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Finding My Voice, with Valerie Jarrett

Finding My Voice, with Valerie Jarrett


Episode 161: Finding My Voice, with Valerie Jarrett

As we continue counting down for Mobilize Women Summit 2019, Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the Obama Foundation and Attn:, joins us this week for a conversation with our very own Sallie Krawcheck. On this episode, Valerie reflects on how she got to where she is, how her relationship with the Obamas began, and the complicated world of politics. She also shares the importance of stepping outside your comfort zone, creating a safe space for talent, as well as her favorite and least favorite memories from the White House. From listening to your own voice to how she hired Michelle Robinson (Obama), Valerie and Sallie will take the stage at Mobilize Women on June 21st to share more life lessons and continue this intimate conversation.


Episode Transcript

00:13 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host, Maricella Herrera. Maricella, how excited are you for the podcast today?

00:25 Maricella Herrera: So excited. So excited.

00:27 KW: We have such a treat in store for our listeners getting ready, getting super jazzed and excited for the upcoming Mobilize Women Summit to be held June 21st in New York City and we're giving you a special sneak peek today. Who's our guest, Maricella? You wanna announce it? 'Cause you put so much hard work into creating the summit.

00:49 MH: I'm so excited because we don't just have one of our speakers...

00:54 KW: Oh yes.

00:54 MH: We have two of our speakers. You are in for quite a treat in this conversation between Valerie Jarrett and our very own Sallie Krawcheck.

01:05 KW: Yes. Yeah. It's a great conversation. They touch on so many fantastic topics: Finding your voice, advocacy, just navigating career and life, being a working parent, hardships. Valerie shared just some really powerful stories. And I know a lot of this is in her book, which just came out, which is in my bag. I grabbed a copy 'cause I cannot wait to read it tonight.

01:32 MH: That's so exciting.

01:33 KW: It's... Yeah. I've been inspired by Valerie for all of time, so just having her at our summit and in the office today, having a intimate chat with Sallie Krawcheck was lots of fun.

01:46 MH: Yeah. I was thinking about it, 'cause everyone was fan-girling and really happy to have them here at the office. And I was thinking of when we went to the United State of Women, a few years ago, would have never thought that Valerie Jarrett would be in our office a few years after. [chuckle]

02:03 KW: Yeah, well we... So we were at the United State of Women, which Valerie put a lot of work into creating that, along with Tina Chen and Jordan Brooks. And then, we also... I was at two briefings at the White House...

02:16 MH: Yeah, that's true.

02:16 KW: When Valerie was heading up the Council on Women and Girls, and they very graciously invited the Ellevate community in to just hear our voices, to understand where we stood on issues and to also talk to us about some of the key areas around healthcare, criminal justice, education, equal pay, and economic stimulus, that we as citizens can play a role in not just raising awareness, but using our voice and our influence to create change. So it was, it's... Yeah. I have a long history with Valerie Jarrett. She probably just doesn't... She doesn't remember it, but I do.

02:56 MH: She doesn't know it yet?

[laughter]

02:57 KW: She doesn't know it, but I do.

[laughter]

03:00 KW: But yeah. So the conversation was great. We cannot wait for all of you to hear it. We wanna hear what you think, so please let us know. Send us a Tweet @EllevateNtwk or email us at podcast@ellevatenetwork.com. And if you are bummed that you missed seeing this conversation in real life, sign up for Ellevate's the Morning Boost newsletter, where you will receive all of the great insights, invites, and information about what's happening here at Ellevate Network.

[music]

03:40 Sallie Krawcheck: Hello everyone. We've got one of my favorite people here with us today, Valerie Jarrett. And people often say, "Oh, you need no introduction." This is someone who actually needs no introduction.

03:50 Valerie Jarrett: Thank you, Sallie. I feel the same way about you.

03:52 SK: Well, I don't know about that, but for the hard work you've done for this country on behalf of people who don't have a voice in this country, on behalf also of women, being such a role model for so many of us, welcome. And just first of all, just thank you, thank you, thank you, for the work that you've done.

04:11 VJ: I appreciate you saying that.

04:12 SK: And that you continue to do as well. So we are so excited to have you here to talk about "Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward." And I'm gonna get really personal, really quickly.

04:25 VJ: Great. [laughter] Fine with me.

04:28 SK: You're not getting out of this one without getting personal.

04:30 VJ: It's all in there, so...

04:32 SK: Well, but it's interesting, Valerie, because you have been a behind-the-scenes type of person for most of your career, and you talk about your shyness, and here you are coming and being public with this book. Can I hear a little bit about the journey that got you from, "Hey, don't look at me," to being such a leader for us?

04:55 VJ: Well, so my... The reason I wrote the book is, my daughter asked me, when she interviewed me, oh, about three years ago when she was 30, "What would you tell a 30-year-old Valerie Jarrett?" And so when I started reflecting back on who I was at 30, where I had made this ridiculous plan when I came out of college, I'd go right to law school and fall in love and get married and have a baby and have a successful career, and live happily ever after. And when I was 30, all of that was falling apart. Except the baby, the baby was great.

05:23 SK: The baby was good.

