Emily Tisch Sussman and the power of the ‘pivot’
The former political strategist's own anguish over the career-family bind fuels her podcast, 'She Pivots'
At the end of January 2020, political strategist Emily Tisch Sussman sat down with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a conversation on her then-podcast “Your Political Playlist.” The candid interview quickly went viral, even garnering a prominent mention for Tisch Sussman in The New York Times. Ten days after her interview with the former presidential hopeful, Tisch Sussman gave birth to her third child, heading into maternity leave confident she would not soon be forgotten. But a few weeks later, at what was a high point in her career, she left politics after nearly 15 years in the field.
Despite leaving of her own volition, the shift came as a blow to Tisch Sussman, who in under two decades had logged over 250 television appearances on cable news shows, worked on numerous campaigns (including former President Barack Obama’s in 2008) and helped drive policy change. She hadn’t grown tired or lost her passion for politics, nor had she been asked to leave; for all intents and purposes, Tisch Sussman was as happy as ever professionally. Personally, however, her world was being flipped upside down.
With three children under 4 years old, Tisch Sussman had a plan for balancing motherhood with business, but within the first weeks of her maternity leave, COVID-19 arrived, sending the world into lockdown. What was meant to be a joyous time for Tisch Sussman became the end of her Washington career, as any political consulting jobs or other work opportunities she may have found evaporated without the childcare she desperately needed but could no longer find.
“It was crushing to me personally, because I felt like I had worked so hard for this political career and it was gone,” Tisch Sussman, 40, told Jewish Insider. “All of my self-worth was tied to being professionally successful and being professionally successful in politics, and that just evaporated. So it was a very dark time.”
In search of other women who, like her, had experienced professional upheaval not indicative of their own capabilities, Tisch Sussman created “She Pivots,” a podcast highlighting women who have “redefined success” for themselves. She partnered with Marie Claire, where she is a contributing editor, launching “She Pivots” as the magazine’s official podcast.
Speaking to JI over Zoom from her home on Long Island, Tisch Sussman appeared unfazed by multiple interjections during the conversation by one of her daughters, answering her questions mid-interview before returning to the discussion without missing a beat.
“She Pivots” is not a “mommy podcast” — a characterization Tisch Sussman vehemently rejects — but rather a business show where women share how the roller-coasters in their professional journeys turned into their greatest successes.
“It’s very important to me that we have a broad range [of] intervening life events, because otherwise I think it’d be really boring if it’s an entire podcast of: ‘I had kids and it killed my career,’” Tisch Sussman said.
“I think specifically the piece of culture that I’m trying to attack is the idea that we make all of our career decisions for professional factors, when the reality is that we do a mix of personal and professional,” she added.
Such forefront focus on the personal is a complete 180 from Tisch Sussman ‘s “Your Political Playlist” podcast, which she purposefully kept centered on the expertise her guests brought to the table.
“It was policy conversations that were conversational and accessible to regular people, and I had all female guests on it, because I felt like in a professional setting, in policy, women were only called upon to be experts if they had a personal tie to the issue. And that really annoyed me,” Tisch Sussman recalled. “Like what if you’re just the expert on an issue because you worked really hard on it? No one ever asked men if they felt that way [or if] they personally went through it.”
The podcast was a way for her guests to build their credentials and promote themselves in a field where women often felt they had to wait for recognition.
Tisch Sussman played with the idea of including male guests on “She Pivots,” but felt that ultimately, “our society has not evolved enough for men to be introspective to that degree to be able to appreciate what factor the personal has had on their professional decision-making.” She added that, when it comes to men’s ability to reflect upon the personal, there can be an aspect of embarrassment or unawareness, because “it just hasn’t been socialized.”
“I hope we will get there, but I think I would have had to have dug really hard in most of my interviews,” Tisch Sussman said.
Currently in its second season, “She Pivots” has already featured a number of A-list guests including Vice President Kamala Harris, actress and activist Sophia Bush, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and actress Brooke Shields. Conversations have ranged from how two long-lost half-sisters went on to create the nation’s largest Black-owned wine company to the life of the oldest park ranger in U.S. history.
Tisch Sussman sees each story as an inspiration. To her, forging connections and creating space for women to “give words and voice to the things that they’re feeling” is the most gratifying part of “She Pivots.”
“Honestly, the grit of women just floors me every time,” Tisch Sussman said. “The community that women build to build each other up and support each other is a common thread through all of [the episodes.]”
Long before dropping her first episode or ever appearing on MSNBC, Tisch Sussman was driven by a desire to make the world a better place — a trait she inherited from her parents and grandparents who instilled in her the mentality of, “to whom much is given, much is expected.”
