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Sarah Alter - CEO Of NextUP, Advancing Women In The Workplace

We've come a long way with diversity in the workplace, but the fight is not yet over. The CEO Of NextUPSarah Alter, is about advancing all women in business by creating opportunities for women leaders. In this episode, she shares her journey from her humble beginnings as a truck dispatcher, being in sales, getting her MBA from Harvard, going into consulting, being a CEO of a non-profit organization, and taking on the digital world through her podcast, Advancing All Women. Sarah shares insights on how you can find the right company along with a role that enables you to maximize your potential, helping you have not only a successful career but also a fulfilling one.

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Sarah Alter - CEO Of NextUP, Advancing Women In The Workplace

On Harnessing Her Sales, Logistics, And Digital Experience To Lead A Non-Profit With A DEI Mission

In this episode, I'm delighted to welcome Sarah Alter, who I first got to know when her husband and I worked together in the late 1990s. She is currently the CEO of NextUp, a growing 15,000 member and 900 corporate partner movement transforming the retail, consumer goods, technology, manufacturing, and financial services industries. Specifically, NextUp is focused on creating opportunities for more women leaders and a more collaborative, flexible, and diverse workplace for everyone.

Sarah was an accomplished executive herself before taking the helm at NextUp a few years ago. She spent two years as Chief Marketing Officer with General Growth Properties, an operator of shopping malls. Prior to that, she worked in a variety of roles for Discover Financial Services. Earlier roles were at the online retailer Quill and at Staples, including some time spent working in the UK.

Sarah is also active in the nonprofit world, supporting the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business Venture Challenge. She is also a member of the Economic Club of Chicago. She has earned a wide range of industry recognition for her work at NextUp, Discover, and Quill, including being named a Notable Women Executive by Crain's Chicago Business in 2020.

Sarah serves on the advisory boards of the Illinois State Lottery and Maverick Digital. She also hosts her own internet radio show and podcast called Advancing All Women, which airs each Friday on VoiceAmerica and has over 60,000 listeners [as of the time of our recording]. She earned her Bachelor's degree in Economics from Northwestern and an MBA from Harvard Business School. She and her husband, Michael, live in the Chicago area and are the parents of three adult children.

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Sarah, welcome. It's great to have you. Thank you.

Thank you for inviting me to join you. I’m thrilled to be here.

I'm looking forward to our conversation and learning more about what you're doing now. Let's start there. Talk about NextUp and what it's all about. I know you've been there for five years or so. It would be great to get an overview of that to start with.

It will be five years on June 5th, 2022. NextUp is both my personal and professional "why". It's a 501(c)(3). It's a nonprofit, and our mission is to advance all women in business. We go about doing that in three primary ways. The first is we provide leadership development. Women aren't broken. They do not need to be fixed, but we can always be better leaders, and knowledge clearly has a shelf life. We all learned in these last two years alone that we had to lead in a very different way. We provide assessments, coaching, structured content, curriculum, and workshops.

The second is that we provide networking. We have over 15,000 members and growing. We engage in communities that are volunteer-led in 22 different locations across the United States and Canada. Networking ends up benefiting all, both personally and professionally.

The third and probably the more important way has been through providing content, curriculum, and strategy for C-Suite leaders in organizations. We've partnered with over 900 companies, half of the Fortune 500, and we provide them with guidance on how to bring diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging alive in their cultures and strategies.

How does your model work? The corporate partners presumably are paying some fees to you. Do your 15,000 members pay fees or is it free for them and paid by the corporate members?

It’s clearly a B2B [model], capital B to capital B, and then we've got a tiny C. You need margin to deliver a mission. The lion's share of the revenue that we deliver is through our corporate partnerships. We partner with over 900 companies but there are probably about 130 - that 80/20 Rule - that invest in us extensively. By investing in us, we can coach and guide them in how to provide the right culture, training, development or networking, most importantly, creating an environment where all women feel like they have every opportunity to be as equally successful as men. It spills over into diverse communities as well.

