Emily Callahan, the organization's chief marketing and experience officer, is hell-bent on paving the way for doctors to develop innovative treatments that can help save kid's lives.

By Shalayne Pulia
Sep 30, 2020 @ 3:55 pm
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Credit: Erica Jancelewicz

Emily Callahan is a storyteller at heart.

For the past decade as chief marketing and experience officer at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s fundraising and awareness organization, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), she has been making sure the real-life experiences of families with children battling cancer are heard and understood. “That’s the power of St. Jude,” Callahan says. “We intentionally have the patients and their families as the face and voice of the organization because I think the greatest brands in the world are authentic. And who could better authentically tell their story?”

Callahan’s open, honest approach to garnering attention and support from millions of people across the globe has driven the institution's annual revenue up from $600M in 2010 to more than $1.7 billion today. Essentially, her work helps make it possible for St. Jude to cover the full cost for everything from treatment to travel, housing, and food for families in their darkest hour, and to produce the kind of ground-breaking research and treatments that save lives. She is mighty proud of that. “I can honest-to-goodness say that working in nonprofit and particularly in the cancer space has made me a better person,” she says. “It’s taught me deeper empathy — and I was pretty off the charts with that to begin with.”

Before St. Jude, Callahan was also an integral part of reinvigorating the world’s largest breast cancer organization, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, as senior VP of global marketing and networks. “We created a movement when women didn’t talk about [breast cancer], and it was [shameful],” she says. “The trick to all of it is creating a movement, enabling and empowering everybody to see themselves in it, embrace it, and make the story their own.” Following the same principles at St. Jude today, Callahan says she looks optimistically towards the future.

“We have a really big, bold, global mission in partnership with the World Health Organization where we said we want to raise the overall survival rates for kids with six of the most common types of childhood cancers from 20% to 60% by 2030,” she says. “This is a cause that brings us together because we all can get behind the idea that kids should have a chance to grow up and thrive.”

Credit: Emily Callahan

Honing Her Skills:

After graduating with degrees in journalism and marketing, the small-town Oklahoma-born executive found herself rising in the ranks at the world’s largest independent PR firm. But something seemed to be missing. “I was geared towards the wrong things and achievements,” she says. “So, I decided that I would reorient my life.” Callahan, whose father once worked as a funeral director (among various other trades like stand-up comedy and piloting), says she started living by her "funeral principle." This meant she began thinking about what kind of legacy she wanted to leave. “I want the people who loved me to say, ‘She served God, she was a great wife and partner, and a great mom and friend. That she made a difference in the world and that she had fun while doing it,’ ” Callahan says. So, when a recruiter reached out to her around 2004 and offered her the chance to delve into nonprofit marketing for a cancer-fighting organization, she jumped at the opportunity. “My parents taught me that the two most important times you can be there for someone is when they come into the world and when they go out,” she says. “Now, putting my head on the pillow at night and knowing that my work made a difference — I don’t know if I could ever go back from that.”

Keeping Up The Fight:

“Cancer didn’t stop because we have a pandemic; cancer never stops no matter what is going on in the world,” Callahan says. “That means our work has to continue.” The executive says she believes cancer’s equalizing nature is what keeps fighting the disease at the top of people’s minds and hearts, despite everything going on this year. “We were founded at the height of segregation [in 1960] in Memphis, Tenn. — that was before Dr. King showed up,” she says. “[But we] said this [hospital] is going to be a place that takes care of kids regardless of race, religion, or creed and that no one would ever pay. That’s a crazy business model if you think about it, but it stands true today.” And Callahan is here to see that mission through. “There is so much divisiveness and hate and ugly in the world,” she says. “This mission is something that unites us all.”

Moments of Mourning:

Over her tenure at the organization, Callahan has gotten to know many patients that have come through the doors of St. Jude. The patients that tend to stick with her, however, are the ones whose lives have been lost. One of the first was a young girl named Arianna who lost her battle against a brain tumor. “Her amazing doctor, who is one of the greatest humans I’ve ever seen on this planet, pushed and pushed and pushed and even invented new treatments,” Callahan says. But, ultimately, the disease took over. Despite this tragedy, the executive says her work has taught her to find the silver-linings even in the toughest situations. “I had the privilege of being asked to come over and to say goodbye to her when she was at the end of her life,” Callahan says. “That family had every right to fall apart, and they didn’t. They went on to become great fundraisers. The father actually now works for us.” Callahan says she is also often very moved when celebrities come to visit the hospital and begin to support the organization. One particularly special advocate was Chadwick Boseman, who lost his battle with colon cancer last month. “Chadwick Boseman was everything that the world was saying he is and more. I remember being very struck by our time with him,” she says. “Watching him with the patients and families, we had no idea [about his cancer] … now it makes so much more sense."

Credit: Emily Callahan

Making It Through:

“The losses are really hard,” she admits. “But I’ve watched parents who have lost their children, and they have every right to crawl in bed and pull the covers over their head and never get up again, but they do anyway. And they thrive, working hard to raise money on behalf of our cause because they want their children’s lives to have a legacy. That inspires me.” Of course, Callahan also says the organization’s core goal of saving kids’ lives is a huge motivator. “On our dang worst days, we better dust ourselves off and start over tomorrow because there are still kids dying around the world,” she says.On the days I’ve said, ‘I think I’m going to quit,’ even my little one, my [8-year-old] son will say, ‘You can’t! They need you at St. Jude.’ ” Callahan says she is also uplifted by the thought that she is never alone. “There are literally millions of people from all walks of life that support this mission,” she says. “Making sure that they all feel engaged and inspired while staying true to our founding [principle] focused on equality is really important to us.”

Personal Power:

“My morning routine is really sacrosanct for me,” Callahan says, when asked about how she gets ready to face the day. “I get up, spend time in meditation and prayer, read something that I feel fills my soul, read through the news of the day, check some social media, and then I work out.” Callahan also says she finds joy in fashion and beauty. “Fashion can just be fun and creative, but I think it's deeply tied to our emotions and how we express ourselves, feel about ourselves, and project ourselves to the world,” she says. “I love that fashion has the power to make us feel powerful.”

Most Badass Moment:

When Callahan gets the chance to relax, she and her family love to travel. But she’s not only in it for the sight-seeing across the 20-plus countries she has visited over the years — she has a taste for  true adventure. Her most badass adventure to date? Diving with great white sharks in South Africa in 2012. “My husband and I went to South Africa and went diving with Great White sharks and repelling off Table Mountain and went to a rap concert,” she says, smiling ear-to-ear. Why on Earth would she jump into shark-infested waters? “Because life is meant to be lived,” she says. “And I think you’re not living if you don’t wake up just a little bit nervous or challenged every day.”

How Can You Help:

To put it simply: get involved. “Danny Thomas [St. Jude’s founder] had this fantastic phrase that we live by today. He said, 'I’d rather have a dollar from a million people than a million from one,’” Callahan says. “And today the average donation at St. Jude is $43. It’s not big, major gifts. It takes all of us.” Callahan says in addition to donations, one of the other best ways to help the organization is to share its stories.  During the pandemic, Callahan took that idea to a new level, gathering and publishing positive stories from within St. Jude and beyond. It’s called ‘St. Jude Inspire,’” she says. “We decided that there was enough gross negativity in the world that we wanted to collect inspiring stories. Some of them are about St. Jude’s, some are not. So if you want a lift, go and read stories about the good that’s happening in the world, and help us do more of that.”

For more information on St. Jude, visit stjude.org