On the Record with Stephanie Swartz

In September, we were excited to welcome Stephanie Swartz to Breakwater Strategy as a Vice President. She brings a breadth of experience helping companies tackle their most intricate and sensitive policy issues, and leverages that expertise to help clients facing complex challenges at the intersection of corporate reputation, business strategy, corporate social responsibility, and technology policy.

Most recently, Stephanie built the policy and public affairs team from the ground up at The Pill Club, a direct-to-consumer telehealth and pharmacy delivery company dedicated to expanding access to contraceptive care. During her tenure, she worked as part of The Pill Club’s leadership team to advance corporate interests and build the company’s reputation with advocates, researchers, government and elected officials, and insurance providers and payers. Prior to that, Stephanie served as Uber’s lead on Safety and Consumer Protection as part of Uber’s global public policy strategy team. 

We sat down with Stephanie to learn a little bit more about her background, time at Breakwater so far, and life outside of work. 

You’ve been at Breakwater for a few months now. Is there anything that’s surprised you so far in your time here? 

The people were a big part of the reason I chose to come to Breakwater, so this isn’t that surprising, but I will say that I’ve been so pleased to see just how great the team is here. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career so far is that the people you work with matter so much. We spend more of our waking hours with coworkers than our loved ones, and the entire team at Breakwater is not only incredibly intelligent, creative, and collaborative, but they are also kind, supportive, and a genuine delight to spend time with. 

You come to Breakwater via The Pill Club, where you built the policy and public affairs team from the ground up. Are there any particular lessons you learned while doing that about scaling the work you were doing?

I think there are three crucial elements of success for “service functions” like policy, comms, and legal. First, there is simply no substitute or short cut for deeply understanding the business. Even the most brilliant ideas are difficult if not impossible to see through to fruition if they don’t align with the goals of the business. Second, so much about effective work is about how well you can navigate the other internal players involved. It’s so important to understand the cast of characters at play and what drives them. With that knowledge, it becomes so much easier to build out an effective game plan. I have loved both elements of in-house work, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to apply these learnings across many different clients! And then lastly, it’s important to figure out which issues your company is uniquely positioned to have a voice on. Especially for smaller businesses, there are many cases in which more-established or deeper-pocketed players will have a similar point of view and you might not need to dedicate your resources to advocating on that issue or telling that specific story. The magic happens when you figure out where you get the most bang for your buck. 

At The Pill Club, I have to imagine your work often involved figuring out the best way to communicate around a very politically charged topic. In your work so far at Breakwater, where we have clients facing some of the toughest issues of the day, is there anything you learned that you’ve found is applicable? 

One of the things I find most rewarding in policy work in the private sector is figuring out how to navigate the business, social, and political interests of a corporation. So many factors go into decisions on whether and how a business should show up on a given political issue, making it much more of an art than a science. One framework I have found most interesting on proactive issues and public stances is an idea of “ripeness.” No matter how well intentioned, fit for the company’s purpose, or seemingly perfect the external environment, decisions to be proactive are so often not taken because the internal conditions within the company are not yet ripe. That can be because of internal dynamics like the personalities at play as much as it can be structural or even emotional risk-aversion. Navigating these issues and helping companies figure out when it does and does not make sense to take a stand are some of my favorite challenges!

Even when it’s something you love, that can be a lot to juggle at times — do you have a favorite post-work activity to decompress? 

I love to cook and bake. In baking, there’s something so freeing in combining a bunch of ingredients, following instructions, and ending up with essentially a chemistry project that looks and tastes so wildly different than its disparate parts. Where baking is like following sheet music, cooking for me is much more like jazz. A lot of my best cooking comes when I don’t use a recipe and just follow my instincts on what will taste good.

Stephanie graduated from California State University Long Beach with degrees in German Studies and International Studies and holds an MPhil in International Relations from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. Stephanie lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and dog and enjoys exploring the vibrant DMV area.