Sara currently works as an International Operations Specialist at Achievers. She’s the second Achiever’s woman I’ll be interviewing this year as part of the Achievers Women’s Network (AWN) efforts to highlight female leaders in different stages of their career throughout the organization. Sara has this amazingly strong, positive, and open spirit so I immediately felt connected to her when we started chatting. Her journey overcoming the challenges of immigration and coming out triumphant really resonated with me – given it’s similarity to mine. I’m so honoured to be sharing her journey from the world of journalism in Spain, to the world of tech in Canada – and everything in between!
Tell me a bit about yourself.
My name is Sara, and I’m from Barcelona. I am a sensitive, perfectionist, demanding and emotional person who loves to live life every single day with a lot of passion; I’m passionate about every single thing – my family, my friends, and even work. I also like being in contact with other people and learning about their backgrounds, which is why I like to travel around the world – not just because I get to see other places, but because of the people. Communication is also something I love and I think is important for all of us, so I’m always looking for ways to communicate. This is the reason why I studied Journalism. Also, I have a Broadcasting TV degree and Event Management Certificate.
Can you speak, on a personal level, about your experience moving to Canada? What was your biggest challenge, and how did you overcome it?
When I remember the experience, it’s so sad and I get nostalgic because in my country, I had everything; I had my family, my friends, and the perfect job for me – I was the director of my own radio program. It was a morning show, 5 hours live every single day. I had a career! But with all the financial crises in Europe, many media companies were closed down. The radio I worked for was a public radio with a news side and an entertainment side, so they decided to close the entertainment side – the side I was working in – to save money.
I started working in the business when I was 18 and because I was working and studying full time for 12 to 13 hours every single day, I never had time to learn English. And I had always wanted to go around the world reporting the news; this was my ideal job as a journalist, but if I really wanted to do this I needed to improve my English. Luckily, there’s an agreement between Canada and Spain so I moved to Canada in 2013 in the middle of one of the worst winters ever. I came here thinking that I would be here for a year and would have perfect English, so my first challenge was realizing that was not true.
My second challenge was finding jobs. At the time, Canada had an unemployment rate of 7% and Spain’s was 25%; so when I moved here, I thought it was going to be great! But it wasn’t like that because you have to speak English. In addition, all my experience meant absolutely nothing here. It was so hard to understand that my 10 years of experience were going straight to the garbage and I had to start again. I fought a lot, but the first job I got was with a Latin company working as a cleaner. I remember going home, going to the bedroom, and asking myself: what are you doing here, Sara? You were making money, you were successful, and now you’re cleaning rich people’s houses? And I would cry and cry; intellectually, I was completely destroyed!
The fact that I didn’t speak English affected my career; even if right now after 4 years I’ve assimilated, but I will probably not be able to work as an English journalist because I will always have my accent – and I’m competing with Canadian people who have a perfect accent. But, I’m a dreamer and I never lose hope; I always try to find the positive side of everything.
Immigrating is so hard but, in most of the cases, it has been our decision. I could have stayed in my country, but I came here because I was looking for something better for my life and new challenges. The question is – if other people are able to move here and succeed, why can’t I? So I will keep fighting – I don’t know until when, but for now I still have the energy to fight.
What are the things that matter the most to you in life?
My family has become really important to me; I remember when I was in Spain, I didn’t give them the attention they deserved – probably because I could see them all the time; if I didn’t see them today, I’d see them tomorrow. But now I always communicate with them. I’m so scared that someday something might happen to them and I won’t be there; so that’s why it’s so important to build this special relationship with them.
My friends and my fiancé are also important. They’re my family in law; they’re the family you choose. What can be better than that?
Work is another thing that’s so important for me. Because I’m so passionate about the things that I do, it’s really important for me to perform in every single thing I do. Even when I was a cleaner, I needed to be the best. And I understand that I will not always be the best, but I wanna say that at least I tried and did my best. You spend almost half your day working, so you need to be happy doing it! So that’s why it’s so important for me to have a job I really like.
What’s your superpower or spirit animal?
One? I have many! [laughs] I would say that all my life, I’ve gotten everything that I want – but with a lot of time and effort, and sometimes with a lot of pain. We could say that’s my superpower: determination.
What is one piece of advice that has influenced you?
When I was 21, I worked as a producer in a morning show on tv. I was working with one of the top 10 best journalists in Spain. I made a mistake one day because I had gotten comfortable in the job and I thought I controlled everything; it wasn’t a huge mistake but, for the director of the program, it was a big deal.
So I remember him saying to me: don’t ever think that you know everything because you’ll always have something to learn.
That sentence has stayed in my mind until now, and it’s probably why I love to learn new things. I think it’s so important – not only learning from people who have more experience than you, but learning about everything from every single person. Everyone has something they can teach you.
You’ve gone through an interesting career path from journalism in Spain, to software world in Canada. What inspired your interest in tech?
