Mom Gets It Done: Caroline and Susan Noonan on Cloned Mice, ‘Special Thursdays,’ and Tupperware Lessons
May 12, 2017 | Filed in: Humans of MM
In honor of Mother’s Day, we asked MM’s senior marketing associate, Caroline Noonan, to introduce us to her mom, Susan—an entrepreneur who started her own company at age 28. Around the MM office, Caroline is known for her high-quality homemade snacks and magic touch for making hard work look like a breeze; now we know where she gets it from. For many “aw” moments, as well as a story about the world’s first cloned mice, read on.
Susan, how did you come to start your own business?
Susan: “When I graduated from college, my first job was on Wall Street. I enjoyed parts of working there. Then I switched to investor relations, which I enjoyed much more because I got to work directly with companies and help link them with investors to help them grow. I worked with an agency for several years, where I built up their healthcare practice, and then I decided I could strike out on my own. So I crossed the street and hung up my shingle in 1988, when I was 28 years old, with a partner. At that time, biotech was just beginning, and we met several venture capitalists who were growing these new medical companies. We built our New York agency over the next 15 years, and eventually we added offices in London, San Francisco, and San Diego. We were able to sell to a multinational firm in 2001. After my earnout, I started consulting directly with public healthcare companies.”
Starting a company as a very young woman in the ’80s couldn’t have been easy. What was your experience like?
Susan: “I went to Mount Holyoke College, so I had a women’s education, and I think that was very important. It taught me not to think of myself as a woman; instead, I’m a person. When I’m in a room full of men I never think, ‘Oh, I’m the only woman’—I just think I’m someone at the table doing what I do well and adding to the conversation. At my first agency, I worked mostly with men, and I saw what they were doing, and I thought, ‘I can do this too, and I can do it better,’ which I think a lot of women conclude. I was really good at the business. I didn’t really give it much thought, and I never doubted myself.”
What do you love about your job?
Susan: “A lot of my current clients are former clients who are now on their second or third companies, and it’s been incredibly gratifying to watch their work advance over the years. Many of them have made progress in treating, if not curing, diseases, particularly in the oncology field. We’ve gone from chemotherapy—which is basically treating people with poison, in the hopes that we poison the bad cells—to immunotherapy, which is having the body treat itself. It’s been successful in so many cancers that were previously untreatable. It’s incredible.”
Caroline, when you were growing up, what was your impression of your mom’s job?
Caroline: “I didn’t understand much of it at a young age, but I do remember going to visit her at work, and she seemed very busy and important. She also had the world’s first cloned mice in her office because the company who created them was a client of hers. I was about six at the time, and I was so excited to go and see these mice—which wound up looking just like regular mice, even though I knew there was something special about them.”
Susan: “We did the international launch of the cloning of those mice. They were on a media tour, basically—they were on the cover of Time magazine, and we were on the Nightly News. When it was all over, the client didn’t want them to be shipped all the way back to the U.K., so we ended up donating them to the New Jersey Science Center, where they lived on. But for a while, they lived in our office, and yes, it was hard to explain what was so special about them to a six-year-old.”
Susan, when you were raising your daughters, what did you teach them about work and career?
Susan: “One of my big mantras is to find work that you can one day do on a consulting basis, so that you have freedom and don’t always have to be tied to a company and an office. When I started consulting, my youngest was five, and my oldest—Caroline—was in high school. My worldwide headquarters is here at home, and it was nice to be here when they got home every day.”
Caroline: “She instilled in us from a very young age that work was a part of life. Our parents weren’t super strict, but we were taught to be self-sufficient and take responsibility for ourselves. We had our chores and our allowance; and if we didn’t do all our chores, we didn’t get all of our allowance. We did well in school not because our parents told us to, but because we knew we would reap the benefits.”
Caroline, what kinds of things would you do with your mom when you were growing up?
Caroline: “My mom worked a lot when we were younger, but every Thursday she would leave work at 3:00 p.m. to pick us up from school and take us to do a fun activity. We painted a lot of pre-made pottery, and we were obsessed with this bakery that had lemon ice cream served in a lemon, and orange ice cream served in an orange. Sometimes we’d just get a piece of pizza and take it to the park. The act of taking time to spend together was really nice. We called it ‘Special Thursday.’ It was branded.”
Susan: “Special Thursdays were marked on my calendar. No one could schedule me for meetings after 3:00 p.m., and I wouldn’t travel that day. We honored it for years and years.”
What’s something that made you really proud of each other?
Susan: “I’m really proud of how intuitive Caroline is. My middle daughter just graduated from college last spring, and she was feeling a little out of sorts when she got back to New York. One day, I saw Caroline just sidle up to her and say, ‘You’re my best friend.’ It was so sweet, and it was just what my middle daughter needed to hear. Caroline has this calm, loving way about her, and she can read people and know how to make them feel comfortable. It’s such a talent.”
Caroline: “My mom just makes things happen. Every year, my dad’s whole family goes to this timeshare in Florida, all 40 of them. My mom always packs a suitcase full of spices, Tupperware, linens, and all this stuff to make the space feel like a home. When we get there, she goes straight to Costco and gets food for everyone for a week. She’s so generous and giving, and acts as a bridge through the family. It’s maternal, but it’s more than that—she just gets things done. She brings together groups of people so everyone thinks it just happened, but really it’s like, ‘Susan planned this.’”
Caroline, did you inherit your Tupperware habit from your mom? [Ed. note: Caroline lunches—nay, feasts—out of an impressive array of Tupperware on a daily basis.]
Caroline: Yes. She’s actually gifted me some of my finest Tupperware.
Susan: When you store food in a Tupperware, it tastes much better.
Caroline, what did your mom teach you about style?
Caroline: “My mom always wore very practical clothes. I like some funkier things, but she taught me that getting dressed is more about presenting yourself as a whole. I’m someone who finds a bit of joy in fashion, which isn’t as much her thing. But I feel lucky that she taught us not to worry too much about our appearance, especially during adolescence.”
Susan: “Especially when my daughters were in high school, it was important that they dressed in a respectful way. Nothing sexy. Having my own company and being in a man’s world, I want to be at the table because I have something to add, not because I look like arm candy. I’m there because I belong there. For work, I wear clean lines and primary colors—I like to look pretty, but not overdone. I want people talking to me. Clothes are besides the point, but you still want to look good.”
Photographs by Yan Ruan.