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Finding One's Voice: In Conversation with Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor, Obama Foundation

Speakers: Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor, Obama Foundation

In this intimate conversation, Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor, Obama Foundation shares her own personal story of finding one's own voice as the first step in the path of cultivating authentically inclusive leadership that leads to leading with accountability, leveraging diversity and inclusion for an organization's true business success. Jarret gives light to her experiences developing leaders within the Obama Administration, and the transformational power of using one's own experiences to pave the way for a more equitable world.

Show Transcript
Julian Lute:

So if you can't tell so far, we're literally in the presence of a lot of luminaries. Right now, we have another conversation. This next guest is one of my absolute favorite people in the world. I've been following her for a long time and I'm sure that she's going to bring the inspiration that she's known to bring. Our next guest is the author of the New York times bestselling book, "Finding my Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward". You could read her bio for three or four days. She was the longest serving senior advisor to president Obama and amongst all the things that she did, she oversaw the administration's advocacy for workplace policies that empower working families, equal pay, minimum wage, paid leave, paid sick days, workplace flexibility, and affordable childcare, and also led campaigns to reform our criminal justice system and end sexual assault and gun violence. She will tell you more about who she is, but we want to welcome Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor of the Obama administration and former senior advisor to president Obama.

Julian Lute:

You're very welcome.

Valerie Jarrett:

That was a lovely [crosstalk 00:01:19].

Julian Lute:

Let's do that, let's do that. Have a seat in a second.

Valerie Jarrett:

Thank you.

Julian Lute:

And we're going to invite Cliff Leaf back up to the stage to join her in conversation. So let's welcome Cliff as well.

Valerie Jarrett:

You guys look great out there, up early. Ready to go. I guess not so early anymore.

Cliff Leaf:

A great audience. Well, they're caffeinated, I imagine.

Valerie Jarrett:

They seem like it. They're laughing.

Cliff Leaf:

Exactly.

Valerie Jarrett:

It's a start.

Cliff Leaf:

So you've done a lot of amazing things and in fact, I think one of my favorite conversations was the one we had just backstage. And if you don't mind, I'd love to just bring up this issue of sort of shining your whole self out here because when you actually came to the country at a young age, from Iran, and then by way of London, and then when you came here you were self conscious about where you'd grown up and didn't really want to talk about that. Then actually you said it took me three decades to get over it.

Valerie Jarrett:

It's true.

Cliff Leaf:

And so how did that affect your career and engagement in the world?

Valerie Jarrett:

All right, so first let's explain why I was born in Iran. That's the first step here. So in the 50s, my father, who was a physician, married my mother in Chicago. He was from DC, she was from Chicago, and then he joined the army. And when he was leaving the army a couple of years later, he was looking for a job at a major academic teaching institution in the United States and he couldn't find a job comparable to his white counterparts. And so he and my mother, who are pretty adventuresome spirits, decided to look for a job outside of the United States. And at that time the United States and Iran had very strong diplomatic relations, and he was offered a job to help start a brand new hospital in Shiraz, Iran and chair the department of pathology. And everyone told him, where are you going? You don't know the language, you don't know the culture, you don't know anything about it.

Valerie Jarrett:

I think the furthest they'd ever been was Europe, by that point. But this country was offering him a job that he didn't have available to him here. So off they go and we live there for five years. He does research there that catches the attention of some folks at the Galton labs at University of College of London. And so they were getting a little home sick, so we go to London for a year. And then from London, he is giving a paper at some international conference and the Dean of the university of Chicago medical center is at the conference and offers him a tenured year track and he ended up going to the UFC. He was the first African American to get tenure under the division of biological sciences. And so he said to me growing up, "Sometimes the shortest distance to where you want to go means take the scenic route." And he sure took that scenic route.

Valerie Jarrett:

But so for my parents, to answer your question Cliff, they're going home to Chicago, a neighborhood where my grandmother and my aunts and uncles and extended family lived right by the university. And I'm going to another country. And when I started in school there, I am speaking three languages. I'm born in a country no one had ever heard of back then. That one year in great Britain, I developed a British accent. Doesn't take long, right? And if you could just imagine me, plopped down in this school, and I just felt like I stood out like a sore thumb and I felt like the definition of other. And so I stopped speaking Farsi, which I regret. I lost that British accent week one. And I never talked about where I was from. And frankly, we were saying this backstage too, I became shy.

