Photo Courtesy of Squarespace.
Mohenna Sarkar, Senior Manager of UX and Design Research at Squarespace, credits the female advocates throughout her career for seeing her “reach potential” and giving her shots at success — even when she wasn’t necessarily the perfect fit for every job.
“I am where I am because, through all the noise, women at each stage of my life and career embraced my humor and identity, made space for me in important rooms and took risky bets on my potential,” she says, adding that her experience at Squarespace has been no exception. “And, frankly, my personal remit beyond my discipline is to pay respect by unapologetically carrying forth those principles. To work with my team to broaden what equitable and accessible culture looks like for folks who have felt on the periphery of the system.”
Today, Sarkar leads with the same intentions. The central tenets of leading, she says, are trust and psychological safety — especially this year, amid all the chaos. She opened up with Fairygodboss about how she accomplishes this while giving her team the same opportunities she’s been given.
Tell us about yourself, your role, and how you got to where you are today.
Get ready for the ambiguous journey of the “Design Researcher.”
I'm Mohenna, and I’m currently heading up the first UX/Design Research department at Squarespace. I’ve lived in New York City for close to a decade (mostly in Brooklyn) with my partner, two dogs and 50+ plants. Even though I’ve primarily worked in tech, software updates baffle me, I refuse to cut the cord on cable and I still have a landline.
It’s truly been a ride reflecting on my path as a woman in tech, especially since Design Research as a department was not fully codified or commoditized when I started my career.
But let me rewind a bit. Perhaps my current role will make more sense given formative context: My parents broke the mold of a traditional upbringing working as entrepreneurs, film makers and, eventually, educators who continued to evolve their careers through various stages of life. I spent the early years of my life growing up across India and the UAE before ultimately settling down stateside, always having to make sense of new environments. To this day, the ice-breaker I have the toughest time answering is “Where are you from?” (unless you are keen on hearing me ramble, in which case, ask away).
Fast forward to college, I decided to study Anthropology in a Liberal Arts environment (talk about leaning into ambiguity). At that time, the projected and expected path veered towards academia. “Design” as a field was foreign, inaccessible and branded as a world that felt exclusive. Eventually, I found a more applied path and worked for Ashoka International in DC, an organization focused on social entrepreneurship, where most of my time was spent in-field interviewing public sector thought leaders around the world. I imprinted on the primary research aspect of that role (the NGO bureaucracy… not so much).
Shortly after, I received an email from Frog Design, following up on an old, cold application (a resigned and repressed dream by then). It was for a project management role, the only role I had any understanding of as it exists in other verticals. In the interview, when pressed on my skills, I candidly admitted that not only was I unorganized, I actually enjoyed having a slightly chaotic mind. The conversation then transitioned into how Anthropology could be leveraged as an applied skill within a corporate environment. It may have seemed off-topic, but I didn’t know how to talk about project management.
What followed is imprinted into my brain as the most formative moment of my career, the gesture probably long forgotten by my interviewer. She was forthcoming that I was satirically wrong for the role, but instead of ending the conversation, went to the hiring team to pivot what I was interviewing for: enter my first contract role as a Design Researcher, resulting in a mighty team of two. It was a slightly meta experience learning the foundations of a discipline while the foundations were still being defined while learning to generally navigate the workplace. But I’ll never forget that the person who saw my “reach” potential and opened the door for me was a woman.
From Frog Design, I shifted to Smart Design to learn the art of research as it applied to physical product development. Witnessing unmet user needs and inaccessible design in the context of physical products and spaces is a jarring and invaluable lesson in empathy and the need for inclusive design standards. Smart is where I gained my sea legs and garnered autonomy to work cross functionally, experiment and cultivate interests outside “research” in the workplace. Once again, my manager who led me with confident humor and the permission to “enter the room and fail with safety” was a woman.
After Smart Design, I transitioned to agency life at Huge inc., where I spent my tenure working embedded and across dozens of clients, internal teams and geographies, ultimately serving as a Design Research Director. Over the course of five years, I boarded ~220 flights, lived in eight temporary homes and conducted research in ~32 cities. This was thrilling yet wildly unsustainable. The grounding force at Huge was my NYC research family. Rarely in proximity to one another, we shared a latent bond over our lifestyle and the need to cultivate stability. And we know how this goes — my core team responsible for instilling psychological safety and normalizing our lifestyle were women. The only member of the C-Suite who consistently invited me to own my work and market myself in gated meetings was also a woman.
Cut to 2020, I’m currently a senior manager of UX Research at Squarespace, building out the company’s inaugural UX Research team. This was the dream I was unable to articulate sitting in that first interview room at frog, and once again the employees at Squarespace who took a bet on me were primarily women.