Money! [Laughs]. Honestly, I was so desperate to find a job. A friend of mine told me that she had a friend who was working in this software company, and they were looking for Member Experience Coordinators. I didn’t even know what that was! My ex-boss, Marci, gave me an opportunity that I will always appreciate; she saw in me something that may have been valuable for the department and took a chance. I was so scared because the only technical side I had was from broadcasting tv. But when I started working here, I discovered a world that surprised me because I liked it! I discovered that technology is not just about numbers or engineering; there are a lot of things you can enjoy in a software development company.
What helped you adjust and growth within this new environment?
As I mentioned before, I was not familiar at all with software terminology and at the beginning I struggled a lot. Sometimes, I thought to give up! So another piece of advice, this time from my dad, really helped. He said to me: when you think that you’ve found the limit, you can always walk a little bit more – you’ll always be able to push a little more. And that’s the advice I would probably give everybody: even if there are a lot of difficulties, even if you think you can’t survive, put a smile on your face, be positive, and keep going. And one day you’re gonna wake up and you’re gonna say – I don’t know how I did it, but I did!
Can you tell me a little bit about your current role?
Officially, my title is International Operations Specialist. At Achievers, we offer a recognition program where members gain points over time and can use them to redeem different products in our catalogue. So I manage some of the vendors that provide those products; I take care of vendors based outside of North America – mostly in Latin America and Europe.
Another part of my work is resolving fulfillment issues that come up every day. Even if we work with thousands and thousands of orders, my goal is to treat every single order as unique. We sell recognition software – which people appreciate – but in the end, they’re more interested in the rewards. So it’s my job to make sure we work hard to deliver these products on time; because for them, it’s not just a product – it’s a reward for all the hard work they’re doing and they deserve it.
In general, women have a tendency to promote themselves less than men. I would love to celebrate you and give you a chance to acknowledge your awesomeness. What’s are some of your biggest wins at Achievers so far?
I most proud of the fact that I always have ideas to improve the communication not only with our vendors, but also within the company and with our clients. Our company is growing so fast, it’s incredible! So because we have this growth, we need to develop new methods, new ideas, and new technology to support this growth. For example, our department needs to communicate well with client support so if there’s an issue with a vendor, our clients know that their employees’ rewards will be delayed. So I’m always looking to bring new ideas to improve the process, and it’s something I love doing.
You currently work at what seems to be a multicultural and diverse company where women play an important role in management positions. What would you say are the positive aspects that come from having women in those roles?
I would say thank God women have a say because I think all our lives, in general, we’ve been fighting a lot. So it’s great that women have a voice here in Achievers. Women are different – absolutely! We have motherhood, which is probably the most important thing that makes us different. But it’s not better or worse; sometimes people don’t realize that. It’s not about being a woman or man – it’s about your brain. Because we are different, we can offer another point of view.
Also, in some cases, women are more sensitive, and I think this is so important when you’re a manager. It’s so hard being a manager because you need to take care of the business side but, at the same time, you need to take care of your employees and their personal life. Because women can be more sensitive, they can accomplish both because they have the brain and the heart. So I think it’s positive because of that and because you also get a lot of variety.
Journalism is a huge passion of yours. Have you been able to hold on to that part of your life? If so,what advice would you give women trying to find a balance between their passions that may not fully align with their current roles?
When I realized that I probably couldn’t spend the same time that I used to doing journalism, I tried finding small ways to work on it. When I moved here, I was working for Toronto Hispano – the most popular online magazine for Latin people in Canada. I also worked on projects for Rogers tv – we worked on projects for different small companies that, unfortunately, didn’t go through. And right now, I’m happy because it seems like I’ve found something more stable: together with some associates, we are developing the first Spanish Communication Agency in Ontario. The purpose of this company is to help Canadian companies or Canadians who need Spanish as an asset. For example, if a company needs to host an event with a Latin theme, or if they need to do a press release in Spanish because they have clients in Latin America. There are more Latin people coming to Canada – the population is growing – and with this company we think that we can help.
If you had the chance to start over from scratch, career-wise, knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently? If so, what?
[Laughs] No, no. I think everything is experience – even the mistakes! Sometimes I think that I should have studied more English at the beginning when I moved here; but I didn’t because I needed my time to adapt, I needed my time to live – to make money, and pay my rent. And I lost some time meeting with Spanish people instead of Canadian people because I missed my family and my culture; the only way I had to feel better was meeting with Spanish people. Instead of feeling bad about it, I try to find a solution. So right now I’m going to a speech therapist and she’s helping me a lot with pronunciation. I remember, in the first session, she said to me – Sara, you’ll always have your accent! And you know what? It’s beautiful.
I think if you make mistakes, you find a solution, you learn, you try not to make the same mistake in the future, and you grow.
Given that you’ve experienced two different worlds as far as career, are there any learnings from one that you have or would apply to the other?
