From Pennsylvania Avenue to Sesame Street
Sherrie Sandy Westin trades politics for puppets in many-hued career
What does it feel like to buckle into a seat on an airplane with President George H.W. Bush, twist the cap off a mini bottle of water and flip through a bulging agenda? Sherrie Sandy Westin can describe it. “The best part,” she says, “is when you’re on your way home, because then you can have a beer and it soaks in that you’re actually on Air Force One.” Rewind to 1980, when Westin was about to graduate from UVA. She would have a career that would lead her to the studios of ABC News as well as the hallways of the White House, but at that moment, she didn’t know what she was going to do. “There’s someone like Katie,” she says, speaking of her close friend Katie Couric (Col ’79), “who knew exactly what she wanted to do, and then there was me, who had no idea.”
She did, however, have a degree in communications and some contacts in Washington from a previous internship. So Westin (Col ’80) did what many enterprising twenty-somethings must do at some point—she found some business outfits and threw herself into the fray. And it was “as much luck as forethought” that led her to something she loved.
The job was at a public relations marketing firm that promoted businesses in Georgetown. From there she was hired by the firm’s major client, the Georgetown Business and Professional Association, where she promoted Georgetown and represented the business community. “It ended up being such a wonderful experience,” she says. “I learned so much. I was only one year out of school, so I wore my hair in a bun the entire time to try to look older.”
Soon it was the mid-1980s in Washington, D.C., and Ronald Reagan was running for re-election. Over the next several years she navigated a series of high-profile jobs, including a stint working for the Reagan campaign and later as head of communications for a Washington firm, which eventually led to her 1992 appointment as the first assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs (HUD), then headed by U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y.
HUD was in a transitional phase, and it was Westin’s skillful brokering of the press the department was receiving at the time that caught the attention of Roone Arledge, the broadcasting pioneer and then chairman of ABC News. He offered her a job as head of communications for the division. “I thought I didn’t want to move to New York,” says Westin. However, she soon realized that saying no would only embolden Arledge to pursue her. Eventually, he convinced her by offering her an office in both cities, and she began commuting between Washington and New York.
Then came the call from the White House.
“I wasn’t ready to leave ABC,” says Westin, “but there’s something about being called to service. I felt I simply couldn’t refuse.” It was during the last year of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, and she was offered the position of assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public liaison, where she would be one of the highest ranking women in the White House. The position’s responsibilities are now handled by the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, headed by Valerie Jarrett. “I’ve spent some time with her and am a huge fan,” says Westin. “And it’s a much better title.”
Westin’s primary goal was to help the Oval Office maintain a steady stream of contact with state and local governments, as well as public interest groups such as business leaders, ethnic groups and religious groups.
“Staff meetings were at 7 a.m. and you had to have already read all of the newspapers,” she says, referring to the daily pace. “You’re responsible for meetings you’ve set up with the president and various constituencies. It’s back-to-back meetings all day, and then you spend the evening digging through memos and briefings.” Despite the all-consuming schedule, Westin cites the experience as one she’ll treasure for the rest of her life. “Each time I drove through the West Wing gates it was such an adrenaline rush,” she says. “And you really believe in what you’re doing.”
The hectic atmosphere of the White House must have prepared Westin for her return to ABC, this time in a larger capacity, as executive vice president of network communications. She headed up communications activities for news, entertainment, sports, children’s and daytime programming, now flying back and forth between Los Angeles and New York.
Working at the top tier of the White House or as head of communications for ABC might represent the crest in anyone’s career, but it’s the job she has now that Westin considers to be the most meaningful.
At Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street, Westin serves as executive vice president and chief marketing officer. She adds her considerable experience to the organization’s goal of reaching out to children across the globe using the magic of Muppets and media to teach. “We make sure the curriculum is tailored to the needs of each country,” she says. “For instance, in South Africa we have an HIV-positive Muppet. In Egypt, the lead Muppet is a girl, since the primary issue is girls’ education.”
Sesame Workshop also reaches out to military families. “We realized how many preschoolers were dealing with the deployment of a parent,” says Westin. So, to help children and families cope with this difficult issue, the workshop created a DVD in which Elmo’s father is deployed.
Westin, married to David Westin, president of ABC News, also finds her job a way to connect to the world of her children: Lily, adopted from China in 1995, and David, born when Westin was 43. She refers to them as “equally miraculous.”
Like many graduates, Westin wasn’t sure where she was going to end up. Now, after a many-hued career, she finds great satisfaction in making a difference in children’s lives. “You get to a certain point in your life where you look for those opportunities where you think you may be able to make a difference,” she says. “I really think this is the perfect job for me.”