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Suzan LeVine
Suzan “Suzi” LeVine, U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein. (GeekWire)

Working in the tech industry can prepare individuals for a number of things in life, not the least of which is being a United States Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, it seems.

Suzan Levine holds that distinction. She was appointed by President Obama to be his personal representative to the government and people of those two countries. In a declaration that may not carry quite the same weight, we’re naming her our latest Geek of the Week.

A former director at Microsoft and a VP at Expedia, LeVine says a “diverse and non-linear career focusing on education, technology, community, innovation, travel, social responsibility, and youth outreach” all helped to prepare her for her role as Ambassador.

“We very much share an ethic of innovation in terms of technology, in terms of ingenuity between [Switzerland] and Seattle,” LeVine said. “And being someone who can relate into that community has helped me tremendously. We’ve done a lot of work within the startup community in Switzerland to talk about a freedom to learn from failure and a freedom to fund failure from the investors in that environment.”

Beyond enlightening her Swiss counterparts with the concept of “fail fast, fail cheaply,” LeVine engages the tech community and others in her ambassadorial duties by using her engineering background to approach problems methodically. The Swiss model of apprenticeship and the benefits it could have in the United States are a main area of focus for LeVine.

“The work that I did at Microsoft around education and seeing education models around the globe gave me an appreciation for project-based learning and 21st-century skills,” LeVine said. “And seeing how in Switzerland apprenticeship is embraced, and 2/3 of young people go to apprenticeship and not high school, is amazing. But I can appreciate it in a way because of my tech background. What I can also appreciate is that these individuals have a path, not an end. They can go from their apprenticeship to university and beyond if they choose.”

Suzan LeVine
Ambassador LeVine meets with apprentices, alongside her husband, Eric, right. (Courtesy Suzan LeVine)

In the U.S., LeVine believes we are at the beginning of an “apprenticeship renaissance,” where people realize that the path to success has many beginnings  that don’t all start with a college degree.

“I look at the tech industry here. And we are so hungry for software developers and so hungry for IT professionals,” LeVine said. “How many of those people who you know who are software developers today would have loved to have started younger because they knew exactly what they wanted to do, and really they would have preferred to go and start working and earning a paycheck and having this experience? And so, what can companies do together to create an environment where you can train and grow your talent pool instead of stealing talent from each other? Why not grow the pie instead of eating each other’s pieces of pie?”

As a diplomat, LeVine said her role is increasingly about being a business development manager.

“I take that very very seriously and it leverages all of the skills that I built up over my experience at Microsoft, at Expedia, creating Kavana [the startup nonprofit Jewish community group] or doing volunteer work at the University of Washington with the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. All of that has informed the business development work that I have done around increasing foreign direct investment into the U.S.”

LeVine and her husband Eric, also a Seattle tech veteran, and their two children live in Bern, Switzerland, where they enjoy hiking, biking, traveling, playing with their dog and representing the Seattle Seahawks abroad.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Suzi LeVine:

What do you do, and why do you do it? “What: As an Ambassador, my paramount responsibility is to keep American Citizens safe — both in the countries to which I’m posted, but also in the United States. The other areas on which we focus in Embassy Bern include growing the economic ties between the U.S. and Switzerland & Liechtenstein (especially since Switzerland is the seventh largest investor into the U.S.), increasing our collaboration on security and humanitarian development, and increasing the understanding between our countries regarding values, culture and policies. I also run the Embassy — working hard to ensure that it’s a great place to work.

“Some of our (and I say “our” because my husband joins me in much that we’re doing here) biggest areas of focus and impact are around apprenticeship, entrepreneurship, countering violent extremism, and fostering diversity. For example, we have been putting a lot of effort into how we can adapt and adopt the extraordinary Swiss apprenticeship model across the U.S. for professions ranging from software developers to engineers to cheesemakers to insurance adjusters and more! In seeing the apprenticeship model here in action, we’ve come to believe that the path to success has many beginnings and they don’t all start with a college (or even a high school) degree.

