20 Questions: Susan Sobbott (MBA ’90)

19 April 2024

A purpose-driven leader, Susan Sobbott (MBA ’90) boasts over 25 years of experience at American Express, including president and general manager of global commercial services and president and general manager of American Express OPEN. Expanding her impact, she has become a sought-after adviser, board member and mentor across a diverse range of businesses. Sobbott’s influence extends to her roles as a board member for publicly traded WEX, venture-backed Bambee and the nonprofit ideas42, in addition to serving on the Darden School Foundation Board of Trustees. Customer insight and team culture take the spotlight in every endeavor she undertakes.

A trailblazer for women’s leadership, Sobbott navigated her own path to senior leadership roles while championing the cause for others. At American Express, she chaired the global Women’s Interests Network and spearheaded flexible work arrangements and parent programs. Sobbott also developed the Women’s Business Initiative, supporting female founders in growing their startups. A fierce champion for entrepreneurs, she created Small Business Saturday and the Shop Small movement, encouraging consumers to patronize small, independent businesses.

Learn what propels Sobbott in this edition of 20 Questions.

"Business leaders can be gamechangers. Business is not only about the profits, but also about being a positive force."
Susan Sobbott (MBA ’90)
  1. What was your first job?

At 15, I worked for a local orthodontist after school. When I asked to reduce my hours to focus on my AP classes, he insultingly predicted I “wouldn’t amount to anything.” First job, first lesson: Find my own power. I fortified my resolve to prove him wrong!

  1. What advice do you most often share?

When faced with a tough decision, remember what you value. The answer will be clear. Integrity not only means being honest, but also means “being whole and undivided” — aligning your actions with what matters most.

  1. Whom do you most admire?

My father is my role model — an eternal optimist who faced life’s challenges with unwavering resilience.

  1. What motivates you?

Helping others connect to their purpose and achieve their vision.

  1. What is your superpower?

Cutting through complexity, getting to the heart of an issue and then asking the right questions. The right questions can illuminate a path forward.

  1. When and where do you do your best thinking?

Downtime is rocket fuel for my creativity. It’s counterintuitive, but stepping back often brings a fresh perspective.

"Your investment in Darden is an investment in you. The time is short, the impact long. Be present and savor. "
Susan Sobbott (MBA ’90)
  1. What’s been on your mind lately?

We live in an era characterized by distrust. People aren’t exactly placing bets on government, education, religion or even businesses to do what’s right. But here’s the thing: Business leaders can be game-changers. Business is not only about the profits, but also about being a positive force. I’m constantly pondering how I can nudge things further in that direction.

  1. What are you reading these days?

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus and Powered by Me, From Burned Out to Fully Charged at Work and in Life by Neha Sangwan. Despite vastly different genres, both dive into living with intention and staying true to yourself. Highly recommend!

  1. How do you recharge?

I love great storytelling in film, art, theater and music. It carries me out of my world and into another and inspires me to discover my own ingenuity.

  1. What’s your motto?

The future is ours to create.

  1. How do you deal with conflict?

With empathy. I prefer transparent, yet compassionate communication. It’s essential in resolving conflict.

  1. What characteristics do you look for in people?

Integrity, curiosity, generosity, commitment, resilience and enthusiastic collaboration — building something great is a team effort.

  1. What makes you feel hopeful?

My children and their generation. Their energy to make the world better is contagious.

  1. What is your favorite cause?

The One Love Foundation, created in response to tragic events here at UVA. One Love educates students and raises awareness of the warning signs of relationship abuse.

  1. If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

At the beach! Wouldn’t you?

  1. Which class at Darden impacted you the most?

A&C (Analysis and Communications). As an introvert, I was not very confident in front of a crowd. The repeated (and intimidating) practice of thinking on my feet and responding to the demands of the moment cultivated one of my most powerful skills and sowed the seeds of my ability to listen, connect and influence.

  1. What’s your favorite Darden memory?

My favorite (and worst!) memory is from First Year, first semester Finance class. I came to Darden with that insufferable investment banking swagger, and early one fall morning, I found myself on the receiving end of a softball cold call. I confidently delivered precisely the wrong answer. My Section C mates smoothed over my gaffe, without judgment or stoking my overwhelming embarrassment. Lesson learned and never forgotten: Darden is about camaraderie over competition.

  1. What’s your No. 1 tip for current Darden students?

Embrace and enjoy each other, the Darden faculty and administration, and most importantly, your time immersed in the Darden experience. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in all the work, in the job seeking pressure and in your performance. Your investment in Darden is an investment in you. The time is short, the impact long. Be present and savor it.

  1. You’re a member of several boards. How do you choose which boards to serve on, and do you have advice for Darden alumni considering board work?

My criteria is simple:

  1. Healthy mission-driven companies
  2. with integrous leaders
  3. solving meaningful problems with innovative solutions
  4. delivering value for all stakeholders
  5. where I can make a difference.

My advice: Be sure you are willing to invest the time to have informed points of view, and speak up even if yours is the only voice on an issue.

  1. You joined the Darden Foundation Board of Trustees in 2021. What are you most passionate about in your role as a trustee?

Darden is a place where it is not only encouraged but demanded that you claim what you care deeply about. Not only because of its role in advancing your career, but also because it matters. That self-awareness unlocks something inside each member of the Darden community that fuels boundless courage and creativity, and a contagious persuasiveness to influence the future contributions of business to a better world.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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