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Susannah Schaefer: “It’s lonely at the top”

Pay it forward — I have always been passionate about giving back and contributing to making the world a better place in any way that I can. I’m lucky to do that every day by working with Smile Train, which would not have happened had I not joined Charles Wang in the organization’s earliest days. I can’t […]

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Pay it forward — I have always been passionate about giving back and contributing to making the world a better place in any way that I can. I’m lucky to do that every day by working with Smile Train, which would not have happened had I not joined Charles Wang in the organization’s earliest days. I can’t stress enough how great it feels to give back, and I advise everyone to pay it forward in a big or small way everyday. You never know what it can lead to.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susannah Schaefer, 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! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

A connection I made during my time at CA Technologies brought me to the non-profit world. I started out in the public relations department, and at the time, the company’s Founder and CEO, Charles B. Wang, was beginning to form Smile Train. He started the organization in China, where I just so happened to be located after taking an opportunity to build out CA Technologies’ PR program there. I witnessed Smile Train help their very first patient in 1999, and that’s when I fell in love with the organization. The closer I started to work with Charles, the more I became involved with Smile Train; eventually joining the Board of Directors in 2003 and working my way up to CEO in 2013.

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

There have been countless interesting, impactful and inspiring moments I’ve experienced since I began leading Smile Train. However, one that changed my perspective as a leader happened with a special patient I met in 2013. While visiting the Philippines to work with our medical partners and meet the patients they were treating, I met Clarissa. She had received her cleft surgery a year prior, and when she met me she couldn’t help but burst with gratitude and appreciation. There was a language barrier, as she does not speak English, but a translator wasn’t needed to show how grateful she was for Smile Train. Seeing how much the surgery and post-operative care improved her quality of life was a reminder of why I love what I do, and how much I value the connections with the kids we help.

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?

The funniest mistake I made when first starting my career was during my first PR job as an office assistant. I was given a simple task of mailing out some pitches. When I was given the pitch letters to send out, the SVP’s Rolodex was clipped to them for me to write down the addresses. Mistakenly, I sent each recipient their addressed Rolodex card! It’s funny to look back on now, but I was absolutely humiliated when the SVP asked for his Rolodex cards back. The simple but major lesson I learned that day was to make sure I understood the directions given to me, and to not be afraid to ask for clarification on things I didn’t understand.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Smile Train makes a significant social impact everyday through our solution to a worldwide problem. 1 in every 700 babies are born with cleft, and many children in developing countries do not have access to the repair surgery and post-operative care and therapy that’s needed for a full and healthy recovery. What differentiates Smile Train from other cleft organizations is that we don’t just travel to other countries, perform the surgeries and leave. Instead, we use a sustainable “teach a man to fish” model by providing our partner hospitals with the funding and resources to provide free cleft surgeries and comprehensive care to their communities on an ongoing basis.

Smile Train also has fundraising programs for people interested in raising funds and awareness for kids with cleft; including the Student Ambassador program for young students to start fundraising and learn the joy of giving back at an early age, the Young Leadership Circle (YLC) for young adults to network and fundraise with their friends, family and colleagues, and Team EMPOWER for athletes to make their marathons and races count. All of our fundraising programs are continuing to grow in size, which expands the impact that’s made for children around the world living with cleft.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

There are so many individuals impacted by Smile Train that hold a special place in my heart, but one that immediately comes to mind is our first patient, Wang Li. At the time she was 10 years old, living in extreme poverty and had stopped going to school due to being teased for her cleft. Being exposed to the life she was living and seeing how much Smile Train changed it for the better was eye-opening to say the least. Knowing that Smile Train could make the same impact for millions of other children is what made the organization my forever passion.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Smile Train’s mission is to provide the surgery and care children with cleft need. Our sustainable model provides these solutions on an ongoing basis, but we are continuously working to make our program better and reach more children. There are three things we can never get enough of: support, awareness and funding; which goes straight to helping children around the world.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, being a leader is being the final decision-maker. When making big decisions, which are often difficult to make, I always take our staff, medical partners and the children we help into consideration. I make sure that my decisions are based off how all of those people will be impacted and able to thrive.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Listen — As if my funny story from before doesn’t explain this one enough, it is always important to listen. No matter how nervous or excited you may be with a new job or new task, paying attention to every detail you’re being told is key.

Ask questions — This goes hand-in-hand with listening. In all parts of life, but especially in the beginning of your career, you’re not always going to understand everything you’re told or asked to do. Assuming can often lead to a mistake that can be avoided if you just ask about what you’re unsure of.

Have empathy — At any level in your career, having empathy is what drives you to do better at your job. With Smile Train, getting to meet the patients in their home countries and see the poverty and lack of resources they live with, shows me how much of an impact our work can make. Remembering why we do what we do, and who it helps, drives me even on my hardest days.

Enjoy the ride — As tough as any job can be at times, it’s so important to enjoy the ride. I’m fortunate enough to get to visit so many different countries and meet our amazing medical staff and children they help. Stopping and taking the time to view the environment around me and meet the faces that make Smile Train what it is, reminds me of why I’m so blessed to do what I do.

Pay it forward — I have always been passionate about giving back and contributing to making the world a better place in any way that I can. I’m lucky to do that every day by working with Smile Train, which would not have happened had I not joined Charles Wang in the organization’s earliest days. I can’t stress enough how great it feels to give back, and I advise everyone to pay it forward in a big or small way everyday. You never know what it can lead to.

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

Smile Train is a movement in itself, and I’m so grateful to call it my job. Smile Train has already helped over 1.5 million children, and the more that number grows, the bigger our impact becomes. Everyday we work towards spreading awareness further to expand this movement and its positive impact.

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

A quote that I live by is, “It’s lonely at the top.” Charles Wang would say that often, and I now understand where he was coming from. You can’t move up in your career without the help of mentors, and once you’re at the top, you become the mentor for so many people. I love this quote because it is humbling and reminds me of all of the people who helped me along the way.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

My answer to this question will always be Michelle Obama! To me she is a prime example of an incredible leader, wife and mother, and I would be honored to sit down with her and hear her insight!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Your readers can feel free to follow me at @SschaeferST on Twitter and Instagram!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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