Meet Suzy Chisholm – Founder Interview Series 5/6
October 6, 2022
“There is something soothing about being next to open water. I am always drawn to it, no matter where I go. I’ll sit down along the shoreline and look out over the vast landscape of blue. My systems slow down, calmness overcomes me – I guess you could say, it makes me happy”, says Suzy Chisholm, Co-Founder and Head of Company Communications.
I grew up on two continents: the school year was spent in Canada – birthplace of my father, whilst my summers were spent in Germany with my maternal grandparents. As my Dad worked for the Canadian foreign affairs, he would travel a lot. Still at the impressionable age of 8, the whole family moved to India for 2 years and discovered an unknown and fascinating world. My Mom insisted on us travelling the country as the natives did, often dragging me (I didn’t always want to go) to local festivals, over-crowded markets, famous landmarks and hidden treasures. Leprosy camps, mystic deity processions, the Ganges cremations…my Mom knew no boundaries. It was two years of intense and blissful living.
When my father was offered the posting to Pakistan 8 years later for another 2 years, we jumped at the opportunity. Pakistan was vastly different to India but then again, similar in so many ways. A very complicated and intricate symbiosis. Much of what we discovered back then is no longer accessible today due to conflict, religion and hate. I remember waking up in our houseboat in Kashmir to the calls from shikara merchants selling their wares. Or our 4-day camel tour through the Cholistan Desert where nomads generously hosted us with the little food and drink they had as we passed by in the suffocating heat. Precarious trips to the Peshawar/Afghani border where locals would proudly fire off their Kalashnikovs into the afternoon sun for entertainment. It is a life so far off to what I know today but those years left indelible marks on me.
What do I do professionally? Officially, I am a communications expert. Unofficially, the way I like to think of it, is I build bridges between people and ideas. I find great joy in bringing people together. I love to strive for that common ground, and in almost all cases, it can be found with the right approach and attention.
The corporate world was my home for next to 20 years: Hewlett Packard, Agilent Technologies, ABB and Philips. Big organisations setup around matrix structures, spread out across multiple continents and working across various cultures. There was plenty of opportunity to work myself up through the corporate ladders and at the end of my tenure with Philips, I was Head of Brand, Communications & Digital for all of Switzerland. Philips had another notch of complexity since it had three divisions to manage each with their own markets and customers but all under one brand: Consumer Goods, Lighting and Healthcare. At the crossroads of all these focus areas and consumer groups, I was confronted with so many aspects of strategic marketing and corporate communications. I thought I would stay there forever.
Yet as things are, with time my focus began to change and when I hit the age of 50, I decided it was the moment to take my know-how somewhere else. I enrolled in the Corporate Social Entrepreneurship program at the University of Basel and I left the corporate arena.
I continued along this trajectory doing consulting work with various international and regional organisations. It was a different way of working and answered my need to bring direct value to others through my work.
All the while I was helping Swiss Ocean Tech out with my expertise when the company needed communications support. It was never my intention to join a start-up and certainly not one focusing on hardware technology. But the more I spent my time on the topic of safe anchoring, the more I found myself enraptured. The team wasn’t just bringing another monitoring system to the market, but they were enhancing the whole marine industry by bringing safety to the crew of any vessel and protecting the ocean and all its inhabitants. This spoke to me on a whole different level.
When the company was ready to hire people and they needed a marketing communications specialist, I hardly could say no. There was so much temptation being presented on a golden plate: forging a new market with no direct competition, designing two brands from scratch, formulating the messaging, planning the communication to main stakeholders, setting up communication channels etc., it just seemed the logical next step. I had already brought much direction to Swiss Ocean Tech through my volunteer work over the years, it would have been difficult to pass this on to someone else. That is why I proudly became the only female co-founder of a small Swiss start-up. Yes, I bring my communications expertise to the table, but more importantly, I bring different problem-solving skills than our otherwise male engineers. In the long term, I am convinced it will strengthen our performance, provide us with a competitive edge and promote our organizational health.
What surprises me most about this journey we are on? Many things…that is for sure. First, being part of a small team so dedicated, committed and passionate, it is unexpectedly addictive. We have proven as a team that we are in it for the long haul. Second, everyone who knows me knows I like a good challenge, but this is substantial. There are so many extreme highs and lows, sometimes all in one afternoon, I seem to enjoy that kind of uncertainty and am still able to sleep soundly at night. Third, time takes on a whole different dimension in a start-up. The slow periods are exhaustingly, almost painfully, slow and then at other times there are not enough hours in a day to complete all the tasks at hand. That is strangely alluring.
There is one thing however, that does not surprise me – the power of direction. When everyone understands the mission at hand, they automatically pull in the same direction. We have had no shortage of struggles, hurdles or setbacks, but we are always able to stay on course. This fills me with pride and confidence in our team as we move forward.
When I am out sailing with my family, mother nature’s wonders never cease to amaze me. We spend weeks at a time discovering the multitude of islands around the Stockholm archipelago. The serene surroundings and the sheer beauty everywhere, I feel we have an obligation to protect what we can. I want my kids to be able to pass down these memories to their kids through their own adventures and experience that same beauty. That is why I love working for Swiss Ocean Tech, I believe we are doing something meaningful. We may only be one drop in the grand sustainable scheme of things, but as they say, “a constant dripping wears away the stone”. If you are going to do something, then do it with purpose. I guess you could say, it makes me happy being one of those “drops”.