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Commit to Closing the Gaps

Valerie Jarrett is senior advisor at the Obama Foundation and former senior advisor to President Obama. She led the Obama Administration’s efforts to expand and strengthen access to the middle class, and boost American businesses and our economy. She championed the creation of equality and opportunity for all Americans, and economically and politically empowering women in the United States and around the world. In this episode, she shares stories on how she achieved some of these successes as well as the work she is doing to open CEOs minds to closing the gaps of disparities between communities across the country. Read her New York Times bestselling book, "Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward."

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Show Transcript

Chris:

Welcome to Better, by Great Place to Work®. We're coming to you today from the 2020 and we're joined by , who's a senior advisor at the Obama Foundation and a former senior advisor to President Obama. Welcome, Valerie.

Valerie Jarrett:

Well thank you, Chris. Good morning.

Chris:

Valerie is also the author of the New York Times bestselling book, which was published in April of 2019. I have not had an opportunity to read the book yet because I only found out yesterday that you were coming to the podcast.

Valerie Jarrett:

That is no excuse.

Chris:

I will be picking it up after I leave the summit …

Valerie Jarrett:

Great.

Chris:

... so I'm now looking forward to it. I'm thrilled to have you here. I've been following your involvement with the Obamas for quite some time. Anyone who has worked with Obama for me is a hero.

Valerie Jarrett:

Thank you.

Chris:

So yeah.

Valerie Jarrett:

Appreciate you saying that.

Chris:

But your relationship with him and Michelle goes back many, many years. I just want to start this interview talking about how you came to meet them. I know that you worked in the Chicago mayor's office and you hired Michelle.

Valerie Jarrett:

I did. In the summer of 1991, I was deputy chief of staff to then-Mayor Richard Daley. He just promoted me and I was looking to staff up our office, and someone sent me a resume and across the top it said, "Brilliant young lawyer, has no interest in being at a big law firm, would like to explore the private sector." Since I had been at a big law firm and made the pivot to the public sector rather, I thought, "Let me interview her and see what she's like.”

So Michelle Robinson walked in my office: tall, strikingly handsome woman. I still remember, she shook my hand, looked me right in the face and instead of telling me about her resume, which she saw on my desk, she told me her story; a story that now everybody knows, which is the quintessential American story: growing up on the South Side, working class family, parents who didn't attend college, but instilled, both in she and her brother Craig, this passion for learning and excellence and hard work and service.

I was so bowled over by her, particularly because she also opened up and shared with me a story that was in the last year, both her father and her best friend had passed away, and that she wanted to do something purposeful with her life. That's what I remember most about the interview was her willingness to be vulnerable and open, as opposed to what she'd accomplished, who she was as a human being.

So I offered her a job on the spot and a few days later, we were chatting and I said, "Well, what do you think?" And she said, "My fiance doesn't think it's such a great idea." I said, "Well, who's your fiance and why do we care what he thinks?" She said, "His name is Barack Obama. He

started his career as a community organizer. He was just out of law school," and she said, "We're getting married next year, and we want to make sure that we make these kinds of decisions together, and so would you have dinner with us?" I said, “Yes." Wise decision on my part. So that's nearly 30 years ago and we've been … She did take the job by the way. We've been all three close friends ever since.

Chris:

That's wonderful. I have a lot of questions and we only have a limited amount of time today. So I'm going to try to get... We'll come back to this in a bit, but what brings Valerie Jarrett to the Great Place to Work for All Summit?

Valerie Jarrett:

So for eight years in the White House, I chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls. When the administration ended, Tina Chen, who worked with me throughout on the Council, and I decided to form a new organization called the , where our mission would be to fight for gender equity. So one of the areas where there's still a gap in terms of gender equity is the workplace. I've spent really, the last 30 years of my life working on gender equity.

I think what's positive, and one of the reasons why I'm here is that we've seen a shift in the paradigm from it being the nice thing to do for women to a business imperative. People are beginning to understand, why would you leave half the town on the sideline? What do we have to do to make the workplace a place where people will thrive and at a recognition also the diversity as a strength and a competitive advantage? Whether you are competing locally or globally, now everyone recognizes that it is a global marketplace. So making sure that the workforce reflects the diversity of our world is a very important business imperative. I wanted to come here to see what's going on and to have a chance to see really, a showcase of best practices.

Chris:

Because you've had such a long career in the public sector, what has changed from the time that you were young and working in Chicago to having seen everything that you've seen in Washington?

