Go Someplace New and Conquer It For a Year


Naseem Sayani | Founder & CEO, Digital Oxygen

Naseem Sayani s a seasoned business and digital strategist with 15+ years of experience helping clients grow, transform, and excel in innovative ways. She spent 7 years at Booz & Company, a premier management consulting firm, including 2 years as COO of Booz Digital, followed by 2 years as Head of Strategy for Huge’s West Coast offices, before founding Digital Oxygen, a digital innovation consultancy. She has spoken at CES, Digital Hollywood, OMMA LA, and Digital Entertainment world; and has been published by Huge Ideas, Campaign Magazine, AdAge, and Digiday on the topics of digital strategy, innovation, and fusing strategy and design to launch new ideas.

This is her story.

My advice and approach has always been to know my strengths, own my voice in a room, and be ready for anything.
— Naseem Sayani

Where did you grow up?

Chino Hills, California.

Tell us a bit about your journey to where you’ve gotten to today. 

I grew up in California and went to UCLA for my undergraduate studies. I started out as a Biology major, taking pre-Med courses my first year but found myself enjoying my economics courses so much more than my biology ones. [My economics courses] felt more intuitive. That’s when I decided to change my major. At the time, the new career getting a lot of attention was consulting. It was ambiguous and perceived as this glamorous lifestyle. During my third year in college, I applied with different consulting firms and [ultimately] interned over the summer with Arthur Andersen Business Consulting Services (BCS). There, I started to develop and really hone my critical thinking skills.

I went on to work at Andersen full-time after graduation and after 4-5 years in the technology consulting space (and after being acquired by PwC and then IBM), I decided I wanted to be closer to where [company] decision making was happening. Business school had always been on my radar and the target for that was always New York, so I made business school  my next step.

Tell us one way exercising leadership has always come easy to you, and one way it has challenged you.

I’m naturally a planner. I like knowing the details of everything that needs to get done. Because of this, I inevitably become the person who holds the strings on what needs to get done, and becomes the de-facto voice of the team. 

Challenges depend on environment. The hardest part has been creating energy and commitment in every member of the team. There are different personalities, and different ambitions, and you need to understand what is going to push each person, individually, to get to the best results. You have to quickly realize that not everyone works the way you do. 

Name one of the most satisfying leadership roles you have had, and briefly tell me what made it so. 

My role leading the digital agency we launched inside of Booz & Co [was the most satisfying] because we were creating something new. Our leadership was committed, and the team was extremely good. We had a small but high performing team and the camaraderie was strong. There was tangible passion for where we were headed, and a commitment to this (crazy) “start-up” we were building inside a big firm. 

What is the best and worst decision you've ever made?

My best decision hands down was moving to New York. The pace of life and mentality [in New York] is different, and much more aligned to my personality. Living in New York required independence, and I learned a lot about myself while there – it literally made me the ‘whole’ person I am today.

I think it’s important to get out of the bubble you’ve grown up in. If I had stayed in L.A., I wouldn’t have discovered all that I know about myself now. Living in a new place where you have to fully own your experience can amazingly progress your self-development. I tell everyone that they should go somewhere, even if just for a year, and conquer it! It’ll teach you more about yourself than you will ever believe.

I don’t believe I’ve made any truly bad decisions. Complicated or incomplete ones, for sure, but not bad really. In retrospect, an ‘incomplete’ one was perhaps leaving New York too soon. I was there for 7 years, but looking back, I would have benefitted from one more year or two. The career progression and access to people and opportunities just isn’t the same anywhere else – and I didn’t really understand that until I left. 

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?

The ‘strong woman’ perception problem. Two pieces of feedback women always get is either that they are too quiet and meek (not proactive enough) or, on the other extreme, too pushy and a “bulldozer”. It’s the hardest thing we deal with, and can be pretty hard to navigate. My advice and approach has always been to know my strengths, own my voice in a room, and be ready for anything. Men are much better at showing confidence even if they don’t know the answer, and as women, we have to get better at this skill. Standing your ground, knowing your details, taking extra inflections out of your voice, and communicating in simple and succinct words can start to make all the difference. 

What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?

Focus. There are so many opportunities available to women now, that it’s both amazing and confusing all at the same time. Women are going to school longer, getting married later, and becoming entrepreneurs at much higher rates …so having some sense of what timeline you want to be on, that’s all your own, and not swayed by the many biases we growth up with, will help the next generation of women take advantage of the incredible opportunities in front of them. 

 What woman inspires you and why? 

I break it down into three groups. The first (1) are female authors. I’m always looking for strong female writers who are writing about the female experience – it helps me learn a lot about what else is going on in the world, and think more about my own experience. Next, (2) are female politicians, especially the voices in Congress making all the noise and standing up for things that matter to us. We need more of that. The platform they have right now is incredibly compelling and they’re right in the thick of it. It’s inspiring to see and hear what they are doing and fighting for everyday. Finally, (3) the growing base of women joining and launching new start-up companies. They’re taking ownership of their experience, building new bridges, and having impact on their own terms. It’s great to see how they’re all doing it.