Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Starting something new is all about firsts. Your first outbound sales call. Your first customer. Your first employee. Your first urgent issue. Starting a new journey every week brings about something else you didn’t know you needed to do and likely don’t even know how to do. I wish someone had told me to embrace that feeling and enjoy the process of learning so many new things.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Gifford.
Sara Gifford is co-founder and COO of ActiVote, a nonpartisan app that empowers citizens to vote and strengthens democracy. She has worked in the tech industry for twenty years and is an expert in software development and management. Sara is now using her tech talents for social good.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
ActiVote came about based on two simple things. Three people who just genuinely love working together on technology and have a desire to give back after years of success in technology. We all worked at a technology company focused on solving global supply chain challenges. Indeed, a job that is never finished, but when we all decided it was time for a new challenge, we wanted to give back. We knew that voting rates in the US were much lower than in other democracies worldwide, and we believe Civic Tech can help change that. After looking at what exists in the space and the challenges voters have in casting their ballot — we decided to invest ourselves in the challenge of creating informed and confident voters who cast a vote in every election!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
When we created ActiVote and put it in the App Store, and on Google Play, at first, not much happened. But over time, the number of daily downloads increased. Suddenly, we started seeing people posting videos on social media like Instagram and TikTok about how they found this great app that helped them vote. This never happens in the B2B world where we come from, where you know each of your customers by name. So it is a unique experience to learn how we are doing through social media and an inspiration to keep going.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As our app educates voters, we had little popups with explanations in our first few versions. Somehow users did not seem to get it, so we improved the explanations. It made no difference. We then got some users to make a video while they were using the app and realized that every single time a little pop-up explanation would come up, the user would first get rid of the pop-up and then look at the screen saying: “I am not sure what to do here.” We realized that most people don’t like to read instructions, and the more words, the less they read. So we changed it to visual cues, and that solved the problem. We thought it was funny that we had assumed young people would have the patience to read instructions.
Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?
We are focused on increasing voter participation in the United States. And we are doing that via an approach that focuses exclusively on what voters need to feel confident and informed to vote in EVERY election. “We the people….” We hear that phrase frequently, and we take it to heart. Everything we do is focused on the voter. We genuinely believe that the people’s power is more significant than those in power if only everyone’s voice could be heard!
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
We focus on reaching the hard-to-reach voters, people who don’t feel empowered or don’t think that their vote matters. We value privacy and protect all of the data of our users, so we do not know what is happening unless people tell us about it. The best moments are those when we see someone out there talking about how we’ve helped. One moment that came to mind was this video. It made us smile for weeks, and these types of stories keep us going!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- The good news is that everyone can have an impact! The top three things we would love to see people do:
- Voters. Try out our app and learn when your next election is! Talk to friends and family about voting. Remind them of their upcoming elections and stress the importance of voting and their voice.
- Community. Advocate for the issues you care about and talk to others about those issues, specifically about how those issues impact people’s day-to-day lives.
- Politicians. Listen to your voters. Represent your constituents and encourage new ways to interact with the voters you serve.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is rallying people to a common cause. For example, I have always liked the story about how to get a group of people to build a ship. One way is to get someone to draw up a design, get someone else to buy some wood, get some others to start constructing, etc. In short: top-down delegation. The other way is to get the group together and to “inspire them to sail the ocean.” When rightly inspired, the group will then figure out how to build that ship themselves and may ask for your help when needed. In short: inspirational leadership. I like inspirational leadership wherever possible.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Here is a video you can use for this segment: https://youtu.be/dm5XH7ddzMM
- Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Starting something new is all about firsts. Your first outbound sales call. Your first customer. Your first employee. Your first urgent issue. Starting a new journey every week brings about something else you didn’t know you needed to do and likely don’t even know how to do. I wish someone had told me to embrace that feeling and enjoy the process of learning so many new things.
- It takes years and years of hard work to be an overnight success.
I remember this quote every time I get anxious or worried that we haven’t hit one of our goals yet. Enjoying the journey is one of the best parts of any endeavor. I remember that we are doing the work and knowing that doing the work leads to success. So, we just keep doing the work!
- “Listen. Then take the best and leave the rest.” ~Richard Branson. When trying to do something big or complex, it is critical to listen to advice from various sources. Of course, some of that will be the advice that accelerates your cause, and sometimes it may be wrong. But never stop asking and never stop listening.
- Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Focusing on company culture is nearly as important as anything else you do. If you create a culture of success, collaboration, and fun, then everyone you hire will be an ambassador for your company and your mission. A good strategy is essential, but you wouldn’t have started if you didn’t already have a good idea.
- Trust does not need to be earned. I used to think that people needed to earn my trust. Until I realized it was way better if they did not need to because trust is a two-way street. So, I started telling people the moment they joined our company that I trusted them in all they did and that if something did not work out as intended, they could trust that I would have their back and we would solve whatever problem we encountered. The empowering value of people trusting their leader to have their back is immeasurable. It leads to innovation, entrepreneurial behavior, and acceleration that you can never get if people feel they have to play it safe.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We would inspire participation in our elections en masse. And that means local elections too. Many of those races are decided by dozens of votes, and these officials DO listen to the voters. What if every single American voted? What if we did elect people who shared the values of the majority of their district? What if those same officials truly represented our beliefs and enacted legislation to represent that? We hear statistics saying that a supermajority of Americans agree on this issue, but those laws aren’t passed. We want to inspire the movement that gets officials elected who pass those laws.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The best way to predict your future is to create it.” ~Abraham Lincoln
We are the masters of our destiny, and this quote is something I’ve always lived by. If you want to see something different, roll up your sleeves and work on making it different. This applies in life, and this applies in business!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I am a fan of the Problem Solvers Caucus in the US Congress. This is a bipartisan group of legislators who aim to solve real problems for the nation with bipartisan legislation. Ultimately, it is that kind of collaboration that the Framers of our constitution had in mind. So, I would love to have breakfast or lunch with any of them and learn more about their work and overlap with our nonpartisan goal of getting people to vote.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Sara Gifford of ActiVote Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.