Be yourself. Don’t worry so much about your appearance or your wardrobe. Being a female executive, there is a lot of pressure to have a diverse and “executive-looking” wardrobe. Men do not have to deal with that — no offense intended, but who remembers the tie/shirt combo that someone wore last week? If you are a new female CEO, just get a wardrobe that you are comfortable in and just focus on building relationships with people.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Nathan.
Sara Nathan is the President & Chief Executive Officer of Amigos de las Américas (AMIGOS), a nonprofit organization that empowers lifelong leaders who share responsibility for our global community. For two decades, Sara’s work has centered on building educational experiences and hands-on service opportunities for students across the Americas. Sara earned her M.S. in International Development from the London School of Economics as well as a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A in Spanish and Portuguese from the University of California, Berkeley.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area in California. I credit the first impactful step on my career path to a neighborhood friend growing up, Derek Besenfelder. When we were in 8th grade, Derek had a fall out with his parents (as we all did from time to time) and was required to go to a youth group to make up for his actions. I was a shy, “normal” kid, while Derek knew just about everyone in high school. In any case, Derek called me to join him at the youth group. Neither of us were formal members of this group, and we just happened to attend a meeting as the group was planning their annual trip to Mexico, to the border area outside of Tijuana. We ended up going on that trip, which was the first time I left the country. The stark contrast in wealth between the outskirts of Tijuana and San Diego or my home community ruptured my reality. This experience sparked my interest in learning Spanish and getting out into the world. Upon reflection, it is amazing how one experience with travel can have such an impact.
In high school, I joined AMIGOS for a summer living with a host family in Costa Rica. I returned with AMIGOS for five more summers in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Paraguay, and then again to work at AMIGOS’ headquarters since 2009.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It is difficult to think of a more interesting year than this one. The global pandemic led AMIGOS to cancel all of our in-person programmings for the first time. This was a complete business interruption for us for the first time in 56 years. We have had to reimagine how to provide impactful opportunities for students in a virtual environment. Our staff researched and designed an online program that launched this summer in a very short time.
While this year has been characterized by great upheaval, AMIGOS has innovated in a way that strengthened our organization. We now offer two entirely virtual programs, we see students making an impact on issues they care about in their communities, and we are about to launch domestic service programs for the first time.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, perhaps an embarrassing mistake would suffice. In 2015 our organization was celebrating the 50th anniversary, and we held the first gala in quite some time. We had stopped doing evening fundraisers, and we were reinventing the wheel. First, I made the mistake of publicizing the event as “Black Tie Optional.” Having spent most of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was not familiar with the gala scene in Houston, and Black Tie events were rare. Some guests came in tuxedos and gowns and others in more casual attire. Many of our experienced gala goers were very frustrated. On top of this, we selected a gorgeous private venue, which required outside catering. A few things went wrong — the caterers failed to get the food out as planned, and some tables waited more than an hour to eat. The program dragged on, and the acoustics in the beautiful venue full of 300 people were simply awful! I sat through the entire event mortified but had to put on a smile and let it ride. We learned to go with hotel venues and trusted caterers and develop a program timeline that runs down to the second. I will say we have improved and our events since have been extraordinary!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There is one person who helped me get to where I am. My former boss and mentor, Professor Harley Shaiken, Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, hired me to work at the center my senior year of college. After graduation, Harley brought me on full-time in a new role as an executive assistant and project coordinator. Harley had a tremendous vision. He taught me how to communicate with stakeholders, make dreams come into reality, that the devil is in the details, and that bringing people together from varying perspectives is critical. I left for graduate school intending to work internationally. Harley reached out to encourage me to apply for my first leadership position as the Vice-Chair of the Center for Latin American Studies when I was just 25 years old. His trust and confidence in my potential translated into an opportunity that set the stage for leadership elsewhere.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
The most challenging part of an executive leadership role is making the time for personal well-being and blocking uninterrupted time for thinking and preparation for significant initiatives or events. For me, exercise has been an essential part of my routine. I am part of a small gym that is like a family. Strength building and conditioning helps clear my mind and prepares me for the day.
When it comes to making a big decision, I recognize I am part of a team. While ultimately, I must make the final call. It is a team effort, and my work centers on making sure I have gathered enough information and input, both internally and externally, before proceeding. By and large, I usually feel very confident in the path forward as I have worked to bring my team and stakeholders along with me. This means that big decisions are not a surprise. Everyone is and feels that they are part of the process.
