Diversity Management at Kaiser Permanente: This Female Muslim Entrepreneur Brings Sensitivity to Suppliers

May 25, 2012 11:17 am

Dr. Sally Saba Kaiser PermanenteDiversity management in supplier diversity at Kaiser Permanente (No. 3 in the 2012 DiversityInc Top 50) benefits from Dr. Sally Saba’s unique perspective of the world—she grew up in Egypt and successfully ran a small business in the United States.

Dr. Saba, executive director of national supplier diversity for Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, knows what she’s talking about firsthand when it comes to supplier diversity. As a woman who has owned a small business, she’s familiar with the hardships that minority- and women-owned businesses face on a daily basis, such as problems with cash flow.

“I can recall many months when I couldn’t make payroll, even though I had lots of money in receivables,” she says. “When I speak about doing our part in supporting them, I speak from the heart with a passion.”

Finding Value in Differences

This is why Saba approaches diversity management as “an eager student, continually observing, learning and adapting,” she says. Saba’s defining moment in dealing with diversity was when she moved to the United States as an adult. Saba was born into a Muslim family in Cairo and has lived between both countries since she was 2. As such, she’s had the experience of interacting with different cultures her whole life.

However, diversity in the United States is very different than in Egypt, where the main differentiator is a socioeconomic class system. “Otherwise we were all the same, Egyptians,” she explains. “It doesn’t really test your belief system as much as does moving to a diverse population like America.”

What really opened her eyes, she says, was seeing in the media how momentous it was for Americans to elect a Black president. “These were conditions in America that I wasn’t really considering at the time,” she says.

Saba’s worldly view and her being a member of a religious minority in the United States has helped her develop a particular sensitivity for cultural competence, which she believes is a knowledge that needs years of experience to fully develop. “You go through phases of realization, understanding and adapting until you learn to appreciate and foster the differences,” she says.

The key to this, she explains, is found in abandoning our need “to be similar, to be comfortable in a diverse environment” and in finding joy in difference. Saba notes that what she most enjoys is the diversity in thought that stems from people’s differing backgrounds and experiences.

Read: Lowe’s Muslim Publicity Gaffe Serves as Case Study of What Not to Do

Sensitivity in Service

“I believe that every experience a person goes through, both professionally and personally, influences their approach to life and work,” she says. “All of my life experiences contribute to the complexity of how I view the world and how I view people.”

Her employer, Kaiser Permanente, has similar values in diversity management. The healthcare system/insurance company is committed to providing culturally competent medical care and service to its customers, and it emphasizes to its team members the value of understanding not only patients’ health needs but their religious/spiritual needs as well. For example, Saba says the company has in-house chaplains on its interdisciplinary team to offer support to patients who want religion as a part of their care.

It is this integrated notion of equity in service through diversity management that has made a positive impression on Saba. While her Muslim faith has taught her that all people are equal, her experience living in a male-dominated culture inferred otherwise. “It’s funny because our religion promotes the work of women side by side to men, yet the Arab culture gets in the way of achieving that,” she says. “It is a very different environment in the United States, and especially here at Kaiser Permanente, where you are valued by the organization for your contributions without regard to your gender or other attributes.”

Watch Bernard Tyson, president and chief operating officer, Kaiser Permanente, in the video below discuss what sets the company apart in diversity management.

Personalized Supplier Diversity

Kaiser Permanente’s success, according to Saba, stems from two major factors: the “truly amazing” commitment of the organization’s senior leadership and their ability to link diversity goals to performance metrics. Saba says that both are instrumental in helping the company realize profound changes.

In terms of supplier diversity, Saba notes a highly personal strategy in which they meet with suppliers regularly and frequently to provide support and hands-on training to compete for business. “We meet with suppliers almost weekly,” she says. “We also meet them at the trade shows that we attend regularly. We make sure they are in the running.”

Saba hopes to be able “to lead the company to its first billion” in supplier-diversity spend, which she says is just the beginning. Ultimately, her goal is “to continue to develop my cultural competence so that whatever I decide to do next is based on a foundation of diversity.”

For innovation in supplier diversity and diversity management, watch AT&T’s presentation on its Power Up! program at DiversityInc’s Innovation Fest! event.