company’s services to potential clients is getting easier by the day. Over 80% of top companies now see major climate impacts, including extreme weather, rising temperatures, and greenhouse gases, as a primary risk to their business.
Sarah has a second job working with Google as a U.S. exposure notification advocate. Exposure Notification technology enables people to be notified if they’ve crossed paths with someone who tested positive for COVID. The program is currently active in 27 states.
The promise of 5G
As someone who deals with testing for virus transmissions as well as other emergencies and natural disasters, Sarah knows that the speed of communication can be critical. That’s why she’s so excited about the potential of 5G both in the United States and abroad.
“If you think about it, the ten plagues mentioned in the Bible are largely the same problems we’re dealing with today: hail, locusts, pestilence, floods, you name it,” said Sarah. “But the difference is that with 5G and the incredible speed and quality along with the eventual ubiquity of it, this will counter the catastrophic parts, or at least mitigate them, with early warning systems. And 5G enables citizen science and data collection in a way that is unprecedented, which will help us understand so much faster what is happening and where.”
She also thinks 5G will have an enormous impact on other parts of the world. “There’s incredible potential to provide accessibility of service for people who are marginalized. In Africa, we've seen technology skipping steps, with people going from no landline straight to mobile. 5G is going to allow skipping in other areas, like entrepreneurial banking.”
Women in tech
Sarah believes there needs to be more space made for women in the top levels of tech-related industries. “A lot of women are entering the field, but as you get to the top it gets whiter and male-r, and smaller. The power is held by fewer and fewer people who all look alike.”
She has also come across many reasons for hope during her varied career in tech. “I have found incredible mentorship and collegiality. There are male allies and women who are intentionally opening doors and pulling women and people of color up, knowing good comes from having more diversity at the top.”
Sarah has one more reason she sees brighter days ahead.
“I just got my first 5G phone and I'm so jazzed.”