Q&A with Alyssa Gasca, Spark’s Founder

Keeley Tillotson

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a teacher, always. I used to make my friends play school with me in the summer. I would ask my teachers if I could bring home homework.

How and when and why did you found Spark? So how, when, and why?

In 2007, I had been in a corporate job for many years and then I had my daughter. At the time, my workplace had eliminated their flexible work options. So I was at a time in my life where I wanted to spend more time with my daughter and I couldn’t find a way to do that with the job or the company that I was at. I knew I had a lot of good work left in me, and I knew what I loved to do and I knew I needed to figure out a way to do it that also gave me the life that I wanted, a lifestyle that I wanted.

When I left my job, my immediate exit plan was actually to go teach Pilates, which I did for several months. But then I wanted to start using my mind again in more complex problem solving ways, and a couple months later I got a call to do some consulting. So I took that gig, and then I got another call and then I took that gig, and then by the end of the year I had full-time consulting work! I’ve had full-time consulting work ever since. Along the way I developed my unique perspective and skillset, and in that organic way, Spark came to life!

How is your current work similar to your childhood dream of being a teacher?

I believe we all have gifts that we’re given, and if we’re lucky we have a chance while we’re on this earth to bring those gifts to the world. If we’re extra lucky, we can actually get paid to do so and make it our work. I’ve always felt that my purpose was to try to help other people live a better life.

I’ll never forget my first day at Intel, when I walked in as a temp, as a call center representative. I walked into a classroom, because they put us in training for two weeks before we had to start answering phones. I learned how to do my job for two weeks before I had to go do it. On day one I saw the trainer up on the flip chart with the whiteboard. And I was like, “That’s exactly what I want to do.” It was teaching, but it was with adults, and it was helping people feel confident about their work and get more out of their work. It was also amazing to me that I could be in a job and still be learning and not having to pay tuition, but they were actually paying me to learn.

That’s the energy I try to bring now in the most simplest sense. We teach workshops, which are more obviously teaching sessions, but coaching is also teaching and consulting is even teaching. When we at Spark do our work best, what we’re doing is we’re teaching people how to run their business without us, we’re working ourselves out of a job. The only way to help people run a sustainable business is by teaching them the things they need to do, to do it on their own so they’re not dependent on anyone else.

When do you feel most fulfilled by your work?

When somebody makes a shift. It could be internal or external, but typically it’s internal in a way that helps them see their world differently and helps their life be more fulfilling.

That can be simple like somebody going from being really miserable in their job to accepting the pieces of it that they dislike and finding ways to still find joy in their work and in their life. Or it can be really big, like this last year, one of the most rewarding things that Spark did was help a woman who’d founded a company 30 years ago transition it to her leadership team. Everybody won in that transition. She passed the company to the employees, so all of these long term employees became company owners and leaders. She got to retire and go live her best life after she had invested a lot of time in this business. All of her customers stayed.

Experiences like that transition where we were able to solve a business problem, but in a way that really helped every single person, helped their lives get better, is the most rewarding work I can do.

What are some common challenges you’re seeing for leaders and teams right now?

I am seeing that people are tired, overwhelmed, and burnt out, but they’re also looking for inspiration and a second wave. They don’t want to feel burnt out. They want to be motivated and inspired. They want to get excited about the work. They want community. They want to collaborate and activate around common goals. I’m seeing this with leaders and employees: how do we reignite our passion and our focus and our energy within our work?

And then I would say underneath that, there’s all kinds of really complex business problems and complex human problems that are making that harder. We’re operating in conditions that are more uncertain and complex and difficult than we’ve ever seen before. It’s really hard to chart a course and rally people around a vision if your vision isn’t clear because you don’t have a lot of control over the factors that affect it.

On the personal side, people aren’t all meeting in one place again and so we’re trying to figure out, how do we rally a group in a hybrid environment? How do we make human connections when we just aren’t seeing each other as much in person? The working conditions have changed and then on top of it I think people are at a personal level taxed and stretched in a way that we’ve never seen before. We are not yet recovered, if that’s such a thing, from whatever has happened to each of us over the last few years.

So those three things combined. The business landscape is complex and more uncertain, there are challenges in facilitating team dynamics and group interactions, just logistically, not to mention trying to get people reconnected, that’s a challenge. Then on an individual level, people are challenged to have the energy and excitement and mental and physical health that maybe they had four years ago or five years ago.

What do you wish you could tell every leader right now?

Take a giant breath and just know you’re going to be okay. Everything is going to be okay. Get up and out of the whirlwind of the day to destress and take a breath and get some perspective. Remember that you’ve made it this far, and you’re okay, and that you’re going to be okay in the future. This is just work, and even in the hardest, darkest times we can find a silver lining and we can find some joy and we can find something to keep us moving forward. If you find that, it gives you what you need to hold on through whatever is challenging you right now. But you have to start by taking a breath.

What’s a lesson you’ve learned from running your business over the last 15 years?

The older I get, the less tightly I try to hold things, meaning the more I try to be flexible, the more I try to trust that things will work out, the more I try to not react to micro shifts in the environment or a bad month or when I don’t have as much work or when I have too much work. What I’ve learned is to give things a little bit more space and to keep perspective that this is a long game and things typically work out. Even when they’re hard and even when there’s failures, we can recover and keep moving forward.

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