It’s tempting to introduce an interview with Susan Rockefeller with the phrase, ‘What’s In A Name?’ But that would be cliché, and cliché is something Susan is not. Susan (neé Cohn) married David Rockefeller in 2008, after working together on a film about Alaska. Prior to this, Susan was already a mother of two, an author, and an established conservationist specializing in documentary filmmaking. So what happens when you marry into the Rockefeller family? In Susan’s case, you keep doing what you’re doing. She’s since launched a jewelry line supporting ocean conservation, and produced several documentary films surrounding her personal mantra: Protect What is Precious (PWIP). Her latest film, Food For Thought, Food For Life launches to the public on Food Day, October 24th. Bringing her PWIP mantra to life, Susan serves as an ambassador for a number of philanthropic organizations such as Oceana, the Alaska Conservation Foundation, the National Resources Defense Council, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, and the We are Family Foundation. The dynamic nature of her work has attracted a strong global following—and while the world may know her as Susan Rockefeller, those closest to her call her Sue.
“I’ve had an inherent interest in the environment since I was a little girl, and it was a big part of my upbringing. My mother was an anthropologist and my father was very active with the Wilderness Society. We spent a lot of time outdoors—whether at the beach, hiking in Maine, or skiing in Vermont. The connection I established with nature at a young age has been at the root of my focus ever since. My work has always been related to taking care of the earth or human ecology, with the mantra ‘Protect What is Precious,’ and the three R’s of rest, rejuvenation, and re-imagination serving as the cornerstone for all I do. This philosophy I strive to live by is simple yet profound.
When we rest, we regain strength, and can offer more to ourselves, to our loved ones and to our planet.
In turn, working from a rested place allows us to re-imagine a different way of living. Living in New York City, rest, rejuvenation, and re-imagination are of particular importance, especially with this nanosecond pace at which we live. You have to find nature where you can, and actually take the time to seek it out. For example, although it might be a more domesticated approach, I love going to the markets and buying local produce. Seeing nature even in the simple form of food allows me to connect with the natural world, and create balance in my daily life.
I was always hoping to meet someone who shared my values, as well as my passions for nature and art. I didn’t expect it to come in the package of David, but it did. We met while making a film about Alaska 15 years ago. Being married to David has been an exciting journey, and it’s wonderful to be part of a family who are innovators in philanthropy, the arts and health. I’m extremely grateful to be a part of that continuity.
There are definitely responsibilities that come with the Rockefeller name, and occasionally assumptions are made. Sometimes people think you can be their savior, as in, ‘I met a Rockefeller, maybe they’ll fund this project,’ but it doesn’t really work that way. In terms of wealth equating to happiness, I know a lot of people who are very wealthy with multiple homes, and they’re not happy. I also know people who are scraping by, and they are fine. I believe happiness really comes down to attitude. There are studies that show people are genetically inclined (to an extent) to be happy—and I’m lucky enough to be one of those people! Regardless, there will always be people who think our family is something that we’re not. My husband is better at weeding those people out than I am. Being a Rockefeller does not guarantee anything either—a name can only get you so far. It might open the door for you, but you have to have something valuable to offer. You have to be able to deliver.
What I’ve learned along my entrepreneurial path is that you need to recognize when something’s not working, and have the flexibility to shift your direction. You also need a really good support team: people who believe in you, but are honest enough to suggest doing something a different way. You have to welcome failure, embracing it as something that’s not necessarily negative, but as something that will strengthen you. That goes for everything in business, relationships, and life in general. As women, we’re especially hard on ourselves. We want the perfect body, the perfect job, the perfect husband. We need to embrace our imperfections. They make us whole and human.
give us humility.
We all need to have a sense of humor and to take things less seriously! I think that’s one of the most important things to know. I’ve been through a divorce and had plenty of bumps along the road, but the losses, failures, imperfections… they’re all part of life. It’s easier to understand as you get older.
In my work, I’ve found that the creative process is a particularly vulnerable one. If you put something you believe in out into public scrutiny, there’s a tremendous fear of failure. When I made my film, Mission of Mermaids, I was thinking, ‘Am I going to be laughed at? Are people going to think this is stupid?’ A few people said to me, ‘This is a really bad idea.’ It was hurtful. But in the end, Mission of Mermaids went to over 50 film festivals, and received a great response. As a creative person you’re always questioning, is this something of value?
You have to really
believe in what you’re doing, to follow your mission and not the market.
My hope is that more and more people will live this way, because in the end being true to ourselves is all that really matters. I think the more of us who live closer to our truth, the more success we’ll have in solving some of these bigger problems that were facing.
The more globally involved David and I become, the more we want to simplify our lives. We were talking the other day about how our carbon footprint is not great because we travel so much. The main reason we travel, however, is to hopefully help solve some of the global issues our society and our environment are facing. We want to build a future for our children and grandchildren, but we also want to build a healthy environment for right now. I think people get overwhelmed and think they can’t do anything to help, but everything we do is connected somehow. We all have a say in how we choose to live.
The older I get, the more grateful I am just to be here, and to be healthy. When I look at the world, and think about all of the miracles life has to offer, it reminds me how lucky I am to be alive, and to have the amazing children and family that I do. My children have been my hugest joy. I always say that once you become a mother you inherit a worry gene. I remember at 23 when I went to Alaska to live with the Inuit, I said to my mother, ‘What are you worried about? You’re driving me crazy!’ But since becoming a mother myself, I understand where that concern comes from. I would take a bullet for my kids. I’ve learned to have much more compassion for the part of me that does worry.
I think we should all try
and hang on to that child within us.
Those early instincts we have are so important to trust. If you follow those inklings, if you follow your joy, it leads you where you need to go. I’ve always been innately curious about the world, and that insatiable curiosity has led me to live my life accordingly. I feel like I haven’t really changed at all since I was young, I’ve just become more of who I am.”
As told to Amy Woodside, June 2015