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By Morgan Zombolas for Spend Matters March 3, 2021

After growing up in a family of entrepreneurs who were ingrained in their hometown in Maine, Sarah Nelson was accustomed to being involved in her community and helping to change it. She learned to work and have ownership in her roles — whether it be at the family-owned gas station, laundromat or pizza place.

Now as a manager at Velocity Procurement, Nelson’s primary role is project management for the implementation of procurement solutions. She also is the in-house specialist for change management and communications.

When it comes to change, Nelson is quite familiar with it after the year that was 2020, during which she had a child and had to navigate the coronavirus crisis professionally and personally. As a master of change management for the organizations she works with at Velocity, Nelson had a transformation plan in place for her and her family prior to having a daughter last year.

“One of the things that I researched a lot before I had the baby was how do I still be the employee I was, and add to that motherhood and being a wife and taking care of the dog and the house; how do you do it all and not reduce an effort somewhere?” However, as Nelson jokingly noted, there weren’t any blogs out there with advice on how to juggle the tasks of motherhood, her career and her home — all during a global pandemic.

Nelson’s professional roles did not always involve procurement. After growing up in Maine, Nelson majored in kinesiology and athletic training at the University of Maine and earned her master’s degree in sports administration at Belmont University. While it’s “not nearly an MBA,” as Nelson put it, her degree allowed her to learn about organizational development and leadership — skills that she can zoom out and apply across any organization.

But how did she go from six years as a khaki-wearing, water bottle-toting, full-on athletic trainer to a successful master of change management and manager in procurement today?

After working as an athletic trainer at Vanderbilt University, Nelson shifted to working in the administrative section at the school in clinics with doctors. She was the coordinator for the fellowship education program, where she brought a great perspective. With that experience, she also honed her program development and coordination skills, which come in handy in her current role today.

With another shift, Nelson left sports medicine and moved into finance, where she worked on organizational development and long-term planning. She got her first real taste of experience with procurement while working at Brookdale, a hospital and healthcare firm based in Tennessee. At Brookdale, she was brought in to help turn around an internal, homegrown procurement platform for their 1,100 communities. Nelson worked in marketing, sales, training and education surrounding the platform — work that also connected back nicely to her healthcare education experience in sports medicine.

At Brookdale, she also met Grant Dearborn, who was contracted on a project there. When Nelson left the company, her former boss at Brookdale advocated for her with Dearborn, one of the founders of Velocity Procurement. Fast forward to today and her role as manager at Velocity Procurement.

While chatting with Nelson, I noted that similar to her journey into procurement, the roads of most women I’ve spoken with as part of our “Women in Procurement Wednesday” series are rather scenic. I asked Nelson why that might be.

“Procurement isn’t necessarily ‘sexy’ when you are 20 years old in college,” she said. “It’s not an industry that gets marketed well.”

Her scenic route to the industry, however, certainly afforded her the opportunity to have diverse experiences that help her today.

Going along with the concept of really suiting the needs of people in an organization with a procurement implementation, Nelson also emphasized people and the humanity of the transformation journey, and of procurement as a whole. We see it even more now with the pandemic — in fact, Nelson even called this out as one of the trends she is seeing in procurement.

“This year, everyone had to be a little bit more dialed in to the human element in a way they weren’t before,” Nelson said.

Everyone has been affected differently both personally and professionally by the pandemic, and many are “grieving the loss of their normalcy.”

That is why the human element of change and transformation is so relevant to the procurement transformation journey, something that Nelson and her team spend a lot of time on at Velocity.

Nelson’s experience as an athletic trainer also allowed her to dial in to that human element before her days in procurement. As a sort of “in-house confidant” for athletes, Nelson learned to appeal to people who were in an emotional state. That’s a skill that benefits her in change and transformation projects today.

Something that’s not part of her job description but that Nelson takes to heart at her organization is coordinating team events for morale. While some people think in the mindset of “just come to work and work hard,” Nelson highlighted the importance of getting people together as a team and “being human once in a while.” Not only is it essential from a human perspective, but also from the perspective of good company culture.

The human element is further apparent at Velocity in its structure as a matrix organization, where people work on a project regardless of rank or title. On certain jobs, a boss may work for someone they manage. For example, the project that Nelson works on now involves — from the top down — a program manager, a project manager and a number of solutions consultants. While Nelson is the program manager on this particular project, the project manager who works below her in this instance is her director at Velocity, and is technically above Nelson in the organization. While such a structure can be unsettling or confusing to some people, Nelson said it works really well at Velocity, as she is fortunate to be surrounded by “people open to learning up, down and sideways.”

In addition, Nelson is fortunate enough to have a work environment that not only promotes the human element, learning across the organization and good company culture, but she is surrounded by people who are understanding of the challenges women face in the procurement industry — and are willing to back her up.

Such support in her career undoubtedly helped build the confidence in Nelson to curate two of her pieces of advice for young women in procurement, or any other industry.

Firstly, she advises, “Make them tell you no.” When it comes to negotiating salary, advocating for yourself or making an ask you think is valid, be sure to make the ask outright. The confidence to do so surely comes with time, but that will build with experience.

Her second piece of advice for young women is don’t be afraid to leave a situation where you are not being empowered. If, for example, you present your ideas and are continuously told “no” (and not just “not right now”) and you suspect it is because you are a woman, consider that you might be in an environment where people are not elevating you. Then, find a place and people who will fight against that type of discrimination along with you.

“Otherwise, we as women are not doing our part to extinguish that behavior.”

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