Meet Dr. Sarah Saska, CEO of DEI Consulting Firm, Feminuity

As the CEO of Feminuity, Dr. Sarah Saska (Sher, Her, Hers)  partners with leading technology startups through Fortune 500s to build diverse teams, equitable systems, and inclusive products and company cultures. Before co-founding Feminuity, Sarah led pioneering doctoral research at the intersection of equity, technology, and innovation. Her research highlighted the need for companies in the technology and innovation sector to centre ethical and equitable design and became the inspiration for Feminuity.  

My first job ever was… offering conflict resolution sessions to kids during recess in elementary school.

I decided to be an entrepreneur… out of necessity. When I was in grad school, I led research on the importance of equity and inclusion in the design of technology and innovation. In the process, I found gaps, biases, and blatant inequity in some of the technologies and innovations that are intended to make our lives easier, and better. These technologies weren’t inclusive or accessible for some, and were actually harmful to others. Some common examples include facial recognition software that doesn’t detect racialized people’s faces, natural language processing (NLP) that doesn’t recognize different dialects, and risk assessment algorithms that disproportionately assign high crime risk scores to Black people. In the midst of my Ph.D., I took a pause and joined MaRS Discovery District to translate my research into practice, and that’s how Feminuity came to be.

Tech companies must prioritize diversity and inclusion because… we’re at a critical moment in history where technology can either exacerbate existing inequities, or make things a heck of a lot better. Right now, many tech companies have more political, economic, and social power than entire countries. They are out-pacing law and policy and playing in the proverbial grey in ways that are having real, tangible effects on issues relating to equity and human rights. If left unchecked, we know that technological and innovative solutions will continue to hide, speed up, and deepen various forms of exclusion, discrimination, and inequity. A small sliver of the population should not be able to determine and design technologies that impact the majority of us; technology will be most powerful when everyone is empowered by it.

My proudest accomplishment is… my relationships.  

My boldest move to date was… turning down offers that while seemingly secure, financially lucrative, and optically prestigious, just weren’t right for me. They didn’t fit the type of life I want to live, the type of person I want to be and the kind of impact I want to have in the world.

I surprise people when I tell them… that we turn down clients whose values do not align with ours and that we’ve never raised money.

My best advice to people starting out in business is… to get really good at identifying and taking the advice that’s right for you and what you’re building, and to have the guts to leave the rest behind.

My biggest setback was… younger versions of me that had limiting beliefs in my own abilities.  Also, being in romantic relationships that didn’t support my vision. 

I overcame it by… doing the work and building an incredible support system. I now know and believe that I am resourceful and resilient enough to handle anything and it’s made all of the difference. It’s become clear to me from our work that the characteristics and qualities of entrepreneurs quickly become a core part of an organization’s culture, whether for the better or for the worse. So it’s up to us to continue to do the work to lead in more human, ethical, and equitable ways. 

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… read more! I usually have 3-4 books on the go at any time and I crave more time to read each day. I am currently reading: Ramesh Srinivasan’s brilliant research as detailed in Beyond the Valley,   Annie Jean Baptiste’s game-changer, Building for Everyone, and re-reading Esther Perel’s State of Affairs.

The one thing I wish I knew when starting my business is… when it’s best to outsource and pay other people to do something and when it’s best to invest in my own learning and development. We cannot do it all.

I stay inspired by… people’s stories.

My next step is… to launch an e-learning course to share everything we’ve learned about the diversity, equity, and inclusion practice over the past decade. I’ve been overwhelmed with requests from newly minted diversity and inclusion leads and Chief Diversity Officers to support them in their role, and it’s become really clear  there isn’t a practical, applied, and actionable program for new leaders to learn from.  It’s a gap in the market. We’re going to share everything from how we collect and analyze data using an intersectional analysis, to how we design equitable diversity and inclusion strategies, to how we develop custom metrics and evaluation, and more.  It’ll be another labour of love, but it’ll also be awesome to open-source this work.

Five lessons learned from being onboarded virtually to a new job.

Woman working from home

If you told me at the start of the year that I would begin a new job virtually, I would have laughed you out of town. But then again, so much has happened this year that I could never have expected or prepared for. I was lucky enough to have had flexible jobs in the past that allowed me to work from home often, but the idea of working 100% remotely seemed like a distant dream. Fast forward to July 2020, and I’m starting a new role as an Advocacy Manager at a non-profit, from the comfort of my home. 

Usually, when I start at a new company, I have a good idea of tasks that I will do in my first few days: familiarizing myself with my new surroundings, setting up my desk, reading company policies and handover notes, trying to get to know my new colleagues — the usual. This time I didn’t know what to expect; I was walking into the unknown. I wanted to make a good impression on my first day, so I spruced myself up and put on a semi-formal shirt. In the end, I only had one meeting that day, and it lasted a little over an hour; then I set up my email address and gained access to the drive, and I started my designated reading. 

