2018’s Activism Influencer: Susie Tompkins Buell

Story by Erin Carlson; photo by Spencer Brown

When Susie Tompkins Buell, Democratic activist and philanthropist, walks into a room, the energy changes: It’s lighter, cozier, more positive.

Perhaps that’s why Hillary Clinton considers the San Franciscan among her closest friends and allies. At a May event for Clinton’s former communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, who wrote the new book Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World, Buell — the organizer — played consummate host, making introductions and conversation with finesse.

Belinda Muñoz, the executive director of the Susie Tompkins Buell Foundation, says people tend to open up to Buell, letting down their guards, and that Oprah-like quality has endeared her to colleagues and strangers alike. Meryl Streep has praised her “welcoming” manner, and Gloria Steinem — whom Buell invited in the 1980s to speak about feminism to employees at her fashion brand, Esprit, during a time when it was unfashionable to do so — calls Buell a “self-educated person in the best sense.”

Buell’s background is as fascinating as she is charismatic: She co-founded The North Face and Esprit with then-husband, Doug Tompkins, whom she met while he was hitchhiking. Later, Buell, married to developer Mark Buell since 1996, befriended the Clintons and became one of their most prominent donors and fundraisers on the West Coast. The lingering disappointment of the 2016 election runs deep, but Buell sees a silver lining: More women are running for office, and with the 2018 midterms ahead, that could mean real change in Washington, at the state level and at your local school board. Buell has long supported the group Emerge America, which recruits and trains Democratic women who want to get into politics. She sits on the advisory board, and recently attended the group’s Ambition to Action luncheon at the Fairmont, where Elizabeth Warren delivered the keynote.

“I got really choked up just to see how Emerge has come along, and getting so many women elected and … just having everybody so proud of each other. It felt so true and so real today because everybody was for the same thing — not for one candidate, but everybody was for women.”

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