Cascading Leadership - The Show

How Aspiring to be an Astronaut Led to a Career of Breaking Barriers and Becoming a Female Tech Startup Founder

March 02, 2023 Jim Season 3 Episode 12
Cascading Leadership - The Show
How Aspiring to be an Astronaut Led to a Career of Breaking Barriers and Becoming a Female Tech Startup Founder
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Sonya Sepahban is -  a minority of minorities -  in today's startup world. She is one of the few women in executive boardrooms and startup CEOs that get funded. Despite the fact that she was often the only woman in the room, she was able to navigate these situations due to the help and mentors she received from the men in power. 

Sonya rejected limits and focused on what she could do to make her voice heard. She believes that everyone has something to offer and that it is important to ask for what you need. This attitude allowed her to rise to the top and be successful in her career.

Sonya is a talented leader in the tech and startup space. She has had a varied and successful career, starting out as a junior NASA engineer and progressing to executive roles with thousands of employees as well as public company boardrooms. 

Currently, she works with a small, talented team at a tech startup. In this conversation, Sonya and Dr. Jim discussed how purpose-driven living is the key to long-term success, why ignoring limits is the key to successful career navigation, and what role reinvention plays in life and career.

Sonya is the founder and CEO of a company focused on helping organizations of any size create inclusive workplaces. She has a background as a developer and senior female leader in Fortune 500 companies, which has shaped her work in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). 

Sonya began her career in NASA, and she explains that looking back she can connect the dots in her career to the work she is doing now. She emphasizes that being purposeful is an important part of her work, and she believes that her own experiences have helped to shape her current role. Her goal is to help companies foster productivity and belonging for all individuals within their organization.

Sonya has been focused on purposeful work throughout her career, from joining NASA to now working in the corporate boardroom. She joined NASA with the hope of exploring space to better understand humanity and progress, then shifted to aerospace and defense to protect security, freedom, and the way of life. 

In her current role, she is focused on making the workplace a place where everyone feels they belong and can be productive. She believes that regardless of the business, it is important to be focused on the end user, and that this is similar to what she did at NASA: making people feel safe. In her heavily male-dominated spaces, she is determined to make a difference.



"Exploring Purpose-Driven Living and Career Navigation "


Heading: Inclusive Workplaces 


Exploring a Career of Purpose and Mission


Conversation on Career Advancement and the Power of Belief


Overcoming Limitations and Achieving Professional Success


Conversation on Finding Purpose and Mission in Career Trajectory


Conversation Summary: Exploring the Pursuit of Perfection


Exploring Minimalism


Exploring the Impact of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace


Reinventing Yourself and Building Your Career


 Career Reinvention 

Music Credit: Maarten Schellekens - Riviera

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"How Aspiring to be an Astronaut Led to a Career of Breaking Barriers and Being a Female Tech Startup Founder"

[00:00:00] Dr Jim: welcome to today's episode of Cascading Leadership. I am your friendly neighborhood talent strategy nerd, Dr. Jim. And today we are in for a fantastic episode as part of our Women in Tech Leadership series. And in this conversation we're going to answer some very important questions.

[00:00:16] Dr Jim: We're gonna learn how purpose-Driven Living is the key to long-term success. We're gonna learn why ignoring limits is the key to successful career navigation. And we're gonna learn what role reinvention plays in life and career. So the purpose of our show is to help everyone move their careers further faster.

[00:00:39] Dr Jim: And the person that's gonna help us answer these questions through her story and her experiences is joining us today. Sonya, welcome to the show. 

[00:00:47] Sonya Sephaban: Hey there, I Dr. Jim . I haven't called you that before, but I guess I'll 

[00:00:51] Sonya Sephaban: start calling you that . 

[00:00:52] Dr Jim: No, it's Dr. Jim is only used in the beginning of the show and on my signature panel and on 

[00:00:57] Dr Jim: LinkedIn.

[00:00:58] Dr Jim: I don't really expect anybody to call me [00:01:00] that, so I'm super excited to have you on the show. It's great to have you on. You and I go a little bit back. We met at a conference and then you've, you're doing some really cool things and you've had a really interesting career, 

[00:01:11] Dr Jim: so welcome board. 

[00:01:12] Sonya Sephaban: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me. I'm excited to chat . And then hopefully your listeners will also, benefit from it in, 

[00:01:19] Sonya Sephaban: in some way. 

[00:01:19] Dr Jim: A good way for us to kick it off is have you tell us a little bit about the work that you're doing now and a little bit about how you're involved in the tech space and in the startup space and get us familiar with that before we dive into the b the bulk of the conversation. 

[00:01:37] Sonya Sephaban: I feel truly blessed, right? For a career that has offered me so many exciting opportunities starting as a junior NASA engineer to executive roles with thousands of employees and all the way to public company boardrooms. And then four, circle back to where I am today working with a very small and talented team at a tech startup.

[00:01:57] Sonya Sephaban: Our company is our office, [00:02:00] and this is where we we help, organizations of any size build inclusive workplaces for all individuals to belong and for companies to see more productivity. . 

[00:02:09] Dr Jim: I think you're selling a little bit of your backstory short, but that's the whole reason why we have this time to have the conversation.

[00:02:15] Dr Jim: One of the things that caught my interest or attention about what you had mentioned in your intro was you're doing this really important work for, at our office as the founder and c e o of the organization that company is doing Really solid work from a D E I analytics perspective.

[00:02:32] Dr Jim: And there's also a lot of solutioning in terms of advancing d e I within organizations. How did that get shaped by your experiences as a developer and also a senior female leader in Fortune 500 companies? 

[00:02:44] Sonya Sephaban: I think that everything I've done in my career has prepared me for this role.

[00:02:49] Sonya Sephaban: Frankly, it is the most fun and the hardest role. , and I'll explain as we go through the conversation. I'm an immigrants child American born, but first generation. And [00:03:00] so from the very, very young childhood, for some reason I wanted to be an astronaut. So that's why I joined NASA and I spent the first decade or so of my life there.

[00:03:10] Sonya Sephaban: And when you talk about what we're doing today, I think one of the things that was really important to me at nasa, and frankly, sometimes you just have to look back and put the pieces together or connect the dots through your career. And as I look back, what that had in common with everything else I've done is that, we talked, you just mentioned that people are gonna hear about being purposeful.

