Life At Samsara

Women of Color in Leadership: Insights from Panel Discussion

December 6, 2021

facebook twitter linkedin email

Too often, women of color are excluded from leadership roles. Racial and gender biases create barriers to advancement, and the intersection of those systemic inequalities have an outsized impact on women of color. While women have made marginal gains in corporate leadership over the last few years, the reality is that women—and particularly women of color—are staggeringly underrepresented across corporate leadership. A recent study by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey shows that while women make up 31% of VP level corporate leaders, only 7% are women of color. Those figures decrease as the level increases. Only 24% of suite C-suite leaders are women and 4% are women of color. 

Representation matters. Seeing women of color represented in leadership roles inspires new generations of leaders to see a path for themselves. That’s why on November 11, six employee resource groups across Samsara—AAPI at Samsara, Blaccsara, Women of Samsara, Latinxs, Dev-URG, and Samswana—came together to host a panel discussion with inspiring women of color in leadership at different companies:

As a woman of color in leadership myself, I was honored to moderate the panel. All Samsara employees were invited to virtually attend, listen, and engage. Since elevating women of color is a collective effort, we’d like to share insights and inspiration from the panel with a broader community. Read on for an abridged recap of Nisha, Shadiah, and Tatiana discussing their career journeys, overcoming biases in the workplace, balancing life with work, and how their intersectional identities make them stronger leaders.

Women of Color in Leadership Panel

Q: What is an experience from your upbringing that has helped shape your professional path?

Shadiah: I was born in Mexico and came to the United States when I was very young. My mother came to this country with three little kids—she was only 28, which blows my mind now—and we went through a lot of hardships. I grew up relatively humbly. The ability to have resilience through a lot of ups and downs has really shaped me today. It has lent me strength in the midst of hardship and change, which has shaped my entrepreneurial nature.

Tatiana: I was born in East Los Angeles, and I grew up in Torreón, Coahuila in Northern Mexico. We did a lot of back and forth from the U.S. to Mexico. I had to roll with the punches and I had to be flexible, but the underpinning of that was the drive to always move forward. It’s that mentality—resilience and perseverance—that continues to shape how I approach my career, and how I think about always taking one step forward towards my aspirations. 

Nisha: My parents immigrated from India. My dad came here to do his PhD in political science at Berkeley, but he immediately went to work instead. He worked in pizza delivery, as a security guard, managed apartment buildings, and he built multiple businesses. The theme growing up was always that you can do whatever you want to do. My dad didn’t look at me as a woman of color or an Indian daughter of immigrant parents because they created a construct in the house of: “do good work, and everything else will fade away.” That has shaped me a lot. Every role I’ve taken has not been about [my identity]—it’s been about the work. Every move I’ve made in my career has been about the work, and that has worked really well for me.

Q: What challenges or biases have you faced over the course of your career progression? What lessons have you found helpful?

Shadiah: I don’t see myself in comparison to white people or men. I have always just seen myself as me in relation to the world. But as I moved through the professional world, I became very aware of certain structural problems and systemic issues that affect people and specifically women of color in this country. For me, personally, the impetus to move forward has always been entrepreneurialism, creativity, and competition. I’m a highly competitive person. Co-founding a startup for me was the answer to the question: “What can I do next that’s awesome and challenging?” It’s a competition with myself—and it’s not versus anyone else. For me, that competition with myself has really helped drive me forward throughout my career.

Tatiana: I am a Latina, and I do not hide that. It is something that drives me. As I progressed through my career, one of the biggest mind shifts I had to make was transitioning from an individual contributor to a leader, a leader of people, a leader of programs, and ultimately a leader of strategy. Along the way, I had to learn how to sift through the difference between people questioning my background as a Latina versus questioning my approach and offering legitimate feedback. That can be really difficult to sift through, but that self-learning and reflection has helped me understand valuable feedback and make those transitions into leadership.

