November 2015

Didi Summers: Taking The Reins on Life

Author: Lucy Rosen

She is a woman who saves bees from swimming pools and brakes for squirrels. She is the Hilton Head Island resident (since 2005) who bought the broken down Lawton Stables in Sea Pines Resort and turned it into a world-class riding facility, complete with an internationally-acclaimed riding academy, a non-profit therapeutic horseback riding program, and a free petting zoo that is a highlight for Hilton Head Island visitors and residents alike. Did she stop to think about her hay allergy or the fact that she isn’t a “horse person?” No. She only saw horses looking sad, hot and poorly cared for. If there is one word that describes Didi Summers, it is kind. Two words? Kind… and driven.

Summers has money—even came from money—but she is also a woman who left home young and quickly became self-sufficient, finishing high school at age 16 and college at 19. Leaving the security of her home and arriving in New York City with $60 in her pocket to attend the prestigious Manhattan School of Music forced her to find a job, and find one fast. Although her tuition was partly paid by scholarship, the cost of living was too high to get by without help, so the masters in music was not to be. But her path opened myriad opportunities.
Summers took a job as a legal secretary at the white-shoe law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, because it paid $10 more a week than any other job she could find. The lawyers liked her because she was smart, she typed fast, and she was always up for overtime. The senior partners noticed her because she made the junior lawyers look good. Two years later, one of her senior partner mentors suggested she go to law school and wrote her a letter of recommendation. The next fall, she enrolled at Fordham Law, working full time at night and going to school during the day.

After earning her degree and accepting a job at a smaller firm, love arrived in the form of a Swiss investment banker whom she married. Summers left the U.S. and moved to Geneva, where she attended dinner parties with her husband, soaking up information about deals, mergers, and money management. In the process, she realized she excelled at problem solving.

Summers has had her challenges, including two divorces and a difficult childhood. Her mother, of Chinese descent, left the U.S. for Hong Kong to give birth to her and then left Summers there for four years to be cared for by her grandparents. Upon reuniting with her parents in the States, Summers’ mother (a “Dragon Mom,” she says) allowed no friends, no socializing, and was intent on making Summers a journalist. Forced to write an essay about every excursion and activity, Summers became averse to venturing out; instead, she ventured in—into books. Often reading 20 books a week, she gravitated toward literary works and historical novels, giving credit to these works for shaping her into the woman she is today. Her values were not learned at the dinner table nor through conversations with her parents, but from books such as Black Beauty, which taught her to be kind to animals and The Scarlet Letter, which led her to an understanding of how she wanted to be known in the world.

Many in Summers’ situation might have lived a life of self-pity, but Summers is not one to play the victim. In fact, one of her favorite business books, Who Moved My Cheese? is about accepting and even capitalizing on change. The CheckList Manifesto, another of Summers’ favorites, is mandatory reading for all of her employees because of its focus on lists and logic.

As a musically gifted lawyer, budding journalist and lover of logic, what Summers is most passionate about is psychology; she is enrolled in graduate school online at Wake Forest to obtain her masters in clinical mental health.

There is a direct correlation between therapy and law, Summer said, in that both require confronting an issue and addressing the solution. This thought process coincides with her current project, The Hilton Head Institute (HHI), an organization she has been active in shaping for the past year and a half.

“We’re a member-driven organization of people who have come together to have respectful and civil dialogue. Our hope is that by talking to each other with a shared sense of purpose, we can identify issues of importance and find solutions.”
The Institute’s tagline, “Informing the Present. Transforming the Future” is indicative of the organization’s goal: to ask the big questions in order to start courageous, thought-provoking, solution-based conversations, and to bring world-class experts to the Lowcountry as contributors to and participants in the dialogue.

One of the most talked about events of the season was an Institute-sponsored event called The Forum. In May, Summers and the board of directors brought together Hilton Head Institute members and thought-leaders from a variety of industries for a successful weekend at the Westin Resort.

“We all know the world is changing, and those changes are impacting us as individuals, communities, nations, and civilizations,” Summers said. “Globalization, new technologies, and changing values have dramatically influenced how we define ourselves and our place in the world. We [HHI] are people who are seeking greater knowledge and understanding of these issues so we can have respectful dialogue and possibly work toward solutions, individually and collectively.

“I know I’m not going to change the world by myself, but I do believe strongly in cause and effect. I know I can either participate fully in life, or I can sit on the sidelines and watch life happen,” she added. “I’m choosing active participation—always.” 

Membership in Hilton Head Institute is open. For more information, visit hiltonheadinstitute.org.

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