Interview by Kate Anderson-Song
Kate Anderson-Song (KAS): Hello! So, first if you’d just introduce yourself and give a little background.
Sarah Sharif (SS): My name is Sarah Sharif, and I’m the founder of Experimental Civics and the founder of Capsule. For the last six years, our work has been at the intersection of communities, innovation, and technology.
So basically, our three-part model is supporting people, whether that is workforce development, design-thinking workshops, or other things like that, to hosting hackathon events, which is all about elevating ideas, which is the second part of our model, and how do you ideate, how do you problem-scope and really understand problems and do user research.
The third part is: how do you take action? So, how do you really start to bring these ideas to life? Because that is the hardest part of any project, execution and bringing it to something that could actually be impactful. So, that is what I do!
KAS: Wow, that sounds awesome. So, what do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?
SS: I think that, especially now, both in my personal life and my professional life, my biggest accomplishment is the leadership that I can provide and building spaces where people can just play. There’s so much that goes into that – learning how to make a space for people to play, for them to feel free to fail. I don’t think it is very often you hear, “Okay, you can totally fail and it will be completely safe.”
SS: Right! So, I think through hackathon events, and even just talking with people, it’s just really about all the people I work with – empowering them.
On a smaller scale, I’d say my most recent accomplishment has been in gardening. For the last three or four months, I’ve just been trying to gain a green thumb. But I remember when I first started out, I did receive certain negative comments of, “oh, you know, plants are really hard” or, “oh, you don’t have the time for this,” or “you’ve never had a green thumb in the past,” and I was kind of like “well hold on! I’ve never had the opportunity to do the kind of care – buying plants, potting them, learning about it, learning about the land and the garden and the lawn,” you know?
And so I think that kind of breaking down the barriers, whether it’s with people or different mindsets, we face so many limitations. So, my greatest accomplishment I feel like is providing spaces where you don’t hear those essentially. Where you have a space to just try and fail and keep going. And I did, I will fully admit, kill one palm tree. But it was a very small palm tree, and palms are very hard!
KAS: It’s trial and error. And the freedom to fail, I love that!
KAS: So, you kind of touched upon this, but why did you start Capsule?
SS: Essentially, I was having a conversation with a colleague, Elyssa Turner, in April, and we were just venting, talking about the state of the world right now, going into a very politically charged year next year. And we talked about all the metrics that are out there currently regarding the climate crisis, from the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] saying that 90% of human activities had basically warmed the earth the last fifty years, is crazy. And with my entrepreneur hat on, it was great because she was kind of challenging me, my instinct is to problem solve. My whole gut reaction was, “well, what can I do right now? What can I do in terms of helping solve this?”
It was just a moment of pure clarity that, I’ve worked on this stuff the last six years, and our methodology and our approach has really been very successful and empowering for a lot of people. And so, I was like, why not do something that is even bigger and better, because that is what we need right now. And that was kind of the start of Capsule.
And visions don’t come with specs, so you have to, again, use trial-and-error – though no trees were harmed in the beginning stages of Capsule! I think it was just the passion to problem solve and realizing that I had a solution that could make some kind of impact or difference, and just trying – to put myself out there and bring people on for that journey.
KAS: Awesome, yes, I love that. So, what is the inspiration behind the name Capsule?
SS: That’s a really good question and I’m so happy that you asked that. So, in April, I was just talking to so many different people in my network. And I was having a conversation with a lovely woman, Sarah Shields, and I was just describing to her what I was trying to do, how I want it to be this moment in our lives. There are certain events that I think hold tremendous value to people. I remember my first concert, I remember my first hackathon, I remember a particular birthday parties.
So, I was describing to her that I wanted this event to be a moment. Especially for me, back in the 2000s, we had the whole millenium switchover, and everyone was doing these capsules. In my family we did one, and I tell you truthfully, I have no idea where this thing is buried, but we did create a millennium capsule. So, we put in all these things, meant to symbolize our time and what we were doing and the accomplishments of humanity in that moment, for the future.
And that’s where it all kind of clicked on this call with her, that that’s what this is. It’s a moment of time, something we’re gifting to future generations, and we don’t know who’s going to feel the impact of this down the road, like I don’t know who’s going to find our capsule, if anyone ever does. But, it’s a moment to transcend all of that and really do something that is very timely and is very needed right now, but in a way that is inspirational, that people will hold as those first-time events. I want that feeling to be felt. It really is a celebration of what we can do when we come together, as well.
KAS: That is so cool. I remember everyone making those capsules at a certain moment. I love that idea.
SS: Did you make one?
KAS: Oh yes, I distinctly remember – I’m from a very big family and I was all for that idea. I was like, “we’re doing it.” So, a question more on you personally, how do you stay in touch with your heritage?
SS: I’m kind of this very unhinged human being. I have three identities I would say that I hold. So, I was born in Pakistan, but I didn’t really live there. So my childhood was not really in that country. So, it is very different, especially as my family is very progressive and liberal. There’s definitely so many great things I had gotten to experience in my childhood that were very different from what I know of that culture’s experience.
