From Food Stains to Corporate Social Responsibility

Susan McPherson’s career path has taken her from dreams of being an astronaut, to the newsroom at USA Today, and all the way to the media business in China. Read the real-life story of this corporate social responsibility superstar and senior vice president at public interest communications firm, Fenton, as she finds her Work on Purpose.

When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
An astronaut. That was until about age 12, and then I learned that you needed to study physics and chemistry and lots of math to become an astronaut. There was no way I was going to be successful enough in math and science, and that career idea was really because I wanted to float. So instead I continued on with gymnastics to satisfy my dream to float.

Around junior high school I decided I wanted to be in the communications field. I was one of the original latchkey children; my mother had gone back to work full-time in the 70s doing PR for television stations. I remember thinking it was so cool that she would go to all these TV stations and newsrooms, and I wanted to be doing that.

In high school, I would have been voted "most likely to be..."
Holly Hunter’s character in Broadcast News. I was often compared to her I think because people saw me as a connector.

What was your first job, and what did you learn that you still you use today?
My first job—and the most important job that prepared me the most for life–was as a waitress. When you’re a waitress, you really learn about human nature; there’s nothing more intimate than providing people food. It also helped me to understand the concept of sales and marketing and it built my communication skills.

But, what I consider my first major job was a researcher at USA Today for four years. My name used to appear at the bottom of articles where it said, "Reporting contributed by." Having a research job taught me to listen more than talk, and to be extraordinarily inquisitive. Now even to this day, people tell me that I’m incredibly nosy—I love peeling back the banana to find out what makes people tick.

What is one book or film that significantly influenced your path and why?
Dead Poet's Society. It hit home with me how important the freedom for creativity is for everything we do in life.

What would your friends or family say is your most socially significant career accomplishment?
That’s a tough question because I’ve had a lot amazing career experiences over the years, but it would probably be the time I spent in China. I went there a lot in 2003 and 2004 to help PR Newswire set up their first offices in the country and I was responsible for building up the company’s sales infrastructure there. At the time, I was managing strategic accounts for PR Newswire, but as part of that, I ended up facilitating a lot of corporate partnerships because I was good at communicating. We couldn’t hire a lot of locals until we set up the proper infrastructure there and so it just came naturally to me to begin setting up strong partnerships. Besides getting to learn a whole other culture, that experience really enabled me to expand my brain and took me beyond my comfort zone.

Who is one person whose changemaking career you greatly admire and why?
I highly admire my sister, Nancy Spector. She’s the deputy director and chief curator at the Guggenheim in New York. She’s extraordinarily well known in the arts industry, but it’s a very insular community, so she’s not as well known outside of it. I don’t know much about that world, but I’m just amazed at what she’s been able to do in the arts. She’s a tremendous writer and speaks at art forums all over the world, and to me it’s like “wow.” She is also raising two daughters and I’m just blown away by her that she’s able to do all that and be involved in such important work.

What is your favorite career mistake?
In 2001, I was going through a transition between jobs and decided to pursue one my lesser-known passions—cooking. When I lived in Seattle for many years, I used to cater on the side and throw dinner parties routinely. Of course, living in New York City now, it’s much easier to peruse your delivery menus and order in! Nevertheless, I decided to pursue a marketing role at a Seattle-based gourmet shop with five outlets. The shops sold fresh pastas, cheeses, ready-to-reheat dinners and other divine specialties. The rule there was before you could take on the marketing role, you needed to work at the counter for at least three to four months to learn the business. So, there I was three days a week, dishing up fresh lasagna noodles, measuring truffle mashed potatoes and running the cash register. I would come home in the evening with pureed sweet potato and other delectable stains on my shirts, but at least I was well fed!

As much as I was looking forward to the marketing role, I gave up after the second month when a position opened back up at PR Newswire. I realized that as much as I loved to cook, it was better to keep it as a passion and a hobby and not turn to it as a career path. Sometimes, it takes actually “trying it on for size” and learning the hard way to make that kind of determination. I don't look back at that experience as negative, but rather one that helped me crystallize what I found fulfilling in the workplace.

Tell us about an "aha" moment that changed the course of your life.
When my mom was tragically killed at the young age of 56 in a hotel fire, I learned to never take a day for granted. I was 21 when she died and when I attempted to process such a tragedy, I realized I would never find an answer for why something so terrible happened to her (and to me). Although it took many years, I was eventually able to turn such a tremendous loss into a motivating factor to help me live life to its fullest and take on activities, friends, career moves and non-profit activities with 150 percent of my energies.

Describe your typical Tuesday.
My partner, Fabien Cousteau, makes me coffee every morning, and I rush around to get out the door. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I would go to the gym in the morning, but now I go at night because I can’t wake up at 5am anymore. There’s nothing that’s consistent at all with my days, but I usually go into the office, and could be meeting with a client or meeting to strategize on a particular project. Part of my role is building the CSR practice at Fenton, but I do a lot of the firm’s marketing as well. Then in the evenings, there are often events for nonprofits I’m involved with. If not, I’ll go to the gym and then come home and collapse.

If you could create a tweet that describes your career path, what would it be?
Connect, bridge, blend all your worlds and always show appreciation for those who have inspired.

Join the conversation online with @echoinggreen and @dowserDOTorg, using the hashtag #workonpurpose.


Susan McPherson is a senior vice president at Fenton, a public interest communications firm, where she focuses on corporate responsibility programs for the firm’s clientele. Prior to joining Fenton, Susan was vice president of CSR services at PR Newswire. In her role, she was responsible for creating a series of product offerings for companies to better communicate their CSR activities with stakeholders, and she also managed business partnerships between PR Newswire and its sister UBM companies. In her earlier career, she worked in both the editorial and marketing departments of USA Today.

Susan serves on the board of Bpeace, an organization dedicated to assisting women in regions of conflict and post-conflict start businesses. Additionally, she is a member of Echoing Green’s Social Investment Council, and she serves as an adviser to Plant A Fish and The OpEd Project.