Voice of Experience: Sarah Alter, President and CEO of Network of Executive Women (NEW)

Sarah Alter“Find a company or career path with a runway that’s both long and wide so you can pivot throughout your career journey and expose yourself to diverse thoughts and perspectives,” suggests Sarah Alter.

She’s found an important piece of advice to be surrounding herself with people who have different backgrounds and experiences to achieve diversity of thought and plans—a desire that has led her to her newest challenge.

A NEW Challenge Complements Her Experience

While Alter currently serves as CEO of the Network of Executive Women (NEW), a nonprofit designed to advance all women in the workplace, the majority of her career has been in marketing and digital marketing both globally and nationally for retailers including Staples and Discover. Before taking over NEW, she served as the chief marketing officer for General Growth Properties, a shopping mall REIT that owned and operated 140 malls, helping to drive the right type of traffic into the stores.

While she was drawn to the altruistic nature of NEW and the ability to advance positive opportunities for women, she knew that she was ideally suited to the job due to her previous management experience in a similar industry and her time spent on boards and as a volunteer.

In this role, Alter looks forward to helping other women embrace their true selves and set them up for success. “Women are not broken, and they don’t need to be fixed, but they need to be developed and celebrated, which is a truth regardless of gender,” she says.

“I’m proud that I was given the opportunity to be a CEO and that I am able to deliver true and meaningful impact, not just from a business and financial perspective, but to help women.”

Her empathy for women in the work world stems in part from wishing that she had known at a younger age that she could truly be herself and ultimately still be successful.

Early in her career she was in a role at a financial services company where she had far exceeded a sales target she had been given. As she walked into her review, she expected the accolades to flow, but after a cursory “good job,” her manager proceeded to tell her that it was a team effort.

While Alter embraces the importance of collaboration and shared credit, she still had expected more, but what really prompted her to search out another role was the feedback that followed. Her manager proceeded to share “insight” he’d gained from male executives who said she wore clothing that was too bright and she was too motherly. With that, Alter knew she couldn’t succeed in that sort of workplace and left for greener pastures in the retail industry—eventually coming full circle to today where she can help advocate for women.

NEW-Sponsored Research Illuminates Opportunities

Alter has already had a number of accomplishments at NEW, and one she is proud of is a recent change to the mission statement to “advance all women in the workplace.” The addition of the word “all” was important to reinforce the concept that diversity and inclusion is a business imperative and the key to success. It also reflects conversations and research studies conducted with C-suite leaders that underscored the recurring theme that advancing women of color was the biggest priority that need to be addressed.

From these research findings, NEW has developed learning programs and corporate solutions that specifically assist companies on how better to support women of color. They are designed to address two main issues; the first is bias. As she says, “Like it or not, everyone is biased, and that begets favoritism as people promote those who think and act and look like them.”

By tackling unconscious bias, companies can create a more consciously inclusive culture, she says, adding that it’s also important to focus on moving women from corporate support roles and give them the opportunity to own a P and L.

Adding more women in upper levels also negates another common problem, that of isolation. As women of color progress in their career, they frequently don’t see others like them which creates a new challenge as younger leaders tend to believe that If they can’t see it, they can’t be it.

Finally the research offers a blueprint framework of solutions to effectively address the need for companies to offer the cultures, policies and support services that women need for appropriate work/life integration.

While the NEW research focuses on what companies can do, Alter believes that women need to assert their needs to help change norms from all directions. “Embrace your true authentic self and don’t settle for a company with a culture that doesn’t allow that to happen,” she says. In addition she encourages women to build their network and continue to rebuild and nurture it so it’s ready when needed. Finally she suggests women become more comfortable and educated on the technological transformation occurring in the world of business today to help broaden opportunities for growth.

Finding a Brilliant Balance of Her Own

Alter and her husband work hard to be a team in finding appropriate work/life integration themselves. With their three kids—two currently in college and one in high school—it’s a little easier to manage career and family, and Alter is realizing the importance of focusing on herself in a physical, spiritual and emotional way.

With their kids soon embarking on their own life journeys, Alter says they have been planning fabulous family vacations that have included sojourns to Argentina and Brazil, with an upcoming trip planned for Africa. “We want to have these great experiences with them but also show them that you have to work hard to get this. We have worked hard and appreciate that we can now bless our family with these amazing journeys and time together.”

In addition to family time, Alter and her husband pay it forward in their community. Both are involved in philanthropy and have served as co-chairs for the Chicago gala that benefits the JDRF for Type 1 diabetes research. In addition, Alter says she loves to partner with local business schools to mentor and coach and judge local competitions. “I consider it a fun pay back to all the people whom I’ve had support me over the years,” she says.