Valerie Jarrett:

Now you find that hard to believe now because I can't shut up. But back then, I really was shy and I didn't want to talk that much about where I came from. And then when I was in law school, to date myself, and president Carter was in office, we had the Iran hostage crisis. Well then everybody had heard of Iran and I wanted to talk about it even less. And let's face it, it's gone downhill from there. But I realized really, as an adult, as I started to find my voice, that we are our stories. And if you don't open up and share those stories with people, then you're not really bringing your authentic self to the table, both in your personal and in your professional life.

Cliff Leaf:

For those who are tweeting, I think you have your tweet. We are our stories. I think that's a fundamental takeaway from this conversation and we're just a few minutes into it. But this is something where we talk about bringing our authentic selves to work with us and our authentic selves in life. And it's hard to do.

Valerie Jarrett:

Oh yeah, nobody said it was easy.

Cliff Leaf:

It's really hard.

Valerie Jarrett:

But it makes a big difference. We were also talking about stage in my book, one of my favorite chapters is called "Best Hire Ever" and it's when I made a job offer to Michelle Robinson, now known as Michelle Obama. And I still remember her walking in my office. She, obviously tall, she was all dressed in black. She barely had on any makeup, hair pulled back. Looked me right in the face, shook my hand, saw her resume on my desk. Never mentioned one word about Princeton undergrad, Harvard law. She figured I could read.

Valerie Jarrett:

Instead, she shared her story, which is now the quintessential American story. Growing up on the South side of Chicago, working class parents who didn't go to college but instilled in Michelle and her brother Craig this sense of hard work and excellence and service. But what I really remember about that conversation is she also opened up and said that her best friend and her dad had died within the last year, and that those deaths were sudden and devastating and made her say, "am I really leading a purposeful life or is there something else for me?" And that's what led her to my office. Well, that story is what I remember nearly 30 years later and it was painful. She filled up with tears talking about this. She made herself vulnerable and I fell in love with her and have been just like, she's a rock star for that. And now she's got this amazing book out, too. And in there, she tells the details of her story and it's the highest selling book ever in the history of autobiography.

Cliff Leaf:

It's an incredible book. And the coda to that story is also interesting, which is that you offer her a job on the spot. And she was like, "well maybe I ought to ask my fiance who's really good at this." And he was like, "I don't know about this job."

Valerie Jarrett:

I knew you were going to bring that up. I knew you were going to bring that up. Yeah. He's like, "I don't think this is such a great idea." And I'm like, "well who is your fiance and what do we care what he thinks?"

Cliff Leaf:

Yeah, exactly.

Valerie Jarrett:

I know, little did I know, right? Exactly. And she laughed just like you guys are laughing. And she said, "well, his name is Barack Obama and he started his career as a community organizer, and he's worried," because I had practiced law for six years in the private sector and then four years for the city. And she said, "you then went from inside council to the city, to the mayor's office. I'd be going right from a law firm and he just wants to meet you and see, kick your tires for a second." I said yes, wisely, because I would've done just about anything to hire her.

Valerie Jarrett:

And at that dinner he says to me, you'll like this, given what I just told you. "So where are you from?" "Chicago." "Where'd you grow up?" "Chicago." "You born here?" "Well, no, I wasn't actually born in Chicago." And he said, "well, where were you born?" And I said, "I was born in Iran." And I'm expecting like those typical banal response. And he leans in and he said, "well that's interesting." And he said, "you know, I lived in Indonesia for a few years as a kid." And I said, "well that's interesting." And we told each other our stories and agreed that the experience that we both had living outside of the United States in underdeveloped countries, at the time, shaped our perspective enormously. And we bonded by bringing our authentic selves to the table. And I've often wondered whether, if I hadn't opened up with him, might I have ever been able to hire her? And fortunately, she said yes at the end of a three hour dinner.

Cliff Leaf:

That's fantastic. That's fantastic. And getting from this idea of telling your story to the idea that we don't have enough diversity of stories in the places that we work and how we bring that in. And I know that's been a passion of yours. We've talked a lot already, you and I certainly, and I know the room has, about the business imperative of diversity and inclusion. We've seen study after study, McKinsey, Deloitte, the Wall Street Journal, Fortune certainly has looked at these numbers. And it's an obvious imperative in terms of if you connecting diverse leadership, in particular diverse boards and diverse workforces, with outsize profitability and performance. But in addition to that, in a time of disruption, having that line of connection to your customers and community is just as important.

Valerie Jarrett:

Absolutely.

Cliff Leaf:

And so how do you bring that into organizations? Because we all talk about it and then how do you do it? You've got some ideas.

