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Women of Leadership Profiles

Sandra Forero Paves the Way for LatinX Women

Sandra Forero, a Principal and Chief Operating Officer of ZS, has been at the consulting firm her entire post-MBA career. After more than 20 years as a consultant focused on the life sciences and pharmaceutical industries, she continued to expand her leadership reach in 2021 when she accepted the newly created role of COO. For this Colombian-born mom of two, taking risks is nothing new — which she displayed in tenaciously moving to the U.S. to get her MBA at the University of Virginia’s Darden School with her husband and newborn in tow. For Forero, accepting challenges is necessary for growth.

Current role: One Foot in the Now, and One in the Future

The ZS website describes it as “a global professional services firm that leverages deep industry expertise, leading-edge analytics, technology and strategy to create solutions for clients that work in the real world.” Among consulting firms, what is unique about ZS?
There are two things that make ZS unique:
1. We work with clients on an end-to-end process, helping them make strategic decisions and execute those decisions. Later, we look at the results and reshape the strategy for the future.
2. ZS tends to have long-term, “sticky” client relationships. For example, when I first joined ZS, I worked with one client for 10 years continuously. That type of relationship is unique in the world of consulting.

Your bio says your “priorities include propelling client success and enabling innovation, as well as talent strategy, people and culture initiatives, leadership development, and risk management.” In simple terms, what is the primary mission of your role as Chief Operating Officer (COO)?
The COO role is new to ZS, and I have been in this position for less than one year. I can shape the role, which is an exciting and amazing opportunity. I have two main responsibilities: 1. Run the operations of the firm today, which includes attracting and retaining the best talent to our firm, empowering ZSers with the tools needed to solve client challenges and enable innovation; and 2. Now that we know where we want to be in 2030, an important part of my role is to help to enable that vision.

What attracted you to consulting generally and ZS specifically?
After getting an undergraduate degree in business in Colombia, I joined a multinational consulting organization there. I loved being able to jump around to different projects and work on new things. Post-MBA, I married and had my daughter. Traveling all over Latin America as I had done prior to business school was not sustainable since I had a family. When I was looking at summer internships as an MBA student, I found ZS. It was a place I could do the consulting that I loved, and I still worked very hard, but I could do it without being away from home all the time. I’ve now been at ZS my entire post-MBA career.

 

It was a place I could do the consulting that I loved, and I still worked very hard, but I could do it without being away from home all the time. I’ve now been at ZS my entire post-MBA career.

What characteristics does someone need to be successful in a role like yours?
You must have passion for the organization to be successful. To be a COO also requires resilience and grit because sometimes you must make decisions that some people won’t like, and you can’t keep everyone happy. In my career as a consultant, I wanted to make everyone happy, but in this role, it may be a recipe for failure and not for success. Listening, having good connections and empathy, understanding other people’s objectives, and strong emotional intelligence are all important.

What is your favorite part of your job?
I get to work with everyone at ZS very closely because my role crosses all areas of our business and is global in nature. In my previous role as a consultant, I was very focused on the pharmaceutical industry, but now I see a bigger picture.

Early years: Finding Satisfaction in Helping Others

Where did you grow up?
Bogotá, Colombia

Was there anyone who helped to shape your personal or professional path?
I am the oldest of four — two boys and two girls. Before my younger sister was born, it was me and my two brothers and my parents never treated me any differently because I was a girl. They always had big expectations of me and my career. In high school, a philosophy teacher helped me understand the most important skill, which is to think critically and logically.

my parents never treated me any differently because I was a girl. They always had big expectations of me and my career.

Did you ever dream about a career at a young age other than consulting?
Early on, I wanted to be a teacher. Later, I wanted to be a doctor. I was accepted to medical school, but when I was about to graduate from high school, my uncle who was a doctor persuaded me not to pursue medical school. This career exploration journey led me to business school. At ZS, I found that I was able to follow my passion and still pursue my interest in science and biopharma.

