“You have to find or create places where you’re accepted as yourself.”
Susan Chapman-Hughes, the Executive Vice President, Global Head of Digital Capabilities, Transformation and Operations at American Express did not get to where she was today without some bumps in the road.
As a Black woman trailblazing her industry, she experienced adversity at every step in her educational and professional journey. Susan used stereotypes that were thrown onto her as fuel to her fire to succeed. Her experiences shaped her and lead her to be the leader she is today. Susan is a provocateur of positive change and actively works to create inclusive, comfortable work environments.
In an interview with Forbes, Susan discussed how her adverse circumstances and desire to create opportunities for others push her forward as a leader.
“My college years at Vanderbilt were a defining period of my life. It’s where I learned if something doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger. It was hard. Lots of racism. Lots of sexism. A dean there told me I would never accomplish anything. He once said, ‘I don’t know why you’re here.’ But I did it. I graduated. Those obstacles forced me to be relentless. Their negative motivation fueled me.
“The Black cultural center in college was the place where I could go and just be. You didn’t have to be anything except yourself — it was full acceptance: people who looked like you, cared about the same things, and were going through the same trials. It was a no-judgment zone. We didn’t have the luxury of division and that shaped us. I took that experience with me. When you work in corporate America as a woman of color, you are always or often the only one in the room, and if you haven’t prepared mentally for what that means, or found safe spaces to just be you, you’re going to suffer. I learned that early on.
“When you’re the only one in the room, you can’t hide. I’ve been called every label there is. But I use it as fuel to find strength and confidence within me. Because when you enter rooms where people are using stereotypes to judge you, you’d better be comfortable in your own skin. When you come from a group that has always been valued as less-than, and you face the microaggressions we face daily, you need a mental fortitude to get through it. When the images you see tell you that how you look and act are wrong, you wake up in the morning thinking that in order to live in the world, you have to be something you’re not. So you have to find or create places where you’re accepted as yourself. You have a lot more power than you know.
“Being a good leader is what drives me. Yes, I love problem-solving, I’m proud to have had a P&L business, and I love serving our customers with technology and innovation that drive their businesses forward, but my passion will always start and end with people — seeing people achieve. Creating opportunities for them to do things they didn’t know they could do. When I think of my track record at American Express, I note that my people are all over this company, doing very well, and I’m proud of that. That, to me, is what leadership is all about.
“I think about what my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had to endure in this country, and this is easy compared to that. I do the work, I carry it, so my daughter and other kids don’t have to carry it. If it can morph and change over their lifetimes, it will have been worth it.”
About Susan: Susan Chapman-Hughes is a connected leader with experience in several industries. As a growth strategist, she transforms traditional businesses into modernized digital models through driving engagement in various sectors and implementing revolutionary expansion strategies. Her interpersonal skills and relatable personality have allowed her to easily build trust and offer a people-centered approach to inclusive, empowering, and energizing leadership. She currently serves as an independent board director for Toast, Inc. and The J.M. Smucker Co.
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