When Susana Eshleman, ’93, received an offer to serve as CEO of Children International, her first action was to turn within and evaluate her own readiness. She found her answer in a 22-year-old letter written on her behalf from Dr. Gregory Hayden, her economics professor at the College of Business.
“I wanted to make sure I was the right person for the job,” said Eshleman, who already served on the board of Children International, a nonprofit agency empowering children and youth living in dire poverty around the world. “This was a gigantic increase in responsibility. I had to have Susana Eshleman the board member evaluate Susana Eshleman the candidate and make sure she could do the job.”
Eshleman, who came to Nebraska from Argentina, took a weekend to evaluate herself. She started by reviewing her résumé, which she had not touched in a decade.
“On top of my résumé folder was Dr. Hayden’s letter which he wrote when I was nominated for an outstanding junior leadership award. I had such incredible respect and admiration for him that I kept his letter all these years,” she said.
Hayden’s letter provided clarity for Eshleman as to the decision she should make on the job offer. It also connected to her regular practice of giving herself the time and space to be still and listen for guidance.
“I believe we need to spend time doing introspection about our lives. When our ears are open and we are patient, I think the messages are there. The world does indeed conspire to help us live into our purpose. I remember hearing this little voice inside me saying, ‘Get ready.’ I asked, ‘For what?’ and it got stronger telling me to eat better and exercise more because I would need the strength,” Eshleman said.
When she picked up Hayden’s letter, her answer to accepting her new job became clear.
“It was almost 22 years to the day since he wrote the letter. I read many wonderful things he said about me and then he finished by saying, ‘I fully expect regardless of the path Susana chooses, by the time she’s 40 years old, she will be an international leader advocating for the rights of the least and the last,” she said.
She received the confirmation she sought in the words Hayden wrote about her as a student. His encouraging words resonated with principles Eshleman practices today, such as encourage others.
“Dr. Hayden really elicited great thinking,” Eshleman explained about her mentor. “He did more than impart knowledge. His classes allowed for engagement and discussion which were thoughtful and inspired me to continue conversations after class. He gave me an opportunity to grow through the questions he would ask.”
Hayden’s most renowned research and teaching tool centers on his Social Fabric Matrix (SFM). The SFM uses holistic measurements to help decision-makers process complex information regardless what they are analyzing – from economics to military matters or social change.
“My classes take a broad view of economics, so it’s not just applying math,” said Hayden, who joined the college in 1967. “We look at how the ecological system fits into things and what are the family dynamics of a given culture. The Social Fabric Matrix prepares students to work on any problem and consider all components that show them how everything works together.”
When Eshleman moved into her position as CEO at Children International, she applied many of the same concepts of the SFM. She wanted to transform the organization by not only helping people with issues such as hunger and health services, but also providing tools for them to help themselves.
“We not only invest in kids so they have a fighting chance of breaking the cycle of poverty, but we work to equip them with a mindset so they become multipliers of hope and opportunity for others,” Eshleman said. “Children International’s brand promise is to multiply good in the world,” she said.
Hayden, whose letter of recommendation helped her get into Harvard Business School, made an impact on Eshleman by investing in sustainability. She aspires for Children International to have the mindset and practices of a for-profit with the heart of a non-profit. She believes that every donor should know they are getting maximize return-on-investment for each dollar.
“Over the past few years, we stepped into the arena of becoming a holistic child and youth development organization. Our focus is on health, education empowerment through life-skills development, and ultimately employment. We’ve evolved from poverty alleviation to making a sustainable impact that gives children and families a real chance to help themselves,” she said.
Hayden credited Eshleman’s family and upbringing in Argentina with shaping her character and work ethic. He believes her own moral fabric makes her the perfect person to be leading Children International.
“Susana is a person with a real commitment to being a scholar beyond just getting to the next rung on the ladder. She is dedicated to great effort and initiative, and being kind to everyone around her. We don’t see many like her and it’s not surprising to me what she has accomplished in her leadership position,” he said.
Eshleman’s next step at Children International looks to facilitate capacity building.
“We went from health services and material gifts to transformational programs that help empower our children and youth, and we want to continue that evolution by building capacity within our children, youth and families so they can be the actors of their own continued development. Success for us would be that we’re no longer needed,” she said.
Recently with the response to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, Eshleman and her colleagues at Children International took action to continue the goals of the organization while protecting workers.
“We quickly mobilized to get the majority of our staff properly set up and now have 99 percent of our global staff working from home,” she said. “Our community centers around the world are temporarily closed, but we continue to provide support and deliver programs for our children and youth through innovative ways. Some examples are Telehealth, Facebook Live Career Preparedness webinars, virtual mock interviews and virtual tutoring sessions. We are also working with local, in-country partners and coordinating with local relief agencies to support families in the communities we serve.”
Eshleman, whose son, James, joins the Nebraska Business Honors Academy this fall, spent the majority of her career in marketing working for Hallmark in Kansas City. She majored in international business and management and came back to Lincoln, Nebraska in early March, to tell her leadership story at the Women Lead 2020: Claim Your Power conference held on Innovation Campus.