Sara Kurovski believes she’s where she is today because of key moments in her life — specifically, those moments when someone believed in her.

She remembers one person in particular: David Maxwell, a former teacher and now assistant principal at Valley High School in West Des Moines. He sent her a letter, telling her how in some students, he sees a sparkle — and he saw it in her, too.

“I remember reading that and wondering how he knew that about me when I didn’t know it myself,” she said. “It was so impactful, and it made me believe I could go to a great college and I could do this and I had potential so far beyond my dreams.”

In her 30 years, Kurovski has accomplished many things through similar support. In November 2013 she became the youngest and first female mayor of Pleasant Hill, earning 78 percent of the vote. She started her career at Keep Iowa Beautiful and then moved through the ranks at Metro Waste Authority, rising to the position of operations program manager before she was offered a newly created executive position at Kum & Go. 

As a female leader, Kurovski is indeed one to watch. Her story has already gained national attention when it was featured in the second installment of Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” series, titled “Lean In: For Graduates.”

Those at home are watching her as well.

“Sara is an innovative and tireless worker who understands what it means to be a leader in the community,” said Kyle Krause, president and CEO of Kum & Go. “She looks at the entire picture versus just a piece of the puzzle, and this perspective … will continue to make her a leader wherever she goes.”

When did public office enter your goals?
I (already served) on several committees in Pleasant Hill, including the board of adjustment and planning and zoning. In Fall 2013, (Pleasant Hill’s) previous mayor called me and told me he wasn’t running and suggested maybe I should. I told him there was no way I was running, I wasn’t qualified. He said I was wrong. I told him I had two small children, and he said that was ridiculous. Yet that night, I was reading “Lean In,” and it was a chapter on “don’t leave before you lead.” It was about how women who have small children don’t think they can take on more. I closed the book and said to my husband, “I can’t believe I did that to myself.”

Is that where your drive to lead and be involved stems from?
Yes, but there’s more to it. My parents always stressed being involved. I was a Sunday school teacher in high school, and I volunteered at school. Any committee or project I could get my hands on, I pushed myself to always do it. Also, knowing I have skills and talents that allow me to give back makes me want to be involved. I want to be helpful. 

What challenges have you encountered?
Oh, every day there are challenges. The biggest is reminding myself of my potential. Sometimes you can get in a rut or a situation that might not be favorable. You think there’s nothing you can do to move forward, so it has to do with helping yourself remember how you got there. It’s reminding yourself not to doubt your skills and talents in negative or bumpy situations. This is something women, especially, go through.

What goes into choosing where you spend your volunteer hours?
Right now, I serve on boards with the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. I’m also a board-alternate at Metro Waste Authority. If I can pick things on my own, I do whatever I can to support 50-50 in 2020, a nonprofit whose goal is to reach gender balance in government by 2020. I also used to be on the Polk County Conservation board — I loved that board.

What have you learned about yourself so far?
I have more to give than I realized and people do listen when I talk. I never thought that before. Though I do sometimes wonder and guess, I continue to be surprised that I have a power and I need to use it, and use it responsibly. 

What’s the best advice you ever received?
There’s one piece that stands out clearly. Tom Hadden (former executive director at Metro Waste Authority) explained to me that one day I would be a boss who manages others, and the most important thing to remember is that I do not have to be the expert on every topic. I don’t have to know everything. I just need to lead and strategize and ask the best questions in every conversation. So long as I do that, I will be a good leader. 

What advice would you give to other emerging women leaders?
Inspire someone every day. Make sure you tell someone what their strengths are and motivate them. When you give that kind of power to someone, it’s amazing what comes out of it.

Three areas of influence

She is the youngest and first female mayor elected in Pleasant Hill, where, prior to becoming mayor, she served on several boards and commissions.

As manager of sustainability at Kum & Go, she works across all departments to lead and direct environmental and sustainability issues within the company.

Her business affiliations include Rotary Club, Iowa Recycling Association, Solid Waste Association of North America, and Public Relations Society of America.