Valerie Jarrett:

Oh my gosh. So much.

Chris:

I'm assuming it's gotten better a little bit maybe?

Valerie Jarrett:

Oh my goodness, lots of improvements have been made. Just the fact that we are having a conversation about what to do to attract and retain a diverse workforce is not something that was a priority when I practiced law 30 some years ago. More than 30 years ago, actually, nearly 40 years ago. The way women were treated in the workplace is very different.

I think there has been a sea change since the #MeToo era. Now, I know every board that I sit on, people are asking the question, "What are we doing to make sure that our environment is one that's free from sexual harassment?" where it used to be just commonplace that was something you had to put up with, a cost of doing business.

I also think that people are more comfortable today talking about what their needs are outside of the office. So just as Michelle (then Robinson) shared with me that trauma in her personal life, we used to interview and all we talked about were our credentials. We didn't open up about ourselves, and I think that particularly this next generation, is expecting more from their employers than perhaps my generation was. As a result, employers are having to bend because they want to attract and retain the best talent. I think that's positive.

Chris:

So you mentioned the boards that you sit on. When you are having conversations in some of these board meetings, how often is gender equity coming up as a topic of conversation? Are you the one that's bringing it up?

Valerie Jarrett:

Well, fortunately I'm not the only one that's bringing it up and I select my boards by not just business and industries where I think I can contribute, but also by the core values of the founders or CEOs.

So the boards that I serve on are ones where their founders care a lot about diversity as a strength, that pride themselves on being a good place to work, that understand that culture starts with tone at the top. It has to be reinforced throughout the organization. I don't sit on a board where this isn't a topic of conversation.

We also go into details of what we can do to ensure that we are as inclusive as possible. So for example, I'm on the board of Lyft, and the founders describe to the board that before anyone interviews at Lyft is an interviewer at Lyft. You have to go through implicit bias training to make sure that you don't have... that you are aware of your biases because we all have them, that you try to correct for them to try to level the playing field. We go into a lot of detail about what we're doing to build the kind of a culture that can attract and retain a diverse workforce because we think that that's part of our core values and a competitive strength.

Chris:

It's interesting that you say this. I think that there's an opportunity for so many large corporations to set the tone or set the pace for ensuring equality — gender equality — especially when it comes to pay.

Was it Goldman Sachs recently was in the news about refusing to do business with a company because they didn't have any women on its board? When companies of that size and that power and influence actually begin to make those demands.

Valerie Jarrett:

And we've seen some encouraging signs. Larry Fink's letter to his shareholders several years ago that focused on broader core values. The Business Roundtable recently just saying that they want to make sure that it's not just shareholder return.

An increasing number of studies show that companies that focus on having an who are focus on sustainability, good corporate governance, are actually outperforming the market. So I think these metrics are now being studied where they weren't studied before.

When we were in the White House, we called on employers for example, to make an equal pay pledge. That required looking at the data. A lot of companies have a pay discrepancy. Women still only earn barely 80 cents on the dollar — Women of color, much lower.

But many of them don't even do the work. Many companies don't even do the work to see where the discrepancies are. So we ask them to do the homework. If there was a gap, close the gap and then commit to look at what are the systemic or structural impediments that lead to the gap in the first.

Another example is, we're the only developed country in the world that doesn't have a national paid leave policy. Well, you know what? Women have babies. We have parents who get old and are sick and need care. There's a lot that happens to us outside of the workforce and that employers who get that, who appreciate raising the minimum wage so that families can provide for themselves, closing the pay gap, providing paid leave, paid sick days, workplace flexibility, an environment free from sexual harassment, actually are more competitive, more profitable, less turnover, attract and retain that diverse workforce and are more able to compete in this marketplace.

Chris:

You mentioned about how companies that are focusing on all of these very important items around workplace culture perform better and in the stock market, they see greater revenue.

The list that Great Place to Work composes every year, the hundred best companies to work for list for Fortune, we have found by studying that every year, the public publicly traded companies on that list have . So there's evidence about why this is important.

Valerie Jarrett:

Mounting evidence, exactly.

Chris:

Just business success evidence, and not just about doing the right thing because it's the right thing to do.

Valerie Jarrett:

No. Well, this is the reason why I'm zeroing in on the paradigm shift because we know that CEOs will do the right thing in good times. Many of them will, right?

Chris:

Sure.