“Why: Technically, we are doing this because the President asked. But more accurately, we do this work because we want to do what we can to serve our nation, have a tangible impact in both of our countries, and to make our world a better place.”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “I wish that everyone in the United States could gain as deep an appreciation as we, as a family, have developed for our diplomats and the local staff working in our embassies and the profound role they have in keeping all Americans safe and improving our collective economic well-being.

“Especially because the work we do is outside of the United States, most Americans don’t know what we actually do as diplomats. Unfortunately, many also overestimate how much we as a nation invest in proactive International Affairs (of which diplomacy is a part) by more than an order of magnitude (it’s actually about 1 percent of the total U.S. budget). As someone who came from the private sector, this amount shocks me — especially when I think about the quote that War is Failed Diplomacy.

“In business, you focus the lion’s share of your budget on proactive and then a small amount on reactive. Diplomacy is our proactive international affairs strategy — but we grossly underinvest in it — although we do our best with what we’ve got. Consider, for example, that Swiss companies provide around 500,000 really good jobs across the United States. Our diplomats, myself included, are instrumental in growing that number — and also in increasing investment in the United States overall. Or, think about our diplomats’ role in ensuring our safety — either in the host country or back in the United States.

“One small example: I will never forget how one of my local staff consular team members saved the life of an American hiker who had gotten lost in the snow. This young man had gone out and hadn’t called his mom in the U.S. when he was supposed to. The mom called us and shared her concern. It wasn’t a long enough time of disappearance for the highly skilled Swiss rescue apparatus to go into motion, but my staff member contacted the school where the young man was supposed to be and learned that he hadn’t been where he was supposed to be there either. She then leveraged the contacts she had developed over more than two decades with the Embassy and, soon enough, the Swiss rescue services found the young man — in danger, cold, injured, but alive.

“And on a much more global scale, our Embassy has been very active at partnering with the Swiss to invest in countering violent extremism programs and efforts to help Iraqis returning to cities recently recaptured from Da’esh. We have many more examples of work we’re doing here in Switzerland and Liechtenstein and how it is contributing positively to our safety and economy. But we’re only one among hundreds of Embassies, missions, and consulates that we have. These types of economic, security, and political efforts are happening all over the world and have a true multiplier effect!

“So, just like people might thank members of our military for their service to our country, I hope Americans will extend that same courtesy to the members of our diplomatic corps for how they keep us safe and contribute to our well-being.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “My North Star throughout my life and my very non-linear career has always been impact and what I can do to make the world a better place — every single day. I am blessed to come from a family where that was part of the nutrition we received growing up and to have found a partner in life, my husband, Eric, who shares that North Star.”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “That’s a tough one. I love technology and it is pervasive in my and my family’s lives. That said, I believe that everyone should be able to unplug at various times in life, so, technically, there’s nothing that needs to be plugged in that I truly couldn’t live without.

“SO — how about if I go with dental floss. This technological advance in dental hygiene ensures that I have healthy gums and teeth — which I rely on every day to continue my streak of zero cavities. And, yes, I do bring my floss when I go camping!”

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “I feel that my true workspace is the whole of Switzerland and Liechtenstein — whether on top of mountain or deep in the heart of one of the cities — because, as Ambassador, it’s critical to meet people from all across both countries. I do have an office in the Embassy in Bern, but I try to only spend, at most 20 percent of my time there. My office works for me because it’s big enough for me to have meetings and to be productive in it. It is filled with family and personal photos, signed copies of the U.S. constitution from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and marriage equality activist Evan Wolfson, and other mementos from my previous private sector and my current diplomatic experiences.”

Suzan LeVine
The Levine family, at right, in Switzerland. (Courtesy Suzan LeVine)

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “Imagine concentric circles with self at the middle, then family, community/workplace, nation, and world. To be able to serve the outer rings, the center and first ring — self and family — have to be healthy. If not, then the others collapse. For example, if you’re tired, sick, or unfocused, then you can’t do a good job (plus, you might infect your office). Thus, it’s not just handy or fun but essential to exercise, sleep, eat and love well.

