Sophie Chow Has a Fire in Her Belly

Sidebar: Where did you grow up? And what influence did your upbringing have on who you are?

Sophie Chow: I grew up in San Francisco, near Dolores Park. San Francisco in the 80s-90s was both a lot more approachable and weird than today –  there was more space for experimentation.
Both of my parents are immigrants. My mom's from Edinburgh, Scotland, and my dad's from Taipei, Taiwan. They’re very open-minded and entrepreneurial and really encouraged creative thinking and problem solving.
Because of my parents’ backgrounds, I was hyper aware of the impact of immigration, race, and ethnicity on the American experience. I was very open to explore and unpack identity politics. San Francisco was an amazing place to grow up – very stimulating and so much access to different types of people and culture.

Sidebar: And you were an athlete growing up, correct?

Sophie:  I played soccer starting at age five until basically pre-pandemic, with a few stints playing internationally. I loved athletics, and they are a big part of my identity, especially team sports. I was team captain in high school and then university, so I always felt like myself in positions of organizing and motivating others to believe in a shared vision.

Sidebar: Motivating a team around a shared vision is really difficult. What have you transferred from what you learned in athletics to your professional life?

Sophie: There’s something about being a spirited leader, to make things that are hard just a little bit more enjoyable – it's a really nuanced art form. People show up every day for a variety of different reasons, whether that’s for individual success, to provide for their family, or some other reason, and those who are there to help the team succeed, at all costs. And you need to motivate them all. It’s really important to be clear about what the shared purpose and motivation is.
There's also modeling the behavior you want to see yourself. I motivate my team by showing them that I'm their leader, but also their peer, and that I still love the IC work and am good at it – I’ll ask hard questions of their work, but also roll up my sleeves and turn around solid solutions.

Sidebar:  Has there been a through line for your vision with your work?

Sophie:  My background in ethnic studies and race has definitely been a through line. For me that’s about surfacing the voices and experiences of underrepresented folks in technology, and being intentional about building inclusive products and design practices that value folks' lived experiences – ultimately resulting in more human, impactful products.

Sidebar:  You mentioned your background in ethnic studies and an early interest in topics of race and representation. How has that shown up throughout your career?

Sophie:  Early in my career, like many folks from underrepresented groups, I had to grapple with my self-worth and value, especially when I was so often visibly different from those around me. Lack of representation, particularly for women of color in leadership positions, meant there wasn’t always a clear model or path to success at times. So my definition of success and self-worth had to come from within (or an intimate group of BIPOC friends and colleagues in my case), so I could forge a path that felt meaningful and authentic.
For me today, impact on representation happens by identifying high potential folks that are in different corners of an organization and helping them surface their talent and contribution. I’ll look for ways to collaborate, even if it's just sharing feedback on each other's work. Then also thinking about how we talk about ourselves. How do we craft a compelling story for folks with non-traditional backgrounds, specifically around what makes their perspective so valuable and unique? Luckily for me, my managers at IDEO, Beam, and even before really believed in the positive impact this can have for an organization.

Sidebar: Have you had any life-defining moments or epiphanies that have shaped you into the person you are today?

Sophie:   Definitely becoming a mom this year. There's been a lot of things going on outside of work that have shown me how important rigorous prioritization is and helped me be more intentional with where I put my energy.
Five or 10 years ago, I would be super stressed and worried about work, and everything felt like it needed to happen all at the same time. I’d be trying to push through every problem with pure grit. I realized you don't always get the best results with that approach… and I could only see that lesson when there were a lot bigger things on my plate. Today, I’m more ruthless with my decision making, and my work has only gotten better as a result.

Sidebar: Regarding family, you mentioned your daughter. What thoughts do you have on navigating professional advancement with children?

Sophie: In this remote working world, the workplace is also my home. I’m in a one-bedroom loft, and I’m at work. I can hear my daughter downstairs. When she was born, I wasn’t sleeping much and was breastfeeding and pumping… and figuring out how to parent a small child while taking care of my relationship with my partner on top of all that. All that to say, when it came to being effective in the workplace, I didn’t want that to be one more place that felt scrambled and chaotic. I needed to rely on tools and documentation so that if I had 15 minutes or one hour for a working session, I had consistent ways of prioritizing the most impactful work for that particular time slot.  For me, it came down to really optimizing my work time so I could be focused. This carries over to how I lead my team as well - leaning on processes and tooling so no matter the amount of time someone has, they can dive into a chunk of work and finish something. It’s important to all have visibility into each other’s work.

Sidebar: Announcing maternity can bring up a host of dynamics within a company. How was this for you?

