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Alumna Puts the Funny in Consulting
This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
After two decades as a Fortune 500 executive, Sue Burton '89 made a leap: The funny professional turned professionally funny. A new portfolio career as a fun-trepreneur™ (her trademarked term) combines stand-up comedy and business consulting. One day may find the Massachusetts native coaching corporate types on how to separate the “im” from “possible.” The next, she’s mining laughs in the touring production “Women in Comedy.”
Q: What do you say when people ask what you do?
My elevator pitch, you mean? I always say, ‘It better be a tall building.’ I worked in marketing and product development for a company that was sold to E*TRADE, and I always did stand-up comedy on the side. After being laid off, I decided to combine the two. So now I’m a consultant who works in marketing and product development, using humor to build innovation.
Q: How do you do that?
I find that in the corporate world, there’s a paradox of experience. People are so focused that they can’t get out of their own heads. One exercise I do has them “cast” the role of their customer. What does their ideal customer eat? What do they drink? What kind of car do they drive? I have them use magazines to create a customer collage, and then do the same for the company. Developing these personas usually uncovers interesting insights.
How did you get into comedy?
Shortly after graduating from Bentley, I took an adult ed class in comedy. I did my first solo stand-up at Catch a Rising Star in Cambridge in 1991. I always kicked myself for not pursuing it full time. But I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be doing what I am today without the depth of business credibility.
Q: Is it hard to be taken seriously as a consultant?
When talking to potential clients, I lead with my business experience. But people see the comedy piece in my bio and they’re curious – they love it. Many people seem to have this closet creative side: the compliance officer who plays in a bluegrass band, the lawyer who has a secret screenplay in his drawer. That revelation then becomes an invitation to be more playful and experiment.
Q: Has your Bentley education helped you?
Truthfully, I can only be out there in the business world doing these things because I speak the language. I’m not a life coach in a caftan. I can read a balance sheet. I can stand toe-to-toe with the CFO and talk about income statements. My Bentley degree is an immediate stamp of approval – it says I’ve had high-caliber training.
Q: Are you still doing stand-up?
Definitely. My pursuits divide nicely: Business consulting work tends to be during the day, and straight humor work is a weekend and evening activity. In the fall, I did “Women in Comedy” out in Pittsfield and “Stand Up for Your Community” on the South Shore, a benefit for local food banks. I’ve also been working with Loretta LaRoche. We’re in rehearsal for a musical theater production called “All Stressed Up and Nowhere to Go,” opening at the Company Theater in Norwell in June. There’s a five-member cast, including Loretta and me, complete with musical and dance numbers.
Q: Is comedy-driven consulting a tough sell in a down economy?
Laughter is not a dirty word. It’s so needed, especially in these times. Everyone is so serious. Humor can be a terrific way to build morale. Humor can help you manage your own stress, laugh at yourself, and get some perspective. Studying with Loretta these past four years, I’ve learned that a sense of fun and optimism can make the worst times a little better.
Bentley University’s Co-Provost and Dean of Arts and Sciences Daniel Everett talked with us recently about a wide range of topics, including being featured in a new book by Tom Wolfe, two of his own upcoming books, the importance of studying the origins of language, and the value of a fusion approach to business education.