I’m also British and American. So, my childhood was spent in the UK and then a good majority of my adult years have now been in the U.S. So, it wasn’t until very recently that I felt like I really was able to embrace and deeply love all of my cultural identities and realize that those components of myself, or aspects and experiences I’ve had in my growth, have really actually been strengths. So, the fact that – I was in Oxford two weeks ago – I can fly in and have my big English breakfast and my crumpets and my tea and just feel right at home, to coming back, and I stopped in New York and I was so happy to be back home. It’s kind of this weird complex that everywhere is basically home. But it felt so good because I love New York and it was great to just hear the American accent – I realized I was just happy.
Last year, I did take a trip to Nepal for about two and a half months. It was a wonderful extended trip just to, again, embrace my South Asian roots. And, again, I felt right at home. I was in a country where everyone looks like me and I absolutely adore the food. But I would say it’s also different, in the sense that, especially in Nepal, if I spoke, there were different reactions that people had. It was a very different kind of reverse culture shock, where you look like me but you don’t sound like me and you weren’t raised here. So, it’s been tough to juggle those, but I think the more we talk about it and have people, like myself, who have grown up in different cultures. And how do we really embrace all of our identities versus oppressing one and elevating another? I think those conversations are happening more now, and so, I’d say just stay in touch by travelling, immersing yourself in it, and loving each part.
KAS: I love that – that is definitely kind of how I’m seeing it now, where that diversity has to be embraced and not compartmentalized.
SS: Exactly – and I see it so often, where we kind of diminish certain sides or aspects of ourselves. I think there is such beauty to different cultures, and that’s why I love travelling. You just have to love each part, and, honestly, play to their strengths.
KAS: Yes! What are some of your goals – both for Experimental Civics and future projects, and for yourself?
SS: Okay, I will focus on three – I won’t say I’m going to frame them in the best way of goals, but one of mine, at least professionally, and I said this a couple of years ago and it’s still on my whiteboard at home and it just always makes me laugh, but I said that I would impact one million lives by the age of 35. So, I’m turning thirty this year, and I think I’m…
KAS: Well on your way!
SS: I’m starting that path, yes! So there’s that one. And that came about with finding my purpose. I was 23 and I had spent three months really searching about “what is it that you want to do?” And that’s another goal, my purpose I found for myself was very much helping others live fulfilled lives. And so, another goal is to make sure that all my projects from now and for the next thirty or forty years are really aligned with helping people.
I think on another level, it’s leaving the world better than you found it. Still embracing the fact that you get to be here and experience all the beauty. So, I at somepoint definitely want to travel and live in Antarctica. I’m just going to throw that out there!
KAS: Actualize it! Just put it into the world.
SS: Manifesting, manifesting! I would love to go and experience that very extreme crazy beautiful wild environment. But, that’s the one thing I’ll say – my largest goal is very much travelling as much as I can and seeing as much as I can and really falling in love with it so that I can also learn how to protect and bring other people into that same glory – and leave it hopefully better than we found it.
KAS: I love that – I don’t know if you ever read the children’s book Miss Rumphius, but it reminds me of that.
SS: I did not.
KAS: It’s about this woman who goes riding around on her bike through town and everyone thinks is crazy, because she is throwing they aren’t sure what. And it turns out she is putting flower seeds everywhere. And then she leaves and spring comes around and the flowers bloom. So her entire goal was just to make it a little more beautiful. A very similar ideology!
SS: I’m going to go out and get that book. I love that story – that’s exactly it.
KAS: Mhm, it is just the simplest thing. So, on a lighter question, what is a book you think everyone should read?
SS: Can I make two suggestions?
KAS: Oh of course!
SS: My first one, and serious answer, is a book called Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Dr. Robert Sapolsky. And this book – now granted, if you’re buying it in print, it is certainly something to carry around – I brought it with me on a trip I was doing to New York and I was supposed to be outside checking out the sites, but I got so engrossed in the book, I finished it I think in a day and a half. And I think I took cat naps just to keep myself going. I loved it. It really talks about everything, from basic biology to getting into our behavioral patterns, why we think the way we do, why we love what we do, why do we feel anger or even failure or fears. It really breaks everything down. It’s an amazing read and I think it’s worth everybody taking a look at that because it really helps you understand why you react certain ways. And I feel that if we understood ourselves better and understood what our biology really is and the chemical interactions that are happening, we could be more mindful. So I really think that’s a great read that everyone should have.
The second comes from my very artistic side, but it is poetry. I think that poetry can be so simple, from very short haikus to very long kinds of prose and other different long forms. But I have always found poetry to be very uplifting for me. To your point about even this children’s book, it’s so simple, it’s so delicate, but at the same time, just holds so much value to how we want the world to be. We need more folks on bicycles planting seeds! I think poetry captures that. I think it is a very cool way of expressing how we feel, whether it’s spoken word, written – I’d love for folks to embrace the poets!
KAS: Me as well, I’m with you! So, this is a big question: what, in your opinion, is the biggest problem facing Asian women today – especially from the point of view of someone who is an entrepreneur, of someone who is a leader?