Valerie Jarrett:

Well look, I think tone starts at the top, but it also has to permeate the culture. And I know a lot of well-meaning CEOs believe that diversity is important and it's a strength. It's a competitive advantage. But if you don't inculcate in your team, then it kind of falls flat and you do it because you will make better decisions if you hear from people who are more representative of the marketplace that you're trying to attract, right? You will make a more informed decision. And what I have found over my experiences is that oftentimes the best laid plans just fall flat at the top unless you tie it to performance metrics, which gets to money. And when you start compensating people by whether or not they achieve the level of diversity and inclusion that you think is important to be competitive, then suddenly you get their attention and that has to be at all levels of the corporate ladder.

Valerie Jarrett:

One of the studies we were talking about earlier that McKinsey and the journal did show that something like 70% of CEOs get this. This is nothing that they don't understand. But then at the lowest rung of the corporate ladder, men are still outpacing women two to one. And the reason why is culture. And so there are some structural changes that we have to make, I think, to make sure that we have the inclusion that we want and it's everything from equal pay to paid leave, paid sick days, workplace flexibility, a culture that is supportive of working families, but the culture doesn't happen just because you want it to. It takes aggressive affirmative action and you have to have built into place kind of the rigor that it takes to have that positive and negative feedback loop.

Cliff Leaf:

Right. Yeah. The negative feedback loop is interesting too, because the idea is if you're really going to pay somebody for their performance and building a diverse and inclusive workforce, you also have to acknowledge that there are some people who will fail that, and there needs to be some demerit system in there.

Valerie Jarrett:

Yeah, and people need to know what the rules of the road going in. In the interviewing process, and I say this to people on both sides of the table, be as clear as possible. If you are looking for a job, you want to know that you're going to go into a place where you're going to thrive, where you can bring your whole self there. And I'm not saying you have to wear it on your sleeve the whole time, but when I first started practicing law, I was like seven months pregnant before I told anybody I was pregnant because I thought they wouldn't take me as seriously. Now I gained 70 pounds. Something was going on. Not proud, I'm just saying, but I thought I had to pretend like there was nothing happening here because I thought I would be diminished. And we all have something happening, other than in our heads.

Valerie Jarrett:

We have family responsibilities, we have gender identity and sexual orientation. We have religion, we have a whole lot about us more than just our work product. And so I think on both sides of the table, on the front end, you have to see if there's a meeting of the minds. And then you have to have constant reinforcement. I mean, as much as I care about these issues, and I remember being a young single working mom and I kept thinking I'm holding on by my fingertips and if I were just smarter or worked harder, slept fewer hours, maybe it wouldn't be so hard. And then finally it dawned on me when I started talking to more people, oh no, no. It's just hard and it's hard because of these structural impediments, but it's also hard because of the culture. And yet, and still when I talk about this all the time, I had someone who worked for me in the White House say that she was giving me six months notice that she was going to leave.

Valerie Jarrett:

And I'm like, "where are you going? You're not going anywhere." And she said, "well I want to have a baby." I said, "you are saying to me you cannot have a baby working in this White House where we have three months paid leave for men and women, same pay for men and women paid leave?" And she said, "well, I don't know." I said, "we will figure out how to work it out." And that's the point is that you have to meet people where they are. You can't just expect them to come in and say, "this is what my need is." But I also say if you have a need that's going unmet and you're in a position to speak up for yourself, and let's face it, a lot of people are not. But if you are, then you should.

Cliff Leaf:

Yeah, you bring up a good point, which is that it's not just the policies, right? It's not just the checkbox manifesto of yes we've got paid leave. Yes we've got tuition reimbursement. Yes we've got this or that. But also having those conversations with people and reaching out.

Valerie Jarrett:

Well I always say you could have a paid leave policy, but if nobody takes it, do you really have paid leave? No you don't. And I know in our organization, if you didn't take your full three months, then you were looked at like, well why are you back? You still have three more months. And the men, it was so important that the men at the top took it. I remember the chair of the council of economic advisors took it twice and the press secretary took it and then stopped traveling with the president. So when men start doing things like that, it sends a message throughout the organization that not only is it safe, but it's welcomed and embraced. And if you don't do it, you get a funny look, at least you got a funny look for me.

Cliff Leaf:

Yeah, we talked about culture and all of the various elements that go into a diverse workforce. Part of the new challenge is the level of discourse, in some places. I don't want to put a time on it, last three years maybe, but we've gotten less civil.

