Thear Suzuki: The Gift of Community Leadership

Story by Mary Martin. Photos Courtesy of Thear Suzuki.

When Thear Suzuki was eight years old, she stepped into a classroom for the first time. Along with her parents and four older siblings, Thear had escaped the Cambodian genocide and was welcomed to the United States as a refugee, sponsored by the United States Catholic Conference Migration & Refugee Services. Before arriving in Dallas, her family had spent four years in a Khmer Rouge labor camp, with no access to education. But a caring and compassionate third grade teacher named John Gallagher shifted Thear’s life in a dramatic way.

Thear (bottom center) with her family and Catholic Refugee Services staff, shortly after arriving in the United States.

Thear (bottom center) with her family and Catholic Refugee Services staff, shortly after arriving in the United States.

It was John, along with his father Tom, who began going out of his way for the newest refugee community. His home was open to Thear and other students to use his typewriter and computer for school assignments. He drove families to the dentist and helped complete their taxes. He offered whatever resources he had with open hands to help Thear’s family acclimate to their new country. Due in part to this one teacher’s kindness, Thear thrived in school. She quickly caught up to her peers and threw herself into extra curricular activities like the Key Club, a service and leadership organization, joining the very first year it was opened to female students. “I wasn’t popular and had limited means,” Thear easily admitted. “My dad worked as a janitor with minimum wage for 25 years at Bradfield Elementary School, while my mom worked cleaning hotels and wrapping silverware in napkins at Highland Park Cafeteria. Joining the Key Club is an example that if you want to be a leader, you can.” By her junior year, Thear served as Key Club President and Student Body President of Skyline High School.

Thear with John Gallagher at Anderson Elementary School.

Thear with John Gallagher at Anderson Elementary School.

Unaware of SMU as an expensive private university, Thear decided to apply for admission because John Gallagher had nominated her for the Herkimer leadership scholarship. Scholarships and financial aid grants made it possible for Thear to attend SMU, where she majored in Electrical Engineering with Biomedical Specialization. Sixteen years after graduation, Thear found out that John had written a personal letter to the president of the University, sharing her story, along with his recommendation.

Similar to her high school experience, Thear was a good student but was more passionate about her leadership and community work. She joined student organizations like SMU’s East Asian Student Association and also participated in the Inter Community Experience, living in a Habitat for Humanity house in a low-income area of Dallas and volunteering at the Wilkinson Center teaching computer skills to neighborhood children. “It turned out that the most impactful aspect of my education ended up being about leadership and service,” Thear said. Those skills, formed from a young age, have now transferred not only to a successful career, but a rich community volunteer experience.

Today Thear leads a team of 19,000 professionals across North and South America as the Advisory Talent Leader for EY. As a business executive, as well as a wife and mother of four boys, Thear could easily say her plate is full, but her desire to serve her community and develop future leaders has opened up doors in nonprofit and philanthropy work. “Balance is not only about time management,” she shared. “Balance is about spending time on the things that matter and give you energy. For me that is family and giving back.”

Some of Thear’s most meaningful philanthropic work happens through the Orchid Giving Circle at Texas Women’s Foundation. By harnessing the power and resources of hundreds of Asian women in Dallas, the Orchid Giving Circle is granting funds to organizations, which are meeting needs in various Asian communities throughout North Texas. Over the past four years this determined group of women has raised over half a million dollars and is growing each year. Thear also serves as co-chair of the Texas Women’s Foundation Economic Leadership Council, as well as the SMU Lyle Engineering School Executive Board. And as the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum has reinvisioned their impact, Thear (a board member) has shared her experience as a genocide survivor. The new museum will include an exhibit on the Cambodian genocide, educating visitors on the ten stages of genocide.

Thear (center) with Orchid Giving Circle representatives.

Thear (center) with Orchid Giving Circle representatives.

And while human rights education is close to Thear’s heart, she is also passionate about gender equality, especially in the corporate arena. Her work with the Dallas initiative of the 2020 Women on Boards is focused on opening doors for women to step into top leadership roles. Along with her co-chairs, Tracey Doi, CFO for Toyota Motors North America and Charmaine Tang, Executive Director for J.P. Morgan, Thear is committed to helping drive the increase of female corporate directors on Russell 3000 companies to 20% by 2020. By stepping into spaces typically dominated by male voices, like her role on the board of the National Boy Scouts of America, she is leading by example and engaging with male directors to talk about aspiring women leaders and how their voices can help to grow companies and represent shareholders.

Thear recently graduated from the 2019 class of Presidential Leadership Scholars, and has now focused her attention on the upcoming Each Moment Matters luncheon, benefitting the Caring Fund at Faith Presbyterian Hospice. Each year the powerful event honors unsung heroes in the community, and as a past honoree, Thear is now co-chairing this year’s 10th anniversary event alongside Andy Walsh. And taking his place as a quiet change-maker, John Gallaher, the committed Dallas ISD teacher, will be recognized alongside 15 other honorees at the October 3rd luncheon.

“I am a testament of strangers helping strangers,” Thear said, looking back on her life. Every ounce of Thear’s philanthropy, community service, and corporate impact can be traced back to one dedicated public school teacher, who saw the potential in a young girl from Cambodia. 

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