As part of Yitzi Weiner's series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, he interviewed Leila Saad.
Leila Saad is a social impact professional who is passionate about the potential for cross-sector collaborations to create positive change in communities worldwide. She is the CEO of Common Impact, a nonprofit that specializes in leading, creating, and developing partnerships between corporations and nonprofits to create significant impact through skills-based volunteer programs and consulting. She graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School, where she studied international political economy, and the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she studied art history.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have worked in the nonprofit sector for 20 years. I initially worked with organizations focused on human rights and the rule of law to create a better world. To me, that was important because governments were typically the source of concern. The world has changed since then, and one of the most significant shifts has been the increasing power of large corporations, especially multinational companies, and their influence on our societies. That brought me to Common Impact, where we help companies contribute to solving pressing social issues. Our programs ensure that companies turn their social impact commitments into reality by investing the time and talents of their most valuable resource, their people, to empower nonprofits to deliver on their core missions in our communities. I believe that working at the intersection of business and social impact is one of the most powerful ways to make a difference in the world today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
In the spring of 2023, during Common Impact’s biannual Skills for Cities event, I met a phenomenal woman named Zion Escobar, a powerful and passionate advocate for preserving and elevating history through the organization she was working with at the time, the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy. Zion opened my eyes to the vast and fascinating history behind Freedmen’s towns. Freedmen’s towns are incredible communities across the country that were developed from the ground up by formerly enslaved people after Emancipation in the 1860s. These resilient women and men built homes, churches, medical facilities, and everything you’d need to create a thriving community. I was so moved to learn this powerful piece of underrepresented American history. Since meeting Zion, I have challenged myself to understand underrepresented history further to better serve communities through Common Impact’s programming and in my personal life.
I read The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist, which goes into detail about slavery from the perspective of the enslaved person–it was brutal and chilling, but it opened my eyes to the fact that we only learn a small fraction of our history, and learning more about the extent of these hardships has stuck with me. There’s value in bringing areas of history to light that may be glossed over, and that’s what is so impactful about Freedmen’s towns. Relearning that history is valuable for those who care about and want to understand these issues. This passion for relearning history has kept Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy near and dear to my heart, and I look forward to seeing Zion’s fantastic work in elevating those stories.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have always been driven by an internal sense of justice and was always the one to stand up to bullies in the classroom. But I have also been too self-righteous. In one of my first jobs out of college, our department head announced that our small but rapidly growing department would not be represented at an important meeting. I felt he had not stood up for our team, and my emotions got the better of me. I jumped up, pointed my finger at him, and exclaimed, “You, sir, have not done your job!” The fiery accusation felt so good. But, of course, I was wrong. Thankfully, he took it in stride, and we laughed at my overzealousness later. I quickly learned to think before I speak and, most importantly, to take a strategic approach to standing up for what’s right. Sometimes, it is necessary to be insistent, even loud. But the most important results usually occur when you carefully assess a situation, build allies, and strategically intervene. This lesson still rings true today and impacts how I lead Common Impact and how our team navigates partnerships and creates and develops programs for companies and nonprofits.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Research shows that Americans are volunteering less than they used to. Volunteering used to be ingrained in our society and part of the fabric of the American way of life. That’s the way it was with my grandparents. My grandfather was constantly at his local YMCA, and my grandmother was one of the original tutors for the Headstart program when it started in the ’60s. This type of involvement was expected and normal for that time period, so there was nothing particularly special about what they were doing, but it was incredibly beneficial for communities.
Today, people still volunteer in their communities, but not like they used to. Instead, many people look to their workplace for the opportunity to give back. And that’s where Common Impact comes in. We offer a way for people to feel connected to their communities, give back, and create a better world through workplace volunteer programs. Our team creates skills-based volunteering programs for employees to use their professional skills to help nonprofits with critical needs that they might not otherwise address. We ensure these programs work as seamlessly as possible for both the company and the nonprofit so we can create meaningful opportunities for volunteers while positively impacting nonprofits and the communities they serve. Volunteers appreciate our programs because they can volunteer during the workday, which is convenient and helps them feel good about their jobs. The programs we develop create a whole new experience for employees, tackle challenges nonprofits face, and do good for the community. A win-win!
