Imagine, innovate, inspire: Leah Busque’s steps to success

| March 11, 2013

This is the second story in our series honoring Women’s History Month and this year’s theme, “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.”

Whether it’s the life-changing discovery of penicillin or X-rays, or the first chocolate chip cookies, innovation often happens by accident. In Leah Busque’s case, genius struck overnight — a “cold winter night in Boston,” to be exact.

“My husband and I were just about to go out to dinner when I realized we were out of dog food for our one hundred-pound yellow Lab,” remembers Busque, who graduated from Sweet Briar in 2001 with a degree in math and computer science.

“I thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a place online where you could go, say you needed dog food, and name the price you were willing to pay?’ I was sure there was someone in my neighborhood who would be willing to help us out.”

Busque immediately bought the domain runmyerrand.com. Within four months, she quit her job at IBM, where she had been a programmer for seven years, to work on the website full time. The company soon moved to San Francisco, and Busque never looked back.

Five years later, what is now TaskRabbit.com has raised nearly $40 million in capital from investors such as Shasta Ventures, Lightspeed Ventures and Founders Fund, and inspired numerous startups to launch in the collaborative and service networking space. The company employs more than 60 software engineers, designers and other professionals, as well as thousands of pre-screened “runners” who bid against each other to perform delivery, house cleaning and other odd jobs in cities across America.

So how does one become an entrepreneur?

“Don’t overthink it, just go for it,” Busque says, noting that the support she received from investors and employees early on was a key factor in her success.

“One of my first advisors, [Zipcar CEO] Scott Griffith, told me something when I first pitched my idea for TaskRabbit to him. … His advice was simple. He said: ‘Leah, I think you are on to something. I think you should see how far you can take it.’ ”

Griffith’s comment has stuck with her to this day. Still a young CEO herself, Busque is now offering the same advice to aspiring entrepreneurs and college graduates. The key to success, she says, is pursuing one’s dream one small goal at a time.

Busque and her Labrador Kobe pose during a stop en route from Boston to San Francisco.

“I encourage all people to do the same — whether they are starting their own business or launching their own career in math or technology. Taking small steps every day towards your goal has proved an effective strategy for me. Every day, I wake up and see how far I can take TaskRabbit in the next twenty-four hours.”

Busque’s strategy hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2012, Fast Company named her one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business,” and she has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Wired and Time magazine, among others. TaskRabbit was named a finalist in the Crunchies and Mashable Awards and was deemed “The Next Big Thing in Tech” by the New York Times. A few months ago, ABC’s Katie Couric tested the service on her show by becoming a runner herself.

Despite all the recent fame, Busque has stayed grounded, and she comes back east often to reconnect with family, friends and even professors. Sweet Briar math professor Bessie Kirkwood was glad to see her during her visit for the Salt Block Project Awards Dinner hosted by the College’s business department in October, where Busque was named Entrepreneur of the Year.

To Kirkwood, Busque is in many ways still the same young woman from New England — “bright” and “cheerful,” and a natural leader.

“She was SGA president her senior year. I remember hearing her speak at a meeting of the board; she was very poised and articulate,” Kirkwood recalls, adding that Busque’s success isn’t a huge surprise.

“Knowing what good people skills Leah had as a student, her ability to network isn’t surprising,” she says. “I expected that Leah would be quite successful working in computer science. It didn’t cross my mind that she would become an entrepreneur.”

Leah Busque with Hilary Cook ’05 (left) and math professors Jim and Bessie Kirkwood during the Salt Block Project Awards Dinner in October.

Naturally, it has been exciting for Kirkwood to witness how far Busque has come since she left Sweet Briar more than a decade ago.

“It has been a pleasure to see how she has identified the challenges, mastered so many aspects of business, excelled at making connections with people, and been a rousing success.”

Kirkwood’s continued engagement in Busque’s career is nothing unusual at Sweet Briar, where interaction between students and faculty is high, and professors often maintain an interest in students long beyond graduation.

And why wouldn’t they? Busque, as so many alumnae before her, knows that part of the foundation for her success was laid at the small liberal arts college — the other in high school, when math teacher Sarah Sabatini inspired her to pursue a science degree.

“My time at Sweet Briar, both inside and outside of the classroom, was tremendously empowering,” she remembers. “I felt a constant sense of camaraderie, surrounded by intelligent, determined and engaging people.”

While the fact that it was a women’s college didn’t matter to Busque, she says it enabled her to look beyond the constraints of gender — a philosophy that has stuck with her throughout life.

“My gender has never played a role in my career; I never viewed it as an advantage or disadvantage. I was never a female engineer; I was simply an engineer. I was never a female founder; I was simply a founder,” she says.

“My time at Sweet Briar has been instrumental in the development of that mentality — that gender does not play a role in my career choices and that if I want to accomplish something, that I should go after it. At Sweet Briar, I was constantly surrounded by smart, ambitious and career-oriented women who were determined to pursue their dreams, irrespective of their gender. I naturally took the same approach.”

In fact, the odds that she would attend Sweet Briar at all were slim. It wasn’t just the only women’s college she applied to; it was also the only school outside of New England.

“I remember when I got accepted, my mom and I decided to make the long drive from Shirley [Mass.] to visit the campus for accepted students weekend. As soon as the car hit school grounds, I fell in love with the striking beauty that makes up Sweet Briar’s gorgeous campus,” Busque recalls.

“It was exactly what I wanted my college experience to be like.”

To watch an in-depth interview with Busque, click here.

Janika Carey

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Category: Alumnae and Development, Community of Entrepreneurial Educators, Digital Sophistication, Mathematical Science, Women's History Month