05:23 VJ: But the marriage was falling apart, I was miserable in a big law firm, and I was not listening to the most important voice, the quiet one inside of me. And so I thought, "Well, let me tell a story about how I went from that very shy, rather insecure young adult, who became a single mom who never, in my wildest dreams, thought I would be that, who felt like a failure at my job and a failure at my marriage, into who I am today," in the hopes it would be useful, in the hopes that people can see a little bit of themselves in it. And particularly for younger people, maybe I could spare them some of what I went through where I was trying to be superhuman. We were... We often talk about what it's like and you're trying to be the very best at your job and the very best spouse and the very best mom.

06:09 SK: I was like that once. [chuckle]

06:10 VJ: Right?

06:11 SK: Right.

06:11 VJ: I used to make baby food from scratch in the middle of the night.

06:12 SK: Oh, come on!

06:13 VJ: In the middle of the night after having worked all day. That's the most ridiculous thing in the world. But I think a lot of that I put on myself, I was just trying to be superhuman, and I was dropping balls all over the place. And so when I finally started asking for help and being honest with both myself and being honest with whom I worked about how hard it was, it's really where I start to develop this passion for working families, and how can we make it easier for them, and how could those of us who are in a position to do something speak up for ourselves? And we talked about how the next generation speaks up a lot, and certainly we spoke up more than the prior generation. And so, it's all a work in progress.

06:50 SK: Yeah. It's funny because I didn't know that about you until the book. And similarly, at the age of 29, 30, I felt like a complete failure. I was unemployed, I just had a baby, I'd been through one marriage, I was into another marriage, and just felt like this is it, I've made these mistakes, and so my career is over, and it turned out it wasn't.

[laughter]

07:13 VJ: Far from it, far from it. And I think that's part of the point too, right? We do get to be resilient, and come back, and in a sense, what I learned early on is that when I was craving the comfort zone of what I thought I should be doing, it was just horrible. And when I swerved out of it and did what my heart told me I wanted to do, that's when the adventure began. The reason why so I encourage people to... Don't do what everyone else says you should do, do what you wanna do. And everyone was so proud of me being this big, fancy lawyer with a big paycheck and all that, but I was miserable. And I left it to join city government, and began several years in public service, and that was what I was really inspired by.

08:00 SK: And so the message to the 30-year-old Valerie Jarrett?

08:03 VJ: Swerve!

08:03 SK: Swerve!

08:03 VJ: Swerve!

[laughter]

08:04 VJ: And is it scary? Of course it is. It's also invigorating, and exhilarating when you do it. And I think I lacked the confidence when I was 30 to think that I could do something different, and it would be okay. And let's say it wasn't and I fell, get back up. Get back up, and you can reinvent yourself a million times, you get multiple chapters.

08:26 SK: You know, this is such an important message, because the research tells us that we women take failure harder than men do.

08:31 VJ: Of course.

08:32 SK: And we get embarrassed by it and I love your advice of just get back up, and by the way, no one's paying as much attention to you as you are, right? People are busy living their own lives.

08:42 VJ: I'm telling you, I can remember when the newspapers in Chicago would say something critical about me, and one of my best friends saw the paper, and she said, "Great photograph." Well, she hadn't even read the article.

[laughter]

08:53 VJ: She hadn't read the article, so the moral is I have a good picture, but it's, you have to learn to not take... Take issues seriously, you can't take yourself that seriously. And you have to recognize that everybody stumbles, and if you don't stumble, then you're not trying hard enough to get outside of your comfort zone. And I think you're right, there is a willingness to take those chances that, oftentimes, men have. So for example, asking for a promotion. I had a client when I worked for city government, he said to me, "You should ask for a promotion. In fact, you should ask for a double promotion. Your boss should report to you." And I thought, "That's ridiculous." I thought two things. One, "That's ridiculous." And number two, "When I'm worthy of a promotion, my boss will give it to me." That's ridiculous, and she's said that. She said, "You better get in there, and get in there, and get in there." And finally I only asked for it, so she'd get off my back, which is what mentors are supposed to do. They push you and push you, right? And my boss said yes. And then I asked one of my other colleagues, I said, "You should go get a promotion." She's like, "No, no, no, when he thinks I'm deserving... "

09:54 SK: Oh, my God.

09:54 VJ: "He'll give it to me."

[laughter]

09:55 SK: I read something... There's a lot of bad stuff that happens on Twitter. I read something really great on Twitter the other day, which is, "You don't... " Maybe you said it, [chuckle] "You don't get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate."

10:07 VJ: Absolutely.

10:07 SK: Which I thought was a really great, really great comment, although, I don't know how you'd ask your boss to be his boss, that one seems a little difficult for me.

10:14 VJ: Well, so I didn't. But I went in to my boss's, boss's boss and I asked the head of the department, and I said, "Look, I've practiced law for six years from a private sector, I've been doing work that's more sophisticated than what the person to whom I report is doing, and I think she should report to me." And he says, "You know what, you're right." And I wonder how long he was thinking that...

10:33 SK: That's amazing, that's amazing.

10:34 VJ: But he didn't do it until I pushed for it. And then later, years later, decades later, I found out that my mentor, my client had already gone and talked to him.

10:42 SK: Oh, that's amazing.

