Sarah Duffy talks about being brave early in her career, the importance of non-negotiable time, and her biggest goals for Slalom San Francisco.
You lived in Brazil for 12 years. Tell us what took you there.
I was a gymnast in college, and they cut gymnastics. So I started looking for a new hobby and discovered capoeira. It’s Brazilian, and it’s a mix of martial art and dance. I fell in love with it to the point that I thought, I’ve got to find a way to get myself to Brazil. So, I applied for a scholarship and got it, and I went there to study my last year of school. I was studying political science and international relations, but I spent most of my time playing capoeira and then I became a capoeira teacher.
I loved Brazil and I ended up starting my business career there when everything in the country was privatizing and the currency was stabilizing. I knew nothing about business back then, but I was learning it quickly and learning it in another language.
What’s a valuable lesson you learned during that chapter of your life?
You can learn so much and grow as a person if you’re willing to say yes to things even if you’re uncomfortable with them, even if you don’t necessarily know what you’re doing. And that’s one of the things that I learned in Brazil—to say yes to uncomfortable situations. It gave me all kinds of growth opportunities—to be a translator, to become a consultant for an American company opening its doors in Brazil. I had to be brave to navigate an ambiguous situation in a different culture and language. And I leaned into it and just loved it.
It reminds me of something I heard recently. Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, spoke at R4 [Slalom’s strategy conference]. She said we need to teach girls to be brave, not perfect. I’ve been talking about that with everyone in our office and everywhere I go since I heard it. I realize, looking back on my time in Brazil, when I was just starting my career—I was willing to be brave and not perfect, and that put me on the path to where I am today.
Why has Slalom been the right fit for you?
Slalom has always put people first. We want to help our clients, as people, succeed. And we want every one of our employees to love their work and life. Slalom’s focus on people is what drew me here, and it has made the last six years here incredibly fulfilling.
You know, when I’m having a bad day—which, let’s be real, we all have them—you know what I default to? I say, “I’m going to go work with our consultants and our clients.” The antidote to a rough day is to be with my team, working with our clients, in a delivery situation. I love the work. I love our people. That’s pretty special. That’s why I know I’m in the right place.
I realize, looking back on my time in Brazil, when I was just starting my career—I was willing to be brave and not perfect, and that put me on the path to where I am today.
How do you organize your time?
Very carefully. I think about this a lot. I organize my time into two big buckets: client-facing and non-client facing. Then, of my non-client facing time, I have time on my calendar called Sarah time. This is time for me to think about new ideas, read, write, or create. Of the 50% of my non-client facing time I’d say Sarah time is about 15% of that. Then I have my team time, which is almost everything else.
That’s my work life, but it’s important to think about your whole life. In our office, we talk about non-negotiable time. I think everyone needs to have non-negotiable time and it needs to be fit right into your schedule. My non-negotiable time is my exercise time. Nothing is going to get in the way of that. Because if I don’t do that self-care first, I can’t be there for my clients, I can’t be there for my team, and I certainly can’t create anything.
For example, on Mondays during the summer, I ride my bike 25 miles home to my house over the Golden Gate Bridge with my Slalom jersey on. I’m here really early on Monday mornings and at 4pm I’m busting out to ride two hours home, and everyone knows this.
One of the reasons Slalom has really worked for me is because of how important my family is to me. I’m a stepmom, I’m a wife, I have siblings and nieces and nephews near me. These are important people to me, and I want to be there for them. My stepson is captain of the JV football team, and I’m committed to going to his games at 4pm on Fridays. So, my team knows that this is one of my non-negotiable things. And I encourage everyone on my teams to tell each other what their non-negotiables are.
What’s your vision for Slalom San Francisco over the next few years?
We have three core goals. The first is to achieve overall gender equality in terms of the composition of our team. We’re really close—it's within reach next year. And while there are a lot of other diversity goals that are equally important, I think this is the one that we need to just get done. I know that if we’re not constantly keeping our eyes on this and having honest conversations, then we won’t make progress. One way to get to gender equality is to increase the number of qualified women in our pipeline overall, because we know that we will hire equally through the pipeline. It’s a high priority to me to make this happen.
The second thing we’re focusing on is partnering with more technology industry companies. There are so many clients in San Francisco that are redefining the future of work. And as we, at Slalom, have redefined consulting—there’s so much potential for what we can do together. We haven’t yet reached as many of these companies as I think we could. The impact that we can have on the future, for example the use of technology for good, gender equality in technology—it’s very exciting. We really want to deepen our client partnerships and our alliance partnerships because of the importance that technology has on the future.
And overall, I’m really committed to every individual at Slalom San Francisco loving their work and life. It’s always at the forefront of everything we do.
Who has been a big mentor to you?
My Aunt Mary, my mom’s sister. Mary is the person who taught me to be brave, not perfect. I have a recollection of when I was young, maybe I’d just graduated from college, and I said, “I don’t know if I could read Dostoevsky. I don’t know if I could read Russian literature.” And I remember showing up at her house she’s like, “All right, here’s a copy of The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky and we’re going to read it.” And I got deep into literature as a result of that. She taught me to try things before I thought I was ready.
The other thing that Mary taught me is to see every single person as an individual, and to meet them where they are. She taught me the importance of recognizing people’s unique strengths. It's about reaching in and discovering what’s unique about each person through great questions, deep listening, and engaging conversations.