Nisha: I have been the only woman at the table a number of times. I learned really quickly to reframe the conversation in my head so that I could focus on the work and not think about being the different one or having to prove myself. It is rare to have me at this table, and they are probably more uncomfortable than I am. So how can I keep focusing on the work and not let this other thing become a distraction? That has worked for me over time. The experience that I’ll share is from a little later in life. When I was carrying my first child, I was working at a male-dominated company and had to travel to New York to meet with a very big business partner. We all went for dinner and drinks, and I felt like I had to pretend to drink (while throwing vodka shots into a water glass) and stay out incredibly late—what I had seen on TV shows. I realized I was doing this ridiculous amount of work to hide something that I shouldn't have to hide. During that trip, I told my boss that I was pregnant as well as another one of the male executives, and I was surprised by how excited and happy they were for me. As a result, I was able to work with the HR team to build out a maternity policy and benefits—and reframe how the company had this conversation. I learned to be open to being the first to have those conversations. It might turn out to be wonderful.

Q: How do you encourage companies to craft a culture that empowers women of color?

Nisha: Many people don’t realize they have certain biases. That’s why continual education and recognition is so important. Even though my company is a small company, we do bias training and have conversations about bias with every single manager, as well as candidates we’re interviewing. When it comes to hiring, I think it’s really important that companies don’t take a “check the box” approach. The reality is that companies need layers of people with different skill sets. Hiring by skill set rather than job description is harder to do and it takes more time, but when you do that, you allow room for different experiences and different backgrounds.

“When it comes to hiring, I think it’s really important that companies don’t take a ‘check the box’ approach. The reality is that companies need layers of people with different skill sets.”

Q: What can managers do to make people more comfortable with bringing their whole selves to work?

Tatiana: Being a vulnerable manager is so important. It’s one thing to ask questions of people reporting to you about their goals and lives—but I think that's an even better tool when it’s used in conjunction with “let me tell you what's important to me in my life beyond work as well.” When you create a two-way street and acknowledge that everyone has challenges and goals both within and outside of work, you create a safer environment with more trust.

“When you create a two-way street and acknowledge that everyone has challenges and goals both within and outside of work, you create a safer environment with more trust.”

Q: How have you found mentors, and how have they supported you throughout your career?

Shadiah: Never underestimate the power of creating concentric circles of influences. A really great mentor might be another manager or executive within the company who doesn’t necessarily work directly with you. You can say, “Hey, I’m really curious about this part of the business or this discipline. Can we have lunch one day?” Leaders are generally very open to folks who want to learn.

Nisha: I look for people that I can connect with on a deeper level. Often, my mentors haven’t even been in the same department as me, which I have found to be really helpful. I'm very much a “30,000-foot view” person. If you give me instructions, I can't follow it—but if you tell me where we need to go, then I'll get there. A lot of times, the mentors that I've looked for are the ones that can give me a bigger picture and more context. That may be different from my direct manager.

“Never underestimate the power of creating concentric circles of influences. A really great mentor might be another manager or executive within the company who doesn’t necessarily work directly with you.”

Q: What advice would you offer to women who strive to grow as leaders while maintaining balance with life outside work?

Nisha: The corporate world is not your measure of success. Your whole life is your measure of success. Know what you want. Know what you want to get out of life, where this role or job is going to fit, and how you can get the most out of it.

Shadiah: Short and sweet: you are your best advocate. Your career is your product. Play with it, have fun with it, and advocate for yourself. Know that no one chapter is the “end all be all.” If you’re learning, cool. If you’re not digging it, move on.

Tatiana: Have trust in yourself. You’re not going to have the answer in every situation. That doesn’t mean you’re not made for that role or situation. Lock into who you are and make sure you can understand what makes you tick and how you navigate through things. Knowing yourself and your aspirations will help you be on the path you want to be on.

Our ongoing commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion at Samsara

At Samsara, we depend on the unique approaches of our team members to help us solve complex problems. We are committed to increasing diversity across our team and ensuring that Samsara is a place where people from all backgrounds can make an impact. 

This year, we released our first ever diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) report that provides a transparent, in-depth look at Samsara’s demographic data, inclusion-focused programs and initiatives, and long-term DEI goals. 

Reports and panel discussions like these are just one step in the right direction towards representation. Samsara is currently hiring across all areas of the company, and we’re looking for people who are interested in helping us build a safer, smarter, sustainable world. Check out our open roles and apply today.

View open roles

facebook twitter linkedin email