In 2009, Susan Lewis Solomont’s husband, Alan Solomont, was appointed US ambassador to Spain and Andorra by President Barack Obama. Susan uprooted herself, leaving behind a successful career in philanthropy and a life she loved to join her husband overseas.
An ambitious professional, Susan had hoped to find a new role in Spain. She was disappointed to learn the US Department of State deemed jobs for spouses of ambassadors to be “a conflict of interest.”
In the following excerpt from her new book, Lost and Found in Spain: Tales of An Ambassador’s Wife, Susan recounts how she found and fought for a fulfilling purpose even when the deck was stacked against her.
As I learned more about what was expected of an ambassador’s spouse, I came to hope that perhaps I could still “work” by doing something important for our nation’s embassy in Madrid. I met a previous ambassador’s wife who had been a journalist for many leading newspapers and institutions. While residing in her host country, she would organize intimate lunches with journalists and have conversations focused on important issues of the day. Her embassy loved those gatherings and was thrilled that she organized and ran them. Her skills and expertise were highly valued and deeply respected.
Upon hearing this, I imagined organizing meaningful events that would help the United States and our embassy in Spain accomplish important objectives. It wouldn’t be a job in the conventional sense, but I could live with it. Ultimately, I had to find meaning and value in whatever I ended up doing.
When we arrived in Spain in January 2010, I went around to every department, or “section” as they are known in embassies, and offered my services. The embassy staff were all very polite. They smiled and promised they would call me. But they didn’t. To them, I was very much “the spouse” in the traditional sense; my job was to stand-and-smile and support the ambassador. I took this rejection to heart. “How could nobody want me?” I thought. “I’m good! I’m smart! I’m capable!”
I told myself that it wasn’t personal, that these workers were busy with their demanding jobs. But I couldn’t deny that receiving the brush-off was frustrating and incomprehensible. Everyone in the foreign service — from the ambassador, whose official title included the phrase “Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary,” down to the interns — had an important role to play. Yet there I was, little more than an accessory to my husband, with no official role and of seemingly little professional value to the embassy.
One thing about me: I’m relentless. I’m not the type to just let things be. Acquiescence is not in my DNA. If there wasn’t a meaningful role for me to fill — something that would allow me to put my own skills and intelligence to work — then I would create one. I didn’t want to simply be “the ambassador’s wife.” I wanted to be Susan Solomont.
Given my background in charitable causes, I began by convening groups of philanthropists. Working with a protocol team (the people in the embassy who know and reach out to the local community), we helped identify leaders in Spanish philanthropy and considered what they were doing. We then organized a roundtable discussion of about 35 people.
To make this happen, I had to convince some of the embassy’s sections that it was a worthwhile endeavor.
And I had to get it funded, because money doesn’t just appear for these things.
And I had to make sure people would come. This was the easiest part. An invitation from the United States embassy is a powerful draw.
And I had to convince the embassy employees, the foreign service officers, that I could pull the whole thing off.
Getting departments to engage with me about a roundtable discussion wasn’t easy. I think they finally said, “Let’s just let her do it and see what happens.”
I continued on like this for months, seeking out and scraping together opportunities to contribute my skills and talents, buoyed by my husband’s constant support and encouragement. “If this adventure doesn’t work for one of us,” he would say, “it doesn’t work for either of us.”
It took nearly a year to create a role for myself: helping launch initiatives and mold programs in which I believed. My main interest became women in business. I strove to shine a light on what Spanish women were doing, what American women were doing, and how we could all help one another. I discovered that hardly any networking opportunities existed for Spanish women, even though a significant number of them served in senior leadership roles in Spanish businesses. I found common ground with a female embassy employee who shared my interest and had a professional stake in meeting Spanish business leaders, and together we launched a networking program called the Women’s Leadership Series. It became a great success and featured programs such as “Women in Journalism” and “Women in Social Media and Marketing.”
Channeling my inner Oprah, I served as moderator, asking participants about their paths to success. I became more visible in the community and soon began receiving requests to speak and give magazine and newspaper interviews. I was developing my own voice, making a difference, and loving every minute of it.
This has been adapted from Lost and Found in Spain: Tales of An Ambassador’s Wife 2019 by Susan Lewis Solomont, copyright (c) 2019. Published by Disruption Books.
Susan Lewis Solomont has enjoyed a dynamic and impressive career in the field of philanthropy. She was named “International Woman of the Year” by FEDEPE, the leading organization for Spanish women executives and directors.