Picture it: New York City, Fall 2019. I was the newest member to join Salt US and venturing to build my universe and begin creating futures. Typically one to network with an intention of community building and culture-making, I was introduced to O4U, an organization dedicated to empowering and educating LGBTQ undergraduates in business, marketing, engineering, and technology. I was fortunate to participate on a panel discussing strategies for a successful job search following graduation. An advisor for O4U moderated the panel and following the event introduced me to Beardwood&Co., the design agency for which he worked—a connection that would become my first client with Salt. Thus, it was imperative to include insights from this woman-led organization headed by Julia Beardwood in Soho. I am fortunate to offer a Q&A with a design industry leader, Partner and Creative Director Sarah Williams who’s been with Beardwood&Co. for 14 years. In this Q&A, Sarah continues the conversation from our International Women’s Day celebration held on Monday, March 9th entitled IWD 2020: A Celebration of Gender Equity, Inclusion, and Innovation in the Workplace.

Michael Counter: What led you to where you are in your career? 

Sarah Williams: I definitely came into the industry with a feeling that I had to prove myself and learn as much as I could in a short amount of time. Growing up in an extremely small town in the Midwest, moving to New York City and joining a global branding agency — I was determined to get and keep my foot in the door and overcome perceptions of being naive or unsophisticated, aside from being a woman. I have to say I was fortunate to have the support of some fantastic male leaders who saw my potential and determination. You could feel the boys club culture starting to peel away. Then joining Julia Beardwood, who founded Beardwood&Co, I was the first employee and moved up to become a partner and Creative Director, building our design team. It was a conscious choice to be involved from the start where I could influence culture and our decisions, rather than trying to fit the mold of an established shop. It’s still extremely rare to have a female founder in the creative industry, that’s why we need to keep mentoring and growing talent. 

MC: Gender Equity, Inclusion, & Innovation in the Workplace is our event theme, and we're looking over the past decade to ask you your opinion on what changes you'd like to see in the new decade.

SW: As a working culture we need to be real about the impact of technology. Technology has a tendency to make communication more transactional, and we need to create the space to build deeper collaboration and creativity. We rely more and more on digital collaboration tools for sharing feedback, reviewing work, exchanging ideas… and have to be conscious about how we wield these tools.

MC:  How do you define diversity and what components do you think make for a diverse workplace?

SW: Striving for diversity in the most open terms possible is the ultimate goal. It’s a process that shouldn’t have an end. There is no final box to check. It has to be purposeful and a conscious effort in any organization on a daily basis, and we can always be better. Creating the space for real conversations that open up perspectives and empathy for each other— it makes us better and makes the work we create better. Diversity needs to be inclusive of gender identity, ethnicity, generational— and also skillsets and perspectives based on experience.

MC:  When it comes to themes we are familiar with regarding women in the workplace, ageism, balancing family & career, and pay equity tend to top the list. Have any of you experienced this?  

SW: Balancing work and family life is tough regardless— just by living in New York City it’s incredibly complicated, but the pressure exists no matter where you live. The struggle lies in wanting to constantly strive for excellence, and it’s just not possible to be perfect at everything all of the time. So it’s about being real in terms of what you can accomplish, prioritizing the most important goals, and having good communication with your team. ”I might not be able to get to it by 5:30, but I can jump back on it after I put my daughter to bed.” More women in the C-Suite (not just at agencies) can help effect change.

MC:  How do you feel about being a woman in the workplace? Give us your rose, bud, and thorn. **(Rose = a win or reason to celebrate; Bud = an opportunity or silver lining; Thorn = an area needing improvement)**

SW: Rose: As a woman leader, I feel extremely privileged and bear responsibility for creating opportunities for more women to lead. I’m fortunate to work amongst an amazing team of brave and brilliant women leaders. Partnering with bold and dynamic clients who are women, have been some of the most rewarding experiences in my career. It’s important not to take these moments for granted and really celebrate the impact we can have together.

Bud: Emotion and empathy are some of the most powerful tools we have in this business to connect with our audiences. While these can be labeled as weaknesses, they lead to better creative. Leverage those strengths.

Thorn: As we’ve seen on the national presidential stage, projecting confidence for women can be a double-edged sword. Are we not strong enough? Are we coming across too strong? Do we personify “electability”? There’s no perfect recipe to please everyone, so you just have to be yourself.

MC: What do you allow in the room? Are you a leader that welcomes and recognizes when someone calls out bad behavior? How do you do this? 

SW: Creating a culture of respect, openness, and essentially making sure we are hiring towards our values of Bravery, Anti-bland, Curiosity, and Humanity. We work on our culture every day. I leverage my own experiences as a woman and mom as a source of knowledge, rather than assuming they are a hindrance to being a leader. From a pay equity perspective, it’s about creating structures like salary bands, annual reviews based on reaching goals and skills development, and building mentorship into your team structure.

MC: As recruitment partners at Salt, we not only study trends to better educate our candidates and clients, but we produce programming and events like IWD 2020 throughout the year to support the digital transformation community and ecosystem. We attend networking meetups, create content, and volunteer with organizations like the Ali Forney Center to make our contributions apparent to marginalized and under-served groups. How do you help better your hiring processes and career development as a hiring manager or leader in your organization?

SW: It’s important for us to continually evaluate our goals for hiring and recruiting. Diversity on a personal level, as well as a diversity of skillsets, are both important to running a successful agency. While we have strong relationships with schools for emerging talent, it’s important to keep expanding those relationships. A degree from an Ivy League school doesn’t get you to the top of the list— it’s about who you are on an individual level and what you bring to the table. 

MC: Neurodiversity is a term used to identify diverse experiences that are more subtle or overlooked. It is defined as “a viewpoint that brain differences are normal, rather than deficits. The idea of neurodiversity can have benefits for kids with learning and thinking differences. This concept can help reduce stigma around learning and thinking differences.” How are you or your industry peeling back the layers and showcasing visible diversity such as physical (e.g., race, age) and gender diversity vs invisible diversity like learning differences? 

SW: We work with a lot of consumer brands, and I would like to see more brands taking a fresh look at how they define their target consumer and who they are speaking to. We’re still generally living in a traditional landscape— where “this is for a man and this is for a woman”. With the proliferation of start-ups and DTC brands, this is starting to open up and shift a bit. But it’s important for us to lift the veil and be more realistic about the nuances— how people think about themselves, their lives, the image they want to project— and how brands are here to support those choices and expressions. Cosmetic and fashion brands are starting to change this dynamic from Milk Makeup to Universal Standard.

MC: Thank you so much for being part of our IWD 2020 celebration, Sarah. Happy Women’s History Month!!!