10:43 VJ: But she wanted me to learn how to go in there and ask for myself and I thought that that... That's really when I began to find my voice in terms of advocating for me.

10:51 SK: And you're saying the client, you said, "She," didn't you?

10:53 VJ: She, yes.

10:53 SK: Yeah, see, this is...

10:55 VJ: Yes, absolutely.

10:57 SK: This is the thing, right?

10:58 VJ: First mentor I'd had who was a woman, black woman, and she was a force to be reckoned with. And she took me to meetings all over City Hall, she was really a tough negotiator on behalf of the city, and she taught me the importance of remembering every dollar we spent, wasn't our money, it was taxpayer dollars. So I learned a lot from her. And she would do things like come to my home after... Let's say 7 o'clock at night so I could put Laura to bed, and then after I'd put her to bed, we'd work from my home.

11:24 SK: Oh, my gosh!

11:25 VJ: Who does that?

11:27 SK: Oh, my gosh. Well, you know, I've really been thinking a lot about some recent research that says, for... One of the drivers of men's success is having a diverse, large network in which they're active. And for women, it's having a diverse, large network in which we're active and having our girls club. It's having a group of women who have your back.

11:46 VJ: Absolutely.

11:46 SK: I think in part because the issues that affect us, because of our gender, and also, of course, because of skin color in occasions, are different from that that affect white men, and having that squad is important which, unfortunately, some folks don't have.

12:01 VJ: Many don't have, and I can say to you, when I was younger and I didn't really have it, I used to think, "Well, if I were smarter, if I just worked harder, if I were more efficient, organized, if I slept fewer hours, maybe it wouldn't be so hard, so there must be something wrong with me, and it's hard." And when I started opening up and telling people what I was going through, what did I find out? My friends were all going through the same thing. And we were so busy pretending to ourselves and to everybody else, that we didn't have the support that we could've had. And once we opened up, oh, my gosh, we rallied for each other. And I couldn't have gotten through most of my career without my girlfriends, true girlfriends. We all have those friends that are actually not true...

12:39 SK: Our frenemies.

12:39 VJ: Right, our frenemies or the nice, nasty girls, and along the way, I kind of purged from all of that, and I just grew up with people who were rooting for me as I was rooting for them.

12:51 SK: Yeah. And so you've had some amazing experiences. I don't think I've... I've never told you this before, I had the privilege of visiting you in your office in the White House. And the thing I remember, besides how gracious you were, and informed you were, and hard-working you were, was I could tell how hard-working you were because... Do you remember that on your windowsill was a stick, it was a plant that was a stick. I guess it had been an orchid?

13:19 VJ: Once upon a time...

13:19 SK: Do you remember?

13:20 VJ: I loved orchids. Yeah, I had white phalaenopsises.

13:23 SK: There was a stick. I visited you twice.

13:26 VJ: It was still there?

13:28 SK: The first time... Yeah, it was twice, there twice. The first time there was a stick, and I'm like, "Well, you know, those things fall off, and then it's like a stick." And when I came back a couple of months later...

13:36 VJ: It's still there.

13:36 SK: This woman is so busy, she hasn't removed the stick from...

13:40 VJ: You know what, sometimes they come back, you just have to give them like six months.

13:43 SK: Did that orchid come back?

13:45 VJ: I hope so, I hope so. I'm pretty good with orchids.

[laughter]

13:49 VJ: And if not, it finally got to the point where I noticed it and threw it away.

13:51 SK: This is how hard these folks are working that they did not notice that.

13:55 VJ: I didn't have time to worry about that.

13:55 SK: So you, y'all accomplished an extraordinaire amount in the White House. When you sit back, and I was looking at some of the notes here, which are gonna now make me put on my glasses, making... You made it possible for 20 million people to have healthcare, you made sure that LGBTQIA couples could get married, you brought 150,000 troops home from two wars. Wow. How were you able to... How were y'all able to come together and accomplish so much when we typically think about Washington, DC as being the home base of gridlock?

14:34 VJ: Well, I do say Tom starts at the top. It helped to work for a president who I respected greatly, had known forever, who shared my values in this vision of America where we all pull together, and we try to make sure that everybody has an opportunity. And I think what we did is organize ourselves around a variety of different key issues that were his priorities. And so there was a healthcare team, an economy team, and then a foreign policy team, and they bubbled up policies which then we, as senior advisors, looked at and vetted and engaged people to make sure that the people whose lives were gonna be impacted supported what we were doing. And then we tried to move forward, and you have to be bold and you have to be relentless. And let's face it, you're right. Washington, getting anything done in that town is difficult. You can't let perfect be the enemy of the good. So for example, you talk about the Affordable Care Act. Well, seven presidents before President Obama had tried to get it passed, and there were many who thought we should do a public option. You might say that was the purest way of ensuring everyone has quality healthcare. We couldn't get that passed.

15:38 VJ: And so we didn't just hold our breath and say, "Well, if we can't have exactly what we want, we're not gonna go forward." We made all kinds of accommodations to try to get the votes that we needed. And I think that that's one of the lessons, is it... Compromise can be thoughtful. And I actually think women are better at being able to look at like a... What's going on in your shoes and how can I get you comfortable and get me comfortable, and I don't mind moving a little bit if I can actually get something done.

