A conversation with journalist, entrepreneur, activist, and longtime Nantucket summer resident Suzy Welch.
Suzy Welch could be conveniently described as a business journalist, author, television host and wife of legendary General Electric chairman Jack Welch. But the deeper one probes into who Suzy Welch actually is, the more complex and intriguing she becomes.
A Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School, a former Bain & Company management consultant, the author of three best-selling books, and the host of a top-rated CNBC.com series, Welch exudes the kind of facile intelligence one would expect from a hyper achiever. There is, however, a deeper purpose to Welch that explains the intensity of her focus and her passion for success.
At a time when deep commitment to religion is often viewed with skepticism or even discomfort, Welch is sincere and unreserved about her Christian faith. She frames almost everything she does in terms of discipleship, whether that’s creating jobs, writing books that help people, or advocating for the rights of animals.
Indeed, animal rights are a major focal point of her life’s work. Welch and her husband Jack were early investors in Beyond Meat, a company producing an extremely convincing meat substitute made from plant-based protein that recently went public in a wildly successful IPO. Welch’s own commitment to a vegan diet is an outgrowth of her belief that God calls for mercy toward all living creatures.
As much visibility as Suzy Welch generates, she also works in quiet ways. In the early 2000s, when she and Jack lived in Boston — they now live in New York — they almost single-handedly raised the $42 million for the new Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program facility. Those at the hospital describe Suzy Welch in almost saint-like terms and credit her with the miracle of a new facility for Boston’s neediest population.
N Magazine sat down with Suzy Welch in a broad-ranging interview that revealed a person who is at once idealistic and pragmatic, but who also possesses a youthful energy that could best be described as rational exuberance.
WELCH: I was a Wellfleet girl through and through. Then, in 2001, I met Jack and he said, “We’re going to Nantucket.” I said, “Well, Wellfleet’s pretty grand, and I love Wellfleet,” and he said, “Come try Nantucket.” The rest is history.
N MAGAZINE: You have an incredibly diverse resume. You have been a journalist, an author, an educator, an entrepreneur…how do you see yourself?
WELCH: I’m a journalist, primarily. I started off as a crime reporter at the Miami Herald in 1981, and eventually ended up editing a business magazine, and then transitioned over to TV journalism.
N MAGAZINE: You now have a top-rated show on CNBC.com.
WELCH: Yeah, it’s called “Get to Work,” and it’s a career advice show. I adore it because I’m talking to people just launching their lives, and the feedback can be wonderful. People will say, “Oh, I was at a crossroads, and I saw your video and I changed what I was going to do, thank goodness!” The show also runs in New York City cabs, so I always joke with Jack that I’m famous in taxis.
WELCH: People can be successful in so many ways. But I’d say there’re two common threads. The first is intelligence. Sometimes these days, IQ can get a bad rap, in favor of what’s called EQ, emotional intelligence. But I have to gently push back and say, most of the really successful leaders I’ve met have incredibly original and incisive minds. The second quality I’d identify is an extraordinary feel for people – that is, an almost visceral understanding of human nature.
N MAGAZINE: I assume you’re saying you can’t have the success without both of these components, but the world is filled with plenty of highly intelligent unsuccessful people.
WELCH: High IQ doesn’t guarantee success, you’re certainly right about that. In the tech world, if you have a fantastic, spectacular, disruptive idea, it can cover a multitude of sins, for instance, like not having a lot of personal humanity.
N MAGAZINE: Who is someone you’ve interviewed that has really impressed you?
WELCH: Eight years ago, I was moderating a panel at the Microsoft summit and Jeff Bezos said something that everybody talked about for the rest of the conference. I had asked him what traits he looked for in his team, and he said, “I want to be surrounded by people who are right.” And I said, “OK, so you look to hire very smart people?” And he said, “No, I said I want people who are right a lot.” Basically, his assertion was, “Forget education. Forget credentials. Focus on outcomes.” I recall thinking, “This guy is blunt, and kind of rebellious, and I wonder what’s going to happen with him.”
WELCH: In a word, empowerment. Jack’s greatest gift is that he in- spires people to do things that they never dreamed they could do, me included. He wants people to grow and thrive. Nothing delights him more than someone chasing a dream and catching it. But the interesting thing about Jack is that there’s a lot of discipline and rigor mixed in with his positivity. One of his most famous quotes is “Face reality the way it is and not the way you want it to be.” He has a curious combination of optimism and realism. He sees the world as it is and then asks, “What can I do to make it better?”