What was your very first job? What did you learn from it?
My mom had a school; my first job as a teenager was teaching English to kids after school and on Saturdays. Teaching English to children taught me about discipline and work ethic, and I got to watch people grow and learn. It is very satisfying to know you are helping someone learn something new.

Career path: You Develop and Grow When You Accept New Challenges

Your bio also lists your expertise in life sciences/biopharma industry. Was this your role prior to becoming COO?
My whole career in consulting at ZS has been in the biopharma industry and helping clients with a range of issues — whether bringing new products to market, identifying & reaching patients, or developing go-to-market strategies.

What made you decide to take the COO role and get out of your comfort zone, after years as a consultant?
After the CEO offered me the job, my first reaction was to think about it. Later I went back and said, “I don’t want it because I am a consultant at heart, and I love helping clients solve problems. This role is going to take me away from that and remove me from the action of the business.” But after thinking about it further, I decided to take the challenge because I had been working with clients my whole career. You develop and grow when you do something different. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but it’s an opportunity to shape the future of the company — and I wanted a hand in that.

You develop and grow when you do something different. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but it’s an opportunity to shape the future of the company — and I wanted a hand in that.

Looking back on your career, has there been a pivotal moment or decision that took your career in a new direction that you wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to do if you hadn’t said “yes”?

Deciding to get an MBA opened so many opportunities for me. It would’ve been easy to say no. I was married and had a baby, I didn’t have a lot of money, and some friends and family thought I was crazy to take out a huge loan, but I saw it as important to invest in my career development. I also have a very supportive husband. I only applied to one school because I didn’t have time to do more applications, and I was on maternity leave while studying for the GMAT. It pays to be stubborn!

Is there anything you would do differently on your career journey? What do you think young professionals can learn from your path so far?
Mistakes have happened, but you learn from them. Some of the hardest and most challenging times in my career — whether it involved conflict with clients, teams, etc. — have been very fundamental in helping me grow and learn. I don’t regret any of the steps I have taken.

Leadership lessons: Don’t Take the Easy Path

What is about Forté’s mission that makes you want to support our efforts?
I have tried to live by this: If I, as a LatinX woman, can be successful in my career, I feel a responsibility to help others do the same. I hope and wish all women leaders feel the same responsibility to pull other women along with them. What Forté is doing to drive other women leaders is a fundamental need in the business world. I see it in my own sphere of work. We challenge each other, and we come to better decisions. The world needs more women leaders, and we need an extra nudge to make it happen.

The world needs more women leaders, and we need an extra nudge to make it happen.

 

Your bio says you are chair of ZS’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) council. Why is this important to you?

We started our DEI journey more than a decade ago, with a focus on hiring diverse talent and supporting the career advancement of women leaders within the firm. Today, we have evolved those efforts to also support other communities within the firm, including Asian, Black and Hispanic/Latino, Jewish, LGBTQIA+ and veteran ZSers. Additionally, three years ago, myself and a group of leaders discussed how we could do better, and we created a ZS strategy for DEI and elevated DEI efforts to the Board of Directors’ agenda. Based on my affinities, I am in a good position to champion our diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and I lead a very big team effort.

What advice do you have for young women just starting out in business?
Do not be afraid to do something difficult, and don’t take the easy path. It is what makes people grow. If you want to do something, you can do it.

Personal passions: Future PhD, Family, and Friendships  

Is there anything on your “bucket list” you’d be willing to share?
I love school and studying. When I retire (whenever that is), I want to get a PhD, maybe in philosophy or another social science. Hopefully that will allow me to teach and have a second career.

How do you spend your time when you are not working?
I have two children. My 25-year-old daughter is a consultant at ZS (which is another reason the future of ZS is so important to me), and my son is a fifth grader. We love spending time together, and I also love to spend time with my different groups of women friends…from high school, from college, and from my MBA. These different networks offer great support, advice, and perspectives on career and life.

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