16:05 SK: But compromise seems to be viewed as capitulation or...

16:09 VJ: I know.

16:09 SK: It's weakness, or embarrassment, or something.

16:12 VJ: But see, we know it's not. It's none of that. In fact, it really takes strength to be able to say, "Yes, I know that the people who support me most want X, but I can't get X done, but I'm willing to take the heat to do Y." And so, to your point, 20 million people have healthcare and women have preventive care without a copay. Young people can stay on their parent's plan. One in two Americans have pre-existing conditions, myself included. All of that is covered because we did not let perfect be the enemy of good.

16:39 SK: Well, and I also wanna talk about some of the great work you did for women, that was front and center for y'all. The first United State of Women, for example, you and Tina Chen. Can you talk a little bit about what you accomplished there, and how you view that in hindsight?

16:53 VJ: So President Obama created the first-ever White House Council of Women and Girls, and it was... Rather than having just one office in the White House, our council was comprised of every department and agency in the federal government. And we looked at everything we did, all of our policies, our programs, legislation we supported, through a gender lens and asked the question, "Will this improve the lives of women and girls?" And so it was everything from encouraging young girls to go into STEM fields and making sure we had a science fair where we celebrated even kindergarten girls who were interested in science, to focusing on how can we make college more accessible to people who ordinarily wouldn't have the opportunity, and how can we help them aspire to go to college and make it affordable when they get there? How do we make sure that working families are thriving?

17:41 VJ: This was something that I cared so much about because, Sallie, when I was a young, single mom, I felt like I was holding on by my fingertips. But I had health insurance, I had a good paying job, I didn't have to worry about whether I could pay my rent. I had two parents who lived a mile away. My dad took my daughter to school and picked her up every single day. With all that going for me, I still was struggling. So I used to think, when I was a young mom, "What about those working families who were on a second shift, making minimum wage? Who's fighting for them?" And so in the White House, Tina and I decided we were fighting for them. And so, it's everything from paid leave, to paid sick days, to workplace flexibility, to equal pay, to an environment free from sexual harassment or assault. And what we've found is, rather than saying, "This is a nice to-do for women," how about, "This is a business imperative." How about, "It's a competitive advantage in a global marketplace, to both attract and retain talent." And what we're finding is that employers who get that actually have a more productive, more efficient, loyal workplace, and they're more profitable.

18:49 SK: This is what drives me over the edge, which is the research about this is so clear.

18:52 VJ: It's so clear.

18:53 SK: And yet, we haven't made the progress the research says we should have made simply to grow the economy. And the fact that we don't have any mandated parental leave, mandated maternal leave...

19:03 VJ: We're the only developed country.

19:05 SK: Oh, crazy.

19:06 VJ: Only developed country. How could that be? Every other country in the world gets this and we're competing for talent against those countries, right? Because you can live anywhere now. How are we gonna make sure that our company is even better?

19:17 SK: And female workforce participation is beginning to decline.

19:19 VJ: Well, I just read the study a few weeks ago, because of longer hours, right?

19:23 SK: Oh my gosh, I know. I know. But...

[laughter]

19:27 SK: As I get older, as I get... When I was at... We were talking before we started. In my 20s, I'm like, "Oh, this is all... We're... It's all gonna be great." My 30s, I went into a fugue state of kids and job and all the stuff and then, when I came back, it's like, "Ah!" Right?

[overlapping conversation]

19:44 VJ: We're able to do that. I think. I do think, and you saw this with the MeToo Movement and the activism, and the women's march after the last inauguration, the number of women who ran for office and are now representing us in Congress, we are making great inroads and I think what we have to do is just make sure we're supporting women and girls so that they can get that equal opportunity and compete on a level playing field. And right now, it's still very uneven, and we have to do what we can to speak up for ourselves where we can, and when we can't, we need people who will do that for us.

20:16 SK: Well, we've all read about how, in the White House, there was sort of a pact amongst the women there to support each other and help each other speak up, and I thought that was an important lesson for the rest of us.

20:27 VJ: And we needed that organically. I think some of the press reports made it look like we got in a car and decided to do it. What happened is, President Obama met with us because some of the women's voices were shrinking and he was worried about that. And he said, "Look, if you're not speaking up, and I'm not getting the best ideas possible, because you're gonna have a different perspective than I will." But when you tell a group of women they're not doing their job, everybody's like, "Okay, I gotta speak up."

20:51 SK: [laughter] "I gotta get my A, I'm only getting a B+ today."

20:55 VJ: But, the reason we started speaking up for each other is I started hosting these dinners, after my dinner with him. With the women, so we talked about our children, and we talked about parents who were getting older and what we had done in our lives, we shared our stories. And so, if you see somebody in a meeting the next day and you just had dinner with them the night before, and you know them and you trust them, you're gonna rally for them. And then also, if you're looking around the room and you're about to say something and you're a little nervous, and you made eye contact with somebody who you know is in your corner, then you're much more likely to speak up. And so it happened quite organically 'cause we developed relationships with each other, and what he would often say is that in the beginning, he had the best players on the field.

21:35 SK: Oh, I love... I know what... Yep. Yep.

