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“Executives are the final decision-makers” With Susannah Schaefer and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

For an impactful and global movement, I would want to continue raising awareness of cleft palate and craniofacial conditions. While many are unaware of craniofacial conditions, it’s estimated that 1 out of every 700 babies is born with a cleft lip and/or palate globally, impacting their ability to eat, speak and hear. Through bringing understanding […]

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For an impactful and global movement, I would want to continue raising awareness of cleft palate and craniofacial conditions. While many are unaware of craniofacial conditions, it’s estimated that 1 out of every 700 babies is born with a cleft lip and/or palate globally, impacting their ability to eat, speak and hear. Through bringing understanding to clefts and the deep impact on children and their families, I am dedicated to Smile Train’s ongoing efforts to shed light on this complex condition and need to fund critical comprehensive care.


Asa part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susannah Schaefer.

Susannah Schaefer is Executive Vice Chair, President & Chief Executive Officer of Smile Train, an NGO committed to empowering local medical professionals to provide free cleft surgery and comprehensive cleft care to children globally. Schaefer joined Smile Train in February 2013, after serving as a member of the organization’s Board for over 10 years. As CEO, she leads Smile Train’s vision to expand access to healthcare and increase local capacity in countries in which Smile Train helps children. She is a Trustee of The Smile Train UK and serves on the Board of Directors of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’m a businessperson by experience with a background in public relations and communications. I began my career in the agency world and then took an internal position at Computer Associates (now CA Technologies) in their PR department.

Over my time there, I started to work more closely with Founder and CEO Charles B. Wang. This was during the tech boom in the 90s. I was offered an opportunity to move to Asia and build-out a marketing and PR strategy for the region. At this same time, Charles had started to incubate Smile Train while running his company. Due to his philanthropic passion to help children and give back to China (where he was from), he started Smile Train there and helped our first patient in 1999.

I saw the inception of Smile Train’s mission at its core while managing a communications team for Computer Associates Asia. Through Charles’s mentorship and guidance, I learned so much about two different industries — technology and philanthropy. Since I was based in Asia at the time, I had the opportunity to become further introduced to Smile Train. I began working on the Board of Directors in 2003 and became more involved with the organization’s day-to-day from 2010 onwards. Through hard work and personal passion, I was proud to be named Smile Train’s CEO in 2013.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I continue to be in awe of the impactful work of our programs. My first trip to visit the field once I became Smile Train’s CEO was an unforgettable experience. In September 2013, I visited the Philippines to meet our medical partners and several patients there. As CEO, I was able to feel the true need of our important work and how our cleft programs deeply impact lives.

While visiting a partner hospital just outside Manila, I got to meet Clarissa, a teenage girl at the time, whose gratitude and appreciation for the surgery and recovery programs will forever stick with me. Then, she had her cleft surgery about a year prior and was continuing through the comprehensive care program with orthodontics, speech therapy and psycho-social support. She was so thankful and gave so many emotional hugs! Though we couldn’t communicate without a translator, I could feel her deep gratitude for Smile Train.

When you’re in the boardroom, you need reminders for why you’re doing what you’re doing behind all the spreadsheets and decision making. I use the stories now and share them with our Board Directors for them to feel inspired about their work with Smile Train.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ll never forget the most embarrassing thing I ever did during my first PR job right out of college. I was an office assistant at a PR firm and one of my tasks was to process the mail in the physical outboxes and inboxes of the senior executives. The New York SVP placed a few pitch letters in the outbox for processing and clipped to the letters was a Rolodex card which included the contact details for the recipient. My assignment was to prepare the envelope for mailing (we were still working on typewriters back then).

By mistake, I sent the paper clipped Rolodex cards to the recipients rather than using the information for the contact details. I’ll never forget the reaction my boss gave me when he asked me for his Rolodex cards back from the day’s mail processing.

