Headshot of Sophia Shaw.

Sophia Shaw

President and CEO, Chicago Botanic Garden

While studying abroad, Sophia Shaw (Vienna, Fall 1989) witnessed first-hand the events that led to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. From being in Budapest the day Hungary left the Communist Bloc to Prague the night of the uprising to Vienna as people from Czechoslovakia crossed the border for the first time, Sophia was fascinated by the history unfolding before her eyes. Today, after nearly 10 years as President and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden, Sophia is moving on to a new career in non-profit consulting. In our interview, Sophia shares how studying abroad helped her get to where she is today, and why oranges continue to remind her not to take any of our liberties for granted.

IES Abroad: You recently announced a new direction in your careerto provide consultancy services to non-profits. How did study abroad help bring you where you are today?

Sophia Shaw: The new venture is designed to help non-profits increase their effectiveness in strategic planning with the focus being to work primarily with board chairs and CEOs: doing some coaching, enterprise risk management, human resources, governance—a whole wide range of things. As soon as we find a successor for me here at the Chicago Botanic Garden and finish a few projects, I’ll transition.

All of ones life’s experiences certainly are complementary to one another, even if it is not obvious at the time. Relating back to IES Abroad, I was an art history major with an economics minor in college. I went on to earn an MBA and a Masters in art history as well. So, I have always been on these two paths of being involved with nature and art and looking at the economic factors that impact both society and how organizations work. All of my experiences, whether they were in college, through a study abroad program, the Field Museum, the Art Institute or here, definitely build upon each other. The part of the experience that I really enjoyed in Vienna was being able to combine, at a critical point in time, not only my love of art but also the opportunity to be part of the conversation about how to establish the European Union and, for example, if it should have a single currency. I was in a class that explored the single currency concepts versus keeping multiple currencies. It all builds upon each other.

IES Aboard: You studied abroad in Vienna in 1989 and were there when the Berlin Wall fell. What was that like?

SS: We were in Prague the night of the uprising. We were in Budapest the DAY that Hungary left the Communist Bloc. I was in Salzburg the day the Berlin Wall came down. We were in Vienna as the free Czechs came across the border for the first time. We were not just in Vienna with people coming to us. We happened to be in Prague and in Budapest those exact days! It was incredible! It puts being an American into perspective. We were fascinating to people, and they were excited to share their new found freedoms with us. We were all young. We had no historical context for what we were seeing and experiencing. I didn’t really understand what communism was or the kind of freedoms we took for granted. For me, it was a very authentic, human-to-human experience. We watched people come from Czechoslovakia into Austria and, for the first time in their lives, eat an orange or a banana (photo above). Literally, there were piles of oranges and bananas in baskets in the streets. We watched people eat tropical fresh fruit for the first time. There is no context for that. There is no backdrop for that. It was very moving!

IES Abroad: What was the long-term impact of this experience on you?

SS: The experience put into perspective the freedoms that we have. Every time I eat an orange I think about how fortunate I am to be able to go to a supermarket. This is relevant whether you are talking about a country without certain liberties or neighborhoods in the city of Chicago where fresh fruit is not sold in stores. There is a definite applicability to it no matter where you go. We work here at the Chicago Botanic Garden in a program call Windy City Harvest. We have farms in 13 urban sites. When I see the ability of people to grow fruits and vegetables, I’m reminded of that day in Prague, as it is not too dissimilar to watching people have access to food in 1989 that they didn’t have access to before. Everything builds upon itself. More than anything else, it is not taking our liberties for granted. We were there up close!

IES Abroad: How important has having an international perspective been for you in your role at the Chicago Botanic Garden? 

SS: Having an international perspective is helpful in whatever career you choose. Anything! I’m an art historian, and I guess now I’m a garden historian. Just going to the Belvedere in Vienna and seeing the paintings, and then seeing the gardens and the paintings together, and being able to travel in Italy and see the painting and the landscape—I learned so much. I think Europeans think very differently about art and gardens and integrate them in a way we don’t typically as Americans. That is what we try to do at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

IES Abroad: What are some of your greatest memories from your time in Vienna?

SS: Certainly the ones that we already talked about are tremendous memories. Added to those would be going to the opera standing room only ‘seats.’ I have such powerful memories of going to see the opera and standing and watching and feeling. It was so intense and so beautiful. And it was so much fun to go with my contemporaries from the program! Also drinking the new wine in the fall. Everyone has a college drinking experience, but this was much more than that. We went to the vineyards, smelled the grapes come out of the fields, and saw the wine being made in the barrels. The whole experience was very powerful and very exciting—not like two 18-year-olds sneaking a drink. This had a much more cultural appeal to it. Eating and drinking in Vienna was not taboo or illegal: it was cultural. Over wine, we talked and argued, stretching our philosophies and perspectives.

IES Abroad: What is one thing you learned while abroad that remains a constant in your life today?

SS: There is nothing better than taking a trip, and there is nothing better than taking a trip and coming home. You have to push yourself to travel, have adventures, meet new people, create itineraries, and spend your money on going places. You need to break out of your comfort zone, try new foods, and sleep in beds that might have bed bugs...all of those things. Those experiences shape you forever. Then, when you get on the plane, come home and crawl into your own bed with your own sheets, there is nothing better. You can’t have that without going. You have to go away to come home. Both of those experiences are made richer by having travel abroad opportunities in life. Your parents never look so good as they do when you come home.

IES Abroad: What advice do you have for students who are considering studying abroad?

SS: Get out there and see things. Don’t just sit in your apartment. Walk. Walk. Walk. Just walk. Try to absorb everything and see as much as you can. Push yourself! My time studying in Vienna was one of the most positive experiences I have had, and certainly I would never exchange it for anything. I’m a big fan and a proud alum!