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Common Impact’s programs address some of the most pressing issues of our time, and our nonprofit partners sit on the frontlines, providing safety, well-being, and justice for those who need it. That is exactly what one of our favorite nonprofit partners does. Sojourner Family Peace Center is a domestic violence organization based in the Midwest that supports families affected by domestic violence. One amazing thing about Common Impact’s work is that we provide volunteers an opportunity to impact not just the life of one individual but a whole community of people served by our nonprofit partner’s mission. Our volunteers go beyond typical volunteering, like painting schools and planting trees. They donate their professional skills and expertise to nonprofits, whether for a marketing campaign, a financial model, a technology upgrade, or a human resources manual.
We facilitated a project with corporate volunteers from Allstate who partnered with Sojourner to provide critical advice to update and improve the organization’s human resources policies, including parental and bereavement leave, with a focus on fostering DE&I initiatives. This is a perfect example of how skills-based volunteering supports nonprofits who may not otherwise have the time or resources to invest in critical internal needs. Our help positions nonprofits to serve their communities better, so our impact is magnified by helping nonprofits. In a world where sobering national statistics show that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men endure physical violence during their lifetimes, the significance of collaborations like the one forged between Common Impact, Allstate, and Sojourner takes on even greater importance. These partnerships are a testament to collective action, benefiting numerous lives and promising a brighter and safer future for all.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- I previously worked for an organization that provided pro bono legal services to civil society organizations that needed legal assistance. Today, many law firms have requirements to dedicate a certain number of hours to pro bono work per year. The American Lawyer publishes an annual report ranking each firm’s commitment to pro bono work, making it a friendly competition between firms and a go-to resource for job-seeking attorneys seeking purpose in their work life.
- I think it’s time for companies to do the same thing, and a media outlet could help spur friendly competition. Fortune Magazine publishes similar rankings, like the Change the World list of top companies using the creative tools of capitalism to solve social problems. A list of companies ranked by their commitment to a minimum number of pro bono hours per year (or, as we refer to it at Common Impact, skills-based volunteering) would inform job-seekers, encourage companies to vie for the top spots on the list — and both would be great for society!
- Federal and local officials and institutions can continue to promote and invest in volunteerism. Common Impact has been fortunate to partner with AmeriCorps and New York City Service Corp and has benefitted from working with a number of passionate volunteers. Even more must be done to support these programs and the idea of volunteering, including the impact of skills-based volunteering. The idea is that when all of society is engaged and giving back, societies as a whole are stronger and healthier, and I think that’s a powerful sentiment toward the value of giving back.
- Young professionals are at the forefront and demanding that companies make changes and positively impact the communities they reside and spend time in. My niece took an internship with a consulting firm, and during her interview, the firm showcased the emphasis they put on volunteerism in the workplace. She told me that in every interview she had, the company would highlight its social impact initiatives and goals. Corporate volunteerism started thanks to young professionals, and I want to encourage them to keep up the good work. Common Impact is taking our inspiration from them because they are the generation pushing for this type of change to happen.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Although I consider myself a pretty enlightened feminist already, I admit that I was one of the people who teared up a little when America Ferrera expounded on the contradictions of womanhood in her now-famous “Barbie” monologue. When she said, “You have to be thin but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin,” I thought of my teen daughters and their friends. When she said, “You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas,” I reflected on my role as a CEO and the struggle to achieve the right balance as a woman leader.
We live in a world where only 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Yet, women often embody leadership attributes that are increasingly considered critically important. Terms like empathetic, participatory, inclusive, and interactive come to mind. Those are admirable traits, and I strive to balance them against the need to be decisive, act quickly, and lead with direction. I think the best leaders today aim to strike that balance.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Let go of mistakes. The vast majority of mistakes, gaffes, and foolish things you will undoubtedly do throughout your professional and personal life are forgivable and even understandable. Getting hung up on them can really keep you stuck. So, expect yourself to make mistakes and commit to learning from them.