[00:03:32] Sonya Sephaban: I was always very, purposeful. I wanted really to contribute in a meaningful way, which I think for a lot of people today is is really, especially the millennials and Gen Zers, they talk about that all the time. And I joined NASA when it was my lowest offer, out of school.

[00:03:48] Sonya Sephaban: I had much better offers, but I really wanted to explore space to better understand ourselves and our planet. I thought that would really give insights and would make , us progress [00:04:00] as a human race. As I progressed. From NASA to becoming an executive in aerospace and defense.

[00:04:07] Sonya Sephaban: Again, as I look back, it had to do with this main mission was to protect our security freedom and the way of life, with working with the Department of Defense and the three letter agencies, in, in national security for many years, and then you come to now my role now, again, it has a purpose.

[00:04:28] Sonya Sephaban: The mission is simply for all of us to belong and feel productive for a large portion of our lives that's spent in the workplace. So I think that, if I connect the dots as you ask, how is my role here informed by all of my background is that there was a deep sense of mission in all of them, and it was always focused on.

[00:04:51] Sonya Sephaban: The end user. So when I was at NASA and we were building, the shuttle, the space station all that, we were focused on the astronauts. You. Helping them survive in space, [00:05:00] helping them, do what they needed to do in space and get 'em back safely. When I was working in aerospace and defense, it was the war fighter is, all of our brave men and women, out there.

[00:05:10] Sonya Sephaban: And now we are focused on the employees and the leaders, both of them. So we haven't lost this really. I think what's very important in any business is to be focused on your end users, the people, what is their problem? How can you help them feel safe? And this actually is interestingly, very similar to what I did at nasa.

[00:05:29] Sonya Sephaban: How do you make people feel safe in a different way, not from the hazards of space and lack of gravity and vacuum and so on, but from the hazards of the workplace, not being seen, not feeling like you belong, not being included, not having equity and not giving those opportunities that, that you need 

[00:05:45] Sonya Sephaban: to prosper. 

[00:05:46] Dr Jim: There's a lot of stuff in what you said that's really interesting. But I want to pull on two separate threads. One of the things that I I and correct me if I'm misunderstanding, but one of the things that I took away from what you just described, you're in nasa, you're [00:06:00] in the Department of Defense, and you're in corporate boardrooms As a senior leader, the thing that I'm curious about is, and if I'm off base here, let me know, but those are heavily male dominated spaces.

[00:06:12] Dr Jim: From my perspective you're probably dealing with a lot of engineers and IT folks and highly technical folks, which historically tended to be male dominated and then when you're talking about the executive boardroom though, fortune 500 CEOs, there's like a record that was set recently and there's 43 women as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

[00:06:32] Dr Jim: So you're definitely in a minority of minorities within those domains that you are in. How did you navigate that situation or those situations where you're a unicorn in those spaces 

[00:06:45] Sonya Sephaban: That's a very good observation. Also, it's interesting that it's not the first thing that jumps to my mind, , but it is true that the common theme is that everywhere I was whether I was a junior engineer to when I was in the C-suite and then when I was in [00:07:00] the boardroom and now that I'm actually a startup ceo, women startup CEOs that are funded, that's actually a smaller percentage than even CEOs of Fortune 500, the ones that get funded that's like less than 2% in in startup world.

[00:07:13] Sonya Sephaban: So I've always been the first and then or one of very few later on, as I joined the C-suite or the board. And, I will, first of all, I wanna say and recognize. because of that fact that I was the only woman. I mean by definition, right? I don't have to tell you this. You can almost just just surmise from what I just said, right?

[00:07:32] Sonya Sephaban: That the help I got, all the help I got was from men. It was from and primarily from white males because they were the ones in power. So I have so many and blessed you, so many mentors and coach and people just along the way just took interest. And I think it really relates maybe to the second aspect of maybe what's been really going through my career is that.

[00:07:54] Sonya Sephaban: I always ignored limits, , I was like very, it was not very important to me when I first said I [00:08:00] wanted to be an astronaut. This was way before Sally Wright or any woman ever ended up in space. And so my parents in the 1970s early seventies or and so on, they were like looking at me like, what are you talking about?

[00:08:13] Sonya Sephaban: There hasn't even been any woman in space. You wanna be an astronaut now. Like it's a male thing and it's like a, the males thing you'd ever wanna do. Same thing about being in a csu when I went to to gd, building combat vehicles. I was the first woman ever in the 50 year history of that division to have ever been in that kind of a role.

[00:08:32] Sonya Sephaban: To me it was, I guess the way I navigated that. And I'm not saying that this is the way, because certainly the responsibility is both on the organization and on the individual. But as an individual, I just didn't see that as a limit. And I remember one time a colleague of mine said to me, it was a, someone I was actually competing with, semi Icom competing with we were both young and kinda coming up, through the ranks and we were seen as rising [00:09:00] stars.

[00:09:00] Sonya Sephaban: So it's a little bit of a story if you give me a minute here. We we were invited to a executive and executive offsite, one of these events that they take you to a really nice hotel. You say they're two or three days and is reserved for executive, senior executives, vice president above.

[00:09:15] Sonya Sephaban: We were not vice presidents at that time, and so we were both invited to this. . And there was a group of people, maybe there was 10 of us, of them. This was a large Fortune 500 company, and there was like a couple of hundred executives there. So as we were standing there he leaned over to me and he said, Sonya, you have an advantage over me, right?

[00:09:32] Sonya Sephaban: And I said, what's that? And he said, you are a woman. Everybody's gonna remember you and your name, but there's eight or nine of us guys here, and I bet you they won't remember me. So I think I always somewhat thought about it if it occurred to me, and it didn't occur to me that often, but it, I thought about it that way.

[00:09:49] Sonya Sephaban: And also I always felt like I could tell people. Another boss of mine once told me, he said, Sonny, you can tell people already tough stuff, but somehow you can, you. [00:10:00] Make it like softer and they can actually be okay with it. And it's if I said something like that, people might get really upset,

[00:10:05] Sonya Sephaban: so I think there's, whoever you are, whatever your background is, just turns out I was a woman. I had a natural way of I had lived everywhere on three continents. So I had a way of relating to people. So I use those to my advantage where I could. And I asked for what I needed. I always asked for what I needed,

[00:10:22] Dr Jim: When you look at that entire arc that you just talked about, you really, you never really saw yourself as you said it yourself.

