AACSB Influential Leaders Michele Sullivan of Caterpillar Foundation and Shereen Williams of Ethnic Youth Support Team

Business Education as a Path to Advocacy Work

Two of AACSB's Influential Leaders found their way into work that enabled them to combine their business savvy with their passions to have meaningful social impact.

AACSB Influential Leaders Michele Sullivan and Shereen Williams attended business school to pursue management and accounting degrees, respectively. As each began growing their career, they found themselves drawn toward particular causes, each wanting to make an impact through their work. Throughout their careers, Sullivan and Williams were able to take what they learned in business school and apply it to their passion: advocacy work.

Sullivan strived to gain a broad spectrum of knowledge through her education, leading her to pursue a management degree at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. Sullivan enjoyed how, throughout her education, the courses and lessons built on themselves allowing her to take what she learned at each level and build on it as she progressed through her education. This ultimately gave her a well-rounded perspective upon graduating. Well known for her global expertise, Sullivan attributes her education in both micro- and macroeconomics to her understanding of globalization—something she believes is an important learning to succeed in business today.

Sullivan began her career at Caterpillar Inc., the global construction equipment manufacturer, and worked in various areas throughout her time at the company, including in operations, product support and process management. For Sullivan, the interdisciplinary curriculum she received in business management guided the success in her career and enabled her to transition through different roles in the company seamlessly.

In 2011, when the Caterpillar Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Caterpillar, Inc., presidency opened for only the fourth time since 1952, Sullivan once again leaned into her versatile background to demonstrate how she could bring in branding and also work with facilities around the world. Her 20 years of work with the company culminated into this one moment where she delivered a full business plan that ultimately got her the offer to serve as the foundation president.

As president, Sullivan shifted the Caterpillar Foundation’s philanthropic philosophy from that of a contributor of donations to a strategic and influential change agent. Sullivan calls herself a collaborator because she recognizes that, through collaboration, solutions can be reached faster. Through her leadership, the Caterpillar Foundation now partners with organizations to combat the root causes of poverty and to invest in girls and women. Sullivan uses her vast global knowledge on extreme poverty, as well as her diplomacy, to work with governments to make changes to create sustainable communities.

Sullivan was inspired to become involved with women’s advocacy work because she believes in the importance of addressing the root cause of issues. Research shows the correlation between women’s education and tackling poverty, driving Sullivan to support and invest in women’s success.

In fact, she led the Caterpillar Foundation’s first public-private partnership with the U.S. Department of State to create a women’s entrepreneurship center in Zambia. The African Women Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP) aims to empower African women entrepreneurs to become voices of change in their communities and families by equipping them with the tools and opportunities to grow businesses, become community leaders, and drive social and economic progress.

“I understand the strong significance of setting women up with an education that gives them the tools for future success.” She continued, “Education is not a one-time thing. It is an investment, and no one can take that away from you.”

Sullivan aims to empower others by encouraging a greater understanding that everyone has value. This philosophy motivated her to write her book Looking Up (releasing in 2020). In it, she urges people to “look up” and have an elevated view of others—a perspective that she believes plays a fundamental role in becoming a better person and more influential leader.

After college, Shereen Williams also found herself drawn to advocacy work. Growing up with a mother who was in accountant, selecting to pursue a degree in accounting at Singapore Management University (SMU) felt like a natural decision.

While her degree choice felt comfortable, choosing to attend SMU was slightly untraditional. A new university, SMU had not even graduated its first class yet when Williams enrolled. In fact, Williams was part of the first class of accounting graduates from SMU. Though attending a new university was a surprising choice to some, Williams was excited by the unique and fresh opportunities that SMU presented.

Shortly after graduating, Williams met her future husband and moved from Singapore to the U.K. to be with him. Moving to a new country, Williams expressed interest to her husband in finding ways to get involved in her new community. When she arrived, her husband had already signed her up for volunteer work. What started as a hobby quickly turned into a passion for Williams. While she half-heartedly looked for accounting jobs, something kept pulling her toward advocacy work.

Moving to the Wales, Williams was exposed to new challenges, which made her life growing up in Singapore feel like “living in a bubble.” She witnessed many eye-opening issues in Wales, including prejudices like homophobia, transphobia and faith discrimination, as well as drug problems. Recognizing that these were community issues, Williams began to meet with other local activists, which kick-started her successful career in advocacy work.

Today, Williams is the Chief Executive of the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales, battling hate crime, extremism and inequality in Wales. In her job, she manages community tensions, tackling modern-day slavery, overseeing the Syrian refugee resettlement program and ensuring that the local government fulfills its public-sector duty in thwarting extremism. In her free time, Williams supports victims of domestic abuse, honor-based violence and forced marriages.

Though she initially felt that she was leaving her accounting degree behind to pursue advocacy work, Williams later came to find that her business degree was extremely useful—sometimes even essential—in her work. On the outside, Williams is a voice for gender equity and community cohesion, but behind the scenes there is a tremendous amount of paperwork and financial work involved in the day-to-day operations. Williams has noticed others working in the advocacy space come unprepared for the unexpected financial knowledge needed and often struggle. However, for Williams with her background in accounting, the numbers come naturally for her. She feels grateful for the ease she feels when approached with financial concerns and is often a resource for her coworkers.

This finance background was particularly useful in her work with Ethnic Youth Support Team (EYST). Williams used her business education to help EYST grow and become financially sustainable. She helped EYST develop a business plan, secure long-term funding, and establish charitable status. As a result of this work, EYST was able to move into a larger facility, employ additional staff, and enter the public procurement market to bid for various public-sector contracts.

Her work has not come without challenges. Not only has her character been questioned, but she has even received threats against herself and her family. While these threats have never stopped Williams, she does admit her work can be lonely, and “sometimes it can feel like you against the world.” However, Williams remembers there are others out there fighting with her and recognizes the important roles individual people can play. At the end of the day, she believes her work “is always worth this risk.”

Looking back on their time in business school, Sullivan and Williams both feel grateful for educations that equipped them with the tools and well-rounded knowledge to be able to pursue careers where they have not only made good use of their talents but also followed their passion to make a difference and leave a lasting social impact.

An annual initiative, the AACSB Influential Leaders challenge recognizes business school alumni creating positive, lasting impact in their industries, communities, and society. Learn more at aacsb.edu/influential-leaders.