21:37 VJ: But in time, he had the best team.

21:39 SK: Best team.

21:39 VJ: And team is any... As you know as an entrepreneur, I mean, the White House is the same thing. We started with zero, and you go from zero to whatever. It takes time, it takes... You have to get to know one another, the strengths and weaknesses of each other, and that's when trust.

21:54 SK: I think you've hit on something. You sort of glanced against it, which I think is important, which is, we don't talk about enough, but you have to have a supportive boss.

22:03 VJ: Yeah.

22:03 SK: And I don't think we talk enough about, we women can be there getting our A's and turning in the project on time and doing great work. If the CEO and the boss don't get it, then you're doomed immediately, and this coming together, I think we as women have been socialized that it's each for herself.

22:22 VJ: Yes.

22:23 SK: As opposed to, "Hey, we are pretty much half the workforce."

22:28 VJ: We could be a team.

22:29 SK: "If we come together, we can actually make greater advances than otherwise."

22:33 VJ: And you're absolutely right, and I think part of the magic in our White House is just that, Tom does start at the top and he empowered us and made it clear what his expectations were, that we would support one another as an entire team. And when that doesn't happen, it is every person for themselves. And to your other point, in terms of finding an environment where you can thrive, I will say, if you are in a position, and not everyone is, most people aren't, but if you are in a position to make your interview a two-way interview, ask the questions on the front end to see whether or not you're gonna be able to thrive, and that might be gender, it might be race, it might be sexual orientation or gender identity, it might be religion, whatever it is, if you don't think you can be your whole self in that workplace, then find somewhere else if you can. And I often tell a story in terms of the empowerment issue about Mayor Daley, who was kinda terrifying as a boss early on. I was kinda... [chuckle] When I first was Commissioner of Planning and Development, I would go into meetings and I was just...

[laughter]

23:33 VJ: Everything had to be perfect, right? And there was one of...

23:37 SK: I think I'm one of those bosses. [chuckle]

23:38 VJ: Right? He's kinda scary guy. So it was one of those meetings where I was looking at my watch, and there was a woman who was his chief lawyer, corporation counsel on the other side of the table, and we made eye contact and we kept looking at our watches, and I don't... And so finally, he noticed us. And I don't know what I would've said if she hadn't been there, but her presence gave me the strength to say, when he said, "What are you doing looking at your watch?" I said, "Well sir, the Halloween parade starts in 20 minutes and we're 25 minutes away." And he said, "Then what are you doing here?"

24:07 SK: Oh.

24:08 VJ: And the... Oh my gosh, the relief that it gave, and Susan, who is one of my best friends today, we go racing down the street to our kids' school, and they're both in second grade, and they come out and they're looking and you can just see them, Sallie...

24:20 SK: Oh, looking for you. Oh.

24:20 VJ: They're looking in the crowd and we were there.

24:25 SK: Oh.

24:26 VJ: But, we wouldn't have been there if I hadn't spoken up. And I think that's part of it. If you have the power, or if you could empower yourself, you have to let your boss know what you need, and in return for him saying, "Go to the parade," I am to this day loyal to him.

24:42 SK: Well, you know what I love about what you just said? I love the lesson to it. And Valerie, I also love the acknowledgement that not all women can do that.

24:52 VJ: Many women cannot.

24:53 SK: That we are privileged to have the ability to say, "Hey boss, I wanna be at the parade." Rather than being job insecure and just knowing you gotta keep that job.

25:02 VJ: Exactly.

25:02 SK: Or having a boss who you sort of gotten to know more than likely.

25:06 VJ: Which is why we need senior women in positions of power, both on the board and in senior management, because the younger junior people in that company don't have a voice. But if you do, well you sure better use it for them.

25:20 SK: I wanna talk about the White House a little more. I know we're all just curious, incredibly curious about it. Best day in the White House?

25:27 VJ: Oh my gosh.

25:28 SK: And what was the worst?

25:30 VJ: Well, I'll do the worst first, because it always comes to mind, and that was after the Sandy Hook mass murder of 20 little first graders and six adults. And I was sitting in the Oval Office with President Obama and we learned that children were murdered, and I remember it just, it didn't sink in. It's like, how could that be and who could be? And we found out how old the person was who did it. He was young, and he murdered his mother before he did that. It's like, how could you do that to someone who's so young? And I travelled to Newtown with him just two days later, before they were doing funerals, and just seeing him speak to every single family, and the first responders, 'cause I think, oftentimes, people forget first responders are right there on the scene and they're traumatized as well. And it's the only time I ever saw a Secret Service agent cry.

26:23 SK: Oh my gosh.

26:24 VJ: It was during his remarks, yeah. And so, it's where you become this consoler in chief, and he had to go to far too many funerals, as did Mrs. Obama. I went with her to the funeral of the young woman, Hadiya Pendleton, who lived about a mile from where we live in Chicago, and she had been in the inaugural parade just a few weeks prior, and she's sitting on a park bench with her best friend, doing what you're supposed to be doing at that age, at 15, and also gunned down. So those were the worst days, and Sandy Hook, because of the sheer number was probably the worst.