N MAGAZINE: Have you ever known Jack not to be optimistic about anything?
N MAGAZINE: This question falls under the category of what they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School. There are characteristics that are very hard to explain as to how a person thinks. Can a thought process be taught, or is human intuition a trait that you either have or you don’t?
WELCH: I’m not going to knock HBS. They teach you a hell of a lot there, but I think that sometimes you’re just not ready to receive it. You’re too green. I actually have a funny example of this. Right now, I’m helping run a startup, a music streaming platform called Quadio, that my son and Jack’s grandson started together. The company has taken off in ways we could have never ever imagined, but recently, there’s been a healthy tension between engineering and marketing. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh yeah, they tried to teach me about this at Harvard Business School,” — which was for me thirty-five years ago! In a way, it’s like that famous quote, “Youth is wasted on youth.” You know, school can be wasted on youth.
N MAGAZINE: We are seeing a lot of people who have succeeded at the highest levels after dropping out of business school, or out of Harvard. It’s almost become a badge of honor. Is formal education constricting in terms of people’s creativity and willingness to take risks, and are we seeing something that is suggesting that the business school disciplines can work against you?
WELCH: My general observation is that much of formal education has still not caught up with the reality. The “four years on a leafy campus” model, where you can study all sorts of things just because of intellectual curiosity – that worked in a different time and place in our economy.
This topic is actually very close to home for me, because one of the main reasons why Jack started his online MBA program was because he felt that you needed to be working while you were going to business school, so you could take your learning in the classroom and try it out at work the next day. He thought business school should be like a laboratory for managers. Ten years ago, when we launched JWMI [Jack Welch Management Institute], not a lot of people bought into it, but we’re now at 2,500 students, and one of the top-ranked online business schools in the world. And the reason is because Jack’s idea makes a ton of sense in today’s world.
WELCH: Look, there are all different types of vegans, and I support them all. Some people become plant-based for their health, others for climate change. But for me, it was about my love for animals as part of God’s creation, and my sadness especially for the agonizing existence of farmed animals, which is in such stark contrast to the Biblical imperative for loving dominion. Because of my non-profit work, I came to see all those videos that nobody wants to see – you know, the ones that you see a little bit of and then click away. And at a certain point, I just thought, I can’t walk around claiming I love mercy and compassion and participate in this anymore; I just can’t. So I stopped eating animals.
N MAGAZINE: Can you talk about how you translated that into business ventures?
WELCH: A few years ago, Jack and I became excited about the growing movement of food tech companies with ever-better plant-based options. Our thinking was, “What if vegan food was just so delicious that people wanted to eat it?” Right around that time, working with Humane Society, I held a function at my house, bringing together New York’s Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders and vegan activists to talk about the faith-based case for compassion toward animals. Ethan Brown, the CEO of Beyond Meat, heard about the party, and he sent us a box of his new burgers to serve. I had my first Beyond Burger that night and I said, “Jack, the future is here.” I flew to the factory in California, met Ethan, and we became early and enthusiastic investors. Of course, we could have never imagined this little venture would someday have the most successful IPO in nearly a decade.
N MAGAZINE: If you were to pick a single passion, what is it?
WELCH: The center of my life is my faith, which is, of course, totally entwined with my family, my friends, and my work. The faith part – I get that that can sound so preachy – pardon the pun – but it’s really just an effort, day by day, minute by minute, with some successes, but also plenty of failures and mistakes, to bring glory to God by making the world a place with less hurt and more love.
N MAGAZINE: How does your faith fit in your marriage?
WELCH: Very early on, Jack was curious about how much I talked about the Bible. He said, “Can you explain this to me more?” So we started a conversation with each other and our pastor, and we took two years to read the Bible together from the first page to the last. It was a great journey of learning for both of us. Lots and lots of debates and discussions about what it meant. We haven’t stopped talking about it yet.
WELCH: I’m a wife, a mother, a sister, a friend. And I’m like all other people: a work in progress. I am not the same woman I was two years ago. I am not the same woman I was twenty years ago. I hope I won’t be the same in two months, because I’ll have grown in some way. One of the greatest things about Nantucket is when you’re here, the sky and the air and quiet – they invite you to ponder that change process you’re going through. The stillness of Nantucket allows you to reflect on who you are, who you’ve been, and who you’re becoming. What a gift.