[00:10:30] Dr Jim: It's not the first thing that I thought about when I'm thinking back on my career. 

[00:10:33] Dr Jim: So what's the lesson there that could help somebody else advance in a similar way or even faster? 

[00:10:39] Sonya Sephaban: I'm gonna get philosophical on you for a minute if that's okay. , there's a book I would recommend to people. There's many books like this. This just happens to be one of my favorite ones. It's called The Divine Matrix, is by Greg Brady as a contemporary philosopher stick, if you will.

[00:10:55] Sonya Sephaban: And the central idea is that there is a web of energy that connects us [00:11:00] all and gives us each one of us, the power within us to create anything that we want. From Joy to, to healing and career success. This has really informed me way before I read this book, , which was recent last few years. I always had this perspective.

[00:11:17] Sonya Sephaban: I always naturally loved the challenge and fundamentally and deeply that I believe to this day, as evidenced by most of my career, that I could either solve the challenge or I could learn from any challenge. And this, for example, when I was at gd. We were in the middle of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

[00:11:39] Sonya Sephaban: That's why I went there. I went really for my patriotism and so on. They appealed to me. They said, look, you're building stuff into space. You're launching them in a fraction of the time that is taken before we need somebody to come and help us update our combat vehicles. Because a lot of them were getting frankly, we had a lot of killed in action wounded inaction because the vehicles that could go into that terrain could had to be wheeled [00:12:00] vehicles.

[00:12:00] Sonya Sephaban: They couldn't be the big, like you hear a lot about Abrams tanks and we're giving them to the, to Ukraine. We couldn't take those into Afghanistan. We had to take things like striker vehicle. This is all open information peoples out there, and so long story short, the plan and the way that worked was every, when you want to upgrade a combat vehicle, it usually takes there's a, something called an Army R four Gen.

[00:12:22] Sonya Sephaban: It takes four years, and it's because you have to modify design, bill, test, and then train. Of course the just, the soldiers to, to use it. And we did. And they said, oh, you could shave off like 20, 30% off of that. That would be awesome because now we can of course feel them sooner and we would really save lives.

[00:12:40] Sonya Sephaban: We did that in 15 months flat. We did it because a cause I didn't know that much about combat here. Cause back then I'd only been building, satellites and spaceship and I would question everything when people would tell me that something couldn't be done that fast or that per parallel or anything.

[00:12:55] Sonya Sephaban: I just didn't accept it. So it's again, this idea of being limitless. I knew that we [00:13:00] were doing this for the right reasons and I just wouldn't take no for answer. And I really challenged and asked, questions about why we couldn't do things. That, I think there is. So there's two aspects of that.

[00:13:10] Sonya Sephaban: There's an individual aspect that where you have to overcome your own fears and ask for the things you need. Don't assume you're gonna, that people know about it. Don't assume that they're gonna say no to it. Just ask them. And the only way you can know is to ask. And then there's an organizational side of that, if you're a leader, because I think a lot of people that are now in this, I always promised myself when I needed things as I was growing in my career, that once I got to a position of power, I would be mindful of those things.

[00:13:37] Sonya Sephaban: And so it's very important also as leaders to look back and say, or even as colleagues and say, can I, do I have an experience that can help someone else? This is again, goes to this idea of this web of energy that connects us all and feeling it's really the powers within all of us to help ourselves and help others around us.

[00:13:54] Dr Jim: It does answer the question, and I'm taking it from this perspective. So when you're talking about the web of [00:14:00] energy to me, that rings in the way that mindsets ring true.

[00:14:04] Dr Jim: Like you can decide how you want to interpret the information around you and your brain, and this is backed up by research, doesn't know what's real or what isn't. Does so your mind, your mindset determines a lot of your outcomes. So you can choose how you respond to the things that are around you, and that's gonna shape the things that that, that happen.

[00:14:23] Sonya Sephaban: I wanna be very clear that while I believe in that a hundred percent, I do believe it may seem as though it has its limits, right? Because there are certain things that you can do, and there's certain things that. , if you're part of an organization, they have decide they have to decide to change a policy or they have to allow certain things.

[00:14:42] Sonya Sephaban: And so I'm sure a lot of people who are listening to this will think yeah, but at a certain point, right? I can't create a higher salary for myself. I can't create a vacation when I need to go take care of something with my kid. I can't just think that in my own head.

[00:14:55] Sonya Sephaban: And the answer is yes, but if you think of it as a connected web, then it goes to the [00:15:00] organizational side of it. Don't think of yourself as separate and adversarial, to your organization. organizations are just made up people too . And so you can think of this extending to the other people that are, have these other roles that have leadership roles or supervisory roles towards you and extend it to that and go ask them, and if worse comes to worse and they just won't change it, then go somewhere else.

[00:15:22] Sonya Sephaban: The world is a big place and if you don't think of yourself as alone, if you overcome your fears and you think of yourself as being limitless and you ignore your limits, then obviously with thought of foresight. I'm not asking anybody who just quit your jobs tomorrow and go read, Greg's book and say, Sonya told me to go do this.

[00:15:41] Sonya Sephaban: You have to plan it. Everything is in planning. But if you have that mindset, to your point Exactly. If you have your mindset, you'll be very surprised how things happen. I had, it wasn't. Wonderful in my career. At one point. I will share that I had, I think all women have at some point been have experiences that are less than [00:16:00] pleasant.

[00:16:00] Sonya Sephaban: Sometimes it's bordered sexual harassment. In my case it did. And just as I was thinking, the next day I was thinking, I gotta leave this job , I just can't be in this role where I'm subjected to this. And some unwanted, like behavior around me just as I was. I just, I I kid you not, as I was thinking that I got a call from another part of that organization.

[00:16:21] Sonya Sephaban: offering me if I wanted to go and join another team, , and I had to, literally it was within less than 48 hours. Again, I'm not saying that can happen for everyone, but I think the mindset has a lot to do with it. 