We'll negotiate a partnership. We have phenomenal partners like PepsiCo, Walmart, Target, Google, and Microsoft - you name it. We'll work with them to pull together investments at that individual level in their female leaders and their male leaders. One of the bigger initiatives that we've rolled out was a whole community and a journey called Beyond Allies. It teaches you how to be a better ally. We've had a number of our partners invest in developing their male allyship community. On top of that, there are corporate programs like Beyond Allies that can also be spread across the entire organization at a larger scale.

There are a growing number of for-profit institutions out there working on promoting women's development. Chief would be one that comes to mind immediately, but it's certainly not the only one. What do you think about the role that you play relative to them?

We were born out of necessity. A number of other peer non-profit-based organizations, as well as these for-profit organizations, exist out of necessity. We are needed. The ideal day will be the day when I am no longer needed in my organization as a leader but sadly, that's also a far way away. I don't ever feel like we compete with any of these organizations because we all seem to have found our competitive differentiation and our unique strategic value in delivering impact.

If you compare us with Chief, I'm a member of Chief, and it serves that C-Suite community of female leaders. They provide content, curriculum, and networking. NextUp would serve these C-Suite leaders but they would serve these C-Suite leaders by serving their teams. These C-Suite leaders would come to us, and we would lay out what that roadmap is for leadership development, networking, employees fresh out of college, all the way up to that VP level where Chief is targeted, probably above that level and beyond, in the C-Suite. We can co-exist happily, and ideally, everybody, when they come in, doesn't duplicate or create redundancy, but hits an opportunity or a gap, so that once we add up all of our great work and impact together, we can truly start to deliver progress.

I know you had spent twenty-plus years in the retail / consumer packaged goods (CPG) worlds and a bit in financial services when you were working at Discover. What led you to NextUp? How did you decide to make the jump from the for-profit world into a nonprofit, the social enterprise world, if you will?

[bctt tweet="Women aren't broken. They do not need to be fixed, but we can all be better leaders, and knowledge clearly has a shelf life." via="no"]

I wish I could sit here and say that I had laid out my strategic career path, and I knew, but it was a fluke. I was looking for my next adventure and a recruiter that I had always kept in touch with, both personally and professionally, reached out. She said, “I know you want to get a C title beyond the CMO title,” that I had at the most recent job then. At that point in time, I was also looking at VC and PE-type opportunities.

She said, “It's a not-for-profit. It's not a startup but a nonprofit whose mission is centered on and around gender equality, diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. I know you are passionate about that, and even more importantly, it's an opportunity to re-found and rebuild and scale a tremendous mission.” What appealed to me about it was that it was a bit of a hybrid because I felt like half the job was nonprofit and mission-focused but the other half was partnering with these Fortune 500 companies and guiding them strategically in how they could bring DEIB to life in their cultures and embed it in their strategies and DNA.

When I started, I said to the board, “I'm going to run this like a startup business but with a very strong and passionate mission.” There was this incredible article in HBR that one of my team members sent to me, and it spoke to what we needed to do, which was that we had to be re-founders. What was previously called NEW, the Network of Executive Women, we've rebranded, and it's now NextUp. At the time, it was an incredible community spread across the United States, Corporate America, and the corporate world in Canada but it wasn't poised for the future.

Also, it was not indicative of what we were preaching. It wasn't a diverse community. There weren't different generations. There weren't both men and women. There weren't members from the LGBTQIA+ community. There weren't as many BIPOC members. The bigger epiphany was, 1) We need to diversify and contemporize our community and mission. 2) Even more importantly, it wasn't fixing women. It was about empowering them. It was about fixing the cultures, the organizations, and their lack of support that could set women up for every equal opportunity to be successful.

You had a long career history in the digital online world, which I'm sure has been relevant in leading NextUp, but how did you go about the transformation that you are describing, the re-founding as you call it?

For me, the first step was that there were 130 other people that they were considering for this job, and so to interview for it, you had to come up with a plan. The core component of my plan was, you need to diversify the industries that you are serving. When NEW, the old organizational name, was founded, it found its roots in primarily retail and CPG. What was key to me was, “Where was the growth? Where was the money?” At the time that I joined, there were a lot of challenges. Retailers were shutting their doors. CPG companies were shutting down or acquiring each other and merging. There wasn't as much growth as you would hope for.

