Valerie Jarrett advises the man who occupies the highest office in the land. She’s a Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, and she’s been a longtime friend, mentor, and confidante to the First Family long before The White House.
Despite the intensity of Jarrett’s position and the responsibility of her role, when you meet her, there is a calmness and centeredness about her. Her presence feels warm, and familiar in a way that reminds you of an aunt or big sister– someone who holds some kind of authority over you but wields it in a firm and loving way.
In addition to her role as Senior Advisor to Obama, Jarrett oversees the Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and is Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls.
Jarrett knows first-hand the importance of providing equal pay and equal opportunity to women. Before joining the Obama administration, Jarrett raised her daughter Laura as a single mother as she navigated a career in both the private and public sectors. She credits becoming a mother with sparking the shift in her life to join the public sector.
“Women are about half of our workforce, and therefore their contribution to the family income is more important than ever, and so it’s not just an issue that’s important to women. It’s an issue that’s important to working families, it’s important to employers, and ultimately to our economy,” explained Jarrett in our phone interview.
In our discussion Jarrett shares insight on confident decision making, her critical career moments and what’s next for her after The White House.
Her Agenda: I want to talk about the United State of Women Summit back in June. What are your thoughts on how the day went and what is your hope for moving the energy from the Summit forward in terms of making progress for women?
Valerie Jarrett: The day exceeded my wildest expectations. The energy in the room began with people wrapped around the block, waiting to get inside at 7 in the morning. That energy continued for the next 12 hours. We found that an extraordinarily diverse group of women assembled and yet the common theme among everybody was this desire to do everything we can to ensure women are on equal footing, here and around the world. So Civic Nation has taken on responsibility for the United State of Women to ensure it lives on past the one day of the conference.
One concrete example of one of the work streams that came out of the United State of Women was the Equal Pay Pledge that we launched that day with a group of employers who committed to ensure equal pay for equal work at their companies. We [now] have over 57 companies from across the country who have signed the Equal Pay Pledge. It’s a great example of an issue that the President has cared passionately about since day one (the very first bill he signed was The Lilly Ledbetter Pay Act) and we consistently work to close that pay gap. What’s clear is that we can’t do it without cooperation from the private sector because we’re unable to get Congress to take any additional action to help us close that gap. So we’re using our convening authority to ensure we have equal pay for equal work.
Her Agenda: What will happen to all of this work and progress when the Obama administration leaves the White House?
Valerie Jarrett: We are heartened that because of the energy and enthusiasm that has built up over the past eight years on implementing the President’s priorities, that the momentum will ensure sustainability. So if you look, for example, at the Equal Pay Pledge, those numbers will only grow with time because there will be enormous pressure on employers from the marketplace. “Well why haven’t you taken the pledge? I just interviewed with an employer from another company and they took the pledge, why wouldn’t you taken the pledge?” Having these issues be top-of-mind of prospective, talented workers will help sustain our progress.
The fact that employers are now looking at the studies that show greater profitability when they invest in a [diverse] workforce is another way of building momentum. Not only do we highlight the issues but we also try to provide the evidence that shores up our positions so that it informs the marketplace, and that information will translate into additional momentum for change being built.
Her Agenda: In many of your interviews you say you’re very passionate about empowering communities. What is your definition of empowerment?
Valerie Jarrett: It’s when ordinary people understand the power of citizenship. That’s demonstrated by their willingness to engage in their communities and with their government to effect positive change. I began appreciating the sense of that power when I was the Commissioner of Planning and Development for the City of Chicago. I participated in countless community meetings driven by people in those communities who wanted to see their neighborhoods redeveloped. I engaged with community leaders as they developed their redevelopment plans and I learned the important role government should play in helping its citizens fulfill their dreams.
One of my frustrations with the federal government when I was the Commissioner of Planning was the sense that the Federal Government dictated from on high the programs that would be available to us to help improve our neighborhood.I believe it should’ve been flipped: and that the Federal Government should tailor its programs to help us fulfill our dreams.
President Obama since day one has been committed to empowering ordinary citizens to do extraordinary things so that empowerment comes by everybody believing that they can actually make a difference in their own lives and the lives of their families and neighbors. We’ve seen that across our great country, over the last nearly 8 years, an infinite number of times. For example, we have a White House awards ceremony called Champions of Change. We usually have 10-15 people who are selected by nominations that come from around the country for people that are improving their communities. Again, ordinary citizens who are making a positive impact, and our hope is that by highlighting those stories at the White House, that others will follow their lead, and appreciate the fact that if you care, and you are willing to spend the time and the effort, your positive impact can be dramatic. That is what empowerment is: the recognition that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
There [are] infinite ways that people can give back and help improve our country. The power of one is something that is often underestimated.
Her Agenda: What is next for you after January 2017? Would you ever run for political office?
Valerie Jarrett: It’s hard to think beyond January 20th. I think one of the strengths of our democracy is that after the President serves a maximum term, the baton is turned over to the next leader. When you have that baton in your hand, you have the responsibility to make sure you do everything you can while you have it so it’s been impossible for me to think about what I want to do after January 20th. That includes whether or not I would run for office, because the President, and all of us on his team, still have the baton in our hands. I have spent a great number of years in the public sector, and have enjoyed it thoroughly, and regardless whether I serve in or outside of government, I will always figure out ways of giving back, but it seems like a remote possibility that I would ever run for office.
Her Agenda: You met the Obamas before they were married when you wanted hire (then) Michelle Robinson. She invited you to dinner with Barack because he had hesitation about her taking on the role. You often say you’re glad you said yes to that dinner offer. It makes me think about how so often opportunities that can change your life can come from the most unexpected places. What other dinner or lunches or unexpected meetings impacted the narrative of your life/career?