Sophie:  My manager was really excited for me, and so I felt supported in a moment that was otherwise filled with uncertainty. I was only the second woman to have a baby at the company, so I pinged other managers and working parents in my extended network to provide feedback on what a good transition plan looks like, both from the perspective of a new parent, but also from a manager’s perspective – what would help them feel supported in my absence? I made a very extensive transition plan, with week-by-week delivery goals for my team. The key for leave is setting people up for success and support in your absence. My biggest learning is that this type of thinking isn’t just for parental leave, because no leader can be everywhere at once. If you really want to scale or multiply impact, you have to empower those around you with standards, guardrails and tools for success.

Sidebar: What is a part of your life you're proud of that most people don't know about?

Sophie: I'm a middle child, so my whole identity is very wrapped up in how I relate to others and my family. My siblings and I managed to go out into the world and come back to San Francisco, living within 5-10 minutes of each other.
We started a cafe four months before the pandemic started called Golden Goat Coffee. Today we're still around, which is crazy! Creating a small business during the pandemic in an alley with my siblings speaks to the type of commitment I have to my family and the community where I'm from. During shelter in place, some customers literally didn't speak to anyone face-to-face for like six months, except to my husband, who was the barista at our cafe. We were holding it down for our neighborhood, providing a space for community. I'm proud of that. As much as I can be ruthless about certain things, I always believe in prioritizing a deep understanding of people, community, and customers at the core of any offering.

Sidebar:  So you run a coffee shop and you don't drink coffee daily? Do I have this right?

Sophie: Yeah… I love coffee but I already run hot… like, I'm alive! So I always have to warn my team if I've had coffee because I'm like, “I'm usually coming in hot and now I'm coming in hotter people…  I'm really energized around the problem space and hungry to dive in! Let’s go!

Sidebar:  That’s amazing. So you're a member of Sidebar, which means you're committed to being  the best leader you can be. What's something you're working on right now with your group?

Sophie:  Patience. And remembering where people are at. Making sure to set up everyone on my team for success, which takes a level of patience and planning. Sometimes I can be anxious to just get to the end goal when I see the potential of something. But you have to go through the journey. Even when you see the potential, you still have to foster the seeds. It doesn’t just become an avocado tree; it may take years before it's even bearing fruit.

Sidebar: So how do you actually do that? Is it just mindfulness around understanding where people are at?

Sophie: I ground my work in recognizing the qualities my team has that I don't have – I look for their strengths and what is constantly surprising and impressing me. For example, one of my teammates is one of the most generous people I've ever met, in terms of how he works and thinks and cares about his colleagues. Another teammate brings a really unique perspective and background that I simply don’t have. These are qualities that inspire me and connect me to them in a way that’s deeper than me just being the team lead. From there, we can communicate more effectively, lean into each other’s strengths, support each other through growth areas, and get to a better result.

Sidebar: I'm curious if there's a specific learning from your Sidebar group that  changed the trajectory of your work life?

Sophie: The last session we were talking about how to give hard feedback. I pride myself in giving lots of regular feedback to my team, and they give it back to me. It's an environment where we really trust each other. But our Sidebar group was talking about a situation when distrust exists. For example, how do you give feedback when a person on your team doesn’t have high potential? I was kind of stumped. That’s hard, because at that point, you have to evaluate how much you invest in that person.
We've also talked a lot about the seasons of our lives and our careers. And that's been really, really rich – defining intentionality about what you're giving and what you're getting at different points in those seasons.
One woman in our group had a very interesting exercise around building a common language between product release phases and product marketing phases. Those moments when you're trying to get a new product out the door and someone else is responsible for selling it. So much tension tends to pop up around these moments. We discussed how to build a shared understanding by providing translation (common language) across teams about duties. Because people are coming from such different backgrounds and training.

Sidebar: What would you say are your biggest accomplishments?

Sophie: The month our cafe opened was also the month that we launched a huge new product when I was at IDEO. That was a very big personal accomplishment because I had these two coinciding things coming into the world that had taken months, or years, to come to light. Also, becoming a mom has been really huge. Coming back to work as a mom has made me more confident in the workplace and also more confident at home.

Sidebar: You say you’re alive, like you're always fired up. I'm kind of this way too. I'm curious if you understand the “why” behind that?

Sophie:  I think it's a chip on the shoulder. Maybe it’s just in your blood with parents as immigrants, or feeling like a perpetual outsider. It’s a fire in my belly, and my dad’s the same way. Colleagues over the years have joked about my competitive spirit, and as I've entered this next season, it's less than ever about winning or losing, but building the team and the conditions for shared successes.

Sidebar: Thanks so much for your time and incredible answers. We’re feeling inspired, Sophie.

Sophie: (laughs) You’re welcome, have a great rest of the week.

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