Valerie Jarrett:

Pressure to do it from their workforce, from their customers, but when times get tough, what's the first thing you cut? The nice-to-do. You never cut the business imperative and so I think that... And I also, I think that we have to tie it to compensation. We have to reinforce it throughout the organization.

There was a in The Wall Street Journal that showed even though CEOs get it, 70% of the CEOs understand how important diversity is and inclusion, but still at the lowest level of the corporate rank, men are outperforming women two to one. So why is that? It's because it isn't going throughout the organization and so it takes a deliberate effort to change that culture throughout.

Chris:

I'm going to ask you a somewhat personal question about, if you can think of over the course of your career, what has been the one single best day which you've ever had at work?

Valerie Jarrett:

That's a very tough day. I will say the best day, because it paved the path for my entire future, was the day I walked out of a big law firm and into City Hall.

Everyone had around me had said, "You're making a huge mistake. Why would you give up this incredible opportunity to be at a big firm?" My own mother said, "I can't believe I paid all this tuition for you to go and work in City Hall." I walked in that door and my boss took me to a cubicle with a window facing an alley and I did a gut check and it was the first time Chris, really in my professional life, that I felt I was listening to the quiet voice inside of me and doing what was important to me.

I always look back on the courage it took to swerve away from the 10 year plan that I had had, that I thought was a perfect plan, and I've never looked back.

Chris:

In the course of you having hired a lot of young people over the years and for a variety of

different jobs that you've had, what are you doing when you have identified really great, raw talent of seeing someone that's going to go far, and how are you mentoring them? How are you trying to prepare them for their next step?

Valerie Jarrett:

Well, I think I have an eye for talent. If you think about the Obamas as two. Always in my book, one of my titles is, "My Best Hire Ever," and that was when I hired Michelle Robinson.

But I do pay attention to more than people's credentials. I try to get a sense of who they are as a person and then I stick. I stick with them. I just yesterday, called someone who was on my staff years ago who lost her brother just to tell her how sorry I was.

I try to nurture the younger folks because I remember initially, I didn't have a mentor. Once I joined the team at City Hall, I did. I had someone who really looked after me. My principal client pulled me under her wing and taught me so much, not just as a mentor, but she was also my advocate and I benefited greatly from that. So I try to be very intentional about doing that for the young people who I identify as talented and want to help see grow.

I'm so proud. I look around at some of the young campaign staff who started on President Obama's campaign back in 2008 who are now in elected office themselves. My former chief of staff assistant is running for the state legislature in New York. These are the kinds of growth that just bring me tremendous pride. I think we all think about what our legacy will be, and I think mine will be having built this next generation of leaders who I hope will go on and make the world a better place.

Chris:

Have you ever considered running for public office?

Valerie Jarrett:

I have.

Chris:

Oh, you have?

Valerie Jarrett:

I have considered quite seriously a couple of times.

Chris:

Why did you not do it?

Valerie Jarrett:

Well, the first time I had decided that if mayor Daley didn't run for the last term that I might throw my hat in, because I thought being mayor of Chicago was like the coolest job in the world, the city that I love, having worked in the administration for three mayors. But then he decided to run and I would never run against him. I couldn't beat him first of all, but second of all, he was a mentor and a friend.

Then when President Obama was elected and his seat became vacant in the Senate, I toyed for a very nanosecond about throwing my hat in the ring for that and decided not to really because of his wise advice. He said, "You're going to thrive more in the White House with me than you will in the Senate," and he was right about that.

Now, I'm at the stage of life where I really want to help other young people who want run for office, young and old. I talk to several of the people who are running for president. I try to be helpful in any way I can to folks who are throwing their hat in the arena.

At this stage of my life, I like the flexibility of not having to know that it's a 24/7 job — and it should be. I learned that when I worked in City Hall that public service is 24/7. You can't go to the grocery or the park or wherever without people telling you what they want. That's as it should be and that's not the stage of my life I'm in right now.

Chris:

The title of Special Advisor or Senior Advisor to the President is one that I think has been kind of damaged by Kellyanne Conway and the other members of the Trump administration. You don't need to comment on them, but can you give our listeners an explanation of what that means? What was your role and how did you function?

Valerie Jarrett:

Well, Senior Advisor takes on whatever responsibilities the president wants it to take. Even

within our administration, President Obama always had three. I was the only one that stayed all eight years, but each of us had different responsibilities.

