Betsy Banks Saul says her earliest childhood memory of Missouri Southern found her nearly in the belly of the beast.

“I was riding in a homecoming parade, inside the mouth of a lion float and dressed up as the other team,” she says. “It was a big experience for me.

“My dad, Mike Banks, taught education here. I have amazing memories of being a 7-year-old and rolling down the hill behind Reynolds Hall.”

Given her family connection to the school and her familiarity with the campus, she says it was “destiny” that she would eventually attend Southern.

Betsy Banks Saul founded Petfinder.com in 1996.

Betsy Banks Saul founded Petfinder.com in 1996.

Though she left here in 1991 with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry, Betsy didn’t attend her own commencement ceremony. Instead, she found herself working as a volunteer and then a park ranger at St. Elias National Park and Preserve in southeast Alaska.

It was only fitting this experience came up as part of her commencement address to the 62nd graduating class on Saturday, May 10. Her message to graduates focused on letting their own moral compasses serve as their guide – a message that the Petfinder.com founder lived during her years on campus.

“I was highly aware this was probably the best time I was ever going to have,” she says. “I knew if I were smart I’d find a way to stay in college forever.

“I knew I wanted to do something big and impactful, and I went from department to department collecting credits. I was naturally drawn to everything from history to psychology. I was expanding a knowledge base I wouldn’t naturally on my own have exposed myself to.”

Betsy received her master’s degree in forest ecology from Clemson University and worked as an agriculture extension agent at Rutgers University and as a field scientist for the Army Corps of Engineers in South Carolina. She founded Petfinder.com in 1996, creating a bridge between animal shelters and families looking to adopt a pet. The site would go on to set more than 25 million adoptions in motion.

“It was like a snowball rolling down a hill and racing to catch up the whole time,” she says of Petfinder, which was acquired by Discovery Communications in 2006 and Nestle Purina in 2013.

Today, she is focused on Heal House, a start-up venture designed to help veterinarians go into practice for themselves. She also serves on the board for the Alliance for
Contraception in Cats and Dogs and is on the advisory board for the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

The path her life took after leaving Missouri Southern isn’t one she had ever envisioned, she says.

“Had I been more clever, I would have known that I would do something with animals. But it’s a good lesson for people. Frequently, folks make the mistake of thinking, ‘I want to save the planet, so I need to go into biology.’ A lawyer or a writer has just as much likelihood of saving the planet, or developing a new technology.”

Betsy says she was “incredibly honored” to be invited to speak at her alma mater’s commencement, and enjoyed the chance to return to campus and catch up with some of her former professors. Plus, it allowed her to fill in a gap from her own college experience.

“I got to attend a graduation,” she says. “That’s very exciting.”