Dr. Sally Saba joined Medtronic in March after leading a transformation at a major healthcare provider.
Sally Saba knows what it’s like to be unwanted because of her gender.
Saba’s mother rejected her at birth because she wasn’t a boy, leaving her to live with relatives in Egypt. When her caregiver decided to marry, she sent 3-year-old Saba to the U.S. to live with the family she had never known.
The new — and first — chief inclusion and diversity officer for medtech giant Medtronic, Saba ultimately went to medical school in Cairo to become an anesthesiologist. One day, after helping to save the life of a 22-year-old man whose legs needed amputation after being crushed in a train accident, a male superior shamed Saba in front of her colleagues because she had “added a cripple to the world,” she recalled.
“I still get shivers when I remember that moment because something inside of me was like, ‘I’m going to be part of changing whatever system makes us think like this.’… That was my initial interest in moving out of being a physician into being a part of systemic changes of some sort.”
Becoming a change-maker
Saba moved through a few different careers after that, working for the telephone company Vodafone in Cairo, getting an MBA and becoming a small business owner in California. When the Great Recession struck in 2008, Saba decided to return to healthcare. Breaking back in was tough, and even though a friend at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland helped her land an interview, Saba knew it would be a hard sell.
“I said, ‘If my career path proves anything, it proves that I’m very adaptable. I’m resilient. I’m a self-starter. I never let anything that’s happening in the world keep me down,’” she recalled telling her future boss.
Saba was hired as director of product safety and recall in 2009 just as the national peanut recall began due to salmonella contamination. She set up a system to recall all peanut-containing products throughout the Kaiser Permanente system, which includes hospitals and clinics. Within nine months, Saba told her boss that she needed a bigger challenge.
The boss tasked her with beefing up Kaiser’s supplier diversity program. Saba dove into research on economics and job creation, learned how much money the organization was spending in the communities it served ($1.7 million annually at the time) and came back with a five-year challenge to spend $1 billion per year in doing business with minority- and women-owned firms.
Kaiser Permanente launched the initiative in 2011 and achieved its goal in 2014, gaining entry to the Billion Dollar Roundtable, which recognizes corporations that have achieved the milestone.
One of the leaders at Kaiser, where Saba ultimately rose to vice president of performance, operations and compliance for inclusion and diversity, told Saba that the sign of her success wouldn’t be whether she could sell the organization on an idea, but whether the program succeeds and lives beyond her tenure there.
“I’ve taken that principle throughout every job I’ve had afterwards, that you’ve got to be into system change that lives beyond the leader or beyond the person in order for it to really be meaningful and sustainable,” she said.
She left that program when it was at $1.65 billion. “Now the program is over $2 billion and still doing really, really well,” she added. “And I’m very, very proud of that.”
Saba also spearheaded an initiative to shift the mindset of C-suite leaders to “personal ownership of progress toward equity and inclusion” — looping them into the data that show how their units perform compared with company aspirations — and holding them accountable.
The initiative took two years of planning and another two years to win enough support to shift the organization, which was already leaning in that right direction, a few more degrees.
“Inclusion and diversity is this interesting ambiguous space where a lot of times, responsibility is deferred to an unknown or it’s deferred to the chief diversity officer and the ERGs (employee resource groups),” Saba said. “And when you shift an organization’s paradigm so ownership belongs in the leaders’ hands and you equip them to make progress, then real change happens… You have to do a good job of connecting inclusion, equity and diversity to the hearts and minds of business leaders and ensuring the CEO, C-suite, and senior leaders authentically believe inclusion and diversity is a business strategy, then get their buy-in to really adopt change.”
Getting Medtronic more involved in social justice
Saba was attracted to Medtronic because it is a global healthcare company that already had many well-established inclusion and diversity programs in place, including its Medtronic Women’s Network (MWN) and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) initiatives. MWN is run by employee volunteers with more than 15,000 members across 68 countries. WISE centers on the advancement of women in R&D and STEM roles in order to build an inclusive work environment for women in science and engineering through outreach, recruiting, talent development and cultural awareness programs. WISE teams are active across 70 company sites in the U.S., Canada, China, Europe, India, Israel and Japan, according to Medtronic.
When WISE began tracking progress in July 2015, Medtronic had only 20% women in R&D
manager-level and above roles. In 2019, that figure stood at 26%. In the last year, Medtronic doubled the number of women in VP tech roles from five out of 40, or 13%, to 10 out of 48, or 21%.
In January, the company was one of three recipients of the prestigious 2020 Catalyst Award in recognition of its initiatives for fostering a workplace in which women can advance.
Saba joined Fridley, Minn.-based Medtronic on March 2, less than three months before the police killing of George Floyd in the company’s home city of Minneapolis. Floyd’s death hit home on numerous levels. Company officials and members of its African Descent Network began talking about the Black community’s needs and Medtronic’s response. In July, the Medtronic Foundation announced a $16 million commitment to partnerships with organizations working to bring about social justice and equity, improve the lives of Black Americans and help heal and advance the broader community. The effort includes scholarships, work with Black neighborhood groups, healthcare equity efforts and community volunteer opportunities for employees.
Beyond the tragedy of Floyd’s death and the subsequent civil unrest, Saba sees a catalyst for expedited change. Medtronic leadership committed to an annual inclusion and diversity strategy that includes performance expectations for the C-suite and all levels within the organization.
Saba’s goals include expanding Medtronic’s efforts from inclusion and diversity to equity.
“How do we accelerate change within our workplace and beyond? How can we bring this broader equity agenda to a global scale and amplify our impact beyond Medtronic itself?” she asks herself and her team.
“I’m extremely lucky and honored to be with a company that really lives its mission,” Saba said. “That’s the thing that drew me to this company the most… Medtronic is really in it to walk the talk.”