When you’re as busy as Stephanie Berger ’91, the best time to talk to anyone might be in the car. We caught up with her over the phone as she was navigating traffic en route to her Washington, D.C., office — the Hirschberg part of her company, Berger Hirschberg Strategies.
A former California finance director for Al Gore and national co-finance director for John Kerry during their presidential campaigns, Berger founded her own political and nonprofit consulting business in 2003, along with former Clinton presidential appointee Rachel Hirschberg. Berger runs the New York City office; Hirschberg operates from D.C. In the past 10 years, they have worked with “almost every woman governor who has been elected,” says the Memphis, Tenn., native, in her warm Southern drawl — a stubborn reminder of her upbringing, despite two decades living north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Berger is proud of her roots. She’s a Southern girl, she says, raised by a single mother who worked two jobs to ensure her daughter would get a solid education — first at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart in Houston, where Berger grew up, later at Sweet Briar, where she majored in politics and anthropology.
“Education was critical for my mom, and being able to give me an even playing field,” Berger remembers. “As a single mom, she had lots of struggles financially. She thought the best way to equip a woman today is to give her as much education as she possibly can so she can take care of herself.”
Following her own advice, mom Janice took one college course a semester and finally earned her bachelor’s degree at 49.
Having such a strong female role model made a big impact on Berger, as did her experience in the single-sex environment at Sacred Heart. She knew Sweet Briar would be a natural fit, but being at a women’s college wasn’t her top priority.
“My decision back then was based on, ‘Where could I go for the least amount of cost?’ Sweet Briar … really offered the best financial aid of any of the schools I looked at.”
The self-proclaimed “scholarship kid” thrived at Sweet Briar. She was part of the Student Government Association, Tau Phi, Aints ’n’ Asses and Earphones, and worked at the bistro all four years. Her junior and senior year, she was also a resident advisor.
“I did everything,” she recalls. “I was the girl in school that was very social, a good student, but not a perfect student … probably a B, B- student … I just think I was very well-rounded. Not at the top of my class, but not at the bottom. I went out, went to the boys’ schools, Hampden-Sydney, W&L, but I also attended classes, I also pursued my goals. I was in the middle of it.”
One of her proudest memories is the SGA Service Award she received her senior year, because she saw it as a reflection of her peers’ respect. That the service award usually went to students who stood out academically was icing on the cake.
“My family was like, ‘How did you do that?’ They were happy I was in that company.”
After Sweet Briar, Berger went to the University of Colorado, where she earned a master’s in public administration in 1995. Wanting to get involved in national politics, she moved back east to intern in Washington, D.C.
“I had no work connections there, but I had friends from SBC — I even stayed on one friend’s couch. When I moved to D.C., I just said, ‘I’ll get a waitressing job if I have to.’ I was doing that kind of stuff.”
In 1998, Berger got her first big job in politics, first as the finance director of the National Finance Council, for the party’s $5,000 donors, then as the director of the Democratic National Committee’s Jefferson Trust, the party’s $100,000 donor council.
Within two years, she was appointed finance director of the Southwest region, raising more than $18 million for Al Gore in 2000. As the national finance director for the DNC, Berger raised a record $23.8 million in the first half of 2001.
By then, she’d become interested in nonprofit development and from 2001 to 2003, served as associate vice-president of development for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Finding she missed politics, she returned to work as John Kerry’s co-finance director and strategist in the 2004 election.
But she had reached a crossroads.
“Because I had been the national finance director of the DNC before, I really had reached my ceiling in my early thirties.”
Berger decided to open her own company, Berger Hirschberg Strategies. It’s one of just a few political consulting firms run entirely by two women. That it’s working for Berger is testimony to her experience at Sweet Briar, she says.
“Most women have a hard time with two dominant people, and let me tell you, my business partner is pretty dominant,” she says, laughing. “I learned at Sweet Briar how to deal with powerful women and how to come together and interact.”
It’s no surprise that Berger’s ties to Sweet Briar remain strong 22 years later. Many lifelong friendships were formed during her undergraduate years, and she has consistently supported Sweet Briar as a donor at the Boxwood level. There’s always room for Reunion in her calendar, and she’s worked hard to bump up her class’s giving during those years.
Her motivation is simple: Having depended on financial aid herself, and having benefited so much from her education, Berger wants to make sure girls today receive the same opportunities.
“I would not be where I am today if I had not been given the opportunity to go to Sweet Briar,” she says. “I was given such a gift, and I will forever be indebted.”
She hopes to repay it over her lifetime through philanthropy, but there’s a bigger reason she gives: because supporting future women leaders is an investment in everyone’s future.
“Women have a tendency to be able to come to a consensus … Sweet Briar taught you leadership, but it wasn’t masculine. It was feminine and it was powerful. The more I get away from this school, the more I realize that that foundation is so key to who I am today,” she says.
Being single-sex ensured that female leaders were the norm, she says. Besides, the small classes made it impossible to hide.
“You had to express yourself.”
Much of her self-confidence stems from those formative years in high school and college.
“I was cultivated in a way that allowed me to be full, to be whole, and to be dominant in whatever career field I was going to be in,” she says.
Being ‘whole’ — academically, socially and individually — is an idea she returns to often in her memories of Sweet Briar.
“What I loved about Sweet Briar that I think was really critical, that makes me celebrate today, is the rituals,” she says. “A lot of us worked so hard, and what was really neat about those rituals was that there was a sense of fellowship. There were no sororities. We were very much encouraged to be a class, not separate.”
The same was true of her classes, Barbara Perry’s being her favorite.
“I was at Sweet Briar when the Gulf War broke out,” she remembers, adding that students were encouraged to engage in current affairs both in and outside the classroom.
“One thing that Sweet Briar was about was that you dove in; you were of service, you were full, you were a whole person. I wasn’t just reading about things; I was doing.”
Berger is still the same way today. Outside of work, she trains women in fundraising and nonprofit development and is a member of the Women Presidents’ Organization. She sits on many boards, including the board of directors of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, and is an adjunct professor in the Semester in Washington program at George Washington University. She’s also a triathlete who “loves Broadway” and spending time with her boyfriend whom she “will probably marry,” she says. “I guess I’m a late bloomer.”
At 44, Berger has never been married, never had children — not because she didn’t want to, but because life had other plans.
“Things happen as they’re supposed to, and this was going to be my story, my task,” she says. “I believe I’m on the right path.”
Is it what she expected in 1991? Maybe.
“I think that life turns out much better than we ever anticipate in our dreams,” she says.