Building Successful Businesses podcast: Sara Axelbaum, Global Head of I&D

Read Time: 14 Min

Season 2 of ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses” continues with fantastic insight from Sara Axelbaum, Global Head of Inclusion and Diversity at MiQ, the global programmatic media partner for marketers and agencies. We chat about the career path into Inclusion and Diversity, how MiQ is fighting inequity in their own business and the wider world, and how we can all make the workplace and the wider world more inclusive.

Listen to Episode 2: 

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Fiona: Welcome to ECI’s podcast “Building Successful Businesses” where we speak to business leaders about their careers, lessons learned, and the advice they’d now give. I’m Fiona Moore and today I’m delighted to welcome Sara Axelbaum, MiQ’s Global Head of Inclusion and Diversity. MiQ is a global programmatic media partner and its founders Lee and Gurman have become real champions about the role of leaders in fighting inequity in their own business and the wider world. So, I’m really looking forward to hearing a bit more about that journey and Sara’s role within it. Hi Sara.

Sara: Hi, how are you doing Fiona?

Fiona: I’m good. Thank you. So, I have to say you’re the first head of I&D we’ve actually had on the podcast. I imagine the career path to become the head of inclusion and diversity isn’t yet a well-trodden one. How did you make that transition into the role?

Sara: Yeah, that’s for sure. I spend so much time in networks of other people that do this work, and none of us have the same path to get into it. So, it’s definitely a new field for a lot of places. And some companies certainly saw the importance early on, but for the most part, I think companies relied on either HR or volunteers to own it. But that meant that it really didn’t get the full attention it needed, it didn’t get the support it needed. So, personally, I’m a lifelong volunteer, I’ve worked at a number of places where I was doing nonprofit work and throughout my career, I was a member of affinity clubs – that was what they called them in the late ’90s, and early 2000s. And then founding culture committees. It was always the extra thing that you did on top of your work.

I’m a huge believer though that if you don’t focus on this, then it just doesn’t happen. So, I really dive way into things like solidarity, making sure we’re bringing people together, and we’re helping each other that we’re story sharing and normalizing hard and uncomfortable conversations. Transparency is so key.

One of the key things that brought me where I am is I started a women’s Employee Resource Group at a very large company, and I then became the business partner for diversity and inclusion. And that was fully volunteer. So, I was committing probably 40 hours a week to that and then I had the full-time job to do on top of it. I really got to a point where I was granted this incredible opportunity where I could choose my own next step on my career path, rather than just climbing up to that next rung on my ladder. Somebody said, who I’d been working with for a long time, “You know, I think you should do this work full time.” I remember saying to her “No one does this work full time, no one gets paid to actually do this,” and she said: “That’s going to change.” 

She was my absolute soothsayer and I decided to go all in. So, I started doing more consulting, I went back to school, got some certifications, started getting some more real-world full-time experience. Then when I went all in, I was incredibly fortunate that MiQ was at the all-in position that I was, and they were looking for someone. So, I started here in March of 2020, which was one whole week before the world ended.

Fiona: Amazing. I think I started at ECI in March 2020, as well, so it’s definitely an interesting time to start a job. And what was it about MiQ that made you kind of want to join them as an organization?

Sara: So, it was really awesome to hear from so many people that I respected, that MiQ was a place that was on their radar, or that they really adored it. I think that the key thing that resonated with me is that MiQ was known as a place that cared about the work that they did, and the people who are doing that work. And I’ve seen that proven out time and time again, and in the nearly two years I’ve been here, one thing’s for certain we don’t always get it right and we have a long way to go on some things, but there’s this persistent state of really caring about getting better. And I think that matters above all else. You can have all the things in place but if people don’t fundamentally care about moving things forward, especially on sensitive topics, like inclusion and diversity, it just goes nowhere.

Fiona: And I suppose the fact that MiQ were looking to hire into the role is already such a big step that you knew that they might be a good home in terms of what you want to achieve?

Sara: Absolutely. It felt like a perfect match, perfect timing. I actually started talking to MiQ months before the role fully opened and that gave me a great opportunity to get to know the company and for them to get to know me. Then when I was ready, they were ready and I had just had a baby, so it was a great way to return from my parental leave. It was just a very kismet match that happened.

Fiona: Obviously, since you’ve started, there’s been an awful lot to be proud of around steps that MiQ have taken around inclusion and diversity. Are there any achievements that really stand out to you or that you’re especially proud of?

Sara: I think a big one for me is the I.D.E.A report that we published internally and externally. So that was our inclusion, diversity, equity, and accountability report, and we made transparent all of our demographic statistics about who worked here, what our inclusion surveys looked like, what our compensation looked like. And we really did that with the eye on knowing that what gets measured gets done. We also wanted to have that honest reflection as to what was working, what wasn’t working, where we need to course-correct, and identifying our biggest gaps, so we knew where to prioritize.