[00:16:32] Dr Jim: There's an aspect of what you said that, that incorporates concepts of curiosity.

[00:16:37] Dr Jim: If you're looking at the situation as it is, you have to ask why does this exist? And you have to take agency and seeing if you can shift the way it is or pivot to, to another direction. But the, that, the other point of what you just said that, that hit me is that, at some level you're the c e o of your own career path.

[00:16:55] Dr Jim: So if you're not making, if you're not making the progress that you need to [00:17:00] make, you need to be intentional about taking the necessary shifts in actions to go ahead and make what you want real. You mentioned this several times when you were talking about your career trajectory, and it's this idea of purpose and mission and how you joined organizations because of the big things that they were trying to do. And what I'm wondering is why did you specifically call out purpose and mission as the reasons behind why you joined organizations?

[00:17:30] Sonya Sephaban: So 

[00:17:31] Sonya Sephaban: I'll give you a simple answer, , and it makes you happy. It's proven. They asked I think it was Colin Powell, and then they asked someone very different.

[00:17:40] Sonya Sephaban: They asked a monk, , why they were what was the secret to happiness? and they both said a life of purpose, a life of service. And I won't pretend that when I joined nasa, I knew this . I didn't, I was just naturally was just very much drawn to exploration to something bigger than myself always.

[00:17:59] Sonya Sephaban: And I [00:18:00] think that it just depends on our experiences. I had the kind of experiences at the time, I didn't think it was lucky, but now in hindsight, I think it's very lucky that I lived on three continents as I was growing up. And so it gave me a very expansive view of the world from very early days.

[00:18:16] Sonya Sephaban: I think that if you are lucky enough to be born and grow up in the same town, most of your life, it gives you a different level of confidence and safety and being there. But you may not have as expansive as you when you may then, because no matter what our backgrounds are, there's some positives and there is some limiting factors to it.

[00:18:34] Sonya Sephaban: And I think the biggest thing is to just always. See look at the other side of it, listening to podcasts like this, especially these days, it's so easy to listen and learn and get other perspectives. Here's, I have to suggest another book, . I'm all about this, but I don't really think it's important, especially now that there's audible, I listen mostly to these books, but I think some people like to read them some of the books sometimes I order and read them again, also in in print.

[00:18:58] Sonya Sephaban: But there is a there is [00:19:00] someone you probably know, Michael Sher, who was the creator of The Good Place, one of my all-time favorites shows, but also the writer of the author of the book, how To Be Perfect. And so sometimes people ask what does it mean to have purpose? And how do I find my purpose?

[00:19:15] Sonya Sephaban: This book it explores. Mostly, moral dilemmas and explains the different philosophical concepts that have been put forth throughout the ages to deal with them. Consci, existentialism , all these kind of different kind of philosophies and the benefit it brings.

[00:19:31] Sonya Sephaban: Again, I always like to give people my my bias is towards action always, right? So I'm like, what action can they take? Reading books like this, it makes you just think of stuff beyond yourself and then you think so what kind of a person do I really wanna be and ultimately what's my purpose in life?

[00:19:47] Sonya Sephaban: So I think making the world a better place in whatever way, and this doesn't mean having lofty ideas, right? I think of. The the frontline people, the service people that probably very they [00:20:00] get paid very little. They work very hard. They're making the world a better place.

[00:20:04] Sonya Sephaban: I think if you see yourself, it's like this very famous story about nasa, John F. Kennedy went to NASA , and as in the early days of NASA, when he was first performed and asked and saw a janitor in the hallway, and he said he didn't know what he did, it turns out the man was just walking in the hallway and he said, what do you do here at nasa?

[00:20:22] Sonya Sephaban: And he said, sir, I'm sending man to the moon. He didn't say, I'm a janitor, , so again, I think there is, it is the mindset it comes back. I love what you mentioned about the mindset. Your purpose doesn't have to be, I'm gonna, solve world hunger , but I'm going to, change bring world peace.

[00:20:38] Sonya Sephaban: It can be a a different purpose but one that's meaningful to you and makes you feel that at the end of the day of a hard day of work. We all have hard days of work these days. The world of work is upended. We all have challenges. It makes you just feel differently about.

[00:20:53] Dr Jim: There's a really good connection there. I think if you're always mired at the task level of your job, you're never [00:21:00] connecting it to the why or the purpose of the organization that you're in. So you have to, not only, at least in my mind, you not only have to connect the organizational why, but you have to actually build your why and how that relates to the job that you do and how you advance things forward.

[00:21:15] Dr Jim: So that's a really good call out that that you had there. There is one thing that I'm really wondering about, especially with the book that you mentioned. I haven't read it , but the I'm like 15 books deep in terms of my reading list, so I gotta, I got a ways to go. 

[00:21:29] Sonya Sephaban: No, 

[00:21:29] Sonya Sephaban: that's my continuing challenge.

[00:21:31] Sonya Sephaban: Hundred percent. 

[00:21:31] Dr Jim: Yeah. N nerds are talking here, . The thing that I'm wondering is, the title of that book really. Doesn't work for me. And here's where I'm coming from. Because if it's how to be perfect, my position is and I haven't read it. So you're gonna have to tie this together.

[00:21:46] Dr Jim: But that seems like a completely unrealistic ideal. Yeah. And a type of ideal or pursuit that's gonna make people just miserable in life. What am I missing in the title that's actually discussed in [00:22:00] the book that is actionable? 

[00:22:01] Sonya Sephaban: So this is a spoiler alert, . If you don't mind knowing the end of the book or the bottom line of it, then I can share it. But For those who are listening, if they want to not hear the end of the book, they can mute it and then come back later on, right? They can read 

[00:22:16] Sonya Sephaban: the book.

[00:22:16] Dr Jim: Fast forward about 30 seconds, and then then we should be good. 

[00:22:19] Sonya Sephaban: So actually the bottom line of it and as is in the Good Place which I really love the show as well, is the same, is that you can't be perfect. But what you can do is, and what the book tries to help you do and as well as the show, is that it presents the dilemmas that you may find yourself in and helps you think through them ahead of time.

[00:22:44] Sonya Sephaban: And it helps you see that all of these philosophies, all these philosophers, con to them all. People that put these things forward, they thought that was the answer. But they all fail at some, in some situation, so therefore you, there's really no one [00:23:00] magic wand.

