Neurodiversity in the Workforce: Sara Owens Of Media Matters Worldwide On Why It’s Important To Include Neurodiverse Employees & How To Make Your Workplace More Neuro-Inclusive
This in-depth interview of Sara Owens by Eric Pines was originally published by Authority Magazine. The full article is available on Medium.
Research suggests that up to 15–20% of the U.S. population is neurodivergent. There has been a slow but vitally important rise in companies embracing neurodiversity. How can companies support neurodiversity in the workplace? What are some benefits of including neurodiverse employees? To address these questions, we are talking to successful business leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about “Neurodiversity in the Workforce: Companies Including Neurodiverse Employees”. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Owens.
Sara Owens is the Vice President of Analytics at Media Matters Worldwide, an independent, women-owned and operated media agency. With over 20 years in data and analytics, Sara’s experience spans the brand, publisher, ad tech, and agency side of the industry. She is passionate about using data to solve problems and tell stories. Sara lives in the Bay Area with her husband and two children.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are?
I think it goes back to my sophomore year of college when the deadline to declare a major was upon me. I really didn’t know what direction I wanted to take. I was crushing my math classes and my Dad encouraged me to make it my major. My Dad is very wise and a trusted advisor to this day so I followed his advice. My first job was as a business analyst at a life insurance company. Then I moved on to a marketing analyst job and then the rise of digital marketing started. I followed my gut and took jobs that gave me the opportunity to solve interesting, novel problems with data and math. I worked at brands like GE and Macy’s. I did a stint at an ad tech startup which was such a unique experience. After that I was at Microsoft Advertising, doing yield management and data science on the sell-side of the industry. I finally came to the agency side in 2015 and have never looked back. I love the inherent variety of problem-solving required in working across many clients.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Tenacity. Curiosity. Emotional Intelligence.
Tenacity. There have been many moments throughout my career filled with self-doubt. Making the transition from individual contributor to manager was difficult for me. When I didn’t have experience managing people, I couldn’t get a promotion or a new role managing people because
didn’t have the experience. It was a catch-22. I kept trying. I advocated to start an intern program and lead it to gain experience. I raised my hand to lead projects that would help me build leadership and people management skills. I learned to read and understand the workplace I was in to assess if my growth would be supported. I started bringing this lens to every job search.
Curiosity. Status quo is comfortable. And it can be an analyst’s greatest enemy. We do things a certain way because it’s how we’ve always done them. And change is uncomfortable. In my field, an analyst’s job is to engender change. To be curious and ask “why”. To dissect data, find meaningful insights, and recommend changes based on those insights to improve performance. This requires curiosity. To ask “why” and to keep asking “why” until a novel finding is discovered.
Emotional Intelligence. There are good and bad managers, I’ve had my share of both. And then there are great managers. They are rare. I’ve been lucky to have one or two of the great ones. I’ve always aspired to be a great manager and the main reason being to connect with people. I wanted to nurture and support my team members. I wanted to create a work environment that was fun and positive and rewarding. As I started growing in leadership roles, I realized more and more that human connection is the most important part. And each person is unique. To be a great leader is not to extract as much productivity out of your team as possible. To be a great leader is to understand each individual, to connect and meet them where they are, and to create the opportunities that allow them to do their best work and shine.
Can you share a story about one of your greatest work-related struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?
Early in my career, I was not always taken seriously. If I’m honest this started as an undergrad. I was one of the few women majoring in mathematics. In one of my first jobs, I noticed my projects weren’t prioritized as high as my male colleagues. A manager of a male colleague I was working on a project with called me a “mermaid”, suggesting that I was “luring” that colleague to do what I wanted. This is going to sound wild but I got a lot of “dumb blonde” comments back in the day. This was well before we had the language of unconscious bias and microaggressions; before we had harassment and discrimination training.
This is where all three of those character traits come in. I had the tenacity to keep going and to call out discrimination and unacceptable behavior. I had the curiosity to explore why I was being treated that way and what I could do to change it. And I had the emotional intelligence to forgive the behavior, move on, and stay true to myself without getting disenchanted
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m really excited about a proprietary measurement solution my team has been working on for the last 18 months. It is a new take on an old solution marketers have been using for decades: Marketing Mix Modeling or MMM. MMM measures how much revenue a brand’s marketing
activities are generating. It’s hugely valuable, and it’s very expensive in both time and money. Most brands can afford to run it maybe twice a year, and it takes a team of statisticians to build and refresh it.
Our solution is called Agile Mix Marketing, or AMM™. We’re using machine learning to automate a lot of the building and training of the model. We can run it weekly, enabling our teams and our clients to measure advertising campaign performance more often and make shifts to measurably improve ROI way more frequently. We’re preparing to go into beta which is so exciting after all these months of development.
Let’s now shift to our discussion about neurodiversity in the workforce. Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to include neurodiverse employees? Can you share a story with us?
My experience with neurodiversity started 8 years ago and outside of the workforce. I have a daughter with a rare genetic syndrome called Au-Kline syndrome and Autism Spectrum disorder. To be completely honest, neurodiversity was not on my radar before she came into my life. In the last 8 years, I have learned so much and immersed myself in books, podcasts, support groups, and educational talks. I serve on the DEI committee in my children’s school district. I am on the board of Dedication to Special Ed, the PTA serving Special Ed communities in my county. I’m just beginning my journey of taking what I’m learning as an advocate for inclusion in schools and bringing it to the workplace.
To continue reading this interview, visit Authority Magazine on Medium