I think my journalism background has helped me when it comes to relationships with our vendors. I’m able to build relationships with them and make sure they’re comfortable with me, even if I have to be hard on them sometimes. I have to balance being super friendly and thanking them for their work, with being able to talk seriously, be demanding, or complain if things are not being done the way we want.
And that’s something you learned during your journalism career?
Yeah, absolutely. Because, in my case, I was doing a live morning show which means every single day I needed to manage a new project, and I needed to be alert for five hours. And sometimes if something serious or extraordinary happened in the news, all the work you did the evening before has to change and you need to create a new five hour project in two hours! So that helped me to establish the communication with the people I worked with because I had to be able to say yes, we can do this, or no we cannot do that. We had an audience of thousands and thousands of people every single day for years! When you have this level of responsibility, you need to keep a high standard. You learn to be demanding, work in a team, and to give your clients and audience what they want from you daily.
In some situations people will see women like you who are strong, persistent, high achievers, and they’ll have this negative perception of them because they’re women. Have you ever experienced anything like that?
Yeah, sometimes I feel that. But I understand work this way: if I’m with a colleague and we talk about a deadline, and we have enough time to get this deadline, we should deliver! A lot of things can happen, and I can understand that, but you need to give me a good reason. There are gonna be times where you have to do extra work, and there’s gonna be times in your life where you’re gonna be so relaxed. But if you love what you’re doing, or you like it, or you feel that your company is worth it, you will try to deliver. So it’s true sometimes I think people can misunderstand my passion or way of doing things. But I know where I am, I know where I’m going, and I know that I’m doing good things. If people criticize a woman because she’s so demanding, they should think about it more and ask whether it’s reasonable. Because the only thing this woman is trying is to do the best for the company.
What is your definition of feminism?
Feminists are a group of women who actively fight to make women’s rights the same level as men’s. This is probably the definition you can find in the dictionary. But I think there is a radical group of people who think that women are better than men, and this is not true. I mean, we are people, so we should focus on the brain – not whether we are men or women. I wish that there were more companies like Achievers; in Achievers I don’t feel the difference at all. And it’s something that is extraordinary because every single day you see people who are being promoted – and it has always been a good percentage of women. Because we believe in our brains – that’s it!
Have you faced any challenges particular to the intersectionalities that constitute your personal identity i.e being a young, immigrant, woman?
Yeah, I do! As an immigrant, because I don’t speak the language perfectly, I feel like people don’t see my capacity and my knowledge. And because I’m young, people cannot imagine my years of experience.
So sometimes I feel that because I can’t express myself as I would do in Spanish, I’m missing a lot. And it’s something that happens to everybody who speaks English as their second language. You have no idea how it is fighting every single day and thinking that right now in Spain I would be having 3 times more responsibility. But I don’t have “no” as an answer in my personal dictionary; I hate saying no. As I said to you, I have this weakness and I’m gonna improve. And in regards to being a woman, it’s the same. I’m a woman who likes to dress well, and sometimes people judge that. Why can’t I buy clothes if it’s something that I like? A man can do the same and he’s not gonna lose credibility! We’re not in the 80s anymore; I think we can be beautiful inside and outside, and we can be smart and offer another point of view, you know?
In the end, I think we need to trust ourselves and follow our dreams. Everything happens for some reason. For me, being here is a huge accomplishment.
What role do you think women play in our advancement?
First of all, we need to stop criticizing ourselves, I think, and love each other more. Because, realistically, we are a minority. So if on top of that, as members of our community, if we step on each other, it doesn’t make sense! So we need to have more caution and we need to want to know the person before criticizing. We need to sit down and realize that every single person has a history behind them.
And the most important thing is the schools and the kids. We might not be able to do anything right now, but the future is in our hands and we need to teach kids that there isn’t a woman, there isn’t a man – there are just people. I think this is the most important thing right now because, well, if they educated people in terms of equality, maybe in the future this will not be a problem.
What advice would you give women who find themselves in that situation where they have to take a step back in their careers?
My father said to me one day that the best thing anybody can do is treat his or her job like their hobby. When your job becomes your hobby, you get real happiness. When you need to take a step back, first of all, try to keep doing your passion – even if it’s as a volunteer or a part time job.
Besides that, try to find your passion in the new role you have. For example, in my case, I love communication – so my job is perfect for me.
The last thing would be try to find your second passion, because you can be surprised! I was surprised! You might have one passion, but for sure we like a lot of things! It’s the same with food, right? You like pizza, but you also like veggies – you like a lot of things! And again, do everything with a smile and positivity; when you take a step back, it’s probably because you’re gonna jump so high. It’s true sometimes I’m scared because it’s like – oh my gosh, this step back is taking like 5 years [laughs]! But something I realized is life is a box of surprises; there are a lot of aspects of our lives that we cannot control, you know? This would be the best advice.