Fighting racism is a journey that will not end in my lifetime. As new insights emerge, current events unfold, and new or new-to-me resources are discovered, I am always learning. (Highlights this year for me have been Dr. Kendi’s book How to be an Anti-Racist and Emmanuel Acho’s book and video series Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man). While before I craved the end to these conversations, I now know that conflict is inevitable. What I now crave is a new collective compassionate mindset to address conflicts where people truly listen and seek to understand each other, resolving conflicts peacefully.
With the success of the vaccines, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel of this difficult period in our history. But before we jump back into the routine of the normal life that we lived in 2019, it would be a shame not to pause to reflect on what we have learned during this time. The social isolation caused by the pandemic really was an opportunity for a collective pause, and a global self-assessment about who we really are, and what we really want in life.
As a part of this series called “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic”, I had the pleasure to interview Sara So.
Sara So is a wife, mom, and co-founder of The Ally League, a social impact company passionate about closing the wealth gap in Black Communities and providing anti-racism education. In this role, she and her co-founder Kesha Rodgers curate gift boxes for corporate and consumer clients that feature products from Black-owned businesses.
Before launching her business, Sara spent twenty years working on clinical trials for new cancer therapies in the nonprofit and biotech sectors. She left that world when the pandemic hit in 2020, seeking a more flexible career that would allow her to be home with her three kids while they learned virtually.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?
I was born and raised in the Seattle suburbs. My parents were both teachers and always encouraged me to be a lifelong learner. In high school, I traveled as an exchange student to Japan and Germany in the summers which broadened my worldview. I went to Syracuse University where I had the opportunity for the first time to learn about different American cultures, having professors and classmates who were first-generation immigrants, Jewish, Black with African heritage, Black with Caribbean families, east coast residents, southerners, etc. That is where the seeds for my current interest in diversity were planted, but my fields of study were Biology and Biochemistry. I went to graduate school at the University of Washington and earned an MS in Pharmacology before pursuing cancer research, which became my career passion for two decades.
Are you currently working from home? If so, what has been the biggest adjustment from your previous workplace? Can you please share a story or example?
I have been working from home exclusively for over a year. The adjustment was challenging for me because I have three children now in elementary, middle, and high school, and this is the first time they have been around me while I work. I was always intentional about separating work from home and have been an active participant in my kids’ activities, having been a PTA Vice President, Little League baseball coach, and sideline fan for multiple sports year-round. The parent my kids were used to seeing every day was focused solely on those things. Working from home involuntarily exposed them to my workplace. I worked in the home office away from shared living spaces but my youngest especially would pick her spots to come in and ask for help or just want to be near me, sitting under my desk playing alone while listening in on work.
The job I left required several meetings a day and the gaps were spent tending to the emotional, physical, or schooling needs my kids had. It was impossible to feel good at my job. While management was saying all the right things about flexibility, the business needs remained. I knew I was failing. The pandemic struggles were real and while the kids did great, it required more hands-on parenting time and energy than ever before.
One day, my middle school son was using the desk beside me. I had just ended a work call, and he said, “Mom, are you okay?” In the call, I had been venting frustrations with colleagues. I wasn’t upset, and there wasn’t any conflict, so his question worried me. Later in the summer, my 6-year-old mentioned the chemical name of the drug that my company was working on and the cancer type it was for. I was shocked that she picked this up just by being around my workplace — something I thought I was able to protect them from. My employees didn’t have children and were compensating for my reduced capacity. While they were very understanding of my circumstances, it wasn’t fair to them or my employer.
What do you miss most about your pre-COVID lifestyle?
I am still grieving the loss of financial security, stable employment, and predictable routines that included fun things like youth sports and travel.
The pandemic was really a time for collective self-reflection. What social changes would you like to see as a result of the COVID pandemic?
I am still hoping that this pandemic causes people to wake up to realize and truly appreciate our shared humanity. Doing cancer research was always energizing because it was us against biology, fighting for all humans without regard for which ones we were trying to help. While there have been stories of heroic sacrifices made in this pandemic, I wish it were uniting people against the common enemy of this virus more. The division in how people respond to the virus has been heartbreaking.
The second pandemic we have collectively witnessed is racism, which has now been tearing through the Black and Asian communities mercilessly, and on the global stage. It is impossible to ignore, and it’s heartbreaking that it’s been harming people for hundreds of years. Like everything, racism has evolved over time.
My hope is that people can move beyond this first step of recognizing modern-day racism toward a concerted, action-oriented effort to dismantle it. This is why we started The Ally League — to help bring people from empathy to action. It has been hard for white communities to accept responsibility for benefiting from racism since those of us in the most recent generations didn’t begin the oppression and were taught in school that the civil rights movement was a thing of the past. I hope we are approaching the tipping point needed to heal our deep wounds.
What if anything, do you think are the unexpected positives of the COVID response? We’d love to hear some stories or examples.
Forcing people to work from home has caused many industries to redefine what is possible. Before the pandemic, my former employer was struggling to develop a work-from-home policy. I was on a task force advocating for flexibility. In hindsight, it is kind of funny how hard it was for us to imagine a productive workplace with even a portion of workers at home, much less nearly all of them! The reality is if you give people the freedom to execute within a framework of well-defined deliverables, it can be done and probably in many cases with greater workplace satisfaction. I am an introverted and die-hard casual person, and there were certainly great workdays in my old gig after the pandemic. Were it not for the demanding hours with a global team in other countries and three kids to support, I would not have left.
Outside of work, things like educational, civic, and philanthropic efforts moving online have allowed more people to participate in extracurricular activities than before. The environmental impacts of less travel and commuting remain positive. The centering of family life has been good for my household.
