Former CEO of Product RED on Getting Off and On the Career Track

Susan Smith Ellis, former CEO of Product RED, writes for Grown and Flown readers about the challenges of going back to work after stepping off the career track to be at home with her children.

Susan Smith Ellis, Product RED

Eighteen years ago, after a successful career in advertising, I decided not to go back to work when I found out I was pregnant with our second child. It seemed to me that being home with our daughter and son, born sixteen months apart, would be my new job. I had lived and worked all over the world and while I thrived on that, I was ready to embrace full time motherhood. When the children started school I became restless and found that it was hard to fill my days in a rewarding way. I started to look into picking up where I left off. It was really discouraging! Over and over again I was told that my six-plus year hiatus had rendered me unemployable at anything resembling the level of seniority and compensation I had worked so hard to achieve. It was suggested that I find work at a non-profit. Perhaps I might volunteer.

I could forget resuming my career. I was, as they say, “toast.”

The more rejection I faced, the more determined I became to prove that motherhood is not a career liability. I pressed on, lucky to have several women friends in New York who took up my cause. With their help opening doors, I was quickly offered a senior position at a premier New York ad agency, being paid every bit as much as if I had never left the working world. But accepting the job meant selling a beautiful old house we had restored and leaving our friends and family in Boston. It was hard to do and sad to say good bye but off we went.

Back at work, I found it hard to not feel guilty nearly all the time. When I was at the office, I missed my children and always felt like I was a step behind all of the stay-at-home mothers who seemed to know everything about school and teams and activities. They also managed to look so pulled together at school events while I always dashed in late and harried. But my career continued to track well and  I loved the energy of New York City and the competition of work.

Once I achieved a certain level of success I was again restless even though I had a pretty good “work-life balance”. So I jumped again to a very tiny start up that was in need of a CEO to turn it into a brand and a going concern. It was the antithesis of the large, resource-laden firm I was leaving. The name of that start-up was Product (RED), founded by U2’s Bono with a mission to raise money (through the sale of (RED)-branded products) to buy anti retroviral medicine for people with HIVAids in Africa.

Product RED

It was my children who persuaded me to take this job. They said I would be using my skills to do good in the world rather than the “boring” work (as they called it) I had been doing.

Product RED

As it turned out, we had great success, raising $180 million in three and half years. It was crazy and frenetic, as all start-ups are, but it was also great fun.  And I could never replicate the opportunities I was given to be engaged in creative and meaningful work and to travel to Africa to see first hand the impact of our work.

Product RED

Last year I faced another turning point. Our daughter was finishing high school and I wanted to be around more to look at colleges with her and to spend time as a family without checking my Blackberry every two minutes.  So once again, I stepped away from my career.

While I continue to serve on several boards, I really have spent most of my time being more than doing. It has been heavenly. But as night follows day, I’m starting to get restless again. I am taking on more  projects (I am executive producer of a documentary, Get the Picture, and am helping a small start up company.)

And now our son is beginning to look at colleges. In a little more than a year, we will be facing the prospect of our youngest heading off to college and we will be empty nesters. Will I wish then that I had a career again to fill the void?

So I have begun to have conversations about maybe getting back in the game.  And already I have had some people say that now that I have taken the last year off, it will be hard for me to get hired. Or I am told that I probably best-suited for the non-profit world. In the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”



  1. belfman says

    Like you I am on the fourth rung of my career ladder and I firmly believe that each position gave me a new set of skills to go to the next place. I think the hardest thing in the job hunt is to show that women who have raised families, had careers, gone to school, etc. are a great asset and even though we are not in our 20s we still have great energy. We know how to commit and get a job done. I know you will be successful at your next step, maybe with your incredible skill set you should start your own thing and hire all of us! :)

    • says

      What a fantastic idea!

      Plus, we couldn’t agree more with you about your comments -“women who have raised families, had careers, gone to school, etc. are a great asset and ….we still have great energy. We know how to commit and get a job done.”

  2. bohemianspiritedmom says

    encouraging post because I too, feel I am being at home more than doing. My choices of back to pharmacist, teaching, maybe writing are not nearly as glamorous as yours. Bono! You lucky duck!

  3. says

    What an amazing career you have had!
    I graduated only two years ago with my journalism degree. My oldest son had a learning disability and I had to adjust my life and career accordingly. It is strange to be at the bottom of the ladder at the ripe old age of 49!
    I think (I hope) we are watching a new world emerge, where motherhood is seen as a sign of strength and leadership, and that the choice of parenting over career is a respected on.

    • Anonymous says

      Good for you for starting out at 49! It is young! And I do think we need to see more women staying in the workforce as we get older. Look at Warren Buffett!

  4. Regine Kelly Houghteling says

    Dear Susan,
    Regina here, our kids were on the Hackley football team together. I remember having a few lovely conversations with you and I distinctly remember (despite your high-powered job) that you were very calm, really listened and I regretted that each time we spoke I was frazzled. As team mom, or whatever it was called, i had just started a new job at City College and had to go back to graduate school. Calm I was not.
    I loved reading your story. I have two boys Sam, 26 and Jack (Hackley ’10), The raising of them was filled with the unexpected, too personal for a post. I believe that the mothering job should be allowed on a resume/CV as experience and (as a secular Buddhist) I believe it is a form of “practice.”
    Mary Dell doing a wonderful job with this blog. I look forward to it.

  5. Anonymous says

    Hi Regine,

    Thank you for your comments. A wonderful idea that “mothering” should be on our CV. However calm I seemed, I was probably very frazzled inside! One nice thing about this time at home is being very present in each day and not always thinking about the workfront. How is the empty nest?

    All best,


  6. Harriet says

    Although I am still in early twenties and too young to get married (let alone be a mamma), I do think about what is going to happen to my career if I have a child. It is good to know that it is possible to take a long break and come back – if not stronger and better than you were, then at least not weaker.

  7. Tom Cradock says

    You are an impressive person. I am a recently retired physician, who had the good fortune to meet John G. Morris quite by accident at his favorite bistro in Paris. He invited my wife and me to visit him across the street after a long dinner conversation. As you must know he came to the US this summer twice, once for his 75th college reunion, then to Charlotte as a delegate. I am interested in getting a copy of your film as soon as it is available, if you can direct me.