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'You're going to need a cleanse': How Pfizer's Sally Susman was criticized for choosing a corporate career

Susman says that The Business Roundtable’s new definition of a company – that shareholder value no longer trumps all other stakeholders — helps make the case for young people to consider a career in business.
Sally Susman is Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pfizer.
Sally Susman is Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pfizer.Courtesy of Pfizer

A few years ago, I was having dinner with my posse, a close-knit circle of longtime friends who rely on one another for advice on all things professional and personal. That evening, we were brainstorming our next chapters and dream roles.

“Well, you’re going to need a cleanse,” one of my friends told me. Her words felt like a slap across my face. They stung then and still do today. In that moment, I cast my eyes down and sulked for the rest of the night.

She and I never discussed the meaning behind those words. We didn’t need to. My friend was insinuating that my life in big business would cast a shadow over my future prospects. That working in “Big Pharma” would limit my choices.

Her criticism felt ludicrous to me. I first came to business, after years of government service, because I believed companies possess a unique pathway to drive positive change. I am the Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pfizer. I’ve also worked at The Estée Lauder Companies (which raised funds for support of breast cancer research) and at American Express (a leader in protecting cultural monuments around the world.) At Pfizer, we drive great outcomes for people in the company who enjoy an inclusive and dynamic workplace, and for the millions of patients we serve. And, we are determined to help reduce health care disparities.

But, I’m not naïve about the criticisms large companies face. The political discourse and the rise of extremism on both the left and the right that are, in my view, largely in response to feelings that the system is rigged, and that business serves only the rich and powerful. I’ve seen the memes that big companies are synonymous with evil and corruption and that they are responsible for wealth inequality. And saddest of all to me, is that many young people no longer want to pursue careers in business. It’s disheartening.

On Aug. 19, 2019, something seismic happened. The Business Roundtable, a powerful business coalition, redefined the purpose of the corporation. “Americans deserve an economy that allows each person to succeed through hard work and creativity and lead a life of meaning and dignity,” is the first sentence of the Roundtable’s new definition. Wow. Those words spoke directly to me.

This was a statement backed by nearly 200 chief executive officers from some of the world’s largest companies, like Tim Cook at Apple, Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan and, my boss Albert Bourla at Pfizer. You may have seen the headline, “Shareholder Value is No Longer Everything, Top CEOs Say,” on the front page of The New York Times. The message has been retweeted too many times to count. This is big news for all of us who combine a passion for business and an understanding that success can multiply and connect to a larger social purpose.

Pfizer's Sally Susman with company interns.
Pfizer's Sally Susman with company interns.Courtesy of Pfizer

The Business Roundtable announcement meant something very personal to me as well. Now I have a better way to advocate for young people to consider a career in business. Sure, I know many millennials who frown at the thought of joining a corporation. But I also know others who are finding truly meaningful work. I mentor a young woman who leads the inclusion and social impact practice at Convene, a company that provides meeting and workspaces. It’s one of many cool corporate jobs out there.

For any young person or individual re-thinking their career, please take a moment to read the Business Roundtable announcement. Then, give business a second look.

We need you.

Sally Susman is Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pfizer. Before joining Pfizer in 2007, she held roles at Estée Lauder Companies and the American Express Company. Sally serves on the board of WPP plc, a world leader in advertising and marketing based in the U.K., and as co-chair of the board of The International Rescue Committee.