A conversation with former Residence Manager & Social Secretary to the Vice President of the United States (2001-09)
Elizabeth (Denny) Haenle is another Bush-Cheney alum who has blazed a new trail, in her case a global one. In 2013 she founded SAGE Worldwide, the first Western-style speakers bureau to serve the Chinese market. Liz and her husband Paul met while he served on the NSC staff and she was residence manager and social secretary to Vice President Cheney. The Haenles have lived in Beijing for 10 years. In this month’s “Five Questions With…” Liz tells us about her journey, including what it’s like to both raise a family and do business in China, and the note she left her successor after eight years with Vice President and Mrs. Cheney.
Q: Can you tell us about SAGE Worldwide and how you came up with the idea for the first Western speakers agency to enter the Chinese market?
SAGE Worldwide was born organically. When Paul and I settled in Beijing 10 years ago, many of our former White House colleagues and friends from around the world reached out to say they were coming to Beijing for work. They often asked us for speaking opportunities, and we knew we had access to companies and audiences who would benefit from hearing from them. Later several international bureaus asked us to help them find events for their speakers. At the time, there were no Chinese speakers bureaus so we introduced the global process for booking, contracting and paying speakers that had never before been in place. We realized we were on to something about two years in and decided to make it official with the launch of SAGE Worldwide, the first Western-style speakers bureau within mainland China. As a first booking, I recruited former NBA All-Star Yao Ming, whom Paul had befriended, to speak to a top global financial institution. Our unique model has allowed us to partner with bureaus around the world to bring them content from Asia, while also bringing leading experts from the U.S. as well as leading global experts to Asia.
Q: What obstacles did you confront in establishing SAGE Worldwide and how did you overcome them? Have you been able to adapt to virtual events during the pandemic?
With everything in Asia, China in particular, you have to localize. Certain elements of the international model for speaker bureaus don’t work there. We had to build everything from the ground up based on relationships and trust. That proved to be the secret to our success. Unlike the traditional speaker bureau model where a roster of fixed speakers is offered, we listen to what our clients need and brainstorm with them to find the best speaker for those needs. We then make a match for client and speaker based on the engagement being a win-win for both parties.
We have always been able to go virtual. With Asia being across the pond and a different time zone, it was never possible to physically bring every speaker to the region, so we had been using video technology for years when the pandemic hit. As early as February 2020 we were calling on our clients to go virtual so we were ready, and we helped them quickly make the transition.
Q: How does the Chinese business community view America today?
We certainly have challenges in the U.S.-China relationship, but we also see American businesses that want to operate there given the opportunities working there presents. We also see Chinese companies that want to do business with America. Helping companies navigate the challenges and identify the opportunities during these trying times makes our work at SAGE more important than ever. We connect people and ideas across a range of topics, not just Asia, with a goal to build bridges around the world.
Q: I understand you’ve been back in the states during the pandemic, but overall, can you tell us about the experience you and your family have had living in China the past several years?
We have had a 10-year run in Beijing and have enjoyed the experience of having both children born there, the ability to immerse ourselves in another language and culture. Our son Thomas was just 7 years old when he was chosen by his school to participate in the State visit of our president at the Great Hall of the People. On the more normal side of things, most of our weekends included hiking the Great Wall or gardening at our village courtyard home.
However, we know this year has been an important time to be back in America. The pandemic has given our family the opportunity to take part in so many historic moments for our country that we have used as teachable moments with our children. One being the recent presidential election process and another being the racial injustice we have seen flood our airwaves. We have tried to work together as a family to spread tolerance and equality for all. As a company, over the last year, SAGE has been able to focus on diversity and inclusion by working with top scholars and leading voices to help companies eradicate systemic racism and build their ecosystems to be more diverse and inclusive. In particular I have enjoyed helping companies think about how to hire and integrate our former military servicemembers and promote women.
As a result of the pandemic, I have also doubled down on SAGE’s work to understand and talk about mental health and work life balance. A couple of years ago I had the great privilege to visit the Bush Center — Rhonda Houston made my visit warm and purposeful — when I was helping a company work towards a solution for post-traumatic stress. It’s a topic we have now covered extensively at SAGE, most recently working with wellness guru Deepak Chopra to lead corporate sessions on mindfulness and meditation. Just last week, I lost a dear childhood friend who suffered from chronic pain and agony. I know I will continue to use our platform at SAGE to highlight more conversations around the mental health of our nation.
Q: Can you leave us with a favorite moment or lesson learned from your time as social secretary for Vice President Cheney?
I remain grateful to have been a part of an administration that, from the very top, believed in strong values and lived and modeled public service in a way that reflects how I want to live. The Bush-Cheney administration created a legacy that my children can aspire to.
It’s not just one moment I can recall. For the whole of eight years, Vice President and Mrs. Cheney, along with Liz and Mary, made me feel like family and for that I will remain forever grateful. If I had to highlight one most lasting lesson it would be something Lynne Cheney often reminded as she autographed her children’s books on American history. To love your country, you must know its history. I put that on a note in my son’s lunch box last week and, of course, I gave her full credit.
All totaled those eight years of moments added up to some of the best of my life. I met my husband, Paul, while we both worked at the White House and when I said goodbye on January 20, 2009, I, too, left a note for my successor. It said “Welcome to the best job in Washington. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did…”