Strike up a conversation with anyone these days and you’re likely to get around to asking, “Have you been vaccinated?” And then, “Which one did you get?” For Sally Susman, chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer, that conversation couldn’t be more important, as it illustrates the ripple effect of the work she’s done over the past 12 months.
In December, Pfizer (along with BioNTech) achieved the first authorization in the world for COVID-19 vaccines. According to Susman, the chance to be closely involved with what she calls a “once-in-a-century medical breakthrough, and then help the world to understand it,” was a career-defining moment. “It was terrific that Pfizer was the first company to bring forward a COVID-19 vaccine,” Susman says. “But it was also important how we did it, and the kind of transparency [we had], and building confidence among people to take this new vaccine, and answering questions from governments around the world.”
Susman’s unbridled enthusiasm for the work she does, particularly with regard to patient advocacy, comes through as she ticks off a number of career accomplishments, from heading up Pfizer’s corporate responsibility group to her roles as vice chair of the Pfizer Foundation and cochair of Pfizer’s Political Action Committee. That’s in addition to prior roles at Estée Lauder and American Express, as well as eight years in government service focused on international trade.
Susman maintains that corporate communications is best learned by apprenticeship. “I learned it by having the opportunity to work alongside people who were better and more experienced than [I am],” she says, “so my dream now is to be that teacher. And I spend a lot of time writing and speaking about the profession and working with my team and other teams to further professionalize and build out how people form and shape public opinion.”
Despite the years of cultivating professional chops, Susman says it’s hard to see herself as a role model. However, she notes, “I do see myself as an advocate [for the queer community].” Although it’s been quite some time since she was asked about her husband’s occupation in a job interview, she believes that coming out is a lifelong process. “There’s always the neighbor you’ve not met, or the client you have to introduce yourself to,” she says. “It’s been a lifelong journey to be out and outspoken, and it’s something I’ll never stop doing.”
When she came out to her parents in 1984, she says, “They were terrified that I’d never be able to have a career. And those were valid fears at that time.” She notes that since then it’s been very important to her—particularly during her stints in politics (in the Commerce Department during the Clinton administration and earlier as a legislative assistant in the U.S. Senate) and then with large, publicly traded companies—to stay in the game and to be part of American business life. “I wanted people to be able to see that a lesbian could do that,” she says.
Susman also has invested time this past year working to advocate for other marginalized groups. She helped a young man—an undocumented immigrant and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient—find a position at Pfizer. “While he’s not gay,” she says, “I felt a real kinship with how he felt as an outsider and someone who didn’t have access and was fearful of disclosure.” Susman contends that it’s important for members of the LGBTQ community to find partnerships across other communities that are feeling excluded. “I was very active with our Black colleagues group this past summer when we were living through the horrific aftereffects of the George Floyd murder,” she says.
This brings to mind a quote she’s been pondering recently, one that’s been attributed to a variety of historical figures: “The problem is not that we aim too high and miss, but that we aim too low and hit.” It’s meaningful for Susman because she’s witnessed the power of aiming high both at Pfizer and within the LGBTQ community’s continued fight for equality. “I feel so fortunate to have lived in this time and place,” she says. “These last 40 years in America have been extraordinary in terms of what I believe to be the fastest civil rights movement in history.”
By Lydia Dishman
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