I am where I am because, through all the noise, women at each stage of my life and career embraced my humor and identity, made space for me in important rooms and took risky bets on my potential. And, frankly, my personal remit beyond my discipline, is to pay respect by unapologetically carrying forth those principles. To work with my team to broaden what equitable and accessible culture looks like for folks who have felt on the periphery of the system.
What’s the first and last thing you do at work every day?
Pre-2020, it was basic and beautiful: Relishing in coffee chats in the kitchen prior to the work day, then starting and doing a quick lap around the office to see my favorite faces. The last thing I would do was a little cleansing of the desk (recycling post-it notes, clearing cups, tucking away snacks) and a final calendar check for the next day’s meetings. It’s taken me over a decade to delete work emails and Slack off of my personal devices but now that I have, what I see at 6 p.m. is what I know to be true until 8 a.m. Bliss.
Post-Corona, it’s still basic, but less beautiful. I have a visual system for when the “office” is open and for when the “office” is closed. The first thing I do to signal the start of the work day at home is put my computer on the desk. The last thing I do is place it under the desk. Sounds silly, since the purpose of the desk is literally to hold my computer, but having the setup in an “always on” mode during work-from-home is stressful.
How would you describe your leadership style?
My leadership style has evolved over time. I remember in the past as a new manager how difficult it was to decouple “directing” work with “managing” people — I don’t think I truly understood what leadership meant until that distinction kicked in. It took a fair amount of mental gymnastics to pivot to the idea that “influence” as a leader is not predicated upon ownership, approvals, execution or posturing.
Currently, I try to lead from behind, which is not to be conflated with being disengaged or passive. By design, this model focuses on a managee-centric approach of unlocking potential instead of marshalling directives. I see my active role as someone who provides strategic guidance in driving the work forward and creating avenues of exposure to new audiences or to each other.
Ultimately, my remit is to lay a foundation of standards, remain accessible and accountable, invite experimentation and, above all, embrace all forms of identity.
How have you had to adapt your leadership approaches in 2020?
“Leading” in 2020 is a dance none of us were taught. To put things into perspective: I was hired in December of 2019 to scale out a UX Research team at Squarespace. Research was a team of one until March. My first hire had her orientation on a Tuesday, and the following Wednesday, work-from-home orders went into effect and, over the next one and a half months, we rapidly scaled to a team of seven. As a unit, we collectively started new jobs and tried to establish a new department in a state of ambiguity all without the opportunity to connect and calibrate in-person.
“Leading” ultimately rests upon trust and psychological safety. Those tenets should always be pillars of management, but they’re at the forefront this year. This year has also shed the need to posture or code switch, it is too exhausting. There are only so many Zoom-hours you can curb your natural sense of humor and vernacular to play into corporate stereotypes (still being mindful of the environment). In a way, it’s been nice to shed dated protocols on how to be taken seriously as a woman in the workplace.
But if I have one main takeaway, it’s the importance of the “collective.” While I lead the team in a traditional sense, I’m in awe of how everyone has actively made it a priority to guide and champion each other to compensate for those missed moments of proximity. We’re steering this ship together as vastly different people with shared intentions.
How have you used your role to help bring up other women behind you?
UX Research is an interesting discipline within the larger landscape of tech. For a variety of reasons, we tend to have more representation spanning the spectrum of gender identities. One could even argue it is a field primarily led by strong women.
Research also continues to be fairly generous towards career pivots and isn’t always contingent on educational dependencies (you can’t buy empathy and ethics). Nevertheless, those signals should not be seen as bypassing the “ceiling,” as we ultimately still work within the larger machine, which is far from equitable.
As far as working to bring women up who are climbing that hill, I choose to focus on radical transparency and mentorship around pay, benefits, and navigating negotiations. It’s not the “sexiest” or warmest of conversations, but confidence in financial literacy and industry calibration is a first step towards evening the playing field. It is our job as leaders (I’m looking at everyone) to be explicit and sit exposed in order to demystify the world of fair compensation.
What’s been the best advice or guiding principle you’ve ever received?
I say this to anyone who will listen. I am where I am in my career because early on I had mentors continue to invite me into “the room” before I was ready (often knowing I would fail or, at least, flounder). The proverbial gatekeepers decided not to close the gates, and that is now engrained in how I see my role.
Let people in the room before they’re ready, hire based off of potential, hire inclusively and trust in career pivots. I have had the privilege of having mentors who have watched me grow into my unique definition of strength — instead of assessing me based off of their prescribed notions of strength. That permission continues to be liberating.
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