Making it in Germany: an American getting out the vote
Absentee voter registration can be a common expatriate experience. Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, President and CEO of the US Overseas Vote Foundation, has had a leading role in providing online voter registration information to Americans abroad.
Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat (just call me Susan!)
Where do you live?
South of Munich, in a little town called Baierbrunn.
Where are you from originally?
Ann Arbor, Michigan, but when I was 17 I moved to Santa Cruz, California.
What did you do before coming to Germany?
I mainly did large-scale project management. I was originally working in architecture and took that sort of system thinking and became a marketing executive in a software company. Then I had the opportunity to transfer to Paris and worked as director of marketing for France and Spain. I thought I would never leave Paris. I wasn’t planning to change anything.
What brought you to Germany?
I hadn’t foreseen the trip to Germany. But then I met my husband and he was living in Munich, although he is French. My mother is German, born and grew up in Berlin. But I wanted to live in France – it was a rough transition.
What was your first job in Germany?
I started doing marketing for large-scale software throughout Europe and beyond, including the Middle East and Africa. I had cut my teeth by then in the software world. You had to be able to get to your target audience and simplify something relatively complex. This is similar to the voting problem that we face with overseas Americans. Only a very targeted group needs this information – but you need to find them and get it to them and make it usable. After that, I started my own consulting business, called the Dream Plan, which is how I started helping with a project to provide voting information for expats. It was the 2004 election and I thought I needed to get involved.
Could you describe your current job?
I met a few people and, after that election, we decided we had to do something and founded the Overseas Vote Foundation. In 2005, we were established as a public charity and by 2006 we launched our first version of our own software. In 2007, Pew Charitable Trust gave us a grant and we completely redesigned everything to reach out to specific groups and provide more services. My office is in my home and my day is usually cut into two parts – it’s the Asia/Europe time zone and the second half goes to midnight and beyond. I go to Washington, DC usually once a month for about a week.
What were the biggest challenges you faced? How did you deal with them?
In the beginning, our regional team doubted that it would work if we weren’t in DC. It turned out that was wrong. It works to go over for a week and pack everything in – and then you can be anywhere. The biggest challenge is getting continued funding to keep the entire organisation running.
What’s your best advice for ‘making it’ here?
First, you need an idea that is unique. And if you’re going to have an organisation where people are volunteering, don’t forget the two-word phrase: “Thank you.” Nurture those people!
What’s the best thing about working in Germany?
I love doing this job and I couldn’t have a more ideal situation. I'm so fortunate to be an American abroad who can feel as connected as I do to our country. And to be able to have a job where I can find myself walking the halls of Congress or on the phone in my backyard in Munich has been a tremendous life experience. Not everyone can take the skills they’ve developed and have the chance to combine with something that clicks with your heart. Since I started, I’ve been healthier and had more energy no matter what time zone I’m in. When you land right, your whole self knows.
How’s your German? Do you speak it at work?
English is our primary language, but I speak fluent French and German.
Do you speak these languages at work?
It comes up now and then. It comes in really handy in communications with the media, primarily. I can do interviews in German or French. It also helps to read the press and see what’s going on in other countries. During the campaign time, I like to see what they’re covering about overseas voters in other countries. It’s eye-opening, it’s mind-opening. I think speaking another language is absolutely essential – it affects the way you think, the way you feel. I think that’s important in this paradigm where our target market is all over the world.