It didn’t take Sarah Saska long to realize academia was not for her.
Currently in her last year of a Women’s Studies and Feminist Research PhD at Western, Saska knew her future wasn’t inside the Ivory Tower from the start. While she didn’t know where she was heading at the time, she knew it was up to her to forge the path.
“At the end of my first year, I felt I had done a lot of great work, but at the end of the day, my heart has always been at the intersection of gender equality and business,” said the 30-year-old who, last year, was named among the 2015 Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Award Winners, sponsored by the Women’s Executive Network.
Saska took a seminar on campus that focused on looking at a PhD in light of transferable skills at the end of her first year. Everything unraveled from there.
“I needed to figure out how to mould this PhD to my needs in a way that’s going to let me graduate, and leverage it outside of the academic realm in ways that will really work.”
She put out a call for partnership proposals, listing her biography, skills and academic experience, seeking connections with women’s rights organizations, non-profits and social enterprises. She didn’t want to spend the next three or four years writing a thesis that would sit on a shelf in a library, Saska noted.
It was important to partner with an organization to make her research valuable in a tangible way.
She got hundreds of responses from around the world, but chose to connect with The MATCH International Women’s Fund. Ever since, she has partnered with the grant-making organization that funds women’s rights organizations and supports projects that dismantle barriers, change systems, challenge perceptions and transform society.
“I discovered there was no gender lens being brought to the field of social innovation. I was talking to MATCH, and they wanted to fund women-led innovation, and their government funding had disappeared. The only way to do it was for them to have proprietary research, that I would produce, that could justify it to donors and make the case of the women and innovation intersection,” Saska explained.
Her research at Western looks at how innovation can be leveraged to advance women’s rights and gender equality. She is grateful to have a “rock star” supervisor in Bipasha Baruah, who teaches in Women’s Studies and Feminist Research, and is the Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues.
“Everything I do feeds in and funnels to MATCH – we have a great relationship, and they’re a great organization.”
From there, things progressed quickly.
Her partnership with MATCH garnered three separate Mitacs Accelerate awards, the first to be given to non-profit collaborations.
Her research developed, revealing many real-world examples of the damage caused by not considering innovation through a gender lens. For instance, in the automotive industry, Saska found women and girls suffered more severe injuries because seatbelts weren’t designed with women’s bodies in mind. The only crash testing had been done using male bodied crash test dummies.
She was doing more than just research and wanted to bring her work to life. Saska took a year off, accepting an innovation fellowship invitation with the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto.
“I had this academic experience and I’m sitting on this interesting pot of research. MaRS wasn’t doing any work on what it looks like to look at gender equality and social innovation together, and I took the fellowship for the practical experience,” she said.
Through the fellowship, Saska gained skills in entrepreneurship, design and business modeling, and launched her own social enterprise, Feminuity, a consulting firm dedicated to excellence in innovation through gender equality. MaRS helped her get Feminuity off the ground.
Right now, Saska and her Feminuity co-founder, Andrea Rowe, a PhD student at McMaster University, are scrambling to complete their degrees. They’ve had many exciting offers, Saska said, and cannot wait to take off with their work.
“We have so many PhDs graduating in Canada, but we have few tenured positions. Educational models are shifting out of necessity, because the world is shifting. But we’re not teaching PhDs these skills – to have entrepreneurial skills towards a degree. We have some big thinking to do.”