Valerie Jarrett:

He said that, I didn't say it.

Cliff Leaf:

We've gotten less civil with each other.

Valerie Jarrett:

It's a problem.

Cliff Leaf:

And this obviously is brought into the places where we spend most of our waking hours, in our workforces. And how do we create that kind of place that's safe for a diversity of opinions, but also respectful and inclusive and civil?

Valerie Jarrett:

Well, it starts with each of you. Look, we all have an enormous amount of control over what happens in our immediate environment. And I say bring your best self and model good behavior. And I think in this era of social media, it's even harder than it was before because people are talking at each other rather than talking to each other. I'm going to date myself again, when I grew up, whatever Walter Cronkite said, we knew to be true, right? And he only said it once a day. He had all day to get it right. And now you have information on demand, anytime you wanted and you, the consumer, is trying to figure out what's accurate and what's not. And there are all these disincentives, because by defining your own community, you don't get as much practice being uncomfortable as I think we all need. And part of developing relationships is being confident enough to disagree without being disagreeable and talk it through. And who knows? You might actually even change your mind and that's okay too.

Valerie Jarrett:

And I think in the workplace it is kind of a microcosm, but we have to build a culture from the ground up. And if we want to change the current climate, I think it has to start right where you are, on your floor, in your office, in your workplace, around your kitchen table with your family members and really talk it out and encourage young people, who have grown up with these devices glued to their fingers, from time to time to put them down. We were half joking, but not really backstage about this phenomenon of ghosting people. Like that's not okay. You don't get to do that. But if it's made easy for you, you do it. And the developing of these habits in our personal life bleed into the workplace and then that is to the detriment of the enterprise, obviously.

Cliff Leaf:

I mean the other aspect of our social media world is that some people are one way in the office and then they have a separate identity online that can be somewhat different. And sometimes that does get noticed and spills over. Yeah.

Valerie Jarrett:

Look, when you're interviewing people for jobs, of course you look at their social media imprint today. And that's something that I think young people don't appreciate. Like it sticks with you and it will haunt you, maybe decades later. And so resist the temptation to press send all the time. Just don't do it. And again, talk about it, try to explain the consequences. We now have very real examples of how people's behavior has had consequences, where maybe two or three or even one decade ago it wouldn't. And those are wake up calls that I think, not only do we need the structural changes, but we need the cultural and the legal changes. And we're seeing that right now.

Cliff Leaf:

You sit on the board of Lyft and the first thing that every new employee goes through is unconscious bias training.

Valerie Jarrett:

Now, you can't be a hirer of people at Lyft without going through it, because we all have these biases and let's just be honest and admit that they're there. But then the question is, what do you do about it? And so we go through a training process to make sure that we bring them to our attention and that you realize the decisions you're making and there's ample evidence out there of these biases. And the question is then what do you do about it? And so one way of dealing with it is making sure that everybody goes through that training first and then, from the bottom up and the top down, have this intentional effort to diversity and inclusion and listen to the people with whom you work, who represent that diversity and inclusion and ask them, how are we doing? Are we doing this in a way where you do feel welcome? Where you think you will thrive here? Do you know? Do you see somebody who looks like you who comes out hiring, for example? But when you walk through a business and you're thinking about working there, if you don't see anyone who looks like you, that's off putting immediately. And so you have to be intentional about that.

Cliff Leaf:

Right. And you've talked about who reaches out to potential candidates for jobs and making sure that that's done at a senior level so that people understand that this is taken seriously by the company, this effort.

Valerie Jarrett:

Absolutely. I did a conference out in Silicon Valley about five years ago, focusing on the lack of diversity. And I asked several of the people who attended the conferences who were saying, "we're so disappointed. We don't have enough African Americans working in our companies." And I said, "well, where do you go to interview? Did you go to any historically black or universities?" "No." Well, it's like if you want to rob a bank, go where the money is.

Cliff Leaf:

Yeah, I would love to just see from the audience, how many of your companies have unconscious bias trainings? Okay. So that's-

Valerie Jarrett:

Excellent.

Cliff Leaf:

That's excellent. And how many of them are mandatory? Okay.

Valerie Jarrett:

Excellent.

Cliff Leaf:

And how many of these start on day one for a new employee? Ah, okay. So this is the distinction. So it's mandatory for most of you. All of you've got it. But a handful of you start on day one, and that certainly sets it sets a tone, doesn't it?