My biggest lesson that I learned from that was to explicitly pay attention to instructions and ensure that you understand your directions before diving in.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve learned so much from so many people across my experiences. However, I am forever grateful to Charles Wang for taking me under his wing and offering me insights into two powerful industries. For over 20 years, I worked alongside him through a variety of business decisions and took the opportunity to absorb all I could. When he asked me to step in as CEO of Smile Train, I remember wondering if I could fulfill the role of a nonprofit executive. His response was, “You’ve been by my side for over 15 years, in almost all of my meetings, you can do this, Susie.” Today, I am so honored to be here and so glad he believed in me to take over a vision that was so close to his heart.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

When I’m preparing for an important presentation or meeting, I repurpose my stress into rehearsing, researching and preparation. While many things can go not as planned, the one thing I can control is being prepared. However, I also take pride in being able to roll with the punches and think on my feet because technology can fail, PowerPoints will be fussy and video or Wi-Fi sometimes won’t work. Through research, preparedness and practice, I am able to calm my nerves when approaching something out of my control.

I lost count on how many times my notes were not loaded onto the presentation laptop at a speaking event or the video clip did not run as planned. At those times, you just have to roll with it.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

This is an important time for organizations to ensure they build and embrace a diverse executive team. Right now, employees want leaders who listen and want to learn to create a level playing field and reflect their own experience. Now is the moment to respond and to act and to change — and there’s no excuse not to. Everyone can do better in this space. The key initiative is identifying steps and then taking action. You can’t talk about it and not do anything.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Executives are the final decision-makers — the one the other leaders look to make the hard decisions no one wants to make. While these aren’t always favorable and may not always please everyone, these individuals need to stick by their calls, explain their logic and all potential outcomes, and help teams see the ‘why’ and ultimately to goals they hope to achieve with every hard decision.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

From my observations, CEOs or executives often are thought of as tough and unapproachable. This has been hard for me because I strive to be approachable. Once you get this title, you get the sense that people are nervous or fearful when you walk in to the room. People look to me to make decisions and embrace my leadership but it’s very important for me to keep my ear to the ground to understand the needs and concerns of my employees and our partners.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Women are natural caretakers who face a complex set of challenges just by our nature and want to nurture. Typically, we’re juggling all of the hats we wear in the workplace and at home, especially if we’re caring for children, elderly parents or other family members. Work-life balance, now more than ever, has been turned on its head and often women experience struggles with balancing the multiple roles while working from home all day.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Many think it’s glamorous at the top with all the travel and events, but they don’t consider all of the hard work that it takes to get and stay there. You also have to always be “on” and able to adapt to a variety of people and circumstances. I wasn’t sure how I envisioned exactly what an executive role was until I got here, but I truly love what I do and that I’m able to support my organization in this way.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

As mentioned before, you have to be able to always be “on” to lead and a people-person in these kinds of roles. You have to be an extrovert to be able to engage at various levels with a variety of personalities. You also have to think on your feet and be able to make quick decisions and stick with them.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Maybe this is just women, or any leader — but it’s important to give yourself breaks. Many leaders are a-typical types and perfectionists, and successful leaders are able to delegate to their team and empower them to lead at their level. It is so important to find a healthy balance between work and personal life, and to always find time for yourself in between. Also, ensure that you’re not overdoing it and overworking yourself.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Being a child of educators, I feel that I’ve had the idea of paying things forward and making the world a better place ingrained in me. That’s what educators and teachers do as leaders and mentors. Words cannot express how proud I am to be part of the impact that Smile Train has on so many individual lives through comprehensive cleft care and awareness. Through this incredibly important work, I truly feel like I’m doing my own individual small part of making this world that much better.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

For an impactful and global movement, I would want to continue raising awareness of cleft palate and craniofacial conditions. While many are unaware of craniofacial conditions, it’s estimated that 1 out of every 700 babies is born with a cleft lip and/or palate globally, impacting their ability to eat, speak and hear. Through bringing understanding to clefts and the deep impact on children and their families, I am dedicated to Smile Train’s ongoing efforts to shed light on this complex condition and need to fund critical comprehensive care.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“It’s lonely at the top.” My mentor Charles Wang used to say this often, but it always stood out to me because at the time, I didn’t understand how this was true. Now, years later, and I’m in this role, similar to Charles’, I understand completely. Once you get to a certain level, you lose your mentor and you become the mentor. Your pool of peers changes and becomes smaller and your team looks to you as the leader and the hard decision-maker and you realize it’s all on you.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

I am in awe of Michelle Obama. Leader, wife, mother. How I would love to have breakfast or lunch with Michelle.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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