26:57 SK: You know, something personal, if I might, I'm from Charleston, South Carolina and the shooting at the church there. And when he sang Amazing Grace. What an amazing individual, and what a consoler in chief for us.

27:12 VJ: That was one of the most extraordinary days, and I had been dreading going there, because again, by that point, we had been to so many funerals. But as you will know, it was a celebration of life, and it gave him a chance to talk about the black church, and the fact that many people don't appreciate that, not withstanding a history of attacks, and bombings, and children getting killed in a church, the door is always open. And that, even after this man did this atrocious act, after he'd spent an hour with the people, it wasn't like he walked in and blindly did it, he had spent an hour with them in prayer. And what did those families of the victims do? They said at court, "We forgive you. We forgive you."

27:55 VJ: And so, President Obama used that moment as a teaching moment, to really talk about the church and to say, "Yes, it's important that Governor Nikki Haley takes down the Confederate flag, but it's also important for me to invest in our schools." And through the relationship between police and communities of color, he used that moment to really rally us to think about, "What are we gonna do so that these kind of tragedies don't happen?" And the same day, the same day as we went to Charleston, marriage equality came down from the Supreme Court. And so, we spent that night on the north lawn of the White House, watching the sun go down, and the colors go from kind of a pastel rainbow to vibrant colors. And that photograph, that iconic photograph of the rainbow, number one requested photograph of all the photographs that had been taken in President Obama's eight years.

28:44 SK: Oh my gosh, oh my gosh. And that was the best half-day?

28:46 VJ: Best half-day.

28:47 SK: Oh, wow. [chuckle] Oh.

28:49 VJ: As well as when the Affordable Care Act passed. That was a wonderful day too.

28:52 SK: Oh, yes.

28:53 VJ: And I remember going back to the White House to watch the vote and then going upstairs for a celebration. And at the end of that night, I asked President Obama, "How do you feel tonight, compared to election night?" 'Cause they both had unseasonably warm degrees. We were on the Truman balcony, and he... It's like 2:00 in the morning, we had a long celebration, I said, "How are you feeling?" He said, "There's no comparison to election night." So election night was just about getting to that. And so that's... Well, it wasn't about him, it was about what you can do once you have that position, so that was a special moment, but every day, I pinched myself. So I thought that I had the privilege of working in the White House, and when I first met the Obamas, when they weren't even the Obamas, when it was Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama, I thought, Sallie, "Maybe, maybe one day, he might be mayor of Chicago."

29:41 SK: Did you really?

29:43 VJ: Yes, that was my city.

29:43 SK: That you did early? That was early. [laughter]

29:44 VJ: That was my city, because we had elected a black mayor in Chicago, and so I kind of put that brick on his head, and then... So to have him win the presidency, not once, but twice, and have the privilege of serving there all eight years, wow.

29:58 SK: Okay. Did he ever lose his temper behind closed doors?

30:00 VJ: Not once, no.

30:00 SK: Come on. So he never once...

30:01 VJ: And you know what? Let me tell you, he should have. Because...

30:04 SK: This was not on my list of questions, by the way but...

30:06 VJ: There were so...

30:07 SK: I figure, as long as we're here, we might as just well. [laughter]

30:07 VJ: There were so many times when he would have been so justified at yelling at us, and he never did. He just had this... And it takes some...

30:16 SK: Not at you, but about... Right? There were no like, "Ah!"?

30:20 VJ: Look, was he frustrated and annoyed to see the Republicans put their short-term political interest ahead of what was best for the country? Absolutely. But he has such an even temperament that he could not indulge himself, because he knew he had to just like keep working, keep working. And sometimes with us, he used humor to kind of defuse a situation and move on. And he also looked at it as like, "Alright, if that doesn't work, let's try this. And if that doesn't work, let's... " And he approached it as a kind of a puzzle. No drama. And I think, because of that no drama attitude, it enabled everybody else to focus. No one was watching their back, and worrying about things getting leaked to the paper, we were just working. And he took the long view, and that takes a strength as well because, let's face it, with the news cycle the way it is, you could fall victim or prey to social media, a Twitter account, or what somebody says on a cable news story, right?

31:16 SK: No, that never happened.

31:18 VJ: And he had none of that. And in fact, there were days, I will confess to you, when I would walk in agitated about something, and he would look at me, and he'd go, "You've been watching cable news, haven't you?" [chuckle]

31:27 SK: Oh, that's so funny.

31:28 VJ: And he'd say, "Turn off the television, take a breath, and go out, find some people who will help inspire you, 'cause you'll find that ordinary people have done extraordinary things." And he just didn't... He didn't have any of that. He just really kept his mind sharp and clear. And that tone from the top was really motivating for us.

31:46 SK: We know the answer to this, but I'm gonna ask it. Who was your best hire ever?

31:50 VJ: Well, let me think about that. Michelle Robinson.

[laughter]

31:54 VJ: Michelle Robinson. And I've had a lot of good hires, believe me. But I'll never forget in the summer of 1991, when she walked into my office, tall, elegant. She's 27 years old, had her hair pulled back and barely any makeup, looks me in the eye, shakes my hand. And she saw her resume on my desk, never said a word about it the next night. She told me her story, and it's a story that we all know now as kind of the quintessential American story. And I just fell in love with her and offered her a job on the spot.

