Q&A with The Luupe Founder Keren Sachs (BFA ‘01)
Alum Keren Sachs is a trailblazer in the media industry who creates opportunity and access for all.
After graduating from the University of Michigan in 2001 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography, Keren Sachs became immersed in commercial photography. Sachs worked in different roles at National Geographic, Martha Stewart Living, The Wall Street Journal, and Shutterstock.
In her 20 years in the industry, Sachs noticed a gap of underrepresented creators, so she went on to become the CEO and founder of The Luupe, a content production platform and community comprised of the world’s top women and non-binary photographers. The Luupe is a globally-recognized company that works with brands such as Facebook, Peloton, and Dropbox.
In this Q & A with the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, Sachs reflects on the journey, obstacles, education and lessons that got her to where she is today.
Stamps School of Art & Design: How did you first become interested in art and photography?
Keren Sachs: I took a photography class when I was a sophomore in high school. I used my mom’s old camera, and I had an incredible photography teacher. And I just fell in love with it. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. And simultaneously, I had an amazing poetry teacher. The two classes – poetry and photography – did workshops together. I loved pairing words and images. My parents actually owned a picture framing company, so I grew up around photos, paintings and art. I think it was in my blood, photography, the visual arts and entrepreneurship.
That makes a lot of sense. What drew you to the University of Michigan for art after high school?
My high school art teacher in St. Louis, Missouri heard that the University of Michigan art school recruiter was going to be in town. There was something called Portfolio Days happening at Washington University. Art school recruiters from across the country would attend. You would bring all of your artwork and show it to them. The recruiter from the University of Michigan was coming in a few days early, and she came to my high school. I set up on the stage of the high school theater. Everything I had created over the four years in high school was on exhibit across the entire stage. So when the recruiter came to school, I walked her through project by project.
I was deciding between the University of Michigan and one other school. The reason I chose Michigan was because it was a unique art school, and you also could have the experience of the liberal arts and all the other colleges within the university. You’re exposed to so many different types of people and ideas. That was important to me. I wanted the big university feel. I had so many opportunities and classes and experiences, but yet still had the art school experience.
What a cool story! When you went to the University of Michigan, what did you study?
I have a BFA in Photography. I also fell in love with sculpture and tried to spend as much time with it as I could.
After my freshman year, I realized that I was not going to be a studio artist, so I started taking classes at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA). I remember taking a class that we were required to take for drawing, and I am not good at drawing. It was clear. I think the worst grade I ever got was in a drawing or painting class. I knew in my future that I was going to benefit more from having the writing skills than having drawing. I convinced the art school – that’s what we called it at the time – to allow me to take a creative writing class in lieu of taking drawing classes. I really started enjoying my experience at LSA, and I ended up getting a BA in American Culture. I studied Italian, and during my junior year, I went abroad and lived with a family in Italy where I studied photography and sculpture. That has shaped my experiences and given me the skills to do what I do.
Does your diverse education and world traveling apply to The Luupe’s message at all?
Well, I think it’s communication and cultural studies in general. At The Luupe, we’re focused on diversity and helping women and non-binary creators. We have photographers in 52 countries. Communication is incredibly important with how I am able to connect with creators and my team around the world.
Your vision of spotlighting women and non-binary creators is a really important concept. What did this mean to you?
Photography is traditionally a white male field. Throughout my career, I noticed that women and people of color were not having the same opportunities. So I wanted to create a community and support network to help people who were underrepresented in the field. This way, more people could take up photography and more people are telling the stories. If the perspective of the content that’s being created that you see in advertising, magazines, and the news is all being created from the same perspective, then you’re never really going to experience diversity. When there’s more people who are telling stories, you’re creating images that come from their perspective on both sides of the camera. I kind of took all of that into consideration– this informed why and how I built The Luupe.
I also really love your social media. You can just see the diversity in the feed, front and center.
Right. It’s about having all of the perspectives, not just one. We’re bringing opportunities to the people in our community. On the flip side, we do a lot of work with brands. We’re all about helping brands create content, and they want to tell more diverse stories that resonate with the diversity of their customers. So while you’re telling that story, the brand itself is getting a diverse collection of content delivered to them that they can then use on social media which better resonates with their audience.
