Sometimes you have to fulfill a childhood dream in order to realize that it wasn’t the right path for you after all. That’s exactly what happened to Sang’ona Oriedo, who grew up wanting to work in the STEM field and ended up pivoting to a career in marketing. Today, she’s the Vice President of Marketing at the healthcare tech company iRhythm Technologies.
“My father was a scientist, and he instilled in me a passion and curiosity for the natural sciences,” Oriedo says. “But once I graduated with my engineering degree from Stanford and entered the workforce, I found myself feeling very unfulfilled. The roles I held were very tactical, routine, and tied up in minutia. So I did what a lot of disillusioned young professionals do and applied to graduate school.”
After earning her MBA at the Kellogg School of Management, Oriedo stumbled upon marketing, which appealed to both sides of her brain. “In part, marketing is about understanding human needs and behavior and applying creative problem solving to meet those needs. But there is a very scientific and analytical side to effective marketing,” she says. “For me, it’s the best of both worlds: I can unleash my creative and communication strengths in a way I never could as an engineer, but still practice a discipline that is rooted in analytical methodologies.”
Here, she talks openly about the challenges she’s faced as a woman of color throughout her career, iRhythm Technologies’ approach to diversity and inclusion, and why having a growth mindset is a key to success.
How were you able to succeed in pivoting from engineering to marketing?
In order to make the switch, pursuing an MBA was an unspoken requirement. The two fields are pretty far apart and it’s hard to switch organically—at least within a Fortune 500 company—without the appropriate degree, education, or credentials under your belt. Going to business school afforded me many opportunities that were critical to the future of my career path. I learned specific skills I didn’t previously have, including marketing strategy planning, operations management, and organizational design and leadership. I also got to apply that learning in out-of-classroom experiences through pro-bono consulting. I gained access to a professional network and job placement services, and I got a tremendous benefit from learning from my peers who had experiences in different industries and roles.
How did you know iRhythm would be a good fit?
I had been at Johnson & Johnson for nine years and was very much open to making a change in order to continue to learn, stretch, and grow professionally. That said, I wasn’t sure at all that I would be a good fit. During my tenure at JnJ, I had accumulated a wealth of experiences, leadership development training, stretch opportunities, and promotions. But the market conditions, business, and culture under which I had flourished was very different from that at iRhythm. I took a significant risk by leaving a company that had invested in me to lead a brand that was young and still establishing itself. I felt, however, that it was a critical move to make in order to keep learning, challenging myself, and grow. It’s been a wild ride, but I’m very glad I made the move and humbled to have had the opportunity.
What are you responsible for in your current role?
I’m responsible for the marketing department at iRhythm. We ensure the Zio service becomes the new standard of care for ambulatory cardiac monitoring. We do that by building thought leadership in the market as a digital health innovator, establishing the brand value proposition for our solution, delivering clinical and product education to engage our target market, and executing demand generation programs to drive the acquisition and growth with new and existing prescribers.
What have been the keys to your success as you’ve worked your way up to a leadership role?
I think I’ve had two primary success factors since joining—among many, many hours of hard work. I have leveraged my talent as an effective communicator to motivate and inspire others. I have built, somewhat accidentally, a brand for myself as a motivating corporate and public speaker. The simple lesson in this is to play to your strengths: If you have a talent, even if you think it’s not germane to your day job, you should exploit it to your best ability in any given role. Sometimes a skill that you may take for granted can be the thing that gets you noticed or makes you a value add to other people in the organization.
I have also tried very hard to focus on which problems to solve. This is critical at a young or rapidly growing brand where there can be a thousand things that should be done to create a high-functioning team. The ability to understand what problems are most critical to the corporate or commercial goals of the organization is vital to achieving anything worth noting. That means saying no to a lot of other worthy, but probably less important asks.
What do you love most about working in the healthcare industry?
The ability to positively impact patients’ lives. I derive a tremendous amount of satisfaction from helping to improve patient outcomes and access to quality care.
How does iRhythm approach diversity and inclusion?
iRhythm has a multi-pronged approach to diversity and inclusion. The first prong has to do with setting clear business goals related to building and retaining a diverse and inclusive work-force. We have found that aligning the organization to a common goal is critical to driving change in the organization. For example, we set out several years ago to improve the gender diversity on the engineering team. After several years of work on this front, we made significant progress in part because there was a shared commitment to that goal.
The second relates to establishing strategic relationships with minority professional groups to build a deep talent pipeline of candidates for future roles. This is an emerging strategy at iRhythm, so we should check back in at a future point to see the impact of this work.
The third prong involves a grass-roots movement among employees to start affinity groups within the company. For example, two of iRhythm’s Black sales leaders launched a Diversity Equity and Inclusion group in late 2020. There was a similar group formed for women’s professional development. It gives me great hope to see leaders around the org share this vision with enthusiasm and vigor.
What challenges have you faced as a woman, specifically a woman of color, throughout your career?
Implicit and explicit biases against women and people of color are pervasive in the workplace, regardless of the sector or discipline in which we work. As an engineer, I was part of a very small minority as both a woman and a person of color. I felt I was often presumed to be incompetent until I proved my competence. This manifested in receiving rote assignments time and again while my male peers of similar education, skills, and tenure received choice assignments and stretch tasks. There was also an unspoken culture of “tech bros” or what we now have coined “toxic masculinity” into which I and other women were expected to assimilate. This was especially true in the high-tech sector, where I endured a toxic and hostile workplace environment. Back then, I didn’t know how to advocate for myself, and so I ultimately left that space for greener pastures.
Many years later, I feel that I’ve found an environment in the healthcare sector that better fits my values. But, it is far from perfect. All too often, executive leadership teams are predominantly white and male, bearing little resemblance to the patient populations we serve. At the senior leadership level, I am still often the only Black person or only woman “at the table.” This brings on a whole new set of challenges, the most acute of which is balancing the need to exhibit “executive presence“ with my desire to be authentic and to bring my unique perspective into executive decision-making conversations.
How have you overcome these challenges?
The way I overcome this is by performing well in my job and trying my best to collaborate effectively with other leaders in the organization. As I build trust and confidence, I try my best to use my podium to be brave and bold in speaking on behalf of others who do not have the power to advocate as openly for themselves. I also advocate for talent acquisition strategies to identify and hire candidates of color into the organization. I try, where I can, to advocate for business goals and metrics related to recruitment and also development and promotions for people of color.
But it’s hard, and oftentimes my effort feels singular because I have to do all of this on top of my “day” job. It’s a burden that my white colleagues don’t share. For real change to happen, however, they need to. So, my new strategy is to share the burden. Not bear this challenge in silence, for fear it will weaken my standing, but to be very open about these challenges and to recruit my leadership and business partners into the effort to make change. It’s a work in progress, but I remain hopeful.
What advice would you give to others who want to follow a similar career path as yours?
I believe that you should care about what you learn and not just about how you perform. If you remain committed to a growth mindset—one in which you lean into challenges, hard endeavors, and new problems to solve—you will inherently become skilled, competent, and marketable over time. This is especially crucial if you wish to pursue the discipline of marketing, which is a rapid and ever-evolving field. Whatever skill you mastered three years ago is likely obsolete today. This is why building robust problem-solving skills and creative thinking will enable you to lead into the future. You must cultivate a love of learning and get comfortable with being uncomfortable, because that’s where growth and opportunity come from.