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Unbuttoned with Michelle Sie Whitten, CEO of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation

michelle sie whitten
Meet Michelle

Michelle Sie Whitten is the President and CEO of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, a world-wide nonprofit that is dedicated to significantly improving the lives of people with Down syndrome through research, medical care, education and advocacy.

This Harvard educated, former television executive with a philanthropic heart is an unstoppable leader. She found her life’s calling when her daughter, Sophia, was born with Down syndrome 12 years ago. Realizing that Down syndrome was the least funded and most misunderstood genetic condition in the United States, Whitten founded the Global Down Syndrome Foundation in 2009 along with her parents, Anna and John J. Sie, (the founder of the Encore and Starz Cable Networks).

Under Michelle's leadership, The Global Down Syndrome Foundation created and organizes the Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show – the single-largest annual fundraiser benefiting people with Down syndrome om the U.S. The celebrity gala attracted over 1,400 guests this year, and has raised over $12 million since its launch for research, medical care, advocacy and education. This year, attendees included Terrence Howard, Jamie Foxx, Minka Kelly, Beau Bridges, John C. McGinley, and Miss Colorado Kelley Johnson, among others.

In Michelle's words

I’m the co-founder, President and CEO of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. We support 28 labs and over 100 scientists at the Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome and we support the Sie Center for Down Syndrome which provides life-changing medical care to over 1,100 unique patients.

Prior to establishing Global, I grew up in the cable industry and spent 13 years in various East Asian markets, mostly in China. At that time I thought our advertising joint venture and getting Desperate Housewives into China was a big deal.  Now I’m working hard to improve the lives of people with Down syndrome including my own daughter, Sophia.  What a strange but wonderful shake-up of priorities!

The non-profit world is not easy though. You can’t rely on a good product and business plan, sign a five year deal and work to it. You are essentially hat in hand year in and year out.  But my team and I try to be creative and mix the professional strategic planning expertise to the scrappy “help everyone now” non-profit culture. I admit it has taken us longer than I would have thought but we are making an impact and it feels great!

Unbuttoned with Michelle Sie Whitten

Style icon: My mother! She still buys me my best clothes… Honestly I don’t know name brands…for the longest time I thought “Is that a Pucci?” meant my belly looked too large!

Favorite heroine: Geena Davis in the Long Kiss Goodnight; Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft Tomb Raider

Dream lunch date: Pope Francis.  

Favorite cliché: “Fasten your seat belts…” a nod to Betty Davis; “Wish in one hand and spit in the other and see which one fills up faster” a nod to my hardworking immigrant background

Personal motto: I tried to be normal. Worst two minutes of my life!

Idea that changed your life: When I was in primary school my world was rocked several times – first when I learned the US was a slave-trading nation, then when I learned women in the US did not have equal rights, and then of course when I learned slavery and inequality for women still existed in the world.  From the feeling of shock came an equally strong feeling that anyone, including myself, could help change the world’s inequities.

Always trying to improve: Life balance! I’m a bit of a workaholic…

Most envious of: Those who don’t worry and get a good night sleep.

Most inspired by: My children who are both miracles, my immigrant parents, my late boss Peter Barton, Helen Keller (I read all her books as a child), and people who can drive a stick shift…I am determined to learn someday!!

Fashion item you would ban: Tongue rings. They freak me out! I start talking to someone who has one and I get fixated on the clicking and then completely miss what the person is saying…

Favorite piece in your wardrobe: A dress given to me by a Saudi Arabian princess who started a school for children with Down syndrome.

Biggest extravagance: Good food!  

Can’t bare to spend on: Expensive wine. I guess I have an immature or ignorant palate – I can’t tell the difference!

Irrational fear of: Spiders and creatures under the sea.

Brains or beauty:  Both! AND not OR!  And I assume you mean what I want in a husband or man…

Audrey or Katharine Hepburn: I love them both (I was raised on black and white films) but definitely Katharine if forced to choose.  I prefer the “guy-gal” versus the “girl-gal”…

Jennifer Lopez or Lawrence: Ooooh. I can’t choose.  I would like to go out on the town with either of them!  Jennifer Lopez is more my age so if forced to I would simply go with the talented, gorgeous man-magnet…

Diamonds or pearls:  Diamonds. I prefer sparkle to luster!

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