ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Kim Sanchez Rael thought she’d landed in the big city when her family moved to Raton.
She’d spent the first 10 years of her life following her dad’s game warden work assignments from one rural New Mexico outpost to the next, and after stints in Los Ojos, Brazos, Lindrith and Santa Rosa, Raton seemed like a booming metropolis.
“They had stoplights and their own radio station. I was like ‘This is the city! We’ve arrived,’” says Sanchez Rael, a partner at Flywheel Ventures. “It was really a big deal.”
Sanchez Rael made the most of her new environs, leading an active adolescent life.
She was a fierce competitor for the Raton High speech and debate team — so skilled, in fact, that she once made a male opponent cry — but also found time to maintain high grades and hold a job. In fact, the future venture capitalist was earning a paycheck by age 13, having lied about her age to get a gig at the local burger joint. By the time she graduated, she’d also worked as a disc jockey for the local radio station, KRTN, spinning country-and-western tunes that still are on her playlist.
“I can recite every Tammy Wynette song ever recorded, which is really weird,” Sanchez Rael says from Flywheel Ventures’ Albuquerque headquarters. “I joke I’m probably the only person who drives around with Tammy Wynette and (business author) Jim Collins in the CD player of my car.”
In addition to the usual curfew-breaking teenage shenanigans — which kept her almost permanently grounded — a young Sanchez Rael also dabbled in art, played the guitar, and honed her cooking skills. She fondly remembers falling asleep nightly holding the family’s copy of the Betty Crocker cookbook.
But as time went by, the place that once seemed so big started to feel a little too small.
“I was very antsy, very restless (as a teenager). I was living in a small town and I had my eyes on the world,” she says. “I was kind of like ‘Can I shake the dirt of this town off my feet, and when can I?’ I was pretty ornery.”
When Sanchez Rael graduated from high school at 16, she hopped on a plane to New York City for a rigorous two-month academic program meant to prepare her for college.
After that, she was off to Harvard University.
“I didn’t understand how rural my life had been until I was like living in the greater Boston area and was like, ‘Oh, wow,’” Sanchez Rael says.
That is not the only way her horizons broadened in college. She headed to college expecting to go the pre-med route but was surprised to learn her true interests were elsewhere. Although she always thought she hated history and social sciences, she realized she just hadn’t had much exposure to them. Her Harvard experience opened her eyes to a bigger picture.
She ultimately earned her bachelor’s in International Relations, but not before completing — or nearly completing — a cross-country bike ride with a group of fellow students to raise money and awareness of world hunger issues. After biking all the way from Seattle to Washington, D.C., she was hit by a car before she could finish the ride into Boston. She suffered a broken leg but did land a subsequent interview on the “Today” show.
“We got a lot of press coverage on drought issues and starvation, and it was an incredible experience,” she says.
Harvard led to Capitol Hill for a two-year stint as a legislative aide to U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman. In Washington, she met her future husband, Lawrence, and had a career revelation: She wanted to go to business school.
“All of the issues that mattered … were about markets and international competitiveness and jobs, poverty,” she says.
She spent a year in Venezuela studying economics and then headed to Stanford University, where she earned her MBA.
By that point, she was ready to come home — to Lawrence (also a New Mexico native), her family and to a state where she felt she could have an impact.
She started at Intel and stayed for seven years before leaving to help found the Albuquerque-based tech startup Qynergy. In 2003, she became a partner at Flywheel Ventures.
A self-described “starter,” she says she ended up exactly where she was supposed to be, working around the challenges of building companies in a place she calls “off the beaten path.”
“I want to see more New Mexico-based companies grow here in New Mexico, and I think we have great technology, we have great talent,” she says. “We just have a few missing ingredients — they’re not missing. They’re just in short supply.”
Q: In what ways do you think your upbringing influenced your career path?
A: I don’t think my upbringing influenced my career path. … I grew up with four brothers and my mom adopted a fifth, so five brothers and dad. I had one sister, but I grew up with a sense of never feeling like I quite fit in, so I just got used to not fitting in so I would always do things that didn’t fit in. I always wanted to be the first person that did XYZ, or the first kid from Raton that went to Harvard. I had this thing, so I think my upbringing gave me this sense of ‘I’m different. I don’t feel like I fit in, so I might as well not fit in. I might as well try something new.’ From a career path perspective, when I got out of graduate school and my friend said, ‘Why would you throw your career away and go to a place like to New Mexico?’ I understood I’d have to go about this career path in a very different way than my friends who stayed in Silicon Valley.
Q: What was it like working as a legislative aide for Sen. Bingaman?
A: It was really, really interesting. It was pre-Internet, so it was a way to know the news before the news was on at night and to be really in the middle of the great issues of the day — nuclear disarmament, and the Iran-Contra hearings. That was one of the first things I staffed on Capitol Hill, Iran-Contra hearings, because I covered international affairs. It was just fascinating, it was a great learning experience. The people were amazing. I met my husband there. I still have him.
Q: What was your mindset when you took on the role as founding governing president of Motessori of the Rio Grande Charter School?
A: I’m very passionate about choices in education for families, choices in public education. And I think the most powerful tool for education reform is actually an informed parent with a choice, and charter schools are one aspect of that, creating a market for public education instead of the government telling you where you can go to school based on where your house is.
Q: What is your biggest regret?
A: I wish I would’ve paid more attention to relationships in college and grad school. I was very task-oriented and there were just incredible people around me that I missed because I was doing my homework. It’s sort of that task-relationship balance. I wish I would’ve been aware of it earlier.
Q: What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?
A: That I’m a great mom. My son told me, ‘Mom, you really should write a book on parenting.’ That’s the greatest compliment to have your teenage son tell you you should write a book on parenting. That almost blew me away.
Q: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
A: Probably red wine. Going to bed early. I love to go to bed early. (What time) depends on the day. 10 is late for me.