You mention brands, and it’s worth pointing out that these are some well-known brands like Facebook and Peloton. Would you say you’ve made it big in the field?
You know, I don’t stop to think about it, because I think there’s so much work left to do. I wanted to make something that helps other people and businesses that contributes to society in a positive way. It’s fun to be in this space to build the team that I have. I have employees around the world, and I think that it is super exciting that people believe in what we’re doing and want to be part of it.
Did you have any bumps in the road or a challenge to overcome?
So many bumps. It’s a challenge being a working mom and having two young children. And there’s challenges where things never work out the way that you plan for them to. You have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep moving.
When did you first create The Luupe?
I had this idea kind of brewing when I was pregnant with my younger son. I wanted to build a community, but first and foremost, I wanted to build it for all of the creators who were always there for me throughout my career. I wanted to help them get work, to generate income. I wanted to help brands. People didn’t understand the vision and I had to sell them on it. But as all of these different cultural shifts started to happen in the US and elsewhere and the gaps in representation became more transparent, people became more and more aware of the problem The Luupe helps to solve.
We mentioned challenges, and it is very challenging as a woman as a solo founder to raise capital, so I’ve had more nos and rejections than one could possibly imagine. But I had to keep moving because I believed in the vision and I believed in what we were building. Then, I found two brilliant investors. That was a game changer for our business and I raised $3 million to further build The Luupe.
What’s a takeaway from the classes you took at U‑M?
I think what I learned with all of the classes was the art of the critique – not just for art’s sake, but for its ability to strengthen and clarify communication. Throughout my career, I’ve done portfolio reviews and I give photographers feedback on their work. I think that’s a really important skill. As much as you kind of don’t enjoy it in the moment when you’re getting feedback on your work, having that experience in art school was helpful to learn about how to talk about art, imagery, composition and lighting, and what is working or not working in a piece. I didn’t know it at the time, but all of that kind of fuels how I look at content imagery and visual arts now.
Do art and design tie into entrepreneurship or owning a business at all from your experience?
Yes, because it’s not that I just own a business – it is that I took an idea based on a gap that I saw after spending 20 years in the industry. I used that experience and knowledge and everything that I had built on from the foundation starting at Michigan. The foundation was the skills and experience needed to create a business. Instead of thinking that I own a business, I think about it more like having an idea and building a team around that vision.
Your résumé is really interesting in itself. For example, you worked at National Geographic. How did that happen?
My dream was to always work for National Geographic. I didn’t know how to go about being a photographer there, but I wanted to get into the organization however I could. When I graduated from college, there were no online job boards. None of these job sites existed. So I found out through a lot of research that National Geographic had a jobs hotline. I would call every day and I would just listen to all the jobs. I figured out from that number what the extensions were to call other people. And so I would start calling people at National Geographic. I asked them about their job and how they got there. Eventually, I was told to send a resume to the Editor in Chief of National Geographic Kids. My resume landed on her desk. I flew there and met with her and did not get the job. But a couple months later, I got a call from National Geographic for a photo assistant position. Within a week, I moved to DC. I knew I wanted to work there and did everything I could to get there.
So at National Geographic, you were editing photos. Now, you’re sort of managing and directing them. What’s this shift been like?
I wanted to expose myself to all different aspects of the photography industry. I quickly realized that I loved working with photographers, and I loved working on a team. I worked at The Wall Street Journal for a while, and from there, I went to Martha Stewart, working on her merchandise. At the time, she had many lines of merchandise, and I was the director of photography. I had all these really interesting experiences within the industry, which helped me meet tons of incredible and talented photographers. It also exposed me to different aspects of the industry and allowed me to identify a gap in the market. That’s what led me to create The Luupe.
What if someone wants to follow your path? What might help them along the way?
Create your own path. Don’t follow mine, instead, find out what you’re interested in and explore lots of different opportunities. What I’m doing now I didn’t know existed back then. Half the jobs I’ve had in my career I didn’t know existed when I was in college. Keeping an open mind and letting yourself explore your interests will help you figure out the direction for you. Learn as much as you can, study all the things, and let your interests guide you.