Valerie Jarrett: Two instances had transformative effects on my career. The first was having my daughter. When I returned to work after my maternity leave, I realized just how miserable I was. When you leave a child at home to go do something, you want to feel productive and be proud of it. Otherwise, unless it’s a necessity of money, you would never leave a precious baby. So you have to feel as though you are doing something worthwhile. After I had her, I realized how important it was that she be proud of me. So that really motivated me to explore options other than practicing law at a private law firm.
And the second followed very quickly: as I was trying to figure out what to do to keep from being so miserable, one of my best friends took me to lunch. He had just completed four years working for Mayor Harold Washington’s administration, and he was returning to his law firm. He said “You should do what I did. Try the public sector. You’ll feel like you’re a part of something more important than you, bigger than you. You will be able to contribute and give back to a community that you love. You’ll feel more fulfilled in the course of the day than you do now.” I can still remember the restaurant that we sat in on the first floor of the Sears Tower in Chicago, and I remember what I had to eat, I remember everything about that lunch because his encouragement is what gave me the courage to take a leap of faith and change course. My life has been far better as a result of his encouragement. So between my daughter and my dear friend — they are in large part responsible for why I am where I am today.
Her Agenda: It seems like you’ve always been well connected. How important is networking and building connections specifically for women? And what methods or strategies should young women keep in mind as they’re building professional relationships?
Valerie Jarrett: It’s important to remember that one cannot be successful alone. Everybody needs help. My first piece of advice is no matter what your job is, work hard to become very good at it because you never know who’s watching. Part of being good at your job is figuring out whose help you need in order to be good at your job. That means you have to take the time to build relationships with your co-workers and help them understand that they can trust and rely on you, and watch their work so you know upon who you can trust and rely. And you also have to care about the people with whom you work. And if you do care about them, they will care about you. I often say that the best mentors I’ve ever had weren’t just people who would talk to me occasionally and give me career advice. They were the people who were willing to put their reputation on the line by recommending me for positions and being my advocate. That’s more important than simply being a mentor. You need somebody who’s willing to say “You know what, I’ve seen her in action, and she’s really good at X. You need her in your organization.”
So work hard, take the time to know your colleagues, stretch outside of your comfort zone and listen to people who have very different perspectives than you. It requires a lot of effort. I always encourage young people to volunteer for boards in their community — and it can be anything from the Boys and Girls club, to a local community development corporation, to giving back to their houses of worship. There’s just so much one can do to give back. And through that, you also broaden your circle of friends and colleagues.
Her Agenda: A lot of the conversation is around figuring out the balance of doing good work and taking that long lunch, or spending extra time to speak with a co-worker about a passion project.
Valerie Jarrett: The magic of life is figuring out how to spend your precious time on earth. There are going to be times in your life where it’s not either/or, you’re going to push yourself to be both/and. You’re going to be exhausted, particularly while you have children, no matter how much support you have. But you have to make an effort to develop a broad circle of people who are invested in your success because you simply can’t do it by yourself.
Her Agenda: What is your favorite thing about your job?
Valerie Jarrett: The fact that I can do so much. The fact that no day is like the day before. In the course of the day I have the privilege of interacting with a broad spectrum of people who care about a diverse range of issues and look to us to help. We have the ability to help them fulfill their dreams. The honor of public service is immense at every level of government, but there is something uniquely extraordinary about working in the White House for President Obama. To be able to say during this incredible journey that we have been able to come to work everyday, taking that long view of what our ultimate goals are, and staying true to that course is something that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life — the privilege of having had the opportunity to serve in this capacity is something I will treasure forever.
Her Agenda: You once said about the President that he’s essentially in a type of position where… “all eyes are watching you and people hope you will stumble and fall, but you have to take confidence in your decision making.” As a Senior Advisor to the President you also have that level of pressure and scrutiny. How do you overcome doubt and make effective decisions with confidence?
Valerie Jarrett: I surround myself with very talented people who aren’t afraid to tell me what they really think and who I can trust to do the necessary homework to give me wise counsel. Ultimately when you’re in these positions you’re choosing between two very difficult alternatives and we’re here to make those tough decisions and you want to make sure that they’re informed decisions. You have to have confidence in your team when they give you their advice You have to have the confidence that comes with experience and age that you’re going to make the best decision and sometimes you’re going to make a mistake. But learn from the mistake, be honest with yourself, brush yourself off, and get right back at it again.
One of President Obama’s many strengths is his ability to take the long view and be willing to take a lot of criticism in the short term in order to stay true to his values and ideals. And there have been many examples over the years where it would’ve been politically expedient in the short term to take a simpler course, but it wouldn’t have been in the long-term view of our country. I admire his ability to absorb a lot of pain in order to do what he thinks is right. And that’s what you want in a leader — you want a leader who’s not going to just listen to the last person who’s given them advice, but who has the discipline and intellectual rigor and empathy to absorb as much information as possible and then make the best possible decisions. And then move onto the next challenge. Decisions here are all complicated, but at the appropriate point you have to say “Okay, these are two tough calls. Let’s make what we think is the right call and let’s move on.” Over time our calls have been more right than not. Life is full of challenges, it’s full of bruising defeat and out of that, comes strength, knowledge and confidence in our ability to have a positive impact. No one should feel that because it’s hard that it’s uniquely hard for them. It’s hard for everyone.
[Editor’s note: This interview as published on October 10th, 2016. It has been edited for length and clarity.]