[00:23:01] Sonya Sephaban: There's no way to be perfect. All you can try and be a better person and to be a better person. It's important to be thoughtful. And so what it helps you do that both the show and the book do, is that they help you exercise those muscles, right? And think through these what would I do?

[00:23:16] Sonya Sephaban: And your answer may be very different from cons or , anybody else, but but at least you've thought through it. And at least you have an awareness. It's really about. Being perfect. Is not the end goal. The end goal is to be aware and to be a learning. It's like what you said, this curiosity, right?

[00:23:34] Sonya Sephaban: The challenge. I'll give you an example. I went for the holidays. I went to Patagonia and it was a very far away place. And I was it was a hiking trip, so I was actually buying equipment for it about three months in advance, right? So I was buying all these things. I actually had to buy a larger luggage, like a 28 inch to take all this gear with me because it was a hiking trip.

[00:23:54] Sonya Sephaban: We're gonna hike every day in this very remote areas where I imagined they had nothing, so I had to take everything from the, 

[00:23:59] Dr Jim: so [00:24:00] this is your idea of a vacation. That sounds like work. That sounds like work to me.

[00:24:04] Sonya Sephaban: Oh, no. It was fabulous, by the way. I recommended it to everyone. And I, but I was the clicker and the reason why it was so good is because I was off the grid for two, four weeks,

[00:24:12] Dr Jim: That sounds terrible. I can't. 

[00:24:14] Sonya Sephaban: You would go nuts. 

[00:24:15] Dr Jim: I can't I cannot endorse that as a destination or a goal. 

[00:24:20] Sonya Sephaban: We can agree to disagree on this one, but I'll tell you I stand before you as a rejuvenated example of why it's so good. But I tell you, it's certainly not for everyone. But when I got there, my, my most horrible nightmare happened, which hasn't happened.

[00:24:36] Sonya Sephaban: I, as much as I traveled, hasn't happened to me. Like at all. Ever like this, or in a long time. You've even having a little bit of a delay. My luggage was not there when I got there. And in fact, it did not arrive to where I was going because I was going to Patagonia and we were going to different areas.

[00:24:52] Sonya Sephaban: And so the luggage, once they found it and they forwarded it, had to follow me, . And finally somebody had to go and [00:25:00] drive 200 kilometers to go get it. And yet that first night when it had happened, and first I didn't tell anybody, I tried to figure it out, but then I didn't have, I had nothing. I didn't have adapt.

[00:25:10] Sonya Sephaban: For my two phones that I had taken with me, they were all in my luggage. So finally I called my son and I said, you gotta when I go to sleep here. You're gonna have to pursue this with this unnamed airline to see where it is , and see if they can forward it to me. Because tomorrow morning I'm flying out up on Iris and I'm going to this remote place and I don't even know if they, what kind of connection I'll have down there.

[00:25:31] Sonya Sephaban: So when I told him he was horrified and he was so worried and he is mom, are you okay? I'm like, 

[00:25:36] Dr Jim: yes, I'm you. You know why, Hawaii? He is worried. You're describing the start of every horror movie in the history of horror movies. 

[00:25:43] Sonya Sephaban: No. So he is in fact, he was so concerned. He said, mom, are you okay?

[00:25:48] Sonya Sephaban: And I'm like yeah, honey. And I said, now I'm just, I have half an hour to go buy a dress because tonight I had this Tango show schedule that I have to go see before I fly to Patagonia tomorrow. And he's , but you [00:26:00] sound too calm and happy to, this is not normal, right? You shouldn't be very upset right now,

[00:26:04] Sonya Sephaban: And I said to him, I said, you know what, honey? I am lucky to be on this earth. So I've traveled all these thousands of miles, 15, 16 hours of flight to be in this beautiful place. I'm gonna experience it to the fullest. And I bet you this is a learning experience. I'll see what comes out of it. What is there for me to learn?

[00:26:22] Sonya Sephaban: And what there was for me to learn? What's that? What was there, the thing that was there for me to learn, which is a big lesson. And I usually am this way, but for this trip, I was not definitely is to be more minimalistic that I didn't need as much as I thought I needed the first five days of the hike trip, I had to, I had one hour, only one hour in a major city we landed into in Patagonia the town of CAFA to go and gather whatever.

[00:26:49] Sonya Sephaban: Gear I could in a span of an hour. And I told my son, I said, I have a credit card. And they tell me there is a couple of stores down there, , that I'm gonna go there and I'm gonna buy as many things as I [00:27:00] need. And it turns out I bought two t-shirts. I bought one thermal, and I bought one pair of hiking boots.

[00:27:06] Sonya Sephaban: That was my size. And and frankly three pairs of socks. And with that I lived for five days of hiking every day. Eight, eight hours or seven, eight hours. I went to dinners. I 

[00:27:17] Dr Jim: You're not selling me on this trip, but I'm glad that, yeah, I'm glad it worked out. But you be between being off grid

[00:27:24] Dr Jim: and not having any stuff and being minimalist. That's three strikes I'm out. I am not doing that sort of trip ever. 

[00:27:33] Sonya Sephaban: It was really I tell you that the trip ended up fabulous and because my luggage was lost, I got to know so many people so fast.

[00:27:41] Sonya Sephaban: I would've never gotten to know people of Argentina. . I was on WhatsApp with everybody. I of course procured, somehow I couldn't even buy an adapter. But one of the hotels lent me one and let me keep it for the duration. And, it really, I went back after when my luggage actually showed up on the, after five [00:28:00] days, I looked at it and it was put in the middle of my hotel room and I looked at it and I was like, What do I do with this?

[00:28:06] Sonya Sephaban: There's so much stuff in here, , right? So again, it just goes to how much we can do with how little that's 

[00:28:12] all 

[00:28:12] my point. 

[00:28:13] Dr Jim: I'm joking and messing with you while we're talking , but there there's a theme that I've noticed in our conversation that I'm curious to get more detail on.

[00:28:21] Dr Jim: So one of the things that's really interesting about this entire conversation that we're having, Sonya, a as I listen to it, is that you've been able to navigate all of these different changes and you have an adventurous component of your personality that kind of shows up in a lot of different ways.

