Politics 30 January 2017
Suzan Johnson Cook's life has been anything but ordinary, and she recognizes in a recent interview with SWAAY, that the same thing could be said for the coming four years under this administration. As a former presidential adviser to both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Cook has lead a devoted life to public servitude and looks ahead to how we can endure and thrive in testing times. Having finished her public service roles, she is now concentrating on helping minorities through motivational speeches and care-giving, and is also the writer of both Too Blessed to Be Stressed - Words of Wisdom for Women on the Move and Soul Sisters - a compilation of African American, Asian and Latina women's stories to move and encourage progress in the right direction for minorities.
“Our family was very public service - oriented, and so it was a natural fit, it was really just carrying out that legacy," says Cook.
Courtesy of NY Daily News
Having helped her late brother to gain office in New York, 'Sujay' went on to work under the Clinton administration herself, and recalls fondly working with Bill Clinton on his race initiative. She remembers the objective at the time, was to address "what we're dealing with now - that we need to be one America - that we're ethnically, racially and socio-economically diverse, and not to diminish that, but to celebrate it."
Sujay had to be nominated twice for the role of Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, and on the second try the vote was passed through unanimously. She was the first African-American woman to adopt the role and it entailed representing the country abroad on faith missions with other international leaders. She visited Ghana as Ambassador - where her family is originally from, and also the Vatican, taking part in an assembly the likes of which her ancestors "would never have dreamed of."
“We were taught to help - to show others how to be empowered themselves so they did not have to have a life of dependency on welfare on systems."
She was dedicated to the promotion and enhancement of life for those who could not speak for themselves - who don't have publicists or staff and who most of all, don't have the means or capital to attract attention in a country driven by wealth. She is hopeful, but skeptical about the four years ahead, especially given the first executive order issued under the new administration to begin the dismantling of her former boss' s biggest achievement - Obamacare.
“It's rough because I personally know people who were helped - who didn't have healthcare and had it for the first time."
Even though she's confident and hopeful of progress in the next four years, Cook understands that within the communities she serves and works to improve, there is unease about the swift and hasty nature of the new presidents rulings. "We want to go forward" she says, "we don't want to dismantle what has been done - we want to build upon it."
"All of it contributes to our notion, there is no role too small. What is it they say? The summation of the parts equal a whole."
She looks back fondly on her time under Bill Clinton, and praises Obama for his help getting her nomination through, but perhaps her favorite moment at the White House? When Clinton held a formal welcoming ceremony for the then newly elected South African President - Mr. Nelson Mandela, and she got to attend the ceremony on the White House lawn. Having seen what protests and public demonstration has the ability to do through the likes of Mandela, Sujay participated in the Women's Inauguration marches with a plethora of other activists who are now focused on remaining positive throughout what has the potential to become a despotic presidency. Below are her 'S' words that might just help you get through.
1. Scream Really Loud (in private)
We all have those days when our stress level is through the roof and nothing is going right. I had many of those days working in politics. It might not seem “lady like" or be good manners to go off in public, but when you get home and are all alone, scream at the top of your lungs and get your aggressions out. It feels good to release the tension.
Every woman needs an inner circle of advisors and confidants for professional and personal growth. It's a group of like-minded women you can confide in and speak openly to about whatever challenges and struggles you are facing. If it's business, make sure and get with a group of other highly successful women who push you to be the best in your field. If it's personal, things like trust, compassion and a shoulder to lean on are important qualities.
3. Be Silly
While you wouldn't necessarily expect a former presidential advisor to recommend acting silly, it's necessary. Stress is a killer of our health, relationships, success and so much more. We all need that time to just let go, have fun and act silly. When was the last time you let go of your inhibitions and just let loose? If you can't remember it's time to give it a shot as soon as possible.
4. Find Sanctuary
Every woman needs a sanctuary, a special place they go to rest, reflect and recharge. It can be a place in your home like your master bedroom. It can be the beach or the mountains. It's whatever gives you refuge from the hustle and bustle of the world around you. During my Congressional run, I would go sit at Carl Schultz Park in Manhattan to get away from it all. Sanctuary leads to stress reduction.
We spend a great deal of our lives trying to accumulate things, whether it's that promotion, more friends or material objects. But often times the best advice is that less is more. Give yourself permission to let go and shed the things in life that aren't making a positive impact for you. Whether it's the people who say 'you'll never be able to,' the mountain of clutter piled high on your desk or anything else slowing you down, get rid of it.
6. Savor the Moment:
A lot of people are stuck in the past. Planning for the future is good, but often times we lose sight of what's really important: the present moment. Savor it. If you're out to dinner with your family, put away your smartphone. If you're watching your child's school play, then stop thinking about your boss. If you just won a prestigious award and are being recognized for it, soak it up and enjoy it. No matter what's going on, live more in the present.
13 AugustFresh Voices
Sweaty Palms & Weak Responses
Early spring 2018, I walked into the building of a startup accelerator program I had been accepted into. Armed with only confidence and a genius idea, I was eager to start level one. I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I needed help. Somehow with life's journey of twists and turns, this former successful event planner was now about to blindly walk into the tech industry and tackle on a problem that too many women entrepreneurs had faced.