While attending online school has been challenging for a lot of kids, some have found they prefer it. Our school district is now offering a new online high school option unrelated to the pandemic that might be better for some kids and will relieve the overcrowding issues in some schools. Sadly, many Black children have preferred online learning because it removes social pressures. Giving them a preferred public option would relieve the financial strain many experiences pursuing private schools.
Finally, I think the pandemic contributed to the anti-racism movement that is now growing. People couldn’t ignore George Floyd’s murder and a lot of people were contemplating their values when their lives were disrupted by the virus. The disparity in virus outcomes in the Black community has also highlighted systemic injustices that we now need to address.
How did you deal with the tedium of being locked up indefinitely during the pandemic? Can you share with us a few things you have done to keep your mood up?
My mood has most certainly not always been up. It’s been helpful to focus on gratitude for our health and for having financial resources to maintain our lifestyle. It has also helped to take the long view that this too shall pass, eventually. To combat the boredom, my family has been through phases including poker, trivia, Among Us, and, more recently MarioKart. We built forts and brought the tent inside for a while for some indoor camping. Early on we did a rash of home improvement projects and I continue to rotate my workspaces for variety. Playing more music has helped too. In the fall, when we were approaching a long, dark Seattle winter and I was struggling with my career choices, I started online workouts, which I have never enjoyed but have tangible physical benefits. (Thank goodness those days are over!)
Emotionally, starting The Ally League was what saved me. I could not sit still when I saw the Black community hurting and having to continuously educate everyone else on their daily reality. Their pain and exhaustion paired with the well-meaning white community that feels overwhelmed, confused and helpless caused me and Kesha to act. Building The Ally League has been therapeutic for both of us in multiple ways, both shared and unique. On the days that entrepreneur anxiety gets the best of me, I bake bread or go outside to walk the dog.
Aside from what we said above, what has been the source of your greatest pain, discomfort, or suffering during this time? How did you cope with it?
Seeing my Black friends experience the dual trauma of the pandemic (which by itself brought me to my knees and has been even harder on the Black community) and the George Floyd murder and subsequent national discussion (and debate!?) about racism were painful. I was called out for not walking the talk and forced to question what could be done, beyond the black boxes posted on social media and passing conversations. Awareness and empathy were no longer enough for me, so I helped start The Ally League to hold myself and others accountable for doing something with long-term effects. Racism will not go away without a coordinated, intentional, multicultural proactive effort. I know it sounds crazy to think I can do anything to change it, but I will never regret trying to do the right thing and trying to help solve a problem.
OK, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- While work-life balance is critical, aligning work and home energies is liberating. Now that I run a company I co-founded, I am permitted to be myself at work. While I was successful in my career, it required a certain amount of calibration to fit in or adjust my demeanor based on the circumstances. I couldn’t always say what I was thinking because not everyone valued my input, but now that I run my own business I have the freedom to operate and creative control. Previously I would have underestimated how important that is to me — I never aspired to executive-level leadership. It also helps me understand the importance of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts at work — when you can’t be yourself at work, it is terrible.
- Working hard early in my career and staying on top of personal finances gave me the freedom to work less and parent in a more hands-on way now. The working mom guilt was always there, but the pandemic added a new dimension. I think there is a common belief that kids need their moms the most when they are young, but the emotional needs of older kids cannot be met by others the way the physical needs of young kids can be. When schools reopen I hope to continue my current lifestyle of entrepreneurship so I can be at home after school and arrange my schedule to be there for them with a flexible career. Developing closeness with my kids in their teenage years has taken on new importance as I see the stressors they now cope with.
- This isolation has given me the courage I didn’t know I had. As an introvert, I never would have imagined being interviewed like this, pitching products, or marketing a business to strangers. While there are still aspects I struggle with, I am shocked at how far out on a limb I have gone relative to my old comfort zones. The business development is part of it, but also my willingness to talk about racism and the belief that I can do anything about it is still a bit of a shock. My momentum is sustained by validation from my co-founder Kesha and others in the Black Community that affirms our efforts are well spent.
- Becoming a stay-at-home mom did not make me domestic, but even a simple meal plan and budget can be a tremendous relief. I spent weeks feeling guilty about copious amounts of takeout and snacks for meals when I had nothing but time to do better. I hated that I hadn’t found a way to make meals, ideally healthy ones, with my newfound time. As the financial pressure of lost income escalated, I finally did a rudimentary budget that forced me into a meal plan to limit eating out. The unexpected surprise was that creating a scheduled meal plan was actually a huge lift to my mood almost every day. Knowing what the options were for every meal and only thinking about it once a week when ordering groceries online has been clutch. I still don’t cook using recipes or anything fancy but knowing what is for dinner, having the inventory, and controlling costs have been a game-changer
- Fighting racism is a journey that will not end in my lifetime. As new insights emerge, current events unfold, and new or new-to-me resources are discovered, I am always learning. (Highlights this year for me have been Dr. Kendi’s book How to be an Anti-Racist and Emmanuel Acho’s book and video series Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man). While before I craved the end to these conversations, I now know that conflict is inevitable. What I now crave is a new collective compassionate mindset to address conflicts where people truly listen and seek to understand each other, resolving conflicts peacefully.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you during the pandemic?
Nelson Mandela’s quote “I never lose. I either win or I learn” has given me the courage to try new things and move through failures as lessons.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I appreciate Mark Cuban’s allyship, views on social justice, and business acumen. I would love to know what he thinks about The Ally League, particularly because of this interest in technology. Our service-based product seeks to leverage technology solutions, and I am sure he would have useful insights and connections to help us accelerate, measure, and optimize results in combating racism.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Check us out at www.theallyleague.com and follow us @theallyleague on FB or IG
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.