Tuesdays with T4A: Susan Termohlen (10/29/13)

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Susan Termohlen
Co-Founder | Kaspick & Company
Susan was the co-founder of and Head of Tax Compliance for Kaspick & Company, the nation’s leading provider of planned gift investment, administration and program support services to charities nationwide. Kaspick & Company has offices in Redwood Shores, California and Boston, Massachusetts and manages over $4.5 billion of assets for clients, primarily for planned gifts, but also for small endowments and individuals. On October 1, 2006 the firm became a separate operating division of TIAA-CREF. Susan obtained a J.D. from Stanford Law School in 1981, an A.B. from Smith College in 1972, and an M.A. in economics from Boston College. She lives in Menlo Park, California with her husband Scott Kaspick.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts – in the Berkshires – and came out to Stanford Law School in 1978. I  liked it here so I stayed.
What was your first job?
I had a lot of horrible part time jobs in high school and college but almost none were memorable (however, working a game at a carnival and cleaning the dirt from just-picked strawberry plants are jobs I will never forget). My first “real” job was after college with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) where I worked on the Occupational Outlook Handbook.  In those pre-Internet days, I learned that one shouldn’t trust the Occupational Outlook Handbook. One of the careers I worked on was “Forest Ranger.” My “research” consisted of calling a few national forest administration offices and asking them how things were going. While I heartily believe in the work of, and need for, the federal government – bureaucracy and all – the way that office worked was a template for waste and inefficiency.
What is your first political memory?
My first political memory was wearing an “I Like Ike” button in 1956, when I was six. Even though my family would be categorized a liberal one, I guess “we” voted Republican.
What is your favorite book?
I have so many favorites depending on the genre and when I read them. To name a few, I love Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the recent Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Most “inspirational” book was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. For general non-fiction, I loved Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo and Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon.
The company you founded (InterVivos, which later merged with Kaspick & Company), was tiny when it entered into a business dominated by multinational banks. How were you so successful in stealing clients away, eventually become the nation’s leading provider of planned gift management and related tax support?

We were successful by starting small and being able to make a better product. We entered the business at the right time: personal computers were just becoming available (even though they were the size and weight of today’s carry-on luggage!) so we could be innovative and be nimble and not have to manipulate mainframe software when we wanted to innovate or develop a new product. I also had the good fortune to be a tax lawyer who was fairly expert with Excel. When we needed a “program” to do the tax calculations for the esoteric forms and payment calculations for charitable remainder trusts, we were able to use Excel functions to do the calculations. The work was very labor intensive and had to be error-free while also reacting immediately to changing IRS and state trust laws. We couldn’t have done that with the tools we had if we hadn’t started out small.

You attended Smith College, which displays on its website, “of course, the world is coeducational. But Smith women enter it more confidently than women graduates of coed schools.” Do you think attending a women’s college played an influential role in your development as a business leader?
Attending a woman’s college was not per se influential in my development as a business leader. Instead, being at a woman’s college developed a strong belief in my capabilities to do anything. In high school, where I was often the sole female in my AP math and science classes, the boys did all the talking. At Smith, the girls did all the talking – everywhere. It was revelatory for me. I abandoned the “shoulds” that girls often grow up with, especially in the 60s and 70s.
Who is your role model and why?
I don’t have a role model. I am, and have been, determined always to find the path that is right for me. It is not likely to be the path that others have taken.
As you look at your community, city/state/country, how do you view your role/responsibility as a citizen? Within that context, how do you view your role as citizen in relation to our Government and Democracy?
I think we should all stay informed, look at data and vote. Because we personally have been fortunate financially, I would extend that to making contributions to candidates and organizations that support one’s beliefs, both private and public. Even though I think that the federal government is very inefficient and surely wastes many of my hard-earned dollars, I think it is our responsibility to pay taxes without looking for loopholes and tricks. I think citizens should take care of each other and recognize that our systems and institutions do not give everyone equal opportunities.
Just about everyone (regardless of political affiliation) sees a large gap between our politics (Washington, DC as well as state capitals) and the reality on the issues we face as a Country. Why do you think that is? I know it's a tough question, but what do you think can be done to close that gap?

The status quo – with both elected officials and bureaucracies – is a powerful impediment to change. Our government representatives should be elected for what they can and will do and not for how much money they can raise. There needs to be limits on campaign contributions and any contributions need to be attributed to an actual person or functional organization, the goals and purposes of which should be readily identifiable. I would like to see election debates that were issue oriented with questioners who were aware of the candidates’ prior statements and positions. (My personal fantasy is the kind of debate Aaron Sorkin scripted for his TV show Newsroom). For our bureaucracies, jobs should be competitive – throughout – so that entrenched employees and methodologies could be evaluated compared to market organizations. In my time at the BLS, I met many people (most people) who were well-meaning but more interested in the stability of the job, the almost-impossible chance to be fired and the hope for an automatic pay raise. We can do better!

Are political parties becoming less relevant today, particularly for young adults? Whatever your answer, why do you think that is?
The political party designation has become too rigid with neither party allowing for subtlety in positions and attitudes. These days, being a Democrat or Republican stands for things that are not logically tied together (why can’t individuals believe in both lower taxes, for example, and global warming?) My dream is that, if campaigns were governmentally funded and we had real debates, we wouldn’t need party designations. We could vote for the people whose ideas we believe in or whose intellectual approach is one we both respect and trust, even if we didn’t agree on all issues.
What is your favorite journey?
I love cities, so travel to New York, Paris, London, etc. are my favorites. I like the diversity of a city and the variety of food, art and entertainment cities offer. I love public transportation and enjoy figuring out how to navigate a city’s undergrounds, subways and busses.
If you could be anyone else for a day, who would you be?
Emmylou Harris. I wish I had her voice and I think it would be unbelievably wonderful to be able to sing and transport an audience the way she does or just to sing at home by myself.
What is your proudest moment?
There are two: when each of my sons graduated from college and then found meaningful, useful jobs.
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