If I’m honest, it was quite lonely and anti-climatic. The next day was better. I met the rest of the team, got a better sense of my responsibilities, and started getting stuck in. It’s been an interesting journey, with bumps, adjustments and some wins — but three months in, and I finally feel fully integrated. Here are some lessons I learned along the way:

1. Find time to bond with your new colleagues

One thing I took for granted was the importance of casual conversation with coworkers when establishing a rapport. In this not-so-new normal of virtual meetings, phone calls, and occasionally the odd voice message — communication is a lot more direct and mostly work-focused, making it harder to form bonds. How I miss small rituals, like taking coffee breaks with colleagues and discussing upcoming weekend plans. These things are often seen as insignificant and unproductive. However, it’s in the small details that connections are formed, and team bonds are strengthened. In-person, these informal office interactions happen organically; for many, these moments are almost effortless. In a virtual setting, recreating these moments requires intention. 

I quickly realized that two one-hour team meetings a week were not going to cut it when building relationships. I decided to schedule individual meetings with the whole team, asking them questions about their roles and getting to know a little about what they liked to do outside of work. These one-to-one check-ins weren’t a one-off. I didn’t have a rigid schedule in place, but periodically I would catch up with my teammates. Slowly those discussions morphed from small talk to meaningful conversations and personal anecdotes. I cracked it. 

2. Take notes during your introductory meetings

Now, I’m not talking about wishy-washy half-written notes; I’m talking about comprehensive notes that you can refer to when you get stuck. I’ll admit this one I learned the hard way around. I’ve never been the best live notetaker; I like to give people my full attention, and I find that I become distracted when taking notes. In your first few weeks in a new job, it can feel like information overload — and though, in person, you can quickly clarify any points of confusion without too much disruption, in the virtual space, getting clarification on something can take a lot longer and leave you feeling disempowered. 

I soon sharpened my note-taking skills with the help of the note-taking tool, Google Keep. Each meeting, I would capture the date, who I was meeting, any context that I needed to remember, step-by-step instructions for critical processes, and any resulting actions. Before, when I used to capture notes, I would feel pressured to hear everything once. This often led to incomplete and sometimes tricky to understand notes. To improve the quality of my notes, I had to stop being afraid to interject and ask for something to be repeated or clarified. Eventually, I started taking better notes, and they soon became tools of empowerment when getting on with independent work. 

3. Create a designated workspace 

In my previous job, I had been working from home permanently since mid-March, and I didn’t have a designated workspace. I didn’t feel I needed one — I knew my job like the back of my hand and could get on with my tasks anywhere. When I started my new job, I realized this wasn’t the same. When you are processing lots of new information, it’s helpful to be in a controlled environment with all the resources you need in close reach. While I had my ‘home office’ set up in the corner of my living room, it wasn’t a great spot for natural light. After a little reshuffling of my living room, I found a new area for my workspace that had a clear and aesthetically pleasing backdrop for video meetings and adequate natural light to get on with my work.

4. Set healthy boundaries to avoid burnout 

As a new employee in an uncertain job market, eager to please is an understatement, but it’s important to remember the well-known quote: start as you mean to go on. While it might feel tempting to burn the candle at both ends, it creates unsustainable expectations and rapidly leads to burnout. I decided to create a daily routine; each morning, I start the day with some form of physical exercise, have a coffee and read the news before logging on for the day. I wanted to avoid that all too famous wake-up and rush to the computer; I didn’t want my life to feel subsumed by work. It’s not always feasible due to working with colleagues across time zones, but I also try to take a clear lunch break and get some fresh air.

Having a designated workspace also made it easier to hold myself accountable to draw an end to the day. I deliberately placed my TV out of sight so that I couldn’t have it running in the background, reducing productivity and lengthening the workday. This doesn’t work for everyone, but I definitely appreciate being able to log off while there are still a few good hours in the day.  

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your team

The last and arguably most important lesson I have learned is not to be afraid to ask for help from your team. As a new team member, it’s easy to feel like you are overloading your colleagues with questions when you are face-to-face in the office, and since you talk less in the virtual world, every email, instant message, call or text can make you feel like you are being a nuisance. Unfortunately, it’s a necessary evil. Sometimes we have to fight the instinct to figure everything out alone to avoid making unnecessary mistakes and improve our productivity. That said, it’s important to be mindful of people’s time and their preferred style of communication. Early on, I made a note of my colleague’s preferred time for meetings, how I should contact them for in-the-moment questions and issues, and also in the event of emergencies and urgent matters. This helps to shake off any feelings of guilt and gives you the answers you need to do your job and do it well.