Shari Rosenfeld '87, Vice President, International Projects, Sesame Workshop
The first time Shari Rosenfeld ’87 applied for a job at Sesame Workshop she didn’t get it. It was in 1983, not long after she graduated from college. She got a different job, which led her to SOM and, after earning her degree, three years in Israel with a venture capital firm. All the while, though, she kept Sesame Workshop in the back of her mind. “There was this connection,” she said. “I just found it so cool that you could use really fun television to make a difference in the lives of kids.”
It wasn’t until she had her first child in 1990 and took some time off that the opportunity to finally work there arose. Through Laura Walker ‘87, who was in charge of development at Sesame Workshop, Rosenfeld was introduced to Emily Swenson ’82, then the COO, who hired her for a three-month job. Seventeen years later, she’s still there, now as the vice president for international project management, a job that puts her in charge of the company’s overseas projects. “I’ve worn a lot of hats during the time I’ve been here,” she said, ticking through strategic planning, business planning, new business development, and product development.
Her career at Sesame Workshop changed dramatically when she moved with her family to Israel in 1996. Rosenfeld planned to continue her work for the New York headquarters from abroad, but once there got tapped to help launch an Israeli-Palestinian version of the show. "We really needed someone to spearhead the educational outreach component of this Israeli-Palestinian Sesame Street,” she said “I was on the ground, and the logical choice. That's how I moved into international, which is what I've been doing for the last 10 years. After two years on the project I moved back to New York and took over its management, broadening the project to include Jordanians as well. But then the Second Intifada broke out, September 11 happened, and the whole world was turned upside-down.”
The turmoil made the project extremely challenging, forcing the team to create three parallel shows for the Jordanians, Israelis and Paletinians, each drawing on materials produced by the other. The experience allowed Rosenfeld to acquire a unique set of skills that she used to help develop shows in other conflict-torn regions, such as Northern Ireland and Kosovo. “I learned how to navigate, diplomatically, through very complicated and sensitive issues on a political level as well as on a day to day basis managing the project in a matrix organization,” she said. As her role at Sesame Workshop has expanded, so has her portfolio. She now oversees programs in South Africa, Bangladesh, India, Russia, and Indonesia, among others, working with local partners to create shows that reflect each culture and its important issues. For instance, the South African show made headlines for creating an HIV-positive Muppet, while the characters in Russia address overall health in a country that’s experienced declining life expectancy.
“Our model is to empower local partners, to build capacity around creating their own version of Sesame Street,” she said. “We start with working with them, their educators, to create a locally developed set of educational objectives. We don't come in and say, ‘We think you should focus on malaria’ or ‘We think you should focus on HIV/AIDS’ or ‘We think you should focus on girls’ education.’ We basically create a structure in which they can identify what they want to focus on.”
As part of the development process, Rosenfeld travels to each country and meets with key leaders. “In Jordan, for instance, it required me to meet with Queen Rania, personally,” she said. “And in Egypt I haven't met with Mrs. Mubarak, but she's actively involved in supporting the project. It’s amazing. Who would want to meet with me if I just called up? But I say Sesame Street and they always say, ‘Hold on, let me get you on the calendar.’ Sesame Street is uniquely positioned, because it has so much credibility, in multiple sectors. It has credibility with the government ministries, the educational community, with parents and caregivers, and most importantly, it’s beloved by the children.”
Rosenfeld said she is grateful to Sesame Workshop for the opportunity she’s had, allowing her to balance work with home (she has four children, ages 9 through 17). Several times in recent years, she’s invited incoming SOM students to tour the New York headquarters with her. She wants them to see the possibilities as MBA candidates of working for a non-traditional company such as Sesame Workshop. “It's an opportunity to show those just starting their careers that a not-for-profit company (and some don't even know that Sesame Workshop is one) requires business skills such as finance, marketing, business planning, strategic planning and new business development,” she said. “I feel very fortunate that I’ve had such meaningful work – and I have the added benefit of working in a fun environment that respects overall life values. Sesame Workshop is not just a place that I work; it’s become part of who I am.”