Budgets were challenged, and because, sadly, not all leaders and companies back then were equally convinced and committed to investing in this aspect of their cultures, there were challenging conversations about funds drying up. My recommendation was, “Let's go into new markets, into technology. Let's go into financial services, service providers, and the vendors that serve the retailers and the CPG companies. We're even now in pharma. We've got a huge representation of pharma. We've got a huge representation now of manufacturing. We've clearly diversified the companies and the industries that we serve. That was that first step.

The second step was then to expand the services and the product that we could sell. It wasn't about serving individual female leaders and providing face-to-face networking. It was about, “Let's start to engage more men. Let's start to diversify other leaders who are joining us, BIPOC leaders, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, bring in newer generations, Even more important, and it played out even more so over the last few years where our business model [had been] 90% to 95% face-to-face, we had to flip the switch overnight. We went virtual, and thankfully, we had invested in our digital community. We had invested in our social media communities and platforms, and over the past year was where we invested in the radio show and the podcast.

I wanted to know more about that.

As we all saw, people were Zoomed out. They had that virtual fatigue. In the first year, everybody was clamoring for direction, sanity, and any type of knowledge that would guide them through this journey, and then it started to slowly die down. At first, we had a thousand people on a Zoom, then we had 500, and now we are lucky if we have 250. We got a lot of feedback that, “I don't want to be on yet another Zoom.” That's where someone had reached out on LinkedIn, and it was VoiceAmerica. They said, “You got a lot of great content. Let's do a radio show.” We started it, and then the rest is history.

You have 60,000 subscribers. That's amazing. When did you start this? It wasn't that long ago, right? 

No. It was in 2021, and I've found that the magic formula is I will typically have three guests on. We cover the topics that are top of mind for any one of our members or partners and their leaders. Anything that's typically more DEIB-related. What we do is we will bring in a thought leader or an expert, and then we will bring in two leaders who are bringing it to life or making it happen in their own organizations.

CSCL 18 | Women In The Workplace

Women In The Workplace: It’s not about fixing women. It's about empowering them and fixing the cultures and organizations and their lack of support that could set women up with every equal opportunity to be successful.

 

For example, we did a show on mental health, and in the spirit of May as Mental Health Awareness Month, we brought on an author who's a former board member, Andy Dunn. He wrote a book, Burn Rate: Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind. He shares his personal journey of coming to terms as an adult with bipolar I. He talks all about his journey, both personally and professionally, and then wrote a book to share so that others can benefit from his own journey.

Along with him, we had a female leader who was a therapist. She shared her own personal journey with her son and advice and guidance for leaders in terms of what they should be provided when it comes to mental health, insurance, services, and time off for employees. Doing things like building a business resource group that focuses on mental health, so there's a community for people to feel safe and [to which] they can come for advice and guidance.

The following week, we did a show on grief. Sadly, there's a whole lot of grief in our world these days, and we had a woman who has her own podcast, Girl, We Need to Talk, Charity Bailey. She is focused on guiding individuals through grief. We had a mental therapist who focused on and around grief, and then we had a member and a partner who had just lost her grandmother and was grieving that family member's loss.

We try to cover all these different topics. We've got one coming up in June 2022. It's Pride Month. We're going to talk about advice and guidance in terms of how you transition and announce at work that you are identifying as a different gender. You are using different pronouns, and the time has come that you're about to make it happen. We are partnering with HRC, the Human Rights Council. They will be our thought leader, and then we're going to bring in a couple of individuals where that was the journey they had. It [the show] has been quite an adventure.

Presumably, you've got people on the team who help pick topics, book your guests, and all of that. I'm my own booking agent.

My admiration to you, Mr. Lowry. I have two people who are kind enough to help me. They help me schedule and coordinate. I've got an incredible writer, Maria Cirillo. They both help me out. It's fun brainstorming the topics because every time I go out and meet someone new, I'm like, “I need to have you on the show.”