I sat directly across from the program founders, smiling ear to ear as I explained the then concept for HerHeadquarters. Underneath the table, I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants, the anxiousness and excitement was getting the best of me. I rambled on and on about the future collaborating app for women entrepreneurs and all the features it would have. They finally stopped me, asking the one question I had never been asked before, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
Taken back by the question, I responded, "I just know". The question was powerful, but my response was weak. While passionate and eager, I was unprepared and naively ready to commit to building a platform when I had no idea if anyone wanted it. They assigned me with the task of validating the need for the platform first. The months to follow were eye-opening and frustrating, but planted seeds for the knowledge that would later build the foundation for HerHeadquarters. I spent months researching and validating through hundreds of surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
I was dedicated to knowing and understanding the needs and challenges of my audience. I knew early on that having a national collaborating app for women entrepreneurs would mean that I'd need to get feedback from women all across the country. I repeatedly put myself on the line by reaching out to strangers, asking them to speak with me. While many took the time to complete a survey and participate in a phone interview, there were some who ignored me, some asked what was in it for them, and a few suggested that I was wasting my time in general. They didn't need another "just for women" platform just because it was trending.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve. I became irritated. Just because HerHeadquarters didn't resonate with them, doesn't mean that another woman wouldn't find value in the platform and love it. I felt frustrated that the very women I was trying to support were the ones telling me to quit. I struggled with not taking things personally.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve.
The Validation, The Neglect, The Data, and The Irony
The more women I talked to, the more the need for my product was validated. The majority of women entrepreneurs in the industries I was targeting did collaborate. An even higher number of women experienced several obstacles in securing those collaborations and yes, they wanted easier access to high quality brand partnerships.
I didn't just want to launch an app. I wanted to change the image of women who collaborated and adjust the narrative of these women. I was excited to introduce a new technology product that would change the way women secured valuable, rewarding products. I couldn't believe that despite that rising number of women-owned businesses launching, there was no tool catered to them allowing them to grow their business even faster. This demographic had been neglected for too long.
I hadn't just validated the need for the future platform, but I gained valuable data that could be used as leverage. Ironically, armed with confidence, a genius idea, and data to support the need for the platform, I felt stuck. The next steps were to begin designing a prototype, I lacked the skillsets to do it myself and the funding to hire someone else to do it.
I Desperately Need You and Your services, but I'm Broke
I found myself having to put myself out there again, allowing myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. I eventually stumbled across Bianca, a talented UX/UI designer. After coming across her profile online and reaching out, we agreed to meet for a happy hour. The question I had been asked months prior by the founders of my accelerator program came up again, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
It was like déjà vu, the sweaty palms under the table reemerged and the ear to ear smile as I talked about HerHeadquarters, only this time, I had data. I proudly showed Bianca my research: the list of women from across the country I talked to that supported that not only was this platform solving a problem they had, but it's a product that they'd use and pay for.
I remember my confidence dropping as my transparency came into the conversation. How do you tell someone "I desperately need you and your services, but I'm broke?". I told her that I was stuck, that I needed to move forward with design, but that I didn't have the money to make it happen. Bianca respected my honesty, loved the vision of HerHeadquarters, but mostly importantly the data sold her. She believed in me, she believed in the product, and knew that it would attract investors.
From Paper to Digital
We reached a payment agreed where Bianca would be paid in full once HerHeadquarters received its first investment deal. The next few months were an all-time high for me. Seeing an idea that once floated around in my head make its way to paper, then transform into a digital prototype is was one of the highlights of this journey. Shortly after, we began user testing, making further adjustments based off of feedback.
The further along HerHeadquarters became, the more traction we made. Women entrepreneurs across the U.S. were signing up for early access to the app, we were catching investor's attention, and securing brand partnerships all before we had a launched product. The closer we got to launching, the scarier it was. People who only had a surface value introduction to HerHeadquarters put us in the same category of other platforms or brands catering to women, even if we were completely unrelated, they just heard "for women". I felt consistent pressure, most of which was self-applied, but I still felt it.
I became obsessed with all things HerHeadquarters. My biggest fear was launching and disappointing my users. With a national target audience, a nonexistent marketing budget, and many misconceptions regarding collaborating, I didn't know how to introduce this new brand in a way that distinctly made it clear who were targeting and who we were different from.
I second guessed myself all the time.
A 'Submit' button has never in life been more intimidating. In May 2019, HerHeadquarters was submitted to the Apple and Google play stores and released to women entrepreneurs in select U.S. cities. We've consistently grown our user base and seen amazing collaborations take place. I've grow and learned valuable lessons about myself personally and as a leader. This experience has taught me to trust my journey, trust my hard work, and always let honesty and integrity lead me. I had to give myself permission to make mistakes and not beat myself up about it.
I learned that a hundred "no's" is better than one "yes" from an unfit partner. The most valuable thing that I've learned is keeping my users first. Their feedback, their challenges, and suggestions are valuable and set the pace for the future of HerHeadquarters, as a product and a company. I consider it an honor to serve and cater to one of the most neglected markets in the industry.