32:23 SK: Is that right?

32:24 VJ: Yeah. She said, "Let me get back to you."

[laughter]

32:26 VJ: And when she did get back to me, she said, "My fiance doesn't think it's such a good idea." I'm like, "Well, who's your fiance and what do we care what he thinks?"

32:32 SK: "Who's that jerk?"

32:34 VJ: Exactly.

32:34 SK: "Who's that loser? He's not going anywhere." [laughter]

32:37 VJ: "Don't listen to him." And she laughed, and said, "Well, his name is Barack Obama, he started his career as a community organizer, and he's a little worried about me going into a political arena." I, at least, practiced law for four years at the city before going to the Mayor's office. So she said, "Would you have dinner with us? Let's talk about it." And thankfully, I said, "Yes." [chuckle] I did.

32:57 SK: Who did you leave more impressed with from the dinner?

33:01 VJ: You know what? I would never choose between the two of them. They were impressive individually. So Michelle Robinson and I really clicked around our parents. We were so lucky to have parents who loved each other and us unconditionally, and gave us this enormous amount of support, who valued education and pushed us to get a good education, but also said, "To those who much is given, much is expected, and what are you guys gonna do to make the world a better place?" So she and I bonded on that, and he and I bonded on me having been born in Iran, and he lived in Indonesia, and how that experience of living in an underdeveloped country outside of the United States gave us a unique perspective on the United States and how it fits into the rest of the world so...

33:42 SK: I wanna talk about that, because I didn't know until the book that you had spent your childhood in Iran.

33:46 VJ: 'Til I was five, yeah.

33:47 SK: Can you share a little. Do you remember?

33:48 VJ: Yes, because we went back pretty often until I graduated from high school, so I still have very fond memories of it. And my father, when he finished in the Army, he was looking for a job in an academic teaching institution in the country and he couldn't find one where his salary and his... What they were offering him was comparable to his white counterparts, and so he and my mom decided... They were kinda adventurous in spirit, they said, "Well, let's explore outside of the United States and see if there are opportunities for a black doctor there better than what he can get at home." And so, he was offered a job heading the department of pathology and helping start a new hospital in Shiraz, Iran. And so off they went, and I was the second baby born in that hospital, they practiced on some other kid first.

[laughter]

34:30 VJ: And I was named Valerie and we lived there 'til I was five. And it was extraordinary. We lived on a hospital compound with families from all over the world. At that point in the '50s, the United States and Iran had a very strong diplomatic relationship, not like that we see it is today, and so their health department really wanted best practices in medicine, and my father always said, "Don't say 'westernizing' medicine," because he said he learned as much from the Iranian doctors as anyone coming up. And so I played with kids from all over the world, and it did very much shape my perspective on finding something in common with just about anybody.

35:08 SK: Amazing. Well, you do great work on it, and you've been a lightning rod, it... Probably because you're a female, you're a woman of color, because you've got strong views, you've been very successful. How do you manage through that?

35:24 VJ: Well, you know what? I think you put yourself...

35:27 SK: Wine. Is it wine?

35:28 VJ: A little bit. Yeah, yeah. Maybe sometimes a lot.

35:30 SK: You have a lot. Well... [laughter]

35:32 VJ: You know what it really is? I think, and I'm glad I started in local government in Chicago and I always say this because, Sallie, local government, you approximate the people who you are there to serve and they remind you of that every single day. You can't go to the grocery store without somebody coming up to you and saying, "This is what I want," and that's as it should be, it should be 24/7. And I think that taught me some really important lessons about having a tough skin and recognizing that public service, nobody said it was easy. It's hard, and you put yourself in the arena, you're gonna get attacked.

36:04 VJ: And my father used to always say, "Judge yourself by your enemies." [chuckle] And in a sense, you have to do that, and you also have to recognize that you have to earn people's trust. You can't expect them to just trust you right off the bat, you have to earn it, and I was prepared to do that. And so it made it a little bit easier, it takes a little incoming and the phrase I use in the book is, "You have to learn to absorb pain without it making you numb, bored, debilitated." And it means you also have to listen to people who are criticizing you, just 'cause they have a loud voice doesn't mean they're not right. And so you've gotta take it in, but not let it eat you alive and be willing to say, "Okay, well, maybe I could do something a little bit differently."

36:44 SK: And have you learned from...

36:45 VJ: Oh my gosh, I've learned so much, yes, enormously from people. And being a good listener is not just a part of public service. I think it's a part of life.

36:54 SK: Well, which you are. It's amazing. You...

36:57 VJ: But you gotta pay attention.

36:58 SK: You have to pay attention, you have to be present.

37:00 VJ: Yes. And curious.

37:01 SK: And thoughtful and curious, for sure, which, you and I are on a board together, and you got in absolute spades. Tell us what you're doing now, and what the future holds for you?

37:14 VJ: Sure. So after I left the White House, where I think I've had... Well, I know I had the best job I'll ever, ever have in life. I thought, "Well, having had the opportunity to work on every single issue that comes across President Obama's desk, what are the issues where I think, not only am I passionate about them, but I can help move the needle?" And so they are a few things. As you know, we've created the United State of Women, which grew out of the conference that we had.