[00:28:39] Dr Jim: You've been trailblazing in many different Definitions of that word throughout your career, but the thing that I'm wondering is what influence did being the child of immigrants play in building that sense of sense of adventure and also the ability to stay calm when you have all of these, [00:29:00] drastic pivot opportunities that are taking place.

[00:29:02] Sonya Sephaban: That's, that's very insightful on your part. Jim, as you always are, thank you for noticing that. And you are absolutely a hundred percent I think that whether you're a child of an immigrant or you grow up in a difficult circumstances otherwise sunshine, family, abusive family, sometimes, people grow up in all kinds of unfortunate situations.

[00:29:20] Sonya Sephaban: And as you go through those challenges, I think you build certain muscles a that really serve you later in life. But b, you realize that you can live through them and that you are okay at the end, and that gives you, it is along with, feeling like you're limitless . I think this idea that you know, you can.

[00:29:45] Sonya Sephaban: Challenge yourself. You can take on things that, this idea of reinventing all of that becomes a lot more. Attractive to you because you know that you've lived through real challenges. I was an immigrant child. I very, college, [00:30:00] putting myself through college was quite difficult.

[00:30:02] Sonya Sephaban: I went to a very selective and very expensive school. And I actually had to take on so much student debt. They didn't award me my degree. They didn't gimme the physical degree until years later after I had paid off some loans directly to the school and. and it was they let me have my grades so I could get a job.

[00:30:22] Sonya Sephaban: And I was responsible at certain times for an extended family. So those things very early in my life, really, when I was barely an adult, and a little bit older and certainly my early twenties they not only helped me build those muscles, but again, just learn that if I could live through those things, I could live through anything , so you fast forward, I tell you, when we worked with the with the Russians, on the building the space station together, we worked very closely with the Russians and it was very tough initially, dealing and that was one situation where I was the only woman.

[00:30:51] Sonya Sephaban: In fact, there was not even a. Restroom on the executive floor of m Piaa company that we worked with directly in grad outside of [00:31:00] Moscow. There was no women's room they had to give me, they had to, we locked the door on everybody else and let me into the men's room to to use the facilities, when I needed to go.

[00:31:09] Sonya Sephaban: And in those situations, men much older than me, all male a lot of bias initially for who was I and was I any of, any value, to the effort. And they and to my mind, it was like, people would ask me, isn't that tough? You go over there. Do they, interact with you appropriately?

[00:31:24] Sonya Sephaban: And to me, I was. Walk in the park. , these, pretty soon I pretty soon, I had I of course established good relationships with them and became really good friends. There were couple that curmudgeons that wouldn't come around, and I just decided to go around and do something else, just figure out how I could be successful.

[00:31:40] Sonya Sephaban: And and so I think you're absolutely right that has built in me a sense of not just resilience, but also seeking adventure because I know the outcome for me most of the time. Either I overcome it and it's an excellent experience is very joyful. It's a sense of accomplishment or I learn something sometimes.

[00:31:57] Sonya Sephaban: Sometimes it's not as successful. It's not always, [00:32:00] my security hasn't been all successes. I just wanna everybody understand it hasn't been a walk in the park. It's, there's been big challenges, but then I've learned that there's something to learn from them. Even if it's not evident at the moment, it happens.

[00:32:11] Sonya Sephaban: It's, it becomes evident ultimately, sometimes years later. . 

[00:32:15] Dr Jim: That makes sense. There there's another thread that I want to pull on, and it's this you had this trajectory where you're in nasa and then you were on the executive, senior executive team for gd. And I think that's General Dynamics, right?

[00:32:30] Sonya Sephaban: Job dynamics and before that at North Grumman as well. 

[00:32:33] Dr Jim: Oh, Grumman as well. Okay. , you you've had, this arc of progressively more challenging and senior roles throughout your career, and then you decide to launch a startup. Shouldn't you be on the retirement track Hey, can I go to the golf course now I'm in the boardroom.

[00:32:51] Dr Jim: Why in the world would you start a startup when you're on this other trajectory that seems to be going around, just fine. 

[00:32:58] Sonya Sephaban: So my friend, one of my friends said, [00:33:00] you're not, you should be, you're re rewired, not retired, . So that's the word my friends used.

[00:33:05] Sonya Sephaban: That was a plan, like I told you, I, because I had to work so hard, so early in life, I had always, in my early twenties, I used to tell people that I was gonna retire at 50. And and I did, when I told my com my company, that I wanted to retire, they were like, but that's not retirement age.

[00:33:21] Sonya Sephaban: , you gotta be at least over 55. And I was like no, I wanna retire. And I, that was fully the idea. So I did early, early retire, and then I started sitting on public company boards. I still do an amazing company Cooper Standard. All of your cars have our and and our rubber in them and hoses and so on.

[00:33:38] Sonya Sephaban: And and then I was investing in startups, so I was very much on that track. So I'm not that far out crazy , in terms of seeking adventure. But I go back to the purposefulness. So as I was doing those things within a couple of years, or maybe it was less even maybe 18 months or so, I was starting to think, man, is this gonna be it

[00:33:56] Sonya Sephaban: Like now people live a long time. Am I gonna be doing [00:34:00] this for the next 30, 40 years? But, at the same time, in 20 16, 20 17 timeframe when I was on that track this me Too just was born and then the scandal with Harvey Weinstein and others, and because I had a, I had, was actually dual, had it for leading diversity, equity and inclusion at gd.

[00:34:19] Sonya Sephaban: Along with my regular, job leading an organization and p and l and so on. This was the second hat. I led that for a number of years. And I knew that we didn't achieve what we really set out to do. We did hire more diverse people, but we couldn't keep them. We couldn't keep them happy.

[00:34:34] Sonya Sephaban: And then after I left, It all unraveled many more. Most of the people I hired were leaving, and so my colleagues, my team members and everybody was calling me saying, what happened? And so I knew that we just hadn't built it into the DNA of the company and we hadn't built an inclusive workplace.

[00:34:50] Sonya Sephaban: And there was really two key reasons we hadn't connected it with the strategy and the drivers of the organization so that everybody saw the importance of it on it, because of that linkage, [00:35:00] not just doing di for DI's sake. And the secondly, we really didn't engage everyone actively in a way that they would take ownership and make it personal for them.