You do start thinking like that.

I feel so bad. I'm like, “I need to enjoy meeting this person and not be selfishly thinking how they could be a good guest.”

I've definitely had that same thought process in my head about the conflict between the two. How have you grown the show? What do you do to publicize it? Is it word-of-mouth or does VoiceAmerica help? What do you think has led to the growth?

VoiceAmerica is absolutely a phenomenal partner. They have helped to promote it. Honestly, we leverage the guests tremendously. We always encourage them to promote it, and then we use all of the digital assets that we [have] like emails, our website, and all the social media that we do. LinkedIn is probably the number one way that we have been able to grow. It's fun to collaborate with other podcasters like yourself.

There's another group called The CPG Guys, and they focus on all that is CPG. They had me on as a guest. I've had them on as guests and so on. It's been so well-received because you can listen to a podcast at your own convenience. We learned quickly that when we were scheduling Zoom events or learning programs, and it's at X hour, most people were listening to it later. They weren't able to engage and wanted that option, to listen to the recording. That's where we tried it out. It has been a great new channel and way to engage.

Certainly, the one benefit is you say, “You can do it on your own time,” but you also can do it in more places. I talk to people who listen to podcasts while they work out or are in the car on a long drive. The seamlessness of being able, in particular, to get it on your phone and connect that to your car audio so you could listen to it in your car has to help boost the audience.

[bctt tweet="Don't chase titles or salaries. Don't chase titles that can end up just being the wrong role in the wrong organization." via="no"]

I have to ask you. Have you listened to yourself yet?

I go back and personally edit down all of the episodes, and then I give them to the production company to work on. They put the finishing touches on things and I also get transcripts from them. I do the discussion. I rewatch the discussion, and then I read the transcript of the discussion. The one benefit of that is that, by the time that's all done, I remember the discussions pretty well and what I talked about with each person and what was unique about their story. It's time-consuming. I don't know whether I'll be able to keep doing that forever but it's a way to really help me internalize the lessons that I get from these discussions.

I love what you're focused on. There have been many times in my career where others have stepped up, advocated, sponsored or provided advice and guidance. I love what you are doing.

To go back to your beginnings, you were at Northwestern. You studied Economics. How did you think about your immediate post-college path, which ultimately led you back to Harvard to get your MBA and then into the retail world?

It was funny. At the time, the job to get, and this was back many years ago, was at Arthur Andersen, and I didn't end up getting that offer. What I did end up getting, and it was the perfect way to start my career journey - it's advice that I try and give anytime anybody seeks my advice - it was a structured six-month management training program. It was for American President Lines. You worked your way through every single department and division within it. It was an international shipping company but it had both international and domestic transportation services.

You work at the rail yard, in the truck depot, on the docks, in finance, marketing, and sales - you name it. For me, it was perfect because I had no clue what I wanted to do. I had no clue what I thought I would enjoy and be good at. Those two go hand-in-hand. I ended up wanting to start in a sales position. You went into sales or operations after you graduated from the training program, and there were no sales opportunities open, so I took a job as a truck dispatcher at the truck depot and the rail yard.

It was the best thing I could've ever done. It humbled me. I needed to be humbled. It taught me the inner workings of the whole operation, the whole company. Eventually, a sales job opened up. I snatched it and loved it. I stayed with [what became] American President Companies, because by the time I left they had expanded divisions. I was in a sales role for seven years and worked my way around selling different types of transportation services in different markets. From a career advice perspective, seek a company that has a structured training program because, particularly when you are fresh out of college, you're not as knowledgeable or as experienced as you probably should be.

When you find a company that's willing to invest in developing your knowledge and skills through a variety of experiences, you want the company that's going to give you a nice long and wide runway. Typically, if there's a training program and then a rotation program, that's a strong sign that you're in good hands. For me, I did that, and I loved it.

I loved selling. I was good at it. I watched my husband apply to go to business school. We moved to Boston. I opened up a sales office [in Boston] for the company at that point. He was in the first year, and I watched him having the time of his life meeting all these incredible people from all over the world and learning far more significantly than you could ever imagine from a strategic and analytic perspective.