“We were expected to be philanthropic, we were expected to be working towards the greater good,” Tisch Sussman said. “We were expected to see everyone in their full humanity. Like, we were not better than anyone, everyone has a full story, everyone deserves opportunities.”
Growing up in Manhattan, Tisch Sussman described herself as “strong-willed” and unwavering about what she felt was “a guiding sense of justice.” At age 5 she became a vegetarian after learning that eating meat meant killing animals.
As a teenager, Tisch Sussman worked at Belvoir Terrace, a girls’ performing arts summer camp in Lenox, Mass., which she described as “the most informative experience” and a place that is still significant in her life today.
“When you live in a room with 15-year-olds, you cannot fake it. Like, you may not like everything you say, you may not agree with everything you say, but you have to pull it from a real place because if you are faking it, they will know and they will cut you,” Tisch Sussman said. “Like, you will be dead to them and they will never listen to anything you say again. So I really felt like it stretched me more than I could have imagined, and knowing that I could work hard in that way and still keep a calm head and be authentic, I think gave me a lot of confidence moving forward.”
After college, Tisch Sussman worked on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. Following the election, wanting to make an even bigger impact, she enrolled in Cardozo Law School, completing her degree in 2008 when she then joined Obama’s campaign team. For 15 years she worked in the political sector — during that time she was lead lobbyist for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, worked on the Defense of Marriage Act and ran the Young Democrats of America for Obama’s reelection in 2012, eventually landing at the Center for American Progress.
During the 2016 presidential election, Tisch Sussman wanted to get back to her campaigning roots, but was pregnant with her first child and decided to stay at CAP. Feeling a “new-mom drive” to prove herself, Tisch Sussman went above and beyond to help the organization through its “post-Obama transformation.” Just when she began to feel back in step professionally, she got pregnant again.
Keeping up with then-President Donald Trump’s tendency to announce new policies on the weekend became overwhelming for Tisch Sussman, who had no childcare on those days, and so she reluctantly left CAP. She focused on political consulting for the next few years before starting “Your Political Playlist” in 2019.
Creating the podcast was nerve wracking; despite her years of experience appearing on television and breadth of political expertise, the show marked a first for Tisch Sussman — before, she had only ever represented another’s point of view; now, it was her thoughts in the spotlight.
“That in itself felt vulnerable and scary, like what if nobody wants to hear just from me?” Tisch Sussman recalled, but maintained that had it not been for “Your Political Podcast,” she would never have been able to start “She Pivots.”
The kind of raw, emotional openness “She Pivots” thrives on is something Tisch Sussman lacked in Washington, not believing there was any interest in the challenges she’d faced. Now, as a free agent, she sees the value in sharing the messiest parts of herself with her audience.
“Continuously being that vulnerable and empathetic to match my guests’ vulnerability, is quite draining and is quite scary, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it had I not already taken that leap with ‘Your Political Playlist,’” she said.
There are times where Tisch Sussman feels conflicted in having moved so far away from her previous path. Though she still dons her consultant’s hat from time to time — she founded ETS Advisory in 2019 to do just that — she misses the pace, environment and unified mission to better the world that was so prevalent in politics.
“The beginning of the Biden administration was really hard for me, because all of my friends were getting these incredible jobs,” Tisch Sussman said. “I always wanted to work in the White House, I never got to. I worked alongside them during the Obama administration and the White House would outsource campaigns for me to run, and when I lived in Washington and during the Obama administration that meant something, but that administration is over and there’s new players, and it doesn’t anymore, and so I never got to have that experience.”
Tisch Sussman has since been back to the White House twice — once to cover Biden’s signing of the Inflation Reduction Act for Marie Claire and most recently for its Women’s History Month Celebration in March — and while the occasions were bittersweet, she is also grateful for the opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible had she stayed.
“I got to interview the vice president — if I was in the system, I wouldn’t have been able to interview the vice president. Now I’m able to construct narratives that I want to put out into the world,” Tisch Sussman said. “Now I can think about culture change in a different way, in a way that I never could have had I stayed in it.”
With “She Pivots,” Tisch Sussman is one step closer to creating that change by helping her listeners realize the successes in their own lives.
“It’s not about resilience, because resilience implies going back, and I wanted people to be looking forward,” Tisch Sussman said. “That you can be different and maybe even better, but you have to let go of some of the things that you held on to before, because you’re not the same, I’m not the same, and if you’re a different person then your metrics of success should be different. But they are possible.”