Fascinated by the events and debates leading up to the establishment of the European Union, Faye Sahai studied abroad in Freiburg to see history unfolding first-hand. The experience reinforced her appreciation for diversity and curiosity about the unknown, giving her skills that helped launch her career in innovation. For more than 20 years, Faye has led innovation and strategic initiatives at companies including Blue Shield, Deloitte, Charles Schwab, Disney, HP, Kaiser Permanente, and Toyota. Today, Faye serves as Global Head of Innovation and Digital Business Centers at AIG and is an advocate for diversity in the workplace. Read on to learn how study abroad helped Faye prepare for a global career and why she believes diversity is a driving force for innovative thought.
IES Abroad: As an undergraduate at Claremont McKenna College, why did you choose to study abroad in Freiburg?
Faye Sahai: I was really interested in the Freiburg program because it was studying the European Community market. It was not just about that one country but how a group of countries were going to emerge as a new market. It was a chance to explore the process at that period of time. It has been wonderful to reflect upon that experience now given the European situation and their questioning of where they are going. So, the socio-political situation and the opportunity to visit several of those countries as part of the program is really what attracted me to the Freiburg program, in particular.
IES Abroad: What are some of your greatest memories from your time in Freiburg?
FS: It was a wonderful program! The people who were selected were very diverse. There were people with multiple interests and representing various universities from Italy and different parts of the U.S. The comradery of living together in a big house and exploring Europe and the education system together were tremendous. I found the professors very intriguing. Having both verbal and written final exams was interesting.
One memory in particular stands out. It was right before midterms, and we said we would all go to Italy, where we had never been. As luck would have it, Pope John Paul II came out and canonized someone as a saint while we were at the Vatican. I’m saying to myself, “How many places can you see this! I’ve got midterms next week, but I think that it is really important to see the new saint in Italy!” We actually got to see the Pope, and it was amazing. We then came back and studied for our midterms. We all did well. The Pope had blessed us! It was a really unique opportunity.
IES Abroad: In 1988, the Single European Act was just coming into being, and the heart of the discussions and debates leading up to the establishment of the European Union were taking place. How did this impact your experience in Freiburg?
FS: It was an exciting time. We saw a moment in history. We got to study it. We got to see the countries, hear the debate, and learn from the different perspectives. The countries involved had very different perspectives. For example, England’s perspective was very different from Spain’s perspective. And to actually visit those countries to see the different perspectives was really interesting. Freiburg, of course, is so centrally located that we easily could go to other countries.
IES Abroad: In what ways did study abroad impact your career path as an innovator?
FS: Study abroad confirmed my love of travel, my interest in other countries, and my respect for other cultures. I have a global role here at AIG looking at global innovation. Having lived and studied abroad, I have a respect for the different business practices and the nuances as I work towards different perspectives, whether I’m going to Europe or Japan or the Middle East. I’m better prepared to view how businesses and people operate, having developed a heightened sense of empathy and close observation skills. It has helped to develop my skill set. When you are studying abroad, you are going to the unknown. As an innovator, you have to take risks and go to the unknown. For me, I have always loved that part of it – that exploring, that learning something new, that learning a new skill set, that taking crash courses in German to be able to communicate (I went to Freiburg speaking no German).
IES Abroad: You have worked tirelessly to bring diversity to the workforce. What advantages do you see in study abroad for people who want to maximize their potential?
FS: Study abroad is a wonderful opportunity for people to stretch, to challenge themselves in a new environment – learning a passion, a commitment, an area of topic, learning from a different culture. I’m a strong advocate for diversity and cross cultural understanding. Studying abroad adds a whole other nuance to diversity. I think we get more innovative ideas and a better result when we are more diverse. You have diversity of thought, diversity of experience, diversity of skill set and perspectives that enrich a solution and where you are going. For some, it can be the challenge of it, too, because you have diversity of opinion and not all agree. The richness of the results comes from this diversity. You learn so much from it.
IES Abroad: You are passionate about traveling with your family. Has your experience abroad shaped how you raise your children?
FS: I think that it is the appreciation of different circumstances, traveling, and other cultures. Studying abroad is an education in itself. It helps you to grow your perspective, understand others, and empathize. Especially in this day and age, with our virtual communications and how we are engaging digitally, the world is shrinking, becoming smaller and smaller. Understanding others and cultures is so important. I thought that it was very important for my kids from a young age, since they were one, to travel every year. They are very travel-hearty! Raising my children in Silicon Valley, there are wonderful resources here, but it is, in a sense, a bubble. I have encouraged my children to study abroad when they are in college. So travel is that much more important.
My parents emigrated here from Thailand. I grew up in an immigrant family where they said you have to work twice as hard. You have to learn the perspective of the country you are in and understand that. I married someone who was born in India and raised in Brazil. His family is all around the world, too. Many of our vacations are visiting family all around the world. We made a commitment as a family to explore a different country every year. It is an important education process for our children, having them be aware of different cultures, countries, and history.
IES Abroad: What advice do you have for students considering studying abroad today?
FS: Go for it! Whether it is a country, a topic or an experience that you are craving, something you dreamed of, something that interests you, use this time. This is a wonderful opportunity to explore and to dive into culture and environment, to live there for a period of time. It is very different than touring a country or going on vacation. To actually live there, study there, be with your peers there, and explore for an extended period of time is an experience that everyone should have.