I quietly applied in case I didn't get in. I luckily got in, and so I ended up then going and getting my MBA as well. We were broke for three years, and then we both became consultants. Michael went to McKinsey. I went to AT Kearney. I was in their transportation and logistics practice. I got to move over and work in Asia. I loved being abroad. I did not love being a consultant. I was not a good consultant. I was a manager. I was an operator. I ended up staying just shy of two years, and then my journey began with Staples.

I landed a job at Staples. Michael was still at McKinsey. His job took us to London. Staples graciously transferred my offer from Boston to London. We lived and worked in Europe, primarily in London, for two years. I was part of the European retail team for Staples. I was the marketing comptroller for stores in England and Germany. I loved that job. I loved sales but I truly loved marketing.

I'm that servant leader where I know it all starts and ends with the customer. That's what inspires me. That would be another piece of advice that I would give, which is you need to be inspired by your mission, customer, and product or service. If you're not, how can you ever be satisfied with what you are doing? How can you ever love what you are doing, and how can you ever be good at it?

CSCL 18 | Women In The Workplace

Sarah Alter: We are here to deliver impact and value, so we must be responsible and professional, but it doesn't mean you can't have a whole lot of fun.

 

I learned a couple of times later, “This is not working for me. It’s time to move.” I was at Staples for ten years. They eventually brought me back here to Chicago to work for one of their recent acquisitions, Quill, and I continued to do marketing but primarily digital marketing. I played the lead role in helping them build their whole digital strategy, platform, and experience. I ultimately moved over to Discover because they needed somebody to come in and scrap and rebuild their whole digital world.

That was the point where, in my first six years, I loved it. In my seventh year, I fell out of love and knew it was time to move on. I took some time off and found my next gig. I chased the title. I wanted to be a chief marketing officer, but don't chase salaries or titles. I didn't do the appropriate research, and that ended up being the wrong role in the wrong organization for me. I ended up leaving but when every door closes, another one opens, and that's when I found NextUp.

What was it that wasn't a good fit for you in that organization? What was it that changed for you in your last year at Discover?

It was the culture at Discover in that last year. I had incredible bosses up to that point. I learned a whole new industry. I had known nothing about financial services or the credit card industry, but the first boss who brought me in was invested in my education. The next two bosses invested in continuing to develop me as a leader, but that final boss, in a review, I got told that I was too nice. I was too motherly. I was told that I was wearing too bright colors and that I would never be a successful executive leader because of those two dynamics at play.

Three months later, I was out. I left. In the second situation, it was the real estate industry. You've got to eat nails for breakfast when you're in the real estate industry, and I don't care for nails. A nice plate of scrambled eggs and fruit sounds good to me. It wasn't the right role or situation for me. There were a number of other people who had been tremendously successful through the years, and it was the right role, situation, and organization for them. It just wasn't right for me.

I would imagine that you are getting to apply all of those things in what you are doing now. Go back to your logistics experience, and there's a certain amount of logistics management in what you do in terms of the events that you put on. Certainly, in the digital space, in particular, you were well-positioned to lead a company into the virtual world that we all went into at the beginning of the pandemic.

It's been interesting, and to your point, in each one of these experiences clearly, I've picked up leadership skills that, for the most part, transcend time and shifting dynamics. The best move I made was when I was at Quill, the division of Staples, the then-president said, “We've got this crazy thing called a website on the World Wide Web, and I'm not really sure what it does. Staples is now telling us we need to grow it. I'm giving you this project.”

It was in 1999. I said, “You appreciate that I know nothing.” He was like, “You'll figure it out. You are hardworking and bright.” A common theme that Staples and Discover also had was this philosophy of moving people around. Challenge them. Give them new and different adventures, and you want to look for that company that is willing to rotate you, and you can be provided this long and wide runway.

That, I would argue, was the best move I have made in my career above all my degrees and whatever. That was the best move I made because it was in the early beginning when the World Wide Web turned into the internet and companies started building out eCommerce or eBusiness. They eventually did mobile and social media.