[00:35:09] Sonya Sephaban: Why should they be engaged and making life, for every one of 'em, what, getting something out of it. So those are the reasons I decided that I had some ideas and frankly, it just happened so fast because I had some ideas about how we could do that if we could bring impact to both leaders and employees who want a more inclusive workplace.

[00:35:25] Dr Jim: You're hitting a lot of nerd radar elements that I'm gonna pull on right now because what you're talking about from, how is the world of d e I not set up for success? And the way that I'll spell this out is that every organization under the sun wants to solve d e i from the perspective of top of the funnel candidate attraction, talent attraction.

[00:35:48] Dr Jim: The problem is you can attract all sorts of diverse talent, and you actually called this out just a second ago. But if you don't have the infrastructure set up and your entire enterprise is in culturally [00:36:00] at a place where it makes the environment welcoming to underrepresented and diverse populations, you're gonna have a revolving door.

[00:36:09] Dr Jim: And what I really like about what you just said is that you're operating on the side of this d e I equation that's designed to solidify the infrastructure necessary for success versus just throwing money at the optics side of it, which is what I call talent attraction. Where hey, we want everybody coming in that looks like the colors of the rainbow and whatever construct of diversity that a lot of organizations think looks like diversity.

[00:36:38] Dr Jim: But if you're not creating that solid environment post hire, you're actually wasting a ton of money. So I really like the fact that, you identified. The post hire implications and the need for infrastructure when it comes to d e I 

[00:36:56] Sonya Sephaban: It helps the hiring side as well.

[00:36:58] Sonya Sephaban: Yeah. Cause then you can [00:37:00] show, because now people are becoming more and more savvy. It used to be enough to have on your, a statement on your website and some, ERGs that you have, advertise that. But candidates especially top talent are getting so savvy and especially as we are moving, the profile, the workforce profile is moving more towards millennials and Gen Zers.

[00:37:18] Sonya Sephaban: And pretty soon in, in a few short years are gonna be 75% of the workforce. They are asking tough questions. What are you really doing? What are you really putting in place in terms of the data of it, of a psychologically safe environment. That's like a, one of the things that's really big is.

[00:37:33] Sonya Sephaban: A culture of a place is really defined by, at the edges. is, it's not, the majority is not really these days. If you're a fairly good company, most people will feel, fairly okay. It's just really those people that are underrepresented, and I, by that I don't mean just, or that have unique needs.

[00:37:52] Sonya Sephaban: By that I don't mean just, women or, people of color or disabled or LGBTQ plus community. Even like parents, like [00:38:00] working parents, , yeah. It could be single dad. We are very inclusive of all kinds of people that have unique needs, and really in our work we see that everybody has.

[00:38:09] Sonya Sephaban: It's just seeing individuals as individuals and not broad brushing, Hey, we think that, this benefit or this process is good for everybody or this policy, it's how do you really give a voice? To employees in this future of work, which is finally here and still being built. It would be very different.

[00:38:27] Sonya Sephaban: It would be very different where you can just have a company policy and it, applies to everyone. . You're gonna have to be a lot more mindful of people's different needs and not give everybody the same size shoe, but ask them what size are you? Give them different shoes, that's really equity.

[00:38:44] Dr Jim: I really like the fact that you called out the the fact that diversity doesn't mean treating. , people from a monolithic perspective, you have to meet people where they are and see 'em as individuals and then tailor your org organization and your [00:39:00] enterprise to be able to speak to those individual needs.

[00:39:01] Dr Jim: And that's critical. In terms of in terms of how you think about diversity in operationalizing that at the enterprise 

[00:39:08] Sonya Sephaban: and see the results as a company, if you as an organization, you'll see the results right there. If you just hire people that are diverse, I have news for you.

[00:39:16] Sonya Sephaban: It can actually be counterproductive if you're not mindful of them. A diverse organization that is not inclusive can actually have more 

[00:39:23] Sonya Sephaban: problems. . 

[00:39:24] Dr Jim: Yep, 

[00:39:24] Dr Jim: exactly right. So Sonya I really like this this thread about reinvention that we've been talking about, and I think you offered a lot of lot of insights, but you've developed those insights over the course of a career and through learned experience.

[00:39:40] Dr Jim: So for those people that are listening to the show that are early in their career, or mid midway through I in their career, what would you recommend. They need to do relearn to build that reinvention muscle without having to go through an entires. Career's worth of experience. . 

[00:39:56] Sonya Sephaban: Yeah.

[00:39:57] Sonya Sephaban: Truth be told, I wish I knew a lot of these things [00:40:00] early on. A lot of this has been just conclusions and and I could have saved a lot of time and energy worrying about unnecessary stuff. If I've known a lot of what I've actually at least think are important points that I've made here.

[00:40:11] Sonya Sephaban: But I will say this idea of, reinventing yourself, right? Sometimes it shows up as something you've always wanted to do. Or something that happens in life, like with me when I thought I was on the track of now sitting on public company boards and investing in startups, that's a pretty full life.

[00:40:28] Sonya Sephaban: , that's a pretty full-time job. And. . And most people, when they get to very high level of executive roles, they just, sit on boards, which is awesome, and they bring a lot of value. But for me, what somehow as I was starting to feel, is this what I wanna do for the rest of my life?

[00:40:41] Sonya Sephaban: Just as that thought was occurring to me essentially important to verbalize it a couple times I said that out loud to a couple of my friends, and I think the universe hears you. And then I became more in tune with the Me Too and everything else that was happening. And then be honest with you, I just gave in to a a [00:41:00] driving force.

[00:41:01] Sonya Sephaban: It was almost like a hand that said when even my investors, when they first invested in us, it was at the idea stage. We didn't have a product yet, a typical question is, why are you starting this company? And I said, because I can't, not to. And I told them, having been an investor myself that I knew fully well that was not a good answer.

[00:41:19] Sonya Sephaban: Somehow they bought it and they still invested in us. But I said, it's the honest answer. And as a fiduciary, if you're going to invest in my company, you have to know that I, I thought I would just be on company boards and so on, but I feel like somebody must, that the world needs a better answer.

