David Sutphen '91: Executive Gives Back to Community and Friends
Issue   |   Fri, 10/20/2017 - 01:30
Photos courtesy of David Sutphen ’91
Sutphen, a current member of the college’s board of trustees, values the relationships formed throughout his multifaceted career.

David Sutphen '91 has moved around in different industries over the years, jumping from politics to entertainment to education. He currently works as chief communications and engagement officer at 2U, an education company focusing on providing online master’s degree programs. Sutphen was appointed to the company’s board of trustees in 2014 and remains active on the boards of nonprofit groups U.S. Soccer Foundation, GetSchooled and Business Forward.

Finding a Place Within an Education Setting

Sutphen grew up in a working-class family in a Milwaukee, Wisc. neighborhood with four older sisters. Both of his parents were public servants and active in the civil rights movement. Sutphen started playing soccer when he was five years old, and the sport continued to be an important part of his teenage years.

To his interracial and interfaith upbringing, with his father being an African-American and his mother a white Polish Jew, he attributes his skill of “translating” among different perspectives in his professional career.

During spring break of his junior year in high school, he and his best friend went to Mount Holyoke to visit his older sister Mona, who is now also a trustee at her alma mater and was chief of staff for former president Barack Obama. He spent a night of being escorted to the bathroom at the all-women’s college before deciding to stay with his sister’s boyfriend, a first-year at Amherst College.

After a week at Amherst and spending time with the soccer team, Sutphen decided to apply to the college. He was accepted and came back to campus later that year, this time as a first-year student.

To Sutphen, being around other black students on campus was an interesting social situation, since his class only had 16 black students.

“I think the students of color felt particularly limited in their voice because the numbers were so small,” Sutphen said.

Sutphen joined the varsity soccer team, which was ranked in the national top 10 nearly every year during his time at Amherst. “I was fortunate to start my freshman year,” Sutphen said. “That obviously meant a lot to me because soccer was a lot of my identity during that stage.”

Eric Satz ’91 met Sutphen the first week of school while trying out for the soccer team. They were both teammates and later became roommates.

“[Sutphen] was a confident, serious student that didn’t take himself too seriously,” Satz said.“He enjoyed the classroom, his professors and his classmates. He thrived on healthy debate.”

Still, Sutphen questioned his academic belonging and felt intimidated by the caliber of academic performance of his peers. However, some conversations and comments from professors challenged the way he thought of himself and his place.

“I have a couple of distinct recollections of interactions with professors early in my time in Amherst that have had real lasting impressions on how to think differently and making you believe that you can thrive in this school,” Sutphen said.

A political science major and thesis writer, Sutphen appreciated the college’s strong emphasis on writing and accredits some of his professional success to his writing abilities.

“There’s no way I would have gotten on the Michigan Law Review had I not learned how to write so well,” Sutphen said. “I wouldn’t have written opinion pieces for newspapers or opening statements for Senator Ted Kennedy. If you write really well … you have a really powerful role in shaping what is said.”

After Amherst, Sutphen worked briefly as a paralegal for the Lawyer’s Committee on Civil Rights Under Law before attending University of Michigan Law School, where he was on the Editorial Board of the Michigan Law Review.

Navigating the Governmental Sphere

Right after graduation, Sutphen was a law clerk for the Hon. Timothy Lewis of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. For the first time, his imposter syndrome went away because he felt he could “hold [his] own in any type of setting in an intellectual capacity.”

Sutphen then worked in the law firm Covington & Burling. During that time, his best friend at law school, Harold Ford Jr., got elected to the House of Representatives. Ford convinced Sutphen to take on the role as chief of staff, prompting him to leave the law firm.

“I went from being Harold’s best friend, where we used to play racquetball every day and hang out at parties, to essentially being his staffer,” he said.

After two years, the instability of the line between friend and boss led him to quit. Three months later, he accepted the offer for the position of judiciary committee general counsel for Senator Ted Kennedy, a prominent Democratic proponent of civil rights. Kennedy’s chief council, Melody Barnes, told Sutphen that he would have to work on business issues like intellectual property in addition to civil rights.

“I had no knowledge or interest in [business issues],” Sutphen said. “I didn’t pause or say this wasn’t what I wanted to do. I just said ‘yes.’ Of course, I ended up actually going down that path more than I did the civil rights path.”

While working for Kennedy, Sutphen worked on a range of issues like the impeachment trial of former president Bill Clinton, hate crimes, religious liberty bills and intellectual property.

Promoting Prosocial Iniatives in the Private Sector

After over five years in government, Sutphen moved to work as the senior vice president of government & industry relations for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

At a lunch and his first meeting with the RIAA president, Cary Sherman, Sherman asked Sutphen about any coursework or work experience in intellectual property or copyright laws. “I told him, ‘I never took a class and never really worked on intellectual property issues,’” Sutphen said. “Cary had this look on his face like, ‘Did we just hire this guy to be our top lobbyist? But he doesn’t know anything on the subject.’ Given what I learned at Amherst and other job experiences, I thought, ‘it’s literally not rocket science, I will figure it out.’”

After working for a trade association, Sutphen found it a natural transition to work as senior vice president for the media company Viacom, which owns Paramount Pictures, MTV and Comedy Central. The large expanse in channels and demographic audiences exposed Sutphen to many different worlds which helped in “building and reinforcing [his] relationships and community.”

Sutphen worked on copyright complaints against YouTube and began to take on a public responsibility role. He helped start GetSchooled, a nonprofit collaboration between Viacom and The Gates Foundation focusing on improving attendance in high school.

After years of lobbying and the election of Obama, who is opposed to lobbyists, Sutphen became partner at Brunswick Group, leading the consulting of strategic communications and public affairs for Fortune 500 companies. Six months ago, and after eight years at Brunswick, Sutphen took on the position as chief communications and engagement officer at 2U. The company started nine years ago with the mission to make master’s degree programs more accessible through an online platform in partnership with major elite educational institutions.

With the technological transformation of education, Sutphen believes he is in a place to create real impact in communities and lives.

Giving Back and Creating Communities

Outside of work, Sutphen tries to spend as much time as possible with his three-year-old son. Still a passionate soccer fan, he watches the sport occasionally. He also hosts social dinners once or twice a year, and these have been attended by notable people such as Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and Walter Isaacson of Aspen Institute.

Sutphen noticed that in his network of connections, who are involved in areas from civil rights to finance to entertainment. that “there was a cohort of dynamic and engaging black men spread across these various fields that didn’t know each other.”

“A particular challenge of men of color, like black men that reach a ‘level of success,’ is there is not a lot of ‘you’ out there to turn to in moments of vulnerability or to unload or to unwind,” he said.

Sutphen also volunteers his time on multiple nonprofit boards, like the board of trustees for the college.

He decided to become a trustee because of his growing appreciation for how much he benefited from Amherst, and he felt a duty and responsibility to give back. He said that he appreciated the range of perspectives and knowledge, and how everyone brought something valuable. His specialty as a trustee has been advising on communication and reputation issues and crises that the school has experienced recently.

With a diversity of opinions among board members, Sutphen said he appreciates the “clear higher-order focus on what is best for the institution.”

“Sitting up on stage of commencement my first year [as a trustee] and looking at the students come across the stage, I realized how truly diverse the school is — which was not as much the case when I was there,” he said. “You feel that in a really profound way.”

The difficult next step after achieving “representationally diverse community,” Sutphen said, “is how to make that a true community.”