37:38 SK: Amazing.

37:39 VJ: It was a real grassroots effort, working with women around the country, and with men, who are committed to gender equity and holding up best practices in the hopes of helping people take them to scale. I'm also the board chair of When We All Vote, an organization that Michelle Obama formed last summer to really try to change our culture about voting. We were both deeply troubled that, in the last presidential election, 43% of eligible voters did not vote.

38:04 VJ: And I think, look, I get it. Washington looks like a just, sausage-making and everybody's yelling at one another, but what we're trying to say is that government is only gonna be as good as we the people demand that it be, and that there is a stranglehold holding on to that status quo, and the only way that changes is if we elect people who wanna break that up, 'cause there are a lot of special interest groups that will fund keeping things just as they are, but we need to add our voices to the equation so the government is accountable to us, and many people go, "Well, my vote doesn't really matter." Well, sure, it does, and we saw in the last election how three states with less than 100,000 votes could affect the outcome of the race. And so, going around the country and directing it primarily at young people to change that culture is something I'm working on.

38:48 VJ: Two other issues I care a great deal about are criminal justice reform and reducing gun violence. And I lost my grandfather to gun violence a long time ago, but I was 15 at the time, and he was a dentist in DC. Last day practicing dentistry, he was cleaning out his office, and he was out of the country and he always kept guns in the office 'cause he had opiates, and he was prepared to defend himself, and don't you know, a couple guys broke in and held him up, well, with what turned out to be a toy gun. And he pulls out a real gun and they take it from him and shoot him. So, to all those people who say having a gun will keep you safer...

39:29 SK: No.

39:29 VJ: No. Not always.

39:30 SK: No. No. No.

39:30 VJ: And having spent so much time seeing what happens, not just the immediate devastation of gun violence, the long-term effects on family members, motivates me to try to help wherever I can. And there's a lot of activity at the state level, on both reducing gun violence and on criminal justice reform. We'll cover the other things, and I'm in the law school, at the University of Chicago, and as you know, we received some awards together, helping President Obama with his foundation. So I'm keeping up.

40:01 SK: You're keeping busy.

40:03 VJ: Oh, yeah.

40:03 SK: 'Cause every time I talk to you, you're like, "I'm in this city, I'm in that city." Would you run for public office?

40:08 VJ: No, I don't think so. And I've thought about it at different points in my life and at this stage, what I really enjoy is helping other people run. And I think for example, in the Democratic field, we have an embarrassment of riches and every day somebody new gets into the race.

40:21 SK: And we have more embarrassment of riches every day. [chuckle]

40:23 VJ: Every single day. And I was talking to several of them and I give them my best advice about being authentic and a vision for where they wanna take our country and why we should trust them. And don't spend a lot of time being up on your phone, it's first of all. I'm not interested... I can figure that out, tell me why I should trust you. But also, whoever emerges as the nominee, we all have to get behind because what's most important to me is winning back the White House. I enjoy that. And I think to run for office, you have to have a fire in your belly and be determined to do it and that's not what I wanna do at this stage of my life. And so I learned to listen to that quiet voice inside of me.

41:00 SK: Okay, as we finish up, any other advice for all of us who are listening and tell us what to do? What should we do?

41:11 VJ: Well, listen to your voice and understand the power that everyone has in their own voice and if you're in a position to use it, shame on you if you don't. We're only here for a short time, right? Life is relatively short, particularly as you get older, it looks shorter and shorter. So, make the best of it and embrace the adventure of this worth. I think I know so many people who get comfortable, and maybe a little miserable, but not enough to just make themselves get out of that comfort zone. So do, do. And if you ever get comfortable with what you're doing, it's time for a new job. You should never just get to the point where you're on automatic pilot. That's not an adventure. And I do think that life is full of multiple chapters. And the question of, and I know you get this, "Can you have it all?" Well, not if you're gonna be superhuman and do it all yourself. But the question is, "Do they add up? In the end, when you look back, did you have a full life? Did you love, were you loved? Did you feel like your profession was purposeful?" I think those are the questions...

42:11 SK: Did you make a difference? For sure, right?

42:12 VJ: Did you make a difference? In the lives of those you love and in the lives of those who don't have somebody fighting for them, did you fight for those people? Feel empowered to do that, is probably the best thing I can say.

42:23 SK: Right. Well, thank you so much.

42:28 VJ: And invest with you.

42:28 SK: And well, there's...

[laughter]

42:28 SK: Okay, well and then there's that too.

42:29 VJ: And then there's that. Well, I can't leave without saying that, the amount of security was a big part of happiness in life and I think often do not have that safety net. And so, being financially literate and trusting their resources with people, who are gonna look out for them is important.

42:44 SK: You're certainly speaking our language here.

42:47 VJ: I know.

42:48 SK: Somehow along the way money became more of a masculine concept and we women...

42:53 VJ: How can that be?

42:53 SK: Right? And money is power. And we women got different messages but that's for another day. But thank you for several things, thank you for coming by and spending time with us. Thank you for this book, it's amazing, for those who haven't read it yet, and most importantly, thank you for your service to this country, and we can't wait to see what comes next. Thank you so much, take care.

43:15 VJ: My honor.


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