(Photo: Courtesy Susan McPherson)
Susan McPherson was only 21 when her mother died in a tragic hotel fire. Rather than allowing the grief to define her, Susan has dedicated her life — and funds — to giving back to the world.
I met Susan only about a year ago, but in that time I’ve been awed to watch how often she gives, in ways both large and small. From her work as founder and CEO of McPherson Strategies, consulting with brands on corporate responsibility to advising several women-run start-ups and serving on the boards of Girl Rising and Business Council for Peace, she even finds time to host #CSRChat, a bi-weekly chat on Twitter.
Last month she wrote a great piece for Medium about her path to becoming an angel investor.
She writes, “Through angel investing, I could harness my passion for helping other women make change, while supporting the wider movement to increase the number of women providing capital and expertise to early-stage companies.”
Freshly 50, Susan McPherson is a petite powerhouse; she’s got more energy, buoyancy and good will packed into her five-footframe than just about anyone I’ve ever met. As someone who spends a good portion of her life giving back, I wanted to find out what propels Susan to live a charitable life.
Margit: So let’s talk about YOU.
Susan: Which is always difficult for me.
Margit: I loved your piece on Medium.
Susan: Oh, honey, thank you. I have to say, it was very difficult for me to come out and say I had this inheritance. Truth be told, the only reason I have that inheritance is because my mother was killed in a hotel fire. I would give it all back in a second to have her alive.
Margit: Not at all, I thought it was very humble and a good model for anyone. What would any of us do if we came into some money? You’re showing how you can live your life and give back and do amazing things. But I had no idea that’s how it happened. I’m so sorry.
I get such satisfaction from giving back and actually seeing what that money can do.
Susan: It was back in 1986. We’re talking almost 30 years ago. My parents were in Puerto Rico for the Christmas/New Year holiday. They were in a hotel that they were not staying at. My mother used to love to play the slot machines, so my dad dropped her off and the hotel was torched by an angry labor worker. Ninety seven people were killed. She was one of them. It was the worst thing that could ever happen to you.
And in so many ways, you can’t help but let it define who you are. Your life is divided. It’s like B.C. and A.D., because everything changes.
Margit: Give me the backstory on how you started giving back. Was it before you came into some money?
Susan: Yes. Growing up with a mom who worked in public television and a father who was a professor, both of those are somewhat selfless careers. As a child I would say to my mom, “Why aren’t you working for regular television? You’d make much more money!” She used to always say, “There’s no social good in it. There’s no positive outcome other than money, and life is bigger than that.”
My father taught at a women’s college for 39 years. It was all about empowering women and giving them the tools to go on and create meaningful lives.
I did a lot of volunteer work in my 20s and 30s and I lived in Seattle for many years, which gave me a real clear picture of the importance of caring about our environment.
When I moved to New York in 2003, I was starting all over. I had been married. I knew no one here, and I decided the best way to meet people was to get involved in some organizations where I could volunteer my time and my skill set. The first organization that I got very involved in was the Business Council for Peace. I loved helping women entrepreneurs, because inevitably they’re going to put their money back into the business. It’s not microfinance; it’s the next level up.
Margit: Did coming into money propel you to be even more socially conscious?
Susan: Oh, yeah. I started giving a lot more to non-profits at a much higher level than I ever would have before that, for sure. That aligned with the fact that I’m not putting kids through college, I can’t take it to the grave. I love fine things and I love traveling, but I get such satisfaction from giving back and actually seeing what that money can do.
Pick what you’re passionate about and follow it.
The inheritance obviously allowed me to play at a higher stake. I still do the small $25 here and $50 here, because we all get those and I’m going to continue to do those, but it also felt good to write a check for $10,000 to an organization that I felt deeply aligned with.
Margit: What advice do you have about how to inject social good into everyday?
Susan: Look, we only have so many hours in the day. Pick what you’re passionate about and follow it. I do feel that a lot of it starts at home. Kids can be the best reminders to you, and you can be the best reminders to them.
If you’re not financially in a situation or position to be writing checks, you can volunteer your time and you can obviously tweet and share and all those types of things, which I know is sometimes termed “slacktivism.” But if you don’t have any other means, it’s still better than doing nothing.
Become a better-educated community citizen. We tend to think we need to be supporting these things all over the planet. Sometimes that is overwhelming. If that’s the case, pick a local community foundation that you want to support.
Everybody has a different level of propensity for these things. And it can be fun. We all have skills that could benefit others — whether it’s helping a teenager, or a returning vet, or someone with disabilities. It’s really looking inside yourself and wondering what are you passionate about and what do you want to share with others?
Margit: I suffer from this, just feeling overwhelmed by the choices of volunteering. You mentioned finding the thing that matches your passion and your skills. Any other tips to narrowing in on that?
Susan: New YorkCares is a database of hundreds of non-profits. Your friends are a great source. I learned so many organizations that I want to get involved with through just the network of talking to people.
Margit: What about the little every day stuff. Do you specifically carve out time in your day to make sure you’re giving back?
Susan: This sounds so crazy, but giving up your seat on the subway and stuff like that. Saying thank you, opening the door for people. I find it so much easier to be that way than to be the opposite. Maybe I’m a crazy person, but I get satisfaction out of that. I can’t be the only person out there like that.
You’ll see at cash registers, oftentimes, there’s a tip jar, which is fine, but there’s also, “Do you want to add a dollar to this to go to _____?” If that strikes your fancy, then do it.
I think the most important thing is you don’t want to put pressure on yourself that you have to be doing these things every day. It’s just keeping it top-of-mind. The main notion of how good it feels to you — that’s what should motivate.
Margit: You work with so many different projects. Is there one that you think is maybe the most urgent?
Susan: It’s really difficult to say one is more urgent that another. Some people will make the argument that climate change is by far the most urgent issue of our time. I would definitely put it up there, because if what is being predicted comes to fruition, I’m glad I don’t have kids. That sounds really doom and gloom, but I do believe that is a huge issue in terms of figuring out how to mitigate it and solve it. That should be top of mind if it’s not. I think we’ve lost a lot of time over the last several years.
Ensuring that every child can read in this world — and I mean girls, not just boys around the world — I think that is also a massively important cause. But there are so many other things, and everything’s connected. That’s why it’s hard for me to single out.
Margit: What about the future for you? What do you see as your stretch goal as a social good contributor?
Susan: I’d love to just actually get more and more people going into this kind of work. I think we can all benefit from more people focusing on helping others rather than just making money. I know that sounds ridiculously Pollyannaish, but we’re living in a time where we have such huge problems that we need everybody working on solving them. If we can be build constituencies by bringing together diverse parties, we can really help the world.
Margit: What’s a typical Susan day?
Susan: That’s the bad thing. Unfortunately, I just work.
Margit: That’s what I thought.
Susan: But I love what I do. For years, I was a long-distance runner. I did six marathons in my life. I love to travel and explore. I went to Sri Lanka a couple years ago. I love going to really far-away crazy places. I’ve got to plan one of those trips pretty soon.
I love spending time with my nieces. I love to drink lots of wine, probably too much of it. I love the ocean. Maybe that’s something I have to work on in my next decade — how to turn it off. But again, when what you do is your livelihood, it kind of is hard to disentangle them.