So mine were to oversee the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and that's all the elected officials outside of Washington, outside of Congress; the Office of Public Engagement, and that's designed to bring in the public and stakeholders so that they feel and are a part of the decision-making process; and I chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls.

Then the title Senior Advisor means that you are there to review what comes out of all the policy councils, whether it's domestic policy, national security, economic council, work with the cabinet. Before recommendations are made to the president, they go through the senior advisors and the chief of staff. So in a sense, you have the last look, and to weigh in on whatever decisions the president makes and give him your best counsel.

Chris:

What was the hardest decision that he had to make that you helped him with?

Valerie Jarrett:

Oh my goodness. Look, there isn't a decision he made that he didn't ask for our counsel.

I suppose noodling through the Affordable Care Act and ensuring that we were benefiting as many people as possible. My office was responsible for really testing the different policy decisions against what real families needed.

So for example, ensuring that women had access to preventive care was really important to women across our country, ensuring that young people could stay on their parents' plans until they were 26, ensuring that everyone with a pre-existing condition couldn't be discriminated against by their insurance companies. I just heard countless stories of people going into medical bankruptcy because of pre-existing conditions and having to choose between paying their rent and putting food on the table and taking care of their health.

It was a complicated piece of business. So I think my office was very helpful in trying to make sure that as we decided which policies to include and which ones we couldn't include, that we tested it to the people whose lives were going to be most directly impacted.

Chris:

I want to ask you a bit about the work that the is now doing. It seems like the Obamas always remain very busy, especially with the work the foundation is doing. What is it that you're involved with that you're very proud of?

Valerie Jarrett:

Well, it is in the initial stages and I have been helping out on three funds.

One, because of my background working with the city of Chicago, just the physical building itself, the site plan, how it will situate in the surrounding neighborhood, the kind of impact it positive impact I know it will have, making sure that we think about that in a very deliberate way and in a way that's inclusive to the surrounding community.

The programs that will go on inside of the foundation. It's intended to be a platform that teaches the next generation civic engagement and how we're going about doing that to make a maximum impact with evidence based strategies is something I spent a fair amount of time on.

Then finally, raising money. This isn't going to happen without resources. I enjoy doing that because it gives me a chance to talk about the stories of the young people already who have benefited from the expertise provided to them by the foundation and the connections that have been made among people who come together and share best practices with one another. So it is their passion, and I think it's a way of continuing to be in service, even when you're out of office.

They are leading by example. President Obama, his last speech he gave when he left office, he said, "I'm now returning to the most important of office of all, and that's that of citizen."

Chris:

That's nice. So I went down to Washington for the inauguration —

Valerie Jarrett:

Which one?

Chris:

In 2008.

Valerie Jarrett:

Wasn't it amazing?

Chris:

This was in January 2009.

Valerie Jarrett:

Wasn't that amazing, and cold?

Chris:

It was freezing, but completely worth it. It was the largest group of people who came together that I had ever seen, who were genuinely thrilled and happy. There was just this energy in the air, the entire city. It was so much fun.

I know you were there, but what was that moment like for you where you see one of your close friends not only win an election, but who the American population felt like they were just celebrating that one person.

Valerie Jarrett:

It was an incredible moment. I can remember sitting on the platform. What struck me was when we came outdoors onto the platform, and it was the first time I really had an appreciation for the size of that crowd. I wish everyone could see it from the platform. It took my breath away literally. I was so glad my daughter, who was in law school at the time, came down and was with me so that I could share that historic.

I think there was so much optimism, even though we were in the middle of that economic crisis, but people thought, "Oh, our country did something that seemed near impossible," which … I often say things seem impossible until they're inevitable. It was a day of great hope and joy and challenge.

Chris:

Yeah.

Valerie Jarrett:

We knew the work that laid ahead.

Chris:

Oh, yeah. Going back to when you were talking about working as a lawyer many years ago... Well, you're still a professor, right? You still teach?

Valerie Jarrett:

I'm on the faculty at the University of Chicago.

Chris:

That's what I thought. Yeah. So looking at where we are today, we're faced now with these Democratic primaries over the next few months. We have the presidential election coming in November. You went on television within the past week, I think, and you basically said that whoever ends up getting the Democratic nomination to become candidate in the election in the fall, should be putting a black woman as their running mate.

Valerie Jarrett:

Well, that got —

Chris:

Did I get it twisted?

Valerie Jarrett:

Yes. A little bit.

