Sara Knoester: Alumni Spotlight

Determination helps her achieve at GRCC and build successful staffing agency

Many people told Sara Sherry Knoester she was doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. But she was willing to navigate obstacles to achieve her dream: Mixed Staffing and Recruiting, a staffing agency focused on helping women and minorities find employment.

Knoester was raised by a single mom and an absent father who died when she was 17. She started helping her father in second grade, balancing his checkbook, printing invoices and doing other tasks to help the business he owned. These fueled her dreams of entrepreneurship, but her ambitions didn’t match her high school achievements: a 2.5 GPA and a record-setting 23 detentions her freshman year.

“Needless to say, I wasn’t predicted to succeed,” she said. “But what many people might not have known was that I knew in my heart that I was going to be different. I knew in my heart that God had something bigger planned for me — even if others couldn’t see it on the outside.”

After graduating from Grand Rapids Catholic High School in 2006, she started at Grand Rapids Community College — the only college accepting her in Michigan.

“All my friends, they were going to universities; they were playing college sports; they were living in the dorms,” she said. “Me — I lived up the street on Lyon with my mom. I was working full time, paying my own tuition and really struggling mentally and academically.”

Knoester couldn’t understand why school seemed so easy for her friends, but so hard for her. She decided to get tested for learning disabilities and was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder.

“I remember feeling pretty discouraged and saying, ‘OK, I can quit or I can learn and I can grow,’” she said. “I decided I needed to figure out how I was going to excel in the classroom.”

She learned ways to adapt and was able to raise her GPA from a 2.5 to a 4.0. After receiving her associate degree in 2008, she enrolled at Grand Valley State University, her dream school.

“I will never forget how I felt my first day there, compared to my first day at community college,” she said. “I got lost. I couldn’t figure out where to park. I asked for help, and it seemed like I was this little person in this big world.”

She decided she needed a break in order to regroup and save more money for college. Everyone told her this was a mistake, but she knew it was what she had to do.

She returned to GVSU a semester later and graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis in creative marketing.

Frustrated with her failure to find a job — even with her degrees — she decided to move with two friends to Chicago. Knoester and her roommate decided to create a business to help women and minorities find employment.

She terminated her Chicago lease, quit her job and prepared to start Mixed Staffing. Two weeks before the launch, her business partner bailed.

“I had another choice: I could quit or I could keep going,” Knoester said.

She returned to Grand Rapids and worked two other jobs while launching Mixed Staffing in 2012.

“People are always going to tell you why you can’t do something, and you have to be strong-minded enough to know that you can,” she said. “You have to believe in what you do and why you do it.”

Her belief in herself has carried her through failed attempts to “cold call” clients, 12-hour work days, no salary from the business for three years, and seven hospitalizations.

“Since starting the business, I’ve had at least one major setback each year,” Knoester said. “And each one has been a pretty significant punch to the gut. You either hunch over and give up, or you keep your head up and get ready to embrace the next challenge.”

Mixed Staffing now employs more than 1,500 and has 30 plus clients, generating over $1 million dollars in revenue annually. Knoester has been recognized as one of the Grand Rapids Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” and one of the “Top 50 Companies to Watch in Michigan.”

“Yes, I graduated from a four-year university, but Grand Rapids Community College — that’s like my heart,” Knoester said. “It’s also a stepping stone for everything I’ve accomplished, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunities given to me there.”