So, that report was a really big pride point for me and for the company, because we were willing to go there. And we really want to try to make that something that the industry believes is important because we want other people to join us. We want other people to show their data so we can all get better together. because we’re all in the same spot. And we’re all in it, so we can really help each other as long as we’re willing to be honest about where we are.

Fiona: And how far do you think companies broadly are on that journey around transparency? Because it feels like a long way since 10, 5 years ago, but also maybe like a drop in the ocean. So, how do you think companies genuinely are doing on that?

Sara: I think it’s a really wide spectrum. I think some people feel like transparency is something they never want to do because they have this fear of scaring their employees, or in some cases, a lack of trust. And then on the other side, there are companies that say, “You know what, we hired grownups who are smart and professional, and if we can’t trust them with this, then where are we as a company?” You know, that’s backfired a few times, there have been some companies whose transparency has gotten leaked and has created a point of concern for a lot of people.

But I firmly believe that if you keep going in the right direction that you foundationally believe in, that’s aligned with the values of the company, then there shouldn’t be anything that you’re really ashamed to get out there if it does. I think if you approach everything with the idea that it can be transparent, then that allows you to work in a much more accountable and much more equitable way because you know that somebody could take a peek, and you have so much more opportunity to create that equity that I think we’re all looking at for companies.

Fiona: And I think inclusion, diversity, and transparency is definitely something companies feel a bit daunted by, partly like you say, you’re sort of exposing yourself and having very open and honest conversations. And I think companies also wonder about what their role is within the wider environment and the world that we operate in. What do you think the biggest challenge actually is facing companies around inclusion and diversity? And is there any advice that you’d give them?

Sara: Yeah, I think that there are so many headwinds right now, and a lot of it’s predictable, but it’s on a scale that we’ve never seen before. We are right now just all so exhausted, the pandemic has really brought us to a place where we feel like the fight has become very hard on social justice and anti-racism. A lot of it really is something that we know is exhausting. But right now, it’s just tenfold what I ever remember experiencing. So, I think knowing that we’re all in this together, that we are all in a position where we’re facing the same headwinds, I think the theme that I would say is that you really can’t please everyone. The same group of people may feel completely opposite to the way that you want to move forward, and to people who are in the same group. 

No matter which way you choose, it feels like – especially with sensitive subjects and high stakes – that you can’t get it wrong. So, you don’t want to move forward. But the only thing worse than choosing wrong is not choosing in my opinion.

We hit a pretty big example of this recently, where our founders are really focused on anti-racism, pretty transparently from the very start of when we started having these conversations. We had many of our employees who experienced racism in the past, they were completely aligned with this being an important focus. They felt our foot on the gas was a huge, huge motivator and opportunity for change. But then there are others who had experienced racism who felt like it was a triggering reminder and seeing it regularly at work was hard.

So, it was so hard to reconcile because no matter which decision we made, someone would feel hurt. The stakes were really high. It was about a very sensitive topic. And in the end, we move forward and stick with the courage of our convictions because, you know, we choose to be very transparent about what we focus on, and what we stand for. So that way people can opt-in or opt-out. And we can always be better, but in the end, we just hope we get it right more often than we get it wrong. And then we try to learn from everything along the way.

Fiona: I think that fear of getting it wrong is something that often does stop people from doing anything. Because, you know, especially in the world of social media, you worry about all the consequences of your own actions and whether anyone might take it negatively. Do you think that’s part of the reason why it’s so helpful to have this as a dedicated role, to give people more courage in their convictions and kind of push that point that you may not get it right for everyone, but if you get it right because of what you believe in, it’s important?

Sara: Yeah, I think that this is happening regardless of whether you have someone in this role. If you don’t have someone who understands some of the context, some of the history, who is embedded in learning from others who are combating this in the workplace and really trying to make sure people belong every single day, then it risks losing the trust of the employees.

The future success of the business is really on the hook because this future of the workforce is incredible. They are diverse, they are opinionated, and they are excited to share their opinions. And they are not going to take the stance that the way that it’s always been done is the way to move forward. So, it’s on all of us to be more inclusive, it’s on all of us to prepare for this future. Because this change is happening, whether we want it to or not. So, having someone to guide through it, and to kind of buckle up with you through the bumpy part, and better yet a team of people who can bring different points of view, who understand the complexity, and who are committed to leading an organization through it, is crucial. It’s just no longer a nice to have, it’s a need to have.

Fiona: If you were making a prediction, would you say that this is probably a role that it’s almost an inevitability that most of the medium to large organizations will have in their leadership team in, you know, 5,10 years?

Sara: I would love to say it is, but I think resistance is going to remain high. I think that companies will continue to think of this as a volunteer position or something that someone else can do in conjunction, and not really give it the dedicated support that it needs. But I think the people that are willing to invest in this, are investing in their people and investing in the future. And I think long term, this is going to be a huge differentiator between the companies that weather storms and the companies that feel like it’s always a storm that they cannot get through.