SS: Very loaded question, but I am so happy you asked it! I would say that the biggest barrier, at least from my perspective, is having role models. I remember, quick story, being in an airport very early in the morning – I think it was one of those 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. flights. So, I was there looking at the newsstand. And I had never read Entrepreneur. I think the main reason why I was so attracted to that magazine that day was that on the front cover was Leila Janah, who is the founder of Samasource, she’s done amazing things as a social entrepreneur. I was just captivated – I had never seen a woman that looked like me on the cover of a business magazine! And I think that is a big reason why I started reading Entrepreneur. I bought that issue and I remember reading it and Instagramming it in the morning, because I read the article on her and it was amazing. And for the first time, way back then, this was about six or five years ago, I was like, “oh, I could do that! That’s an option. I never thought of that before!” When we have role models like that – when I say role models, I mean women who are authentic and real and that I could actually identify with and who are actual leaders that you would want to emulate. I’ve always really respected her.
And I’ve seen it with Lilly Singh, who is a Youtube star and I absolutely love her work. She is great. When I talked about the juggling different cultures, she brings so much to light, also being American-Indian and all of the things she’s had to hold there, which I think is great. And she does it through humor.
And Mindy Kaling, I saw her when she came to Austin [Texas]. And it was amazing – I got a selfie with her! But yes, another great woman. In her book Why Not Me?, she talks about why we hold ourselves back sometimes and go back to places that limit us.
So I think, naming those women, and even for myself, it is how do I play that role of being a role model? Again, empowering other women who look like me to get out there, whatever it is! If you’re in entertainment, or want to go be an entrepreneur or even an artist, putting yourself out there just inspires people you didn’t even think of! I think that’s the biggest barrier I have seen. There are just not enough, not many female role models out there that are South Asian – that are out there in the media. Really being able to elevate those women would be key.
KAS: Definitely. Okay, so one last lighter question: what is your go-to coffee shop order? Knowing you’re a very busy person, I’m assuming you have one!
SS: Yes! So, basically, I live off espresso. I was one of the mocha latte people for a long time, and then right before I started my business, I switched to black coffee and it just seemed to get more concentrated as time went on – of just how much caffeine and how much coffee I needed to drink. I have multiple shots of espresso per day. I do try to have moments where I kind of detox off of it, but I really love espresso. I now have an espresso machine at home, which has made it even more impossible to avoid it! I have different flavors and I love it. If I want something more creamy, I’ve been really falling in love with oat milk. I feel that it has more body than almond milk. Almond milk is just so watery, it doesn’t really help the coffee – that’s just my opinion.
KAS: I’m the same way. I also just learned that oat milk is the most environmentally conscious alternative milk choice you can make now, which made me love it even more.
SS: Yes, exactly!
KAS: So, final question – and it is kind of an “open to you” one: if you could ask yourself a question, or if you have an area we haven’t touched on, what would the question be and what is the answer?
SS: The one question that I continually ask myself, we’ll go with that, is how to have the greatest self love and how to achieve and spread that love from myself to others. I know that this is my really big question in Nepal that I was just focused on, you know, how do you love your hands, how do you love the way your face looks in the morning to how your different tastes and your likes and your dislikes – how do you love all of that? So, I think that is the one thing I always ask myself because I realize that I improve, I get better at loving others through loving myself. I’ve had more compassion and just a lot more, deeper empathy for what people are going through and where we are, which has really, of course, impacted my work and the way that we build our approaches. But it all starts with yourself.
So, I think that is the biggest question I would ask myself, and my answer is simply take the time to embrace all the little things. So often we get told how to feel about ourselves – we don’t have the opportunity to embrace all of our light and darkness, you know? Like, maybe I don’t like anchovies, and maybe I don’t like ska, and that’s fine! Whatever it is, it’s kind of just embracing who you are and owning it.
The one thing I even recommend to other women entrepreneurs out there as well, is just love every aspect. Take it all as your strength and in your stride, because the more you love yourself and you build in time, whether it’s taking a walk or going to the gym or starting keto or growing your garden and your plants, whatever it is that gives you some peace and is healthy, impacts you and, kind of a compound effect, everyone is happier around you because of that, they are drawn into that. I would say that is the biggest thing I would ask and ask of others too: how do you love yourself? Can you love yourself deeply? What does that look like?
Sarah Sharif is a Pakistani-born, British-American who has dedicated her career to social innovation, civic technology, and human impact projects. Sarah is the Founder of Experimental Civics, Founder of Capsule, and Co-Founder of Life Sci Hack. Before becoming an entrepreneur, Sharif quickly gained recognition as the Director of ATX Hack for Change driving the generation of 157 social innovation and emerging technology projects in her role.
Through Experimental Civics, she has launched over 10 unique design thinking workshops and has supported over 45 hackathons to increase awareness in open science, social innovation, and design thinking. As a millennial CEO under 30, we’ve only seen the beginning of her global work as Sarah empowers communities through engagement with technology. Many millennials talk about change with no real outlet for action. Sarah is truly unique in that she’s creating a space for changemakers to make a difference with hands-on experiences, workshops, and hackathons.