There’s no reason to be intimidated, I remind myself, as I ascend a trio of stairs to the Mediterranean-style house. I press the bell and wait, the couple’s extensive list of professional accomplishments rolling over in my mind. From the back comes Mike Stashak, his smile wide and handshake firm. I follow his tall frame into the kitchen, and Sarah, Mike’s bride of 23 years, rounds the corner and greets me with a hug, hers a familiar face from school outings. Whatever stereotype I had held of a Fortune 500 businessman-turned-entrepreneur and an energy industry professional, this wasn’t it. I feel silly for having been nervous, as the duo is warm and, well, approachable.
The Stashak home, much like the oak-lined street that led me there, is bright and welcoming, with three children’s worth of artwork neatly pinned to display boards and cozy seating arrangements scattered throughout the first floor. We settle into the front room; they, opposite me, sit shoulder-to-shoulder. Having sensed a stranger, a wooly feline emerges from the dining room and pads toward me, his pink snoot upturned. “That’s BB,” Sarah says. “He’s just a mountain cat from north Georgia,” noting his pedigree. Little is the tomcat aware, however, of his owners’ impressive backgrounds.
A Bright Beginning
“I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Massachusetts-native Mike says, thinking back on boyhood and then his parents. “I think the greatest thing my parents did was force me to always have a job, whether it was working in a warehouse, scooping ice cream or installing blinds.” Sarah, on the other hand, was certain of at least one thing. “I told my parents I wanted to go to Duke,” she laughs, admitting she was probably watching a televised Blue Devil’s game during her proclamation. Luckily for Mike, Sarah followed through on the plan — the couple met as undergrads. Straight out of college, they moved to the nation’s capital.
“We lived in D.C. for a couple of years,” Mike says. “I had two jobs, one in sales, selling software, and the other, building some of the first websites for large Fortune 500 companies. This was during the first dot-com boom.” While Mike was toiling away in technology, Sarah had her eye on Capitol Hill. “My first job was working for Senator Jeff Sessions on his campaign,” she says, adding, “I was a political science and history major, and I dealt with a lot of government and regulatory affairs. This all eventually transitioned into what I’ve been doing for over a dozen years now, which is investor relations with Southern Company.” Seeing my furrowed brows, she clarifies, “I translate the strategy of the company into messages for Wall Street investors.”
By the time the 2000s rolled around, the Stashaks found themselves tucked away in an affluent suburb of Atlanta. Sarah, a Mobile native, admits she pined for home and kept her eyes peeled south. “I would stay apprised of what was going on. I remember sitting in my office in Atlanta watching the webcast of the Airbus announcement. You could really see things in Mobile starting to transform.” Mike agrees that his attention often lighted on the Port City, and the couple would keep the possibility of moving to Sarah’s hometown in the back of their minds. Knowing his wife’s heart, Mike adds, “I really think Sarah’s happiest place on Earth is the Gulf of Mexico.” Sarah nods, saying she would cry every time they left the beach and headed back to Georgia. But it was something other than sand and salt water for which Mike longed.
“I realized around 2009 that, despite years of consulting and running companies, there was an itch I hadn’t scratched.” Inching toward the couch’s edge, Mike excitedly continues. “I wanted to learn what it took to take an idea and grow it into a big company.” As providence would have it, Mike met a man with an idea, and within four weeks of this encounter, Mike quit his corporate job. “It wasn’t his ballgame,” Sarah says of corporate America, recalling the day Mike told her of his plan to grow what is now known as Wahoo Fitness, an industry leader in sensors and devices for fitness enthusiasts. “I was a little skeptical about the whole startup culture,” she admits. “But when he took me to Best Buy and the product was on the shelf, and then it was on the shelf in the Apple Store, too, that was my lightbulb moment.”
A Bright Future
“The joke is that Mike cooks breakfast and I do hair,” Sarah laughs as we turn our conversation to the present and to their duties of running a five-member household, including 7-year-old Sam and 5-year-old twins, Annie and Vivian. “Having kids changed our mentality a bit,” Mike chimes. “We had a great life in Atlanta, but everything felt so programmed. It was important to both of us for our kids to have more freedom and a better sense of community as they got older.”
With both Mike and Sarah able to work remotely, the list of potential places to live might have seemed endless. But there was really only one option. “With so much going on in Mobile, we wanted to be part of the movement, to jump right in as much as possible,” Mike says. The family made the leap in July 2016.
True to their word, both dove into community involvement. Mike sits on the board of Innovation PortAL, a hub for Mobile-area entrepreneurs and startups (featured on the following page), a perfect spot for the man who already has his eyes on his next company. He hints, “It will be sports technology-related because that’s where my passion lies.”
In addition to working for Alabama Power’s parent company from what she calls her “hovel,” which is half home office, half exercise room, Sarah rounds out her days serving on two boards: the board of directors for the Accel Charter Day and Evening Academy and the board for the Three Mile Creek Partnership. “There’s been a plan on the books for probably 30 years to utilize the corridor,” she says about Three Mile Creek. “The thing I love about this project is that we’re building something for the citizens of Mobile, as opposed to something that will draw in tourists. We’re making something that the people who are here can use and enjoy.” Mike adds, “We’re super excited about the future of Mobile. The city can be whatever it wants to be. It’s got the people and passion, and we’re going to be part of it.”