“I also believe that “work/life balance” is a myth. Instead, I think of it as a continuum that changes dramatically over the course of our lives. When I was 23 and newly arrived at Microsoft, I was happy as a clam to work from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and then head to the Pro Club to work out and then head out with friends afterwards. Many years later, at Expedia, when I returned to work after having a baby, I made sure my time at work was incredibly focused and productive, but I had to get home in the early evening to be with my baby and didn’t linger longer in the office.

“Lastly, I think it’s important for managers to be mindful of their employees’ time needs AND for employees to set boundaries for when they are/aren’t available. If you always answer emails on a Saturday, then your team/manager will know that they can reach you on Saturdays. If you don’t want to be available on Saturdays, then don’t be.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “I love all of my U.S. tech companies equally!”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “New Kirk — but, actually, new Uhura.”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Hermione’s Time Turner (I have two and keep trying to make it work).”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “I, frankly, wouldn’t start from the money. I would start from what idea(s) I believe have the most impact on making the world a better place and then quantify what resources are needed to make it so.”

I once waited in line for … “Bruce Springsteen tickets — I slept out all night when I was in high school. But, when I made it to the front of the line, it was sold out. That experience made it all that much more special this past summer when I, someone who grew up in New Jersey, got to see him perform for almost four hours in Zürich.”

Your role models: “My husband, Eric LeVine. I learn from him every day, whether it’s how he incisively unpacks information or how he blends being both supportive and critical.

“My kids. They see the world in ways that blow me away all the time and open me up to whole new worlds.

“Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She asks phenomenal questions, listens intensely, is as warm as the sun, and is still incredibly tough and tenacious.”

Suzan LeVine
Proud 12s: The LeVines show their Seahawks spirit at home in Switzerland. (Via Facebook)

Greatest game in history “Oh, come on. As Seattleites with a 12th person flag on their home in Switzerland, there’s only one answer (OK, maybe two): Seahawks Super Bowl win in 2014 OR the NFC championship game vs. the Packers in 2015 with the amazing comeback. Note: we were watching that live at 3 a.m. in Switzerland.”

Best gadget ever: “Swiss Army Knife. And note: Victorinox employs thousands in the United States and runs an amazing apprenticeship program in their Swiss facility.”

First computer: “IBM PC Jr.”

Current Phone: “I have two: an iPhone 6 and a Windows Phone — Nokia.”

Favorite app: “The Camera.”

Favorite cause: “Education. Especially early learning as well as apprenticeship.”

Most important technology of 2016: “For us, the Embassy Bern Art in Embassies Google Cultural Institute Exhibition. We became the first Embassy and Residence whose exhibition is available there.”

Most important technology of 2018: “An algorithm that fairly and effectively proposes Congressional district boundaries in advance of the 2020 census.”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “One of the big areas on which Eric and I work is on the importance of diversity — whether it’s pertaining to gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc. … We talk about the fact that, while, yes, it’s about human rights, it’s also about fiduciary responsibility, because more diverse groups are more creative, productive, and effective. That said, it’s also critical to set folks’ expectations because diverse groups, while they might get to better solutions than homogenous groups, might not feel quite as smooth or easy as those more homogeneous groups. SO, my final advice is:

  • If you’re a leader — make sure that you fill your team with people who don’t look, think or act like you.
  • If you’re a staff member — look to join a team of people not necessarily like you.
  • In both cases, you’ll come out with better, and sometimes surprising, results, even if they don’t feel better during the process.

“And, to make it all work well, be sure to foster an environment where listening is more important than speaking and where asking great questions is more valued than having great answers.”

Website: Suzi G. Levine (Facebook)

Twitter: @AmbSuzi

LinkedIn: Suzi Levine

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