An example of this is when we decided to expand from summer programs, which we had done for 47 years, to year-round programming. I brought the concept forward to all stakeholders to make the case. The potential for increased mission impact and financial sustainability was clear, and there was full support for this effort.
At any large event or meeting, the CEO is always expected to play a lead role or provide a keynote. While the audience will not remember every word, these moments set the tone, whatever the setting — a gala, business luncheon, small group of donors, board meeting. I have to be on my “A” game. Here, my strategy has been practice, practice, practice. I have also secured a professional speech coach, Katherine Kennedy, who is incredible and gives me the hard feedback I need to achieve my authentic voice.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
As individuals and as a team at AMIGOS, we are actively reflecting on the steps we can take to stand in solidarity with communities of color and understand, identify, and confront racism. The question of diversity in our executive team is one that we are grappling with at this very moment, as it is less diverse than we have had at times in the past. For AMIGOS, we must increase our executive team’s diversity to become the organization that reflects the future and the youth we serve. Diversity brings new perspectives, allows for better and more informed decision-making, and promotes greater diversity at all organization levels.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
First, businesses must have a stated organizational commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) that is public and incorporated into corporate culture and hiring. Our organization created our first diversity statement in 2011 under the leadership of then board chair Mary Stelletello. This statement has been incorporated into our student training and our organizational DNA. We have screened out job candidates who do not support aspects of our diversity statement, and I had seen an employee leave when I asked them to publish the statement on our website. These are little known real-life incidents that show how important it is to make an organizational commitment in this area.
Second, organizations must keep DEI at the forefront internally at all times, at all organization levels. We will never stop needing to learn and evolve. Admittedly, in a small organization like ours, we have had peaks and valleys concerning our time and energy to put into active organization-wide DEI efforts. Looking back, any valleys should not have happened. I think this moment has forced us to put the mirror up for deep self-evaluation and require our firm commitment to keeping it there forever.
Third, we must use our voice to stand on social justice issues, particularly cases tied to your mission and values. As CEO, I balance my personal beliefs with managing an organization with a long history and many stakeholders. But I have learned that companies — large and small — must use their institutional voice to call for justice and equality. And if we do not do so, we are failing our community at large.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Imagine your job is pulling a rope with a significant weight tied carefully to it at the end. My role is to ensure the business and teamwork at excellence levels while always holding the creative tension on the line to innovate and pull us forward. And it is my role to ensure we have a leadership team and staff who manage our operations and, at the same time, are willing to take risks to advance our work and impact. I think the main difference is the time horizon one has for their work. I have to think more about where we will be in 3, 5, or 10 years, not next week, next quarter, or even next year.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
One common belief is that the most critical determinant of being an effective leader is prior experience in similar roles. After four years working for AMIGOS as the Director of Programs, our then-CEO departed. The board embarked on recruiting a replacement and ultimately determined to invite me to step into the position as an internal hire. At the time, I was utterly taken by surprise. But like many experiences worth having, I rose to the challenge and committed myself to learn along the way.
Leading an organization is a learned skill rather than an innate talent. I have found that being an effective CEO requires an openness to accepting what I don’t know, and being willing to listen and learn.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I am grateful to be leading an organization with a strong history of female leadership and “breaking the glass ceiling” long before this was happening elsewhere. One challenge can be both age tied with gender. When I started as CEO, I was a 33-year-old female. If I walked into a room with a colleague or stakeholder who was older than me, the conversation would immediately go to them, and sometimes the assumption was that they were the CEO. I have politely smiled when being called a “kid” in a meeting. I have overcome this challenge as my confidence has grown, but this was a pervasive issue.
Female executives with families are still often burdened by unequal distribution of household and family responsibilities, mostly falling on them. This challenge is usually mitigated by hiring caregivers to take care of children and technology to save hours in the day (think Instacart for grocery shopping). I have relied on paying for these types of services long before the onset of the pandemic.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Given that I was an internal hire, I had a significant advantage in that I was very familiar with the organization, the people, and our stakeholders. If I had to name one thing, it is that much of the work is not glamorous. The excitement comes when we set time for innovation, secure a supportive donor’s commitment, and build strategy. And when I get the chance to see our work in action in our programs and meet our students. I did not quite expect how much time would be involved in managing an extensive and delicate web of relationships between staff, stakeholders, and teams. This takes up a lot of time, but you cannot make progress on your vision without this essential work.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Someone aspiring to be an executive needs to have a vision for an organization and the passion for putting in the hours to achieve it. The role can be exhausting, and you wear a lot of different hats every single day. And, while you can take personal breaks, do mindful meditation, or whatever else to take your mind off of work, you think about it all the time. An executive leadership role is very far from a 9–5 position unless, of course, I am doing this all wrong!