Valerie Jarrett:

Well it does, and I also think what I'm seeing, and I'm curious about the audience said, there are more and more affinity groups that are coming up in companies. And I know at Lyft for example, I went and I spoke to the African American and the people of color and the women, and the fact that senior people reach out and say, "let me understand what it's like here for you," I think sends the positive message that you really do believe in inclusion.

Cliff Leaf:

One of the powerful aspects of this that I've seen recently is the understanding of neuro diversity, of people who may be on the spectrum or with various mental illness as well and reaching out. How important is that for organizations to start including that in their idea of diversity?

Valerie Jarrett:

I think it should absolutely, for a whole host of reasons. First of all, you're leaving talent on the sidelines if you don't have an open mind. There are many people who have all kinds of limitations in one area, who then excel in another area. You were talking about the surgeon who only had one eye. Now that's unusual, but you know what his other sensories beefed up as a result of it. And so I think we should have a broad and inclusive definition, again, recognizing we're all competing for talent. And the definition of talent isn't just how you perform on your test scores or whatever you think about for an entry level worker. It's what life experiences have you had that will enrich your contribution to the enterprise?

Cliff Leaf:

So this organization is a great place to work. We talk a lot about workplaces and private enterprise, but you spent a good chunk of your professional life thinking about public policy, whether in the city of Chicago or in the White House. What is being thought of now, in terms of helping workplaces? Or what were some of the best practices that you thought of in terms of public policy to help workplaces make these discoveries?

Valerie Jarrett:

Yeah. So for eight years, I chaired the White House council on women and girls and I think it was informed, again, by my early experiences as a single working mom where I had a good paycheck and health insurance and steady daycare and reliable parents who lived a mile away and a safety net that was really there for me. And I still felt like I was holding on by my fingertips. And so I brought that early experience with me. And what we realized in talking to many of you, employers and employees around the country, is that in order for working families to thrive, we have to focus on are we providing with our workforce, with a living wage where you can afford to feed your families and live in dignity? Do we have a closed pay gap? Women still only make 80 cents on the dollar, women of color, much less. And are we looking at the data to see whether or not there is a gap? There are a lot of companies who pride themselves on being a good place to work, who don't actually look at their own data. And if you do look at it and there's a gap, close it. And then look at what are the structural impediments that created it in the first place.

Valerie Jarrett:

What are we doing for flexibility in the workplace? And technology makes that a lot more possible with the caveat that we still have to make room for people to actually interrelate with one another and the human experience. It can't just all be online or we lose something from that. Affordable childcare. Something that was important to me as a working mom, this culture that I'm talking about where you don't have to worry about whether or not you're going to be harassed in the workplace.

Valerie Jarrett:

And we've seen just as recently as last week, what can happen to both an individual and a company that doesn't abide by those rules. So there are these real examples out there. And I think from a public policy perspective, I'm proud that the first bill president Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Lilly was not receiving equal pay for decades, didn't know about it. Why? Because it was a policy that you could share pay. And then one of her coworkers, a guy, tipped her off. After the statute of limitations had told, her case went all the way the Supreme court and she lost. And so the bill the president signed tolls the statute of limitations, basically. But that's not enough because you could still go decades and employers penalize their workers all the time for sharing pay. And so how do you have enough transparency and clarity about the rules of the road so that you know that you're getting equal pay? And so it is looking for government to say, "okay, here's the minimum wage."

Valerie Jarrett:

The minimum wage in our country hasn't been raised in 10 years at the national level. Cities and states have done it. Employers certainly have done it, but the federal government has not done it. That would send a very positive message. Looking at other ways of passing legislation. There's a bill currently pending in Congress, the equal pay, paycheck fairness law, that would prohibit employers from penalizing employees who share compensation. And then there is this tone at the top, which you kind of alluded to earlier on, which is that we need our leaders across the country, across the business political spectrum, to set a tone at the top of inclusion and appreciation of diversity as a strength and as a competitive advantage. And we are in a global marketplace. And I know more and more companies are looking at what their workers in other countries are getting in terms of benefits.

Valerie Jarrett:

You take paid leave, for example. If we're the only developed country that's not offering paid leave, how are we going to compete for talent in a global marketplace? And so I think there are laws that can be passed at the state, federal, and local level. But in addition to that, we have to have a culture. The laws alone don't change the culture. They can certainly pave the way, they can get the conversation going, but we need to have both acting in synergy with one another.

Cliff Leaf:

Well, thank you. That's the perfect tone on which to leave this conversation for now. And thank you, Valerie Jarrett.

Valerie Jarrett:

Thank you. Thank you everybody.