Empowering Women and People of Color Through Building Connections

By Katy Macek | Photography by Shalicia Johnson

For Saran Ouk, she realized the power of relationship-building when she introduced a friend interested in financial advising to another colleague in that field. She quickly learned that building networks was a key rung in the proverbial career ladder.

“That was that lightbulb moment,” she says. “It clicked, and I realized what I wanted to do with my life was help people get connected with folks to reach their career goals.”

Ouk went on to found a nonprofit called conNEXTions (connextions.org) in 2016 based on that mission. The nonprofit consists of a free, six-month program that offers professional development opportunities for underrepresented young adults through a series of skill-building workshops. These skills in turn can help them find a job or even start their own business. Each mentee is also paired with a mentor in the field they are interested in.

Now, as the Office of Business Resources manager for the City of Madison’s Economic Development Division, her lightbulb moment has come full circle. She oversees the very programs and policies that help support businesses owned by women and people of color in Madison — and creates new ones that make starting a business more equitable.

She didn’t start surrounded by connections though, and it was that lack of resources and mentors to look up to that inspired her to build those relationships for others.

In fact, Ouk was born in a Thailand refugee camp and moved to the U.S. with her family in 1984. She says she was raised by “very traditional” Cambodian parents who believed a woman’s role was to find a husband and raise a family.

She, however, had other plans.She spent 15 years working for financial institutions and learned underrepresented communities often had the most barriers to financial education.

“I faced barriers and challenges growing up, not knowing what [I wanted] to do with my life,” she says. “That’s why I wanted to create a program that helps others learn what they want to do with theirs.”

When creating her nonprofit, Ouk says she sometimes felt she was looked down upon. She has plenty of stories of racist and sexist comments she received while networking, including people who tried to convince her starting a nonprofit was too difficult.

“It takes a toll on your mental health, and your confidence and energy,” she says.

She says seeking out other women who faced similar situations helped her overcome those feelings and focus on her end goals.

She says conNEXTions has 45 alums. As Ouk transitions away from the nonprofit to focus on her city job, she’s handing the reins to a previous conNEXTions mentor and mentee.

“I’m so proud that our participants are now running the organization,” she says.

Ouk started working for the city in 2019 in the Department of Civil Rights, where she certified small businesses, and businesses owned by women and people of color, and encouraged diverse hiring practices, such as getting employers and contractors to hire women and people of color.

Her new role with the city’s Economic Development Division allows her to build and grow relationships on a city-wide scale. As the Office of Business Resources manager, she implements programs and policies that help women and people of color create generational wealth. She also reviews current policies to ensure they are equitable and accessible to underrepresented community members.

She helped start the City of Madison’s Pop-Up Shop Program, which fills vacant storefronts with pop-up businesses owned by people of color, and promotes programs like the Commercial Ownership Assistance Program and Contracting Equity.

“My goal is to … bring together the private, public and nonprofit sectors to solve issues in our community,” she says. “The more we collaborate, the better our community and economy will be. ”

What advice would you give to other women leaders?

“Speak your mind, share your ideas with people and build relationships. And then give back. Those are what made me successful.”


Read more from our “What Women Want at Work” feature here.

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