Chris:

All right, because I didn’t —

Valerie Jarrett:

What I said.... Yes. My full sentence was this.

I thought strategically coming out of Super Tuesday, and I said this yesterday morning before the election, I said that if it was Vice President Biden or Senator Sanders or even Michael Bloomberg, that I thought a way of really enhancing their campaign would be if they announced either a woman, a person of color or someone who reflects the diversity of our country, because we can't win without a big tent.

I think part of why President Obama won, not once, but twice is that he appealed to all parts of the Democratic Party, as well as independents and Republicans who join on board. That's what you need in order to pull together sufficient number of people to get elected. In this day and time, we can't do it in a narrow band. So I thought if those candidates who are not diverse, were to announce a running mate who is, that it would strengthen their chances of getting elected.

Chris:

I understand that point very clearly. I was the one that fumbled it.

Valerie Jarrett:

No, no, no. I said it because I was interrupted while I was speaking and I kind of garbled it on air, but then I corrected it and I said, "Anyone who really reflects this rich diversity of our country, I think would add..." And I am partial to it being a woman, and icing on the cake would be a woman of color, right?

Chris:

Absolutely. Do you feel hopeful about the election in November?

Valerie Jarrett:

I do. I am hopeful, but a quick only if people turn out and vote. I think this election back to the earlier point I was making, is going to depend on turnout. If you think about the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton lost by, I think it's fewer than a hundred thousand votes in three states, and 43% of eligible voters did not vote. So if you just have a teeny uptake in that, the election results could been very different.

I think it's going to turn on energy and commitment and determination, and it isn't just I think for the Democrats to vote against President Trump, although that is the number one issue that people care about, but who are we going to entrust to really move our country forward, heal the divisiveness, set a better tone both as the world leader and also our own children back home?

Chris:

Going back to talk a little bit about what we were discussing earlier about gender equality in the workplace. Is there something from your remarks today that you'll be making at the summit that you want to share with me or have you already covered that?

Valerie Jarrett:

Well, I think a lot of what I'm going to talk about, I hope, and it's a moderated conversation, so we'll see what I'm asked, but I'm hoping that we'll be able to get into just the business imperative of focusing on diversity and inclusion, that it is a competitive advantage if the CEO on down throughout the company creates the kind of culture that is open and inclusive for the most talented people can come and thrive. The time for homogeneous workforces is over if we want to be globally competitive.

I think when I even think back to my time in the White House, because I think this applies to both the public and private sector, President Obama always wanted to make sure that he was hearing from all voices, even most closely those with whom he would disagree. He tried to make it comfortable for people to say what they really thought.

I think the higher you go in the corporate ladder or in politics, the leaders have to make sure that they're sending the message to their workforce that they want to hear from them, and then they want to be pushed and they want to learn. If we're only talking to people who look and think and have the same experiences that we do, are we going to be challenged in the way that's going to be the most innovative and the most creative? I say no. So that's a piece of what I want to talk about too, looking at this as a competitive advantage.

Chris:

Okay. Your moderated session will be available on video on our website for all of our listeners who want to watch it.

Valerie Jarrett:

Terrific.

Chris:

Yeah.

Valerie Jarrett:

I'm delighted to be here.

Chris:

Last question for you. You are also an alum of the University of Michigan. Go Blue!

Valerie Jarrett:

Go Blue!

Chris:

Yeah. Remembering your time in Ann Arbor, for anyone who's never been to Ann Arbor, it is its own unique special city in Michigan and I love going back there. Do you ever get a chance to go back?

Valerie Jarrett:

Yeah. Yeah, I do. I went back last year to the law school. In fact, I gave the commencement at the law school one year.

Chris:

Oh, you did?

Valerie Jarrett:

My first year when we were in the White House, I went back to do the commencement.

Chris:

Oh, nice.

Valerie Jarrett:

That was very cool. I try to go back regularly. I went back on my book tour. I try to not to go back in the dead of winter.

Chris:

Yeah, it's the worst time to be in Michigan.

Valerie Jarrett:

Exactly, but it's a wonderful campus. It was an enriching experience for me to be there for law school even, because the law school is kind of an enclave all to its own, but yet you have the advantage of being a part of this huge university.

Chris:

Well, thank you for sharing that, and thank you, Valerie for joining us today on Better.

Valerie Jarrett:

My pleasure. Thank you very much for having me, Chris.

Speakers

Valerie Jarrett

Senior Advisor, Obama Foundation