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Women in Business Q&A: Sara Baer-Sinnott, President of Oldways

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Sara Baer-Sinnott is president of Oldways, a Boston-based nonprofit inspiring good health through cultural food traditions and lifestyles. Sara has been an instrumental figure at Oldways since its early days, joining the staff in 1992 to work on one of the first overseas Symposiums (Food, Culture and Discovery in Spain) and the first Mediterranean Diet Conference. In her years at Oldways, Sara has helped develop ground-breaking programs including its Traditional Diet Pyramids; the Whole Grains Council; Healthy Pasta Meals; A Taste of African Heritage Cooking Classes; and many others. A worldwide traveler, Sara plans and leads overseas Symposiums and Culinarias about traditional foods and culture. Sara is also co-author of the The Oldways Table with Oldways Founder K. Dun Gifford.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
The sudden death of Oldways founder K. Dun Gifford in 2010 was a defining moment for me as a leader of Oldways. I had always been #2, a really good #2, supporting Dun and Oldways and managing the staff in the office. Then, with Dun's death, I was dealing with loss and sadness, plus the need to be the front person, the leader -- building a new board, defining our vision, making sure everything kept going. I think there were some who wondered if Oldways would continue after Dun's death. I'm proud to say that we've grown, we're making a difference, doing even better financially, and we have a great board and terrific staff to support our mission.
How did your previous employment experience aid your position at Oldways?

I've been lucky, at age 60, I have spent most of my working career at only two places -- Oldways and INC. magazine. I was at INC. during an incredibly exciting time for business and entrepreneurship (1984-1992). The personal computer was fairly new, and there were many new businesses created to serve small and growing businesses in the high tech world. The magazine and entrepreneurship were exploding.

Looking back, there are two big things I learned at INC. that have made a difference in my work at Oldways. My first position at INC. was as a fact checker. I had to call up really famous, important people and ask all sorts of questions -- sometimes difficult personal and business questions. It made me fearless (or at least visibly fearless). Also, in the eight years I was at INC., I had the opportunity to talk to and learn from some incredibly smart, successful business people. I remember listening to CEOs talk about "letting go" or "managing people," and thinking, it can't be that hard. But, I learned first-hand that it is hard, and I feel very lucky to have had the chance to learn from some entrepreneurial masters. Sometimes I say now, "I'm living the INC. life."

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Oldways?
I've been at Oldways for 22 years, and during that time the biggest challenge has always been our habit of being way ahead of the curve. Remember, back in 1993 when we introduced the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid with the Harvard School of Public Health, olive oil was an exotic product, sold mainly in small ethnic shops! Where do you even start to change habits and perceptions so broadly? We decided the best approach was to organize a number of culinary and cultural symposiums in Mediterranean countries. We'd raise funds (from the International Olive Oil Council and Ministries of Agriculture, Culture and Tourism of countries around the Mediterranean) to bring journalists, chefs, cookbook authors, food retailers and scientists to different countries for week-long symposiums. The point was educating Americans about the Mediterranean Diet and olive oil -- journalists wrote stories in newspapers and magazines; chefs added new dishes to their menus and put olive oil on their tables; cookbook authors wrote a wide variety of new cookbooks; food retailers bought olive oil and other Mediterranean products; and scientists made presentations about the health benefits of the incredibly delicious Mediterranean Diet.

And soon that challenge was transformed into a highlight. These trips were highly sought after. Writers, retailers and chefs didn't want to "fall off our list." The people who attended still talk fondly and wistfully about them. These trips were exciting times at Oldways. Yet the trips themselves were challenging! Getting 100 people to far-away places like Casablanca, Tunis, Istanbul, Crete, Puglia (among others) was no easy feat, and managing all of these people was also a challenge, although a very happy challenge. I remember one particular moment. With a tourism official from Morocco, I rocked a 50-person bus at an uninhabited desert rest stop to get it out of a locked emergency brake situation. I weigh just over 100 pounds -- it was sheer determination that we got the bus brakes unlocked!

The greater the challenge, the more rewarding eventual success feels. With all our programs -- such as the Whole Grains Council, the Supermarket Dietitian Leadership Symposium and the African Heritage & Health program -- we've jumped in front of the parade before there even was a parade, which is never easy. There are great challenges with each of these programs, but also the rewards of making a difference in people's health.

How is Oldways positively contributing to encouraging healthier eating?
Oldways has always been "ahead of the curve," providing leadership, programs and resources to support our view that traditional eating patterns and traditional whole foods are solutions for our country's health problems (chronic diseases including CVD, obesity and diabetes).

Oldways has made a positive difference in many ways. We played a big part in olive oil moving from an unusual ethnic product to a mainstream product in the 1990s. We introduced the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid --called one of the healthiest ways to eat -- with the Harvard School of Public Health and created education programs for consumers and health professionals. At a time in the 1990s when the US government advocated low fat foods and Americans were "afraid of anything having to do with fat," Oldways "de-demonized" healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts and peanuts, avocados through scientific and culinary education programs.

