Five Questions with Susan Aspey

You had the opportunity to serve in a variety of communications roles within the Administration before transitioning to the private sector. How was the transition from public to private sector – were there any marked differences, or were the two worlds more similar than not?

There are many similarities and I’ve been very fortunate to work with people who are mission-driven to improve education since leaving the Administration. Still, it definitely was an adjustment when I first moved to the private sector because all of my experience up to that point had been in federal or state government (with PA Governor Tom Ridge’s administration). At my first position, I was really surprised at the slower pace compared to my press jobs at Gulf Coast Rebuilding and at Education. Eventually, I found my way back to crisis comms and helping my company at the time navigate tough issues at the center of the education policy debate. My Administration experience has proven invaluable in the private sector and I still feel like I’m still doing service, just from a different vantage point. And just like in the Administration, you really have to immerse yourself in an organization and its culture to figure out how to move the needle, and make friends with the people who will help you do that.

What is your fondest memory from your time working in the Administration?

I was blessed to work for people with a git ‘er done attitude, as Chairman Don Powell used to say. One of my fondest memories is of Secretary Spellings returning from a Cabinet meeting about a week after Hurricane Katrina and saying there would be no school in New Orleans that year. She was adamant that we would do everything possible to help those kids get established in new schools, even if it meant going to Congress for authority. And that’s exactly what she did. On another note, even though I was only in Baghdad for six weeks, I still remember some of the faces of the people on Election Day there and think of them every time I go to the polls here.

What do you miss most about serving in the Administration?

I really miss the people and the fierce sense of camaraderie and drive to get things done because we only had a short amount of time. There is no experience quite like working on national policy issues. We were part of something truly special, and it was the greatest honor of my life to serve my country and work for President Bush.

What piqued your interest in education? Was it something that was always on your radar, or did your interest grow as a result of your work at the Department of Education?

I grew up in a working class family in southwestern Pennsylvania. My dad, grandfathers and uncles all worked at the coal mines. My parents and gram always stressed education to my older brother and me, and there was never any question that we would go to college. I went to a Title I school and so No Child Left Behind and its reporting requirements were really personal for me, because the kids like those I went to school with could no longer be anonymous. And today’s debate about college affordability really resonates with me because I finally paid off six figures of student loans last year.

As Senior Vice President at Cengage Learning, you’re helping to provide educational content, technology, and services for the higher education and K–12, professional and library markets. What are some of the most exciting opportunities on the horizon for “engaged education?”

Technology has changed learning in so many ways and continues to enable innovation. Students have instant feedback about how they’re doing and are motivated to keep going. And the role of the instructor is even more important because they receive real-time data about their students and can create a personalized learning experience. At my company, we’ve invested millions in student research and have revamped our product development process to create learning solutions that are engaging and life-friendly for today’s college students, the bulk of whom are juggling jobs and kids while pursuing a higher education. It’s exciting to be part of creating solutions that have a positive impact on many of the challenges in higher education, like remedial education and affordability.


FIVE QUESTIONS WITH Dustee Tucker Jenkins

What is your fondest memory from your time working with President Bush?

There are so many special memories to pick from, but I've never forgotten Secretary Jackson’s first press conference. He was just named to the post and we went back to the housing authority that he’d run in Dallas as one of our first official visits. So many of his former residents and leaders turned out. They were all so proud that President Bush appointed someone with a public housing background to lead the agency. Secretary Jackson stayed for hours to shake every hand and hear every concern. When we got in the car, the Secretary told me to never forget where you come from or the people we serve. His devotion to others and passion for the work has always stayed with me.

In your role as Senior Vice President of Communications for Target, you’re always on the road – traveling across the country and around the globe. What’s been your most memorable trip to date?

I describe my job as being filled with “pinch-me” moments. From being a part of New York Fashion Week each season to managing partnerships with top celebrities and artists, this brand does so many exciting things. And in my role, I have a front row seat for most of them. But when I think about what really matters, I came to Target because it's a brand with incredible integrity that does so much good and I truly enjoy that work most of all. I recently traveled to Vietnam and India to see our global sourcing operations up close. I was struck by not only the high ethical standards we have in place but also that we take great care to ensure we leave a positive impact wherever we do business. Last Christmas, I visited Target House at St. Jude, a free home-away-from-home for families while their kids are receiving cancer treatment. Target hosted a day of holiday activities for patients and their families. Even if it was only for a few hours, we were able to bring some joy to families from across America in truly heartbreaking situations. As a mom to a two-year-old, I realize how fortunate I am to work for a company that truly stands for something larger than ourselves.

What do you miss most about serving in the Administration?

I know this seems cliché, but I truly miss the people. Working side-by-side in the trenches with so many passionate, smart, people all driving toward a goal that everyone believes in, it was incredible what we could accomplish. Like many people, I went to DC hoping to change the world. I didn't, of course – but the team of people in the Bush administration working together made this country a safer and better place. And, someday when she’s old enough to understand, I can't wait to share stories with my daughter of watching Air Force One landings or meeting President Bush in the Oval Office. I want to teach her that anything she wants for her future is possible with hard work and dedication.

The shift from the world of politics to consumer retail seems like a dramatic one. Are there skills or lessons that you’ve carried from your days in the Administration (or on Capitol Hill)?

Transitioning from the Administration to corporate America can be challenging. Although the wide range of consumer feedback and the long hours is pretty consistent! One thing that has helped me tremendously was seeking out mentors – leaders who have pushed me, believed in me, and even tossed me into the deep end and expected me to learn to swim when I didn't think I was ready. The counsel and guidance of so many in the Administration has been instrumental as I’ve navigated my career path. No matter how busy life gets, I will always prioritize mentoring others.

You’ve been integral in Target’s social media and digital strategy. What new trends or platforms excite you when it comes to how consumers are interacting with content and information?

One of the things I found the most frustrating in the Administration – and in the corporate world, too – was how difficult it could be to share the great stories behind our work when you had to rely on others to tell them. I can't count how many times I thought the media passed on a great story because it was too positive. But, in the world of social media and digital content, we’re no longer entirely dependent on the media to tell our stories. We can tell them ourselves. Not long after I joined Target we launched A Bullseye View, our corporate blog. Through this channel, we give our guests an inside look at everything from our designer collaborations to the $4 million a week we give back to communities. We’ve grown our readership significantly over the last four years and today we reach nearly four million people per month. Politics definitely taught me to be scrappy and I try to put that to work on behalf of Target every day.