“When I started Sage Publications in 1965,” said Sara Miller McCune during an interview at her home earlier this week, “I’m not even sure that ‘female’ and ‘entrepreneur’ were used in the same sentence.” Fifty-one years later, her business is a global academic publishing empire, and her successes have been well recognized with honorary degrees and awards of all shapes and sizes. Coming next in the procession of plaudits for the businessperson and philanthropist is the Rock Star: Lifetime Achievement Award from the Spirit of Entrepreneurship Foundation.
When selecting a recipient who would provide a role model for women entrepreneurs and budding go-getters of any gender, foundation CEO Cathy Feldman said Miller McCune was the “logical choice.” “When you consider that she started a publishing company by herself 50 years ago and that it has grown to be an international powerhouse, it is truly remarkable,” said Feldman. “Additionally, she has been incredibly generous to the Santa Barbara community.”
In fact, Miller McCune might be more well-known in Santa Barbara for her philanthropic activity than her business chops. “When I moved here,” she said, “I had spent two years both dealing with the grieving process for my husband’s death and also deciding that it was time I reinvented myself somehow.” After briefly considering a political career, she decided that her foundation would provide a better vehicle for social progress.
In 1966, however, when she was nursing a fledgling business, she recalls her banker telling her that “the real money is in pornography publishing,” not textbooks. Armed with a degree in political science, however, and four years of marketing experience at publishing houses Macmillan and Pergamon Press, Miller McCune realized that nobody knew how to sell books written by scholars in the relatively young social and behavioral science disciplines. “I became the direct mail queen of social science publishing,” she said.
“And then,” Miller McCune continued, “I became the title queen of SAGE Publications because all of our authors had these long, boring titles for their manuscripts.” Case in point is the Dutch scholar Geert Hofstede’s classic text on organizational psychology, Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values. She convinced him that his original title should be the subtitle, and when he couldn’t think of what to put before the colon, she said, “Never mind; I’ll handle that.” The book became a best seller.
If Miller McCune has reinvented herself, her motivations have largely remained the same. “I’m just sick of people not taking advantage of the knowledge that researchers provide to them that could help solve pressing social issues.” To further close the circuit between the ivory tower and the larger public, she founded a highbrow magazine in 2008, now called Pacific Standard, whose mission is to communicate social and behavioral research to policymakers, educators, business leaders, and other change makers. The magazine is supported by SAGE Publications and housed within the Miller McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy.
One can’t be a whole person without significant exposure to both nature and the arts, Miller McCune avows. In this sense, Santa Barbara may provide a happy medium between her native New York and her vacation home in Yosemite. The American Riviera offers an amount of cultural opportunities that Miller McCune said have kept her “constantly amazed.” She’s also been responsible for many of those opportunities by donating to or sitting on the boards of organizations like CAMA, UCSB Arts & Lectures, and the Granada Theatre.
The performing arts have played no small part in her business success, Miller McCune continued. “They have helped make me who I am [and given me] the personal richness and depth of understanding and humility to understand a lot more nuance. If you don’t understand body language, you’re handicapped as a businessperson. If you don’t understand reading people’s facial expressions and tone of voice, you are handicapped as a businessperson.”
Other advice she would give to young female entrepreneurs: “With equality comes responsibility. If you want opportunity, responsibility, a chance to really shine, succeed in the eyes of yourself, your family, your peers, then you have to be willing to pay a price.”