When I started my freshman year at Florida State University, "Sara Saxner" was a name that rang throughout campus; from the offices of the Student Government Association to the PanHellenic Community. Especially in my circle of leadership involvements, her name was brought up even years after she graduated. Sara effortlessly inspires women (including me!) to embrace their femininity, be an intentional leader, and to truly embrace the leadership, diversity, loyalty, and love that Florida State University will give you if you take advantage of each opportunity.
In her responses below, she alludes to three highly important realities.
(1) CONFIDENCE in ourselves as WOMEN can make or break our success.
(2) We still have miles and miles to go with EQUALITY, not just between genders, but with race-ability-background-norms-ethnicity.
(3) With all the noise happening around us, it is easy to make decisions for others, rather than ourselves.
Sara Saxner is one that is fiercely doing her part to increase women's influence in the professional world. Read more about her perspective and experience below!
1. Rarely is someone's journey linear. Can you explain what you wanted to be when you grew up, and how your career landed where it is at right now?
Growing up, I dreamed of becoming a lawyer. I've always loved to read, solve problems, find ways to stick up for the underdog and prove a point. However, I fell in love with service and was introduced to a world and leaders of nonprofit work while at Florida State.
My senior year of college I served as Student Body Vice President. Instead of graduating early, I used remaining scholarship money to start a combined degree masters program for Public Administration and Policy. After graduation from undergrad, I decided to power through and complete my Master's. It took about a year. During that time, I worked three very different jobs while maintaining my community volunteer and academic commitments. Those jobs included sexual violence prevention, education research at a federally funded research center and helping with research and business retention at a chamber of commerce specifically to spur economic development in the region.
Truth be told, I didn't have a clue as to what economic development was. As I dug in further and was later offered a full-time role at both the Chamber and a local nonprofit, I had a realization that has continued to guide my life choices. I thought that if I could understand business, learn the language spoken by people in that space, and have a seat at the table with individuals who had the resources and influence, then a lot of the things and people in the community that I saw needed help might be able to get it. I chose to go to work in economic development and made a fierce commitment to "doing business differently."
Since then, I moved to a larger market and continued to work in economic development for one of the best organizations in the country. I built and expanded a venture capital firm that challenged the norm of traditional VC in the southeast to be more founder-focused. Currently, I'm Vice President of Strategic Growth for Three Five Two, a human-centered innovation and growth firm focused on solving problems for organizations to create change that matters. I also do some consulting work on the side through my own LLC, if the right opportunities with the right companies present themselves. I find that my agility and ability to speak different sector languages to meet people where they're at has been incredibly valuable as I've grown throughout my career.
No matter the opportunity, I own a personal challenge to stay aligned to my northstar: using business as a tool for good.
2. Which single word do you most identify with?
3. What is the biggest barrier you experienced as a woman in your career?
My own confidence has been the biggest barrier. Very early on in my career, right after college at my first job, I experienced a few life-altering situations that really challenged my trust in people, spirit, self-worth and grit. Honestly, it rocked me hard to the point that I left Florida.
After that, it took me a while to find my groove. It may not have been widely known to those around me, but I felt it daily. Thanks to a small, supportive group of people, I came out stronger and more fierce -- and found myself calling Atlanta home, genuinely loving this new place and falling more in love with the woman I was becoming.
Whether those self-esteem limitations were inflicted externally or truly "self-inflicted," I'll never know. However, I think many people can identify with the fact that we are constantly fighting our own inner dialogues, for better or worse. Many of us experience imposter syndrome. I've gotten better at learning to trust myself in decisions and situations.
4. What advice would you give other women going into the professional world?
Jump. Take a calculated risk. Research shows that women have to be asked multiple times to consider running for office and that they don't apply for a position at work unless they feel they match almost, if not all, of the criteria. Don't take yourself out of the race before you even step foot on the track. And, if you're going to bet on something or someone, why wouldn't you bet on yourself?
Also, just be yourself. If you're somewhere that doesn't support who you are, then don't be afraid to search for a place that does with the people who do. Sometimes we feel like we have to act, speak or dress a certain way to fit into a culture. When really, you get to be a part of defining that culture. And, you being yourself gives space and room for other people to feel like they can, too.
5. Go-to ice cream flavor?
Anything vegan. Unfortunately, as I've gotten older, dairy and I aren't the best of pals.
6. How do you define what it means to be a woman?
I find it difficult to answer this question, because being a woman, or human for that matter, is so complex. I'd say that a woman is defined by however she chooses to define herself (And, no matter how someone identifies should be celebrated!).
7. What do you think holds women back in the professional world?
There are many different ways to answer this question around what holds women back professionally. One of which, sometimes can be our own selves. The other thing to challenge is really what defines success -- not as a society or for a company, but rather for that individual in question. Many of us have assumed these roles and the measurements of success associated with them without really thinking about what it actually means for us. There's also this notion of women needing to have it all, which resonates strongly with me. I found this article from The Atlantic fascinating, and there are many more out there like it.
I'd also be remiss to not mention that "being held back" looks different and is more challenging for women of various races, ethnicity, backgrounds, abilities, norms, etc. Until we re-imagine and redefine the workplace, productivity, roles we assume at work or home and what it means to lead at work or home, then I think women will continue to be held back.
8. Who is your female icon?
I have so many -- and for different reasons! I'm a big proponent of pulling the best from a few people. Then, I try to put my own "Sara" style to whatever it is I look up to that person for, whether it's her business mind, leadership style, involvement in the community, fashion, communication style, etc. Whoever I look up to and for whatever reason, there is a pattern that they seem to know where they stand, admit when they're wrong, are authentic and stay true to themselves.
9. You have had a novel of accomplishments! Which are you most proud of?
I'm most proud of listening to and trusting myself, especially a few years ago when I was contemplating the move to Atlanta. It's not easy, everyone has a lot of opinions and there is a ton of noise in the world about what is the "right thing" to do. But really understanding who I am, what I value and feel like I need has helped guide me through murky waters. It's a journey (and I'm still on it!), but learning to trust and love myself along the journey is my most treasured accomplishment.
10. You are incredibly generous. What was the kindest thing someone has ever done for you?
The first thing that came to mind was when my now fiance proposed -- during COVID-19 quarantine. It wasn't a surprise to anyone that we were going to take this step, but I was so blown away by his thoughtfulness, inclusion of those important to us, creativity and how much of me and us were incorporated into that moment. It was so special and us.