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.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.