Rose Leopold Sussman is used to being one of the few women or the only one on conference calls, in meetings, and at professional conferences.
The field of emergency management, she says, is still very male-dominated. But Leopold, 29, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Northeastern University in 2016 and a master’s in 2017, is convinced that women can provide exactly the same level of expertise as men.
“I wouldn’t say, ‘My team is better than your team, because we’re all women and you’re all men,’” she says. “But I think by having a diverse set of viewpoints, you will ultimately have a stronger output.”
Throughout her career in emergency management and resiliency, Leopold has worked with such public sector clients as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She has helped a large private utility company prepare for safe preemptive power shut-offs during emergencies and consulted for Meta, the multinational technology conglomerate that owns Facebook, in building its global emergency management plans.
In October 2022, Leopold joined Moderna, a pharmaceutical and biotechnology company, as a director of business resilience. She gives Northeastern University a lot of credit for preparing her for this career and her dream job.
“I love Northeastern,” she says. “I feel lucky to have been a part of it and that Northeastern has been the one to get me my start in the field.”
In high school, Leopold, who grew up in Santa Cruz, California, wanted to become a forensic scientist. She started as a biology major at Northeastern, but soon realized that she was interested and engaged more in political life and the electoral system in Massachusetts, than in her biology classes. She switched her major to political science, imagining working for a state or the federal government in the future.
While working on her undergraduate degree, she took advantage of the Dialogue of Civilizations program, visiting Poland, Turkey, Germany and India. She also completed three co-ops—at Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office in Washington, D.C.; the U.S. Embassy in Ecuador; and Northeastern’s University Advancement office.
Leopold knew nothing about emergency management and resiliency, she says, until she participated in a dialogue in India led by Auroop Ganguly, distinguished professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering.
“When I went on this dialogue, I realized my passion for resilience and critical infrastructure,” Leopold says. “I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
The dialogue focused on climate change, science and policy. Their group visited about a dozen Indian cities looking at critical infrastructure. It was evident, Leopold says, that despite monsoons happening every summer and becoming more frequent and severe because of climate change, Indian cities were not prepared for them.
“Seeing how everything comes to a halt because of extreme weather and its impact on critical infrastructure, and a community was very influential for me,” she says.
Humans can’t predict or control weather-related or other disasters, but they can build preparedness, mitigation of severe impacts and resiliency, especially in critical lifeline sectors such as transportation, health care, communication, energy and food and water supply.
“India just sort of opened Pandora’s box to all the things that can touch this field,” Leopold says.
After earning her undergraduate degree, Leopold enrolled in the master of science in security and resilience studies program at Northeastern in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.
“My sister is a double Husky, too,” she says. “Now, I like to think that being a Northeastern Husky is [a tradition] in our family.
The security and resilience studies graduate program covered subjects like homeland security, terrorism, sustainability and resiliency, Leopold says, and how those fields together make more resilient communities and a more secure nation.
“I think the degree program did an amazing job at showcasing that entire lifecycle of resilience,” she says.
Leopold has further built her expertise through the work opportunities that followed, providing her with different perspectives into resilience and emergency management, crisis management and business continuity.
The COVID-19 pandemic caught her working with HHS on continuous improvement. Leopold worked alongside partners in the federal government on guidance for creating alternative care sites like big field hospitals and ICUs in gymnasiums to help hospitals with surge capacity.
“2020 really felt like it tested everything I’d prepared for up until that point,” she says.
FEMA was expecting a very active hurricane season that year, and Leopold supported the agency in developing the COVID-19 pandemic operational guidance for it. Usually, FEMA would provide mass sheltering services, she says, but congregate sheltering was tricky during the pandemic when there was still no vaccine.
By accepting a position of director for business resilience at Moderna, Leopold made a switch to the biotech sector. The company went almost overnight from being a research engine in Cambridge to a household name around the world when it developed its COVID-19 vaccine. Leopold was charged with building out the company’s business resilience program from scratch—a dream job and an unparalleled opportunity, she says.
“I love going to work each day,” Leopold says. “I love working with my colleagues, working with people across the Moderna organization and learning about what they do and how we can work together to build a more resilient organization.”
Business resilience includes all things emergency management, crisis management and business continuity for the entire enterprise. Business continuity requires understanding how critical different processes across a business are and which process would have the most negative impact on the business if it were to be disrupted for different lengths of time.
“It’s looking at how we foresee, withstand and adapt to different kinds of disruptions that could occur across the business to avoid significant business impact, while always looking to continuously protect our people, our property, our products, our reputation, and ultimately, our patients safety,” Leopold says.
She approaches her job as being a partner to other Moderna employees and stakeholders.
“If I take the work of being prepared for anything that might come their way, building in resiliency to avoid disruption, building in mitigation measures or redundancy, it allows them to not have to worry about that,” she says.
Things will go wrong, Leopold says, but being prepared can minimize the interruption and disruption and the time for getting the operations back up. Stakeholders might not even notice a problem and continue doing what they were doing.
“Resiliency and ability to safely deliver vaccines and therapeutics to patients is paramount to Moderna’s lasting success,” Leopold says.
As a younger woman in her position, Leopold occasionally feels like an imposter, but she knows she wouldn’t have been hired if she wasn’t the right person for the job.
“I know emergency management, crisis management and business continuity like the back of my hand,” she says. “I could hopefully do it in my sleep.”
In addition, unlike in many other organizations, half of the people at Moderna are women, and its broader corporate security team comprises many female professionals of different ages and diverse educational and professional backgrounds as well.
Although it can be intimidating sometimes for women to go into a security field, Leopold hopes that there will be more undergraduate programs in security and resiliency management and more young people will consider coming into the industry.
“They’ll see someone like me, and they’ll say, ‘Hey, if she can do it, so can I,’” she says. “It’s such a fascinating and growing field.”