We created the Chefs Collaborative (CC), an organization for chefs changing the sustainable food landscape. Now an independent 501c3, the CC was founded and nurtured by Oldways in the early days. With chefs, we created a cooking curriculum for schools called High Five, teaching simple cooking and sustainability concepts in schools.

Through the Whole Grains Council and the Whole Grain Stamp, we've changed the supply and demand for whole grain products in the U.S. and in 40 other countries. The black and gold Whole Grain Stamp is on more than 9,000 products.

We developed and introduced cultural models for healthy eating -- cultural healthy eating pyramids for Asia, Latin America, and the African diaspora. In addition, we've created a six-lesson curriculum (A Taste of African Heritage), bringing the African Heritage Diet Pyramid to life. We're measuring the outcomes -- weight, waist circumference and blood pressure to prove the power of this delicious and healthy traditional diet. With positive biometric results, we're finding the curriculum works.

For four years, we've brought together Supermarket Dietitians and industry, to encourage best practices and to help these RDs help their customers.

How we can improve our lives by adhering to a Mediterranean diet?
You can't lose. The Mediterranean Diet is healthy, delicious, easy and affordable. Give it a try. Oldways has a 4-week Mediterranean Diet Menu book to help guide everyone. While it is known for its great taste and positive health benefits, it's also important to remember that quantity matters too. The Mediterranean Diet is a quality diet; be sure that you eat the right amount too.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I haven't always been successful at maintaining a work/life balance, but it's much easier to do as both Oldways and I have gotten older. Creating something new takes a lot of energy and time, and I have to say that I've enjoyed most all of the work that's been required to grow Oldways to the point where we are now. It's much easier now, and easier to leave work, with time for family, friends, fun and myself. Also, working in the food world, and with other people who love food is a great joy. And who wouldn't love the traveling that I've been lucky enough to do. I've been around the world several times, and have seen (and enjoyed) the food and wines in most corners of the Mediterranean.

I've tried very hard to make sure the people who work at Oldways feel like they have the freedom to have a life outside of Oldways, and that there are only rare moments when working late or on weekends is required.

We have a fun and flexible office, too. We have several dogs in the office; we go to restaurants together; we have 'wine o'clock' at 4 pm on the occasional Thursday or Friday; we celebrate birthdays with staff lunches; and everyone on the staff is invited to join (in rotation) one of the Mediterranean culinary tours. Starting on Memorial Day and ending on Labor Day, we have Summer Fridays -- staffers can work at home on Friday, or work a full week in four days and take Friday off.

In addition, I think we've created a space at Oldways where life and work overlap in the most positive ways. Staffers change the way they eat after they've been at Oldways a few months. They bring more new foods, wines, and learning experiences into their lives and into their cooking because of our work. Maybe it's because the old ways are a lifestyle so wonderful to live by.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
For Oldways, there is no issue. We're all women, and especially caring about one another. Since Oldways' founder Dun Gifford died in 2010, we haven't had a man in the office -- except for our wonderful interns -- Alessandro from Italy and Spain, and Anders from Denmark.

Seriously though, I think equal pay is an issue for many women. I have to say that I haven't felt discriminated against as a woman in the food and wine world. There are lots of powerful and successful women in the field.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've been lucky to have several mentors in my professional life. Sara Noble and George Gendron, my two bosses at INC. were great role models, and also listened to me when I asked to work at home one day a week when my children were young. George, INC.'s long-time editor-in-chief, is now on the Oldways' Board.

Oldways' founder Dun Gifford was a great mentor. He believed in me, believed that I could do anything I put my mind to, challenged me, and introduced me to the exciting world of food, wine and travel. I wouldn't be where I am without him.

I hope that I've been a mentor to many of the employees who've worked at Oldways. I hear from some of them that I have, and it's a very satisfying part of my job.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire the well-known female leaders who had a vision and have broken barriers or introduced new ideas that make many things possible for the rest of us -- people like Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, Alice Waters, Helen Thomas, Nancy Dickerson. But I am also in awe of regular, unsung women who are great at their jobs, love to cook for their kids, their families, spend time with their families and friends, and are smart and disciplined enough to take time for themselves. That's success. But I do admit, it would be a lot harder without the leadership of those famous women leaders who believed in the power of women and did something about it.

What are your hopes for the future of Oldways?
My biggest dream for Oldways is that we're able to prove the Oldways model works, and through that, we make a difference in individual and public health. I hope we become better known and are able to start many new programs. What I mean by all of this is I want to successfully "prove" that traditional diets -- the modern "old ways" -- are the path to good health and well-being, and that they're not difficult or expensive to follow, and that they are totally delicious and full of fun for families and people everywhere.

I want to be able to say I'm from Oldways, and don't have to explain what we do or who we are.

And I want to be able to develop new programs, to continually make a positive difference in the lives of people everywhere.