How Curated Conversation Mainstreams Bold Ideas and Shapes Culture
Though she carries no torch and leads no marches, Sarah Gerber is leading a movement — a conversation among a network of influential people who seek her counsel and insight
Sarah Gerber had big plans for 2020. She had planned to launch a 50 States tour as part of her latest initiative, 50/50 Table. When the world’s agenda changed, she didn’t lose focus. She simply changed the menu of options to match the reality of the circumstances.
Sarah’s new digital dinner experience focuses on curating conversation in small online gatherings, something she’s been doing for quite some time as a social entrepreneur with a specialty in gender equity. Last April, U.S. News & World Report interviewed Sarah in her role as CEO of Zero Gap, on-site at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The headline reads, “Leading the Charge for Gender Equity.” One year later, she’s launched a new venture — one that capitalizes on her strengths and desire to lead a mind shift among the world’s most influential civic leaders, innovators, thinkers, and global political and business elites.
“I’ve found myself reflecting on the rapidly changing world around me. We are living in a time of unprecedented change, disruption, and shifting structures. This moment is bringing to the surface many social patterns and realities that have existed long before now. The change and disruption we’re experiencing is exceptional. We have a unique opportunity to change the way old patterns of operating that have led to long-standing inequality and injustice.”
— Sarah Gerber
Many of Sarah’s conversations have a reflective quality, veering philosophical, and generating discussion about values and unresolved tensions between liberty and equality. The San Francisco Chronicle highlighted Sarah as a leader of a new wave of French-style salons — convening professionals of all stripes around dining tables as a part of a local conversation series of small group discussions. Her new 50/50 Table initiative is designed to create immersive spaces that inspire conversation and ways to imagine the world we hope to build and re-build. With a group of six to eight people over dinner, the facilitator-led dialogue provides an opportunity to experience the comfort and power of collective wisdom and to take part in generating solutions, at a time when many are feeling powerless.
Iconoclast rising — not your typical Davos power broker
Some people are driven to challenge and transform obstacles that others willingly accept or ignore. Society prescribes various titles to such people: activist, advocate, changemaker, entrepreneur, innovator, or thought leader. Titles and assumptions aside, Sarah defies the stereotypical mold of Davos power brokers — initiating conversation in a way that sets people at ease and draws them toward her, which makes her entry to the Davos scene a bit unconventional.
“Fame is a tricky space for sure. I think most definitions of fame, particularly today, I really have no interest in,” said Sarah. “I think it’s a lot harder to be famous these days. If I think about what kind of legacy I want to leave, then I would want fame because it is tied to a level of effectiveness as well. I don’t know how I would define it. It’s probably something that I’m still working out.”
Powered by her own initiative, she sought out World Economic Forum. She is not a wealthy heiress to a family-run corporation or spouse to a member of the billionaire’s club. Even so, her modest beginnings in a middle-class family set a backdrop that’s hard to dismiss. She grew up in Berkeley, long after it became the epicenter for political activism in the 1960s, a sort-of-basecamp for social justice movements, from civil rights to free speech and anti-war protests. Her family life was exceptional in many ways, by virtue of its uncommon size, and the choice to homeschool, well before homeschooling was popular.
“It took me a while to realize that having the mayor over for family dinner wasn’t something that everyone did,” said Sarah.
As one might expect of the oldest of eight children, she is an achiever, both conscientious and responsible, fast on her feet, and quick to take charge. While this assertiveness is a virtue and relative strength, it comes with a self-imposed pressure to perform at near-perfect levels. She admits there are times when she’s susceptible to thoughts of inadequacy — no matter how untrue. It’s a common trait among high achievers. For many, no accomplishment ever feels good enough. While homeschool education offered an experience that shielded her from some of the more harmful gender roles, it also fostered a shadow of doubt around the topic of belonging. In many ways, she saw herself as an outlier, different from mainstream society.
She thrives on exploring novelty and subtle things that others may not notice; like what’s not being said in an interview, or a question that’s not being asked. She excels at giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking deep questions, and giving people time to formulate a meaningful response. In social settings, she applies what she learns, working to build consensus.
While she sometimes wrestles with her unconventional upbringing, it has paid dividends in the form of mental freedom from social conformity. Unbound from institutional norms, she developed an intrinsic motivation and love of learning that has served to strengthen her entrepreneurial sensibilities and laid the conditions to thrive as an emerging iconoclast.
In broad strokes, Sarah Gerber personifies a contemporary spirit of Simone de Beauvoir, French philosopher, and writer, the woman who brought the world the basis for understanding gender as a construct.
Curiosity and connection craft new constructs of power
As executive producer of a boutique film studio, her habits are not weighed down by corporate ideologies, nor is she afraid to try something different. In 2016, Sarah was awarded the Special Jury Award at UN Women’s Global Voices Film Festival for her documentary film, The Way Back to Yarsaquin. True to Sarah’s perceptual lens, the film draws connections between the interdependent nature of labor, commerce, and culture in Latin America. It also demonstrates how cultivating reliable networks significantly contributes to a person’s ability to both make an impact and experience ongoing success.
Conversations shape culture
A person of many skills and talents, Sarah operates with a mind fortified by a nimble, childlike curiosity and a sense of wonder. She sees possibilities where others see a void — a critical skill in exploring strategic options in a complex world. Her ability to connect-the-dots and spot potential fuels a sense of optimism that slips seamlessly into conversations. Motivated to explore the invisible aspects of culture, she is driven to identify barriers that inhibit a meaningful sense of belonging.
Playing the role of change-agent in convening civil society
As illustrated in her work at Zero Gap, and 50/50 Table, Sarah is eager to convene gatherings. Generous and empathic in her use of intention in forming trusting relationships and generating insights, she excels at identifying commonalities and making connections between stories, accepting and celebrating diversity along the way. Her curiosity devels beneath the surface of seemingly ordinary social interactions. She strings together bits of knowledge and ideas from people she meets, spinning word patterns in her mind to form new narratives. Some reveal obstructions to progress. Others tell a counternarrative.
Sarah using storytelling to raise the curtain, allowing light to shine on the silhouettes of the status quo. From this vantage point, public perception is unobstructed, free to recognize potential in people, crystalizing abundance in contrast to scarcity, illuminating exponential possibilities.