I was on the early end of that journey, and then I was able to, not only through Quill but [also at] Discover, because at Discover, I went in and built out our mobile platform with my team. We built out the social media platforms with my team. It was on that early, and [it was] such an exciting time. Now, people live their lives and do their jobs virtually.

I remember back in the late ‘90s when you were moving into that space and thinking, “That's a perfect place to be because it's clear that this is the future.” A few years later, you had the dot-com bust come but for somebody like Staples with a brick and mortar foundation, they could weather that out while they continued to build the online piece up. It played to the strengths of people who had that combined online and real presence.

I have an article clipping from the Wall Street Journal, and it was in 1999 or 2000, but they listed the top dot-com platforms, and Staples was number one. Amazon was down there somewhere. Quill was halfway down the list. If you think about the size, at that point in time, when I started, it was $29 million in sales. By the time I left, it was $800 million. Staples clearly was on the leading edge, and I remember, too, that Land's End was known as the technical guru. They were the ones that first did live chat. They tried all of the new digital tools on their platform. I would drag my team up on a road trip, and we would go up and visit Land's End and brainstorm with their group because we didn't compete.

[bctt tweet="You want to look for that company that is willing to rotate you and provide that long and wide runway." via="no"]

I'm going to ask you a question that I asked [Sarah's husband] Michael when I talked to him [in the first episode of this podcast]. At what point did you feel like you had yourself figured out, what energized you, and what you wanted to do professionally?

I don't think I have myself figured out yet, because I probably have at least another adventure or two in me, but I did figure out what energizes me. It’s absolutely leading teams, being engaged with team members, bottom-up, top-down, growing and building. Every now and then, you've got to rebuild, but what truly energizes me is growing, building, and scaling teams, products, and companies.

As I mentioned before, I'm a servant leader. I am truly inspired by how we serve our customers, clients, members and partners. That's why I've always enjoyed roles in marketing and sales and engaging in customer service. Those would be the three core takeaways for me. As I've looked at each job thereafter, it clearly has been three criteria. I guess I would add a fourth, which is the culture has got to be right too.

I learned twice where I didn't have the right type of cultural dynamics, and I was so blessed and fortunate that I was in a family where I could afford to take time off to find the right next adventure. I humbly appreciate it. Not everybody gets to do that, but I do appreciate that it's key. Now, as a leader, I'm trying to do all I can to make it the right culture. It was particularly challenging these last couple of years.

I would imagine, particularly given that you're in an organization that's focused on women. Women have been leaving the workforce. They're not coming back. It's probably put a lot of pressure on what you are doing to try and figure out how to reverse some of the things that have happened that don't seem to be reverting to whatever normal is.

The she-cession, the Great Resignation, and now the Great Recovery. That's what we are trying to call it. It was devastating, the impact and the challenge that women faced both domestically and globally. The McKinsey-LeanIn study shared that in the first year of COVID alone, women lost five years of progress domestically in any advancements they had made. The global stat is 34 years in that first year alone.

Much of it was [that] work and life collided, and we weren't able to easily compartmentalize, but the good news in all of this is that you see so many leaders now and companies that are focused on, “How do I transform the norm?” “I get it. I need to facilitate remote working. I need to facilitate flexible hours. I need to provide more than just medical, vision, and dental. I need to provide caregiving. I need to provide mental health.” You see so many more dynamic approaches to how leaders and companies can serve their employees, and that's a lot of what we have been covering in all of the podcasts.

You talked about culture. What do you do to create the kind of culture that you want to have in the organization?

For me, I'm very big on being approachable, and I've made it a practice throughout the years in my career to do a whole lot of skip levels. I want to meet with every single member of the team if I can. At one point, I had a team that was over 500, so that wasn't necessarily happening at an individual level, but I would go to the call centers and meet teams.

I would do mass meetings because I wanted to make myself available and, more importantly, to be there, be appreciative, and thank those that are truly making it happen and bringing the mission to life. Approachability is definitely one of them. Humility is another, wherein when there's a screw-up, it all ladders back to me.