[00:41:34] Sonya Sephaban: And I need to be at least part of that and contribute to it. And this company and the solution that we have in mind is part of that. We did that just listening to that inner voice. So pay attention to your inner voice when there's things happening in the world where you feel like you have an idea.

[00:41:49] Sonya Sephaban: All the great ideas Steve Jobs used to have this saying is that everything that we use and we marvel at and we enjoy, was created by, a person, , somebody thought about it, and invented it or [00:42:00] discovered it. So it is within your reach, I would say just listen to that. If you just.

[00:42:04] Sonya Sephaban: You're like, okay I feel like I'm just tired of what I'm doing. I do wanna reinvent myself, but I don't have any ideas. , I don't have this inner voice. I don't have the driver. Nothing abrupt has happened in my life to force me into it. And then I think it's really important, there's so many resources, podcasts like this, like this one with good people that have some experiences reading books a book I must mention.

[00:42:24] Sonya Sephaban: Then here, if I may as you can tell I'm a big avid, I try and read as much as I can, but but this one was actually recommended by our C T O and it's called Think Again. It's by Adam Grant. It really uses research and storytelling to show us, to show really the power of knowing what you don't know and staying curious so that you can change yourself and then perhaps you can change the world.

[00:42:49] Dr Jim: Last thing before we wind down. So we've had this great conversation that's covered basically your entire career and then a second career as a startup founder. When [00:43:00] you distill that down, what are the top two or three takeaways or lessons that people need to walk away from having listened to your story and listened to your journey.

[00:43:10] Sonya Sephaban: So I would say that it's distilled in what we've talked about along the way. One is that whatever you are doing think of the bigger purpose behind it. Bigger than yourself, right? Again, whatever it is, I bet you, you can always find find that and then explore. If you feel like your job is just, there's no purpose in it, then it's time to really rethink you know what else you want to do, but your life is too valuable and too much of our lives are spent working, and all the concepts of working or what it means have changed.

[00:43:39] Sonya Sephaban: So if there's something that you're just not comfortable with, I bet you it'll end up with some kind of, either a stress life. There's so much burnout, there's so much mental. Health issues right now, and they really come from this. And a lot of the quiet quitting and real quitting , the great resignation.

[00:43:54] Sonya Sephaban: They're all about this, right? And as you think of that and necessary, so all these three things that I've [00:44:00] mentioned, being purposeful, being limitless, and reinventing yourself, they go hand in hand. They're all different ways of looking at it, right? Because as you're thinking of what's my purpose, you will need to think of I'm limitless.

[00:44:11] Sonya Sephaban: Also, you will need to think of yourself as you have the power within. And you can influence things. So you can change things. And you are I love what you said. You're the CEO of your life and your career at the end of the day. And you can get advisors, you can, have board members of your life, but at the end of the day, you are the one who is who has to act and who has to to do it.

[00:44:29] Sonya Sephaban: And then the last thing is the reinvent. No matter where you are, and especially I see a lot of ageism, I see as I'm getting, older myself, I see that. . People are sometimes like, oh, I'm too old to do this. I see people in their forties say this, thirties and late thirties or early forties say this, I'm too old that I can't change this.

[00:44:46] Sonya Sephaban: First of all, I tell 'em, look at who's running All the countries of the world look at our country. There's mostly, 70, 80 years old, which these days is not old, frankly. I'm looking forward a to a at least another 30 years, ahead of me. [00:45:00] And I think that it's healthy to think of that way.

[00:45:01] Sonya Sephaban: And yet tomorrow any of us could be struck by a car, regardless of our age, right? It's good to just live in the moment and think, what will make me really happy? How can I reinvent myself? And then just inform yourself about how you can do that. 

[00:45:12] Dr Jim: Really 

[00:45:13] Dr Jim: great stuff, Sonya. And I think, With what you mentioned the quote that comes to mind and it's something that drives me is live as if you're going to die tomorrow.

[00:45:24] Dr Jim: And learn as if you're gonna live forever. So I think both of those tie in to what's how you've driven your career. So before we sign off last thing that I want you to share with the audience, where can people find you? 

[00:45:37] Sonya Sephaban: It's easy. My first name, Sonya, s o n y. At, and the name of our company is Our Office. Like our office, an office that belongs to all of us. It's just it's not my office. Your office. It's our office. , our office. But it's not io, it's It's do io. I'm on LinkedIn. I post sometimes. Today I actually posted about a an om b proposal to change and enhance, I would say [00:46:00] the way that the government categorizes the definition of race and ethnicity.

[00:46:03] Sonya Sephaban: It will expand it. So I said it will make it better for people like myself that are multi ethnicity and right now we have no choice but to say we are white. But I've frankly never felt comfortable with that . So I think it's it's a good thing. So for example, I have a post on.

[00:46:16] Sonya Sephaban: On the LinkedIn. So if you're wondering, with and trying to find me, that's one post that I just did today in but it's really LinkedIn is the best way probably to connect and as well as my email address. 

[00:46:26] Dr Jim: Thanks for a great conversation and obviously anybody that's listening or watching this when this comes out on YouTube, if you can't find Sonya, find me and then I'll connect you to her.

[00:46:35] Dr Jim: She's definitely somebody that you need to know when I think about this conversation that we've had, and it's been a great conversation, so I appreciate your time. There are four things that stand out about Sonja's story that listeners need to connect and. , you need to have agency urgency, drive, and purpose.

[00:46:52] Dr Jim: If you build those four things into how you move about your life and your career, you're gonna end up being very successful. So [00:47:00] be intentional about agency urgency, drive, and purpose, and it won't steer you wrong. So we appreciate everybody that's tuned into this episode of Cascading Leadership.

[00:47:09] Dr Jim: Hopefully you learned a lot from it. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe and tell a friend and tune in next time for another great episode of Cascading Leadership, where our mission is to help you move your career further faster. 

"Exploring Purpose-Driven Living and Career Navigation "
Inclusive Workplaces
Exploring a Career of Purpose and Mission
Career Advancement and the Power of Belief
Overcoming Limitations and Achieving Professional Success
Finding Purpose and Mission in Career Trajectory
Exploring the Pursuit of Perfection
Exploring the Impact of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace
Reinventing Yourself and Building Your Career
Career Reinvention