Any aspiring leader needs to have this vision, coupled with stamina and an ability to work with diverse stakeholders, and all the while having fun! I can probably count on one hand the number of times I did not want to go to work on a single day, and it was usually for something extraneous. You have to love what you do and the people you work with to keep up the pace.
The type of person that should avoid a role like this is one that is not comfortable with having a lot of balls in the air at the same time, or who prefers to have a wholly defined work plan, with tasks that are known and can be tackled and checked off one by one. Every company needs and values those team members more than anything. But to step into a leadership role, you have to be comfortable with building the ladder and the rungs while you climb. You have to be a builder.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Create spaces for leadership. Build a team that you trust and where you can lean on them, and they can lean on you. Look for opportunities for leadership growth for others regularly. Sometimes team members have talents and interests that lead them to take on initiatives that do not nicely fit into the organizational chart — especially in smaller organizations like ours. I also advise them to put their ideas on paper and share them out. Words fly into the air, but ideas on paper have a better chance of going places. I learned this from my father.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
First, I make my organization a philanthropic priority. I have given back a percentage of my salary every year, and I feel very proud to support our students and our mission. Outside of the office, in recent years, my priority has been helping my family and raising my children, who are the future. They are young now — 1 and 3 — but will be on their own one day, so my role as a mother to them is so important. In the future, I would like to serve on another nonprofit board and get more involved in work related to the environment and conservation.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
First: Be yourself. Don’t worry so much about your appearance or your wardrobe. Being a female executive, there is a lot of pressure to have a diverse and “executive-looking” wardrobe. Men do not have to deal with that — no offense intended, but who remembers the tie/shirt combo that someone wore last week? If you are a new female CEO, just get a wardrobe that you are comfortable in and just focus on building relationships with people.
Second: People give money to people. In a non-profit, it is your job to meet as many people who can support the mission as possible. I had an advantage in that I joined the organization as we were launching a capital campaign. There was no choice but to meet with countless alumni and supporters. But this needs to be explicit.
Third: Work will always be there tomorrow. Take time for yourself. Take time to maintain your friendships and be with your partner or family.
Fourth: Seed ideas and opportunities with stakeholders and your team consistently, via meetings and other communications. This helps everyone come along. Even if there is opposition, the dialogue is easier when people are informed of potentialities, and the discussions enrich the process. What you end up with is a much better idea than you started in the beginning.
Fifth: The trust and relationships you build will be everything and will make or break your plans and your vision. Your team is everything, and your board, stakeholders, and supporters will join you when you build a healthy relationship.
And I will add a sixth: Never forget to say thank you. People will go out of their way to support you and the organization. Never forget to say thank you for their time, energy, ideas, or support.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
This is not a new idea, but I firmly believe that we should require every high school student or graduate to engage in community service and cultural exchange, whether here in the U.S. or abroad. Through this, we will deepen our understanding of each other and instill a commitment to the community. In a divided world and here in this country, I believe this is more important than ever before. The barriers between our youth, along the lines of race, gender, income, culture, and language, to name a few, are so many. At a young age, we can bring people together in ways that transform their outlook, respect for one another, and perspective forever. I believe in a national service movement that starts with students at the high school age before their independent life journey begins.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Throughout my working life, my favorite saying is, “You need 100% of ideas to get the 10% that will fly.” I imagine I borrowed the concept from something else I read. I think believing this has enabled me to have confidence in creating new things or opening new doors. Of course, you hope you have a better success rate than 10%, but I think you get the idea.
We are very blessed that some very prominent 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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
- Lately, I have been reading about the philanthropic work of Mackenzie Scott and her commitment to the Giving Pledge. I would love to sit down with her to share our vision and work, and hear her advice, and see if there might be some way to partner to expand programming to more students across our country.
- Since I joined AMIGOS in 1997, I have been a massive fan of Shakira. My admiration for her work grew 100-fold when I met with the staff at the Fundacion Pies Descalzos in Colombia (Barefoot Foundation) and visited one of the schools her foundation built in Barranquilla serve economically disadvantaged youth. She has utilized her platform and voice for positive social impact in Colombia and throughout the Americas. I would love to sit down with her to share our vision and work, hear her advice, and see if there might be some way to partner to expand programming to support more youth agents of change throughout the Americas.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.