I had the honor of interviewing Sarah Chan, the Africa Scouting Manager for the Toronto Raptors. Although we were not sitting in the same room, her authenticity, grace, and wise demeanour shone through the screen.
It was an inspiring conversation and she offered so many pearls of wisdom. But what I wanted to know at the time was how she got to where she is today — a powerful woman who is now the first African female to be the African Scouting Manager of an NBA franchise.
Sarah is no stranger to struggle - she was born and raised in South Sudan during a time of violent conflict and had to flee to Kenya with her family. As a little girl, Sarah had dreams of one day owning an orphanage, as she often wondered where the kids in her hometown who had lost their parents would go. Although her path would eventually take her elsewhere, nevertheless, she would go on to help kids from some of the most overlooked places to inspire them to reach higher. “I want to directly impact the lives of others," she said, and she has in the work she does and the lives she has changed. When I asked her where her passion to help others stems from, she shared that it was a combination of “being a product of your environment” and wanting to “be part of the change.” She knew too well of the struggles of being a young girl in South Sudan, so she dedicated herself to providing opportunities to kids like her, so that they could uplift themselves and their families. Undoubtedly, Sarah is a real change-maker and has transformed the lives of many young players while travelling around the continent to seek new talent for the Raptors.
Her hustle, resilience, can-do attitude, and her passion to help others are just a few of the things I learned about her in this interview. When I asked her where her hard working mentality and strong morals originated from, she attributed it to her upbringing in South Sudan, and the wisdom her parents instilled in her at a young age in Africa.
"While many of my school peers went out, I stayed in to read, and put in the work into my self-development"
Sarah also spoke about the importance of nurturing real relationships, having a robust connection of contacts, and building a strong foundation. In sum, she had this to say, "It is transparency, accountability, sacrifices, self-improvement, growth, and being intentionally conscious about time." Those values have helped her get to where she is today.
Her Biggest Obstacle
We exchanged our thoughts on the current climate in the world and how there has been a great awakening in some of the injustices Black people have faced in North America, and I was surprised to find out that one of the biggest challenges in her career was overcoming the hate she received as a Black female athlete. She shared with me a story of her time as a professional basketball player in Algeria, where she was spat on by a fan after a game. “When I was spat on like a dog, I chose to respond with love because he was filled with hate,” she said. Sarah would go on to prove the naysayers wrong by leading the team to a win against an opponent they have long lost to. After the win, Sarah proved that neither her gender nor her race should be a factor and that leading with faith, grace, and love is the answer to overcoming any obstacle.
When Sarah's career as a player ended, she reached out to a contact who was working at one of the Giants of Africa camps, and was able to land a volunteering opportunity. Not long after, Chan’s hard work and determination elevated her volunteering opportunity to a career as a recruiter with one of the top teams in the NBA. Just this past year, Sarah Chan was promoted to African Scouting Manager for the (2019) NBA champions, the Toronto Raptors.
Sarah's career has continued to flourish, so I asked about the daily morning routine that allows her to remain focused. She says a lot of her life is led by her faith, so the first thing she does when she wakes up at 5:15 a.m. is pray. On some days, her prayers are followed by a workout, which helps her kick-start right into her work. “Early mornings and late evenings are my favourite times to read or do work because it's when it is the most quiet,” she added.
Passion X Career
Expanding on the topic of career goals, she also talked about how she managed to merge her passion and her career. Her advice to other women trying to do the same?
"Continue to pursue both and find a way to merge them. It is important to be bold and to take many risks,” Sarah says.
Working in A Male-Dominated Field and Her Advice to Other Females
We also explored the challenges of women working in a male dominated field. Sarah expressed to me that she has never narrowed herself into a ‘female working the job’ because she never focused on gender categories nor did she let it discourage her from doing anything she set out to do. She approaches it with confidence and faith in herself and what she has to offer as a person. She believes that for any woman attempting to succeed in a field that is dominated by men, she needs to take her place. “Take your place because nothing is given,” she said.
She also implored anyone that wanted to get into sports but may not necessarily have the experience working in the industry to apply the current skills they have to get their foot in the door. “Many organizations need someone to work in HR or the Arena, and even administration,” she said. So, her advice was to “know your skill” and to find opportunities and roles in an organization that allow you to use them.
Best Career Advice
Lastly, I asked her what was the best career advice she's ever gotten and she undoubtedly shared it was from Masai Ujiri, President of Basketball Operations of the Toronto Raptors. At the start of her career working with Masai, she always found herself turning to him for answers, but his response to her was always to "figure it out." This push allowed her to grow and forced her to challenge herself to come up with solutions on her own without hesitation, something she undoubtedly thanks him for. I think we all need a Masai, someone who believes in what you are capable of, but pushes us to tap into it and not allow us to give up on ourselves.
We ended off on a fun note and talked about some of the TED Talks and books she was currently reading.
Are there any books you are currently reading or podcast you are listening to?
"I listen to a lot of TED Talks centered around women leadership and confidence building," Chan said.
Books She is Reading
Power of Positive Thinking
When Victims Become Killers
The World’s Most Dangerous Place
Sarah Chan was open to talking about all aspects of her life, which speaks to the authentic person she is. In a time where many people conceal their hardships, Sarah openly discussed them and how she navigated through them. She talked about the importance of self-drive and growth. Most importantly, she is an example of how you can live a life with purpose even while chasing your dreams. Also, she taught us/me that an industry dominated by males means nothing when you are a woman who is determined and confident in what she has to offer. All in all, Sarah's story is about resilience, overcoming, hard work, and grace and it is one to be inspired by. Her journey always inspired me and after speaking to her, I am even more galvanized. I hope you guys take away something from my talk with her because there were endless gems.