Sheila Nix, ’89, is the president of Tusk Philanthropies. The New York–based foundation funds and runs campaigns in states around the US aimed at two goals: enacting antihunger legislation and establishing voting by mobile phone as a way to increase voter participation.
Accomplishing those big goals requires a distinctive array of leadership attributes, including political savvy, strategic acumen, communications expertise, and administrative excellence. Nix has shown during her career that she has them all, and more.
After graduating from the Law School, she had been at Arnold & Porter for a couple of years when she became in-house counsel for the presidential campaign of Bob Kerrey. “As with any campaign,” she recalled, “you wind up doing a lot of things beyond your job description, and so I got to do a lot of different work, thoroughly enjoying the whole experience.” After the campaign ended, Kerrey hired her to serve on his senatorial staff, where she began working on health care reform and rose to become legislative director and eventually chief of staff. When Kerrey retired from the Senate in 2000, she became chief of staff to the newly elected Florida senator, Bill Nelson.
Her skills attracted attention back in Illinois, and she joined the Blagojevich administration as a senior advisor before later serving two years as deputy governor. “The governor was not as interested in day-to-day policy, and that meant staffers like me got very directly involved. I’m proud of many of our accomplishments, including getting health care coverage for all Illinois children and creating open road tolling throughout the state,” she said.
At her next job, she was senior vice president of the company that created the direct-mail components of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. After that, she was hired in 2009 as the US executive director of ONE, the campaign spearheaded by U2 lead singer Bono to combat extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
“It might seem unlikely to some people that things I learned at the Law School were helpful to me even when working on campaigns or advocating for sub-Saharan Africa,” she said. “But in fact, there hasn’t been a time in my career when I haven’t benefitted from my UChicago education—from having learned how to approach any problem, get as close as you can to the essence of it, and maybe find new ways of solving it. I have advised many young people that even if they don’t know whether they want to become lawyers, there’s no place that will prepare them for future success as well as the Law School.”
Three years after she joined ONE, she was hired to serve as Vice President Biden’s chief of staff for the 2012 presidential campaign. When that role was successfully completed and she had helped organize the vice president’s part of the inaugural ceremonies, she was talking with the vice president about a role in his office when she got a call from Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, asking her to become her chief of staff.
She took that job and held it until Inauguration Day in 2017. “Dr. Biden is a very admirable, very grounded person who is committed to many issues, including serving veterans, teachers, students, and women and girls across the globe,” Nix said. “One of the things you learn from working for a person with deep commitments but no power to legislate change is how to promote policy through media attention and personal interactions. Dr. Biden was great at that.”
As she was considering what her next career step might be, she talked to Bradley Tusk, ’99, who had been her predecessor as deputy governor of Illinois and who later established the consulting firm Tusk Strategies, which helps clients facing complex goals develop and execute large-scale campaigns. “I was talking to Bradley about what I might do next, but when he suggested that I spearhead the mobile voting project and continue the focus on hunger prevention as president of Tusk Philanthropies, I could see that it was just the kind of challenge and opportunity I would want to take on,” she said. “And here I am, thrilled to be doing what I’m doing and looking forward to every new day.”