Fiona: It’s something we think about from an investor’s perspective as well. I think the questions that we’d maybe ask about the management team that we’re meeting, for example, around social purpose, around inclusion and diversity, are very different from probably where it was 10 years ago. And that does sometimes drive change as well.

Sara: Absolutely, you know, relying on historically, what made for a successful business was completely upended with the pandemic, completely upended with George Floyd, with everything that every single employee is facing, whether or not the business is brand new, or hundreds of years old. Every single person is encountering some piece of this. And if businesses aren’t on board with dedicating resources, time, and budgets to this, then they’re going to be left behind.

Fiona: We always like to ask leaders about the best advice they had been given during their career. And we sort of mentioned this is maybe a slightly newer career path compared to saying that maybe you knew you wanted to do straight out of school. But is there any advice you’ve been given throughout that whole career that you found particularly valuable?

Sara: I think one of the key things that especially gets me through not just the hard times in this job, but just kind of elsewhere and everywhere in life right now is the need to celebrate the little wins. So, it’s so easy to get sucked down into the things that didn’t go well or could have gone better or that still need to be done. But I know my energy is fueled by celebrating every little win along the way, making sure that I take time to account for that. And that helps refill my cup so that I have more to give to other people.

I think that that is so often overlooked and we’re so busy looking backwards and criticizing what happened that we don’t necessarily celebrate what we’ve achieved.

Fiona: And how do you think people can embed that within themselves and their own culture, how do they make sure they have it?

Sara: Being really thoughtful about taking a moment every day to think about what went well, is really crucial. I think that mindset is really important. I think that so often people say ‘it’s happened to me’ as opposed to ‘I made it happen’ – I try to always start with the idea of, what have I done today that I can feel proud of? And that moment of what makes me proud, what do I want to tell my family I did today? It really helps to have that connection to say, “Here’s what I want my kids to look up to.” I want my kids to say, “Hey, my mom does that.” That keeps me really grounded in making sure that I also share my wins, not just internally, but also with my family and with my kids.

Fiona: I think it’s really important to be proud of your own success, and it teaches you a lot as well. Is there anything that success, at MiQ and within your career, has taught you about yourself as an individual?

Sara: I would say personally, like so many of us, I have struggled with imposter syndrome, where it’s always that feeling of, I’m not good enough, or that could have gone better. Taking the moment to be self-reflective about the fact that that is completely normal, completely common, that most successful people have that. I know that the only way to counteract that is to share it and to tell people, “Hey, I feel this way, but I’m doing something about it.” What I tried to do about is focus on those wins, focus on those pride points, and embed that into what I do every day. Because this work can be really exhausting. 

There are many times where we look at what we’re doing and say, “Gosh, so many people are depending on us, and we didn’t get it right.” But there’s also the idea that at the end of the day, our goal is to make sure that every single person feels good about where they come to spend most of the hours of their day, and they can thrive at work. I think that that’s really a motivating force, especially coming from the business side, where I spent so much time in the weeds and solving those problems and being a single point of failure. And now I get to take myself out of that but also work with people who are constantly in that, so they know that there is a company that cares about them, and wants to see them thrive in their environment, regardless of what’s going on around them.

Fiona: What’s next at MiQ that you’re most excited about?

Sara: I think more opportunities to connect with one another is something that I’m really hopeful 2022 brings us whether that’s in-person time, or just a time to look at where are people on their journey for inclusion right now? How do we share stories? How do we understand the lived experiences of each other? And of people who live different lives than us? How do we make sure that we unite around things that we truly care about?

That connectivity is something that I think has been, unfortunately, lost as a side effect of living in a virtual world. While we’ll be in-person more, there will probably still be a lot of times where we’ll be virtual, and creating those connection points purposefully, I think is a huge, huge opportunity for all of us to really create a new culture because we know it’s not going back to where it was. So, what do we do in this new world? How do we make it great? When we talk about MiQ, I think we’ve had such positive reinforcement about having inclusion as a part of every day, that it’s something that we are absolutely moving forward into next year, and hopefully way beyond that.

Fiona: Thanks so much for joining me today. I think it’s great to hear about the work that you’re doing at MiQ and I think the lesson for me is that this is happening whether or not you necessarily have the dedicated resource, so how can you harness the power of that change rather than resist it? And obviously, that makes such a big impact at MiQ but also the world at large.

Sara: Absolutely. You know, we are here to help, we’re here to guide, we’re here to create opportunity for all these conversations, and the more we can have conversations about it, the more regular and natural it’ll become, and that just raises all the boats with that tide.

Fiona: Thanks, Sara.

Sara: Thank you.

About the author

Fiona Moore

"I take a lead on progressing ESG initiatives for ECI and its portfolio, and sit on ECI’s ESG Committee. There is a huge opportunity for companies that can take a lead on areas such as D&I and sustainability, and ESG is now intrinsic to running a successful business. I also manage marketing activity across ECI and you may recognise me as the host of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses."

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