When there's a celebration, success, acknowledgment or kudos, it goes to the team. I always want to make sure that I'm saying thank you as much as I can because I appreciate how hard people work. I would think the other thing too, is I like to have a good laugh. I like to have fun. I try to lighten the mood where I can in any type of meeting.

We are here to deliver impact and value, so we must be responsible and professional. Get that job done, serve our members and partners and our mission, but it doesn't mean you can't have a whole lot of fun either. I try to have a lot of fun. As many others did, we came up with some crazy social activities that can be done virtually. Thank God, now we are back in person.

CSCL 18 | Women In The Workplace

Sarah Alter: If your dreams don't scare you, they're just not big enough. Take risks.

 

How much are you doing in person yourself?

We are a fully remote-based organization. We've got 35 people total in my HQ team, and we are spread across the United States. Most of our group and team meetings are in Zoom. They are virtual, and then once a quarter, we try to get the whole team together so we can be together for at least a couple of days in person. From a regional and partnership perspective, prior to COVID, I was traveling at least 2 to 3 weeks out of every month, because I would go and visit any one of our 22 regions. I'd go and visit corporate partners.

Now, I probably travel a total of a week a month. Not everyone is welcoming everybody back. They're limiting who's in their facilities so they can keep them safe and healthy. In our regions, before, we would do 90% of our programming as face-to-face events. Now it's probably about 50/50. There aren't as many in-person regional events to go to. I'm headed to Phoenix. We have a leadership development program [there] that we're kicking off. The first week of it is in-person. The rest of it will be virtual. I'm going to visit one of our partners, PetSmart, and then I'm going to go to a regional event that night.

It's starting to pick back up a little but our take is it's not going to ever pick back up to the pace it was before because corporate partners just aren't there. In a good number of cases, they're not necessarily willing now to fund travel. Wherein people used to be able to travel and come to an event or a program, a number of corporate partners realized the savings that could be [captured] when nobody was having to travel, and [they] built that into their P&Ls.

Any final thoughts or career advice you want to give to our readers?

The two I would share would be, if your dreams don't scare you, they're just not big enough, which means taking risks. Find that company that's willing to take that risk on you and take that risk. I did it a number of times. I was so fortunate I had people investing in me. The second would be, network, network, and network. You can't underestimate the value of your personal and professional network, and realize how important it is when you don't have it and need it. When I looked to change my career the first time, I realized how little of a network I had and definitely started to learn to invest in it. Now, it's so easy to do virtually.

Yes, LinkedIn's made it almost unforgivable not to have a network now because it's so much easier than it used to be.

Thank you so much for having me. I love your show.

There's so much more we could cover. I appreciate the time, Sarah. It was great to catch up. Thank you.

You're welcome. Thank you!

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About Sarah Alter

CSCL 18 | Women In The WorkplaceSarah Alter is the CEO of NextUP, a growing 15,000 member and 900 corporate partner movement transforming the retail, consumer goods, technology, manufacturing, and financial services industries. NextUP is focused on creating opportunities for more women leaders and a more collaborative, flexible, and diverse workplace for everyone.

Sarah is an accomplished executive herself. Before taking the helm at NextUP 5 years ago, Sarah spent 2 years as the Chief Growth Officer at General Growth Properties, an operator of shopping mall properties. Prior to that, she worked in a variety of roles for Discover Financial Services. Earlier roles were at the online retailer Quill and at Staples, including some time spent working in the UK.

Sarah is also active in the non-profit world, supporting the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business Venture Challenge. She is also a member of the Economic Club of Chicago.

She has earned a wide range of industry recognition for her work at NextUP, Discover, and Quill, including being named a Notable Women’s Executive by Crain’s Chicago Business in 2020. She also serves on the advisory boards of the Illinois State Lottery and Maverick Digital. And she hosts her own internet radio show and podcast, called Advancing ALL Women, which airs each Friday on VoiceAmerica and has over 20,000 listeners.

Sarah earned her Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Northwestern and her MBA from Harvard Business School. She and her husband Michael live in the Chicago area and are the parents of three adult children.

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