- Follow your effort, not your passion. I don’t usually quote Mark Cuban, but when I heard him say this, it struck a nerve. He pointed out that if he had followed his passion for basketball, he would have failed miserably. I struggled to find my “passion” for many years, but following what came easily and committing to work I enjoyed was the key to finding meaningful work.
- Taking time off to care for your kids will help, not hinder, your career. I took nearly 10 years off to care for my three daughters. When I came back to work full-time, I was terrified and thought I had forgotten how to be a professional. How wrong I was! Many of the experiences and skills I developed as a stay-at-home mom, like time management, listening skills, budgeting, research, networking, and even advocating for my kids’ needs, all served me exceptionally well in my career. Rather than slowly reacclimating to work life, I quickly propelled forward in my career thanks to the skills I gained while raising my family.
- What got you here won’t get you there. This is from the well-known executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith. Two characteristics that were instrumental in getting me where I am today are being always ready to roll my sleeves up and moving quickly. Now that I am in a leadership position, those two can sometimes hamper me. I’ve had to learn new skills or work to transform my strengths. Instead of jumping in with a solution, I work to support my teams to be self-reliant. Instead of moving quickly, I focus on communicating quickly and clearly.
- Lead with you. At the risk of sounding cliche, be yourself. In a world with so many expectations, it is difficult to weed through the noise and distractions to find the real you. Rub the slate clean, look for what sparks your interest and joy, and follow that.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The movement I would most like to see, and I think it’s starting to come to the forefront, is one focused on mental health. Mental health struggles are something that I’ve experienced in my own family and community, especially during the pandemic. This topic is so meaningful to me, and I’m glad society is starting to put a more significant focus on it. There’s more research being conducted on evidence-based approaches to mental health support, even for the most challenging problems, like suicide, but they are not widely known and can often be intensive and expensive.
Many people don’t have access to mental health professionals, and I believe there’s a role for creative cross-sector collaborations, or unlikely partnerships, to advance these movements and create more resources for people who need them. I was inspired to hear the CEO of Headspace, the meditation app, talk about its merger with Ginger, which offers on-demand therapy. It struck me as an example of a creative partnership with the power to bring more mental health services to those in need. During my tenure at Common Impact, I learned that giving back and volunteering can help improve mental health. Offering others support or getting actively involved in a project can help reduce feelings of stress, anger, or anxiety, increase happiness, and help promote feelings of purpose. Mental health is a severe issue, and removing the stigma around it and increasing access to resources will truly make a huge difference in people’s lives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The quote that has stuck with me throughout the years is something Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It is so easy to lose sight of the big picture, especially in times of crisis. We’ve been through so much in the past few years and have real challenges ahead, so it’s no wonder we feel discouraged sometimes. I see that in my teenage daughters and their friends; they keep hearing that the world will end, climate change will drastically impact their lives, and they’re feeling a sense of hopelessness, which is understandable. It’s hard to get through the days with that on your mind. But this is not about the power of positive thinking. As the daughter of a historian, I was raised to value the perspective of what academics call Big History. That long view allows us to have perspective and hold on to the hope about where we are collectively moving. Sometimes we are only inching forward, but each victory is worth celebrating and holding on to that hope will get us through.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
When I first went to college, I considered going into anthropology but lost interest because of the Western-dominated historical legacy of the field. Anthropology has advanced a lot since then, and I recently read a fascinating book by Joseph Henrich, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard. He and a cross-disciplinary team of historians, statisticians, and economists analyzed large anthropological data sets to make sense of seemingly small things, like changes in family structure, that may have propelled the once-backward European cultures of around 1000 AD into the powerful countries of today. His analysis extends to differences in psychology and even informs things close to my work at Common Impact, like why we are motivated to help strangers, engage in civic life, and volunteer. I would love to have lunch with Joseph Henrich and nerd out about all the other untold local histories that have influenced global patterns.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!