The longest-serving senior advisor in presidential history offers lessons on the importance of finding your voice
January 2022 – Drew University welcomed Valerie Jarrett, CEO of the Barack Obama Foundation and former senior advisor to President Barack Obama, to the virtual Drew Forum stage.
The event was moderated by Jennifer Olmsted, professor of economics and director of Middle East studies at Drew.
Jarrett discussed how she found and used her voice to become the longest-serving senior advisor in presidential history before taking questions from the audience.
Tell us about your extraordinary childhood growing up in the Middle East.
As a Black doctor, my father could not find a job at an academic teaching institution in the U.S. comparable to his white counterparts. My parents looked outside of the U.S. and landed a position to start a new hospital in Shiraz, Iran, in the mid 1950s. I was the second baby born in that hospital and lived in Shiraz until I was five years old.
We lived on a hospital compound with families of physicians from all over the world with different languages, cultures, and backgrounds. But kids were kids—we learned each other’s languages, we played with each other. By the time I left, I was fluent in English, French, and Farsi.
Now, I have this expectation that I will find something in common with people when on the surface it might look like there are a lot of differences—which has served me very well. When you live outside of the U.S., you learn that it is a marvelous country, but it’s not the only country on earth. We can learn a great deal outside of our shores.
How has being raised in a global context shaped your approach to policy making?
Challenges around the world cannot be solved by one country alone. Take climate change, for example. The U.S. cannot tackle this challenge alone, which is one of the reasons why President Obama worked so hard to get the Paris Climate Accord complete—it was a complicated business that required global cooperation.
We need a global approach to tackle these kinds of issues. Recognizing that we have not just allies, but an alignment of interest to take on big global issues. Developing trust among world leaders is key to the U.S.’s strength. We must lead by example.
Was there a time when you did not use your voice?
I grew up in a racist and sexist era, particularly in my profession. I witnessed a lot of micro aggressions and I looked the other way, and I really wish I had not—and certainly would not today. One of the privileges of having a voice is using it to be a force for good and realizing that we have to make these teaching moments.
How do you bring your whole self to work?
It’s really important to bring our authentic selves to the table. Job interviews are a two-way street. The first time I met Michelle Obama, then Robinson, I was the deputy chief of staff for the mayor of Chicago and was interviewing her for a position in my office.
She told me her story, which I remember vividly to this day—growing up on the south side of Chicago from a working-class family with parents who did not go to college but valued education. I asked her why she wanted to leave her law firm. She replied that her father and best friend died within the past year and it was such a wake up call to the finality of life. She realized that what she was doing was not meaningful to her, so she honored them by searching for her true passion.
I ended up having dinner with Michelle and her then-fiancé, Barack Obama. We bonded and got to know each other better, and the rest is history. If you are in a position to make choices, tell your story. Relationships are the elixir of life. The trusts and bonds that you find professionally are not just professional relationships, they’re relationships. Find the common bond. When it’s there, it’s magic.
What were your greatest victories while serving with President Obama?
Surviving eight years! There’s a reason no one had survived in my position for eight years!
I wanted to serve my country at the highest level, and every day I would pinch myself when coming through the gates of the White House. It’s such an incredible honor to serve our country in that way.
Our greatest accomplishment was the Affordable Care Act—it was in a class by itself and has really transformed the way we deliver healthcare in this country. It’s not the elections that matter, it’s making progress for our country—something that is becoming increasingly hard to do in this climate.
What decision did you make that scared you the most?
I was terrified every moment of every day from January 20, 2009, to January 20, 2017. The decisions we made affected hundreds of millions of people.
Do you have practical advice for women to find their voices?
There’s safety in numbers. Take time to build relationships with other women. One can disagree without being disagreeable, and you can often use humor to bring a conversation back from going in the wrong direction. Look for teaching moments, not just to make a point—you want to help people grow. People will not support you if they do not know you. You have to speak up for yourself. Practice, get used to advocating for yourself. There’s also the importance of goodwill, there’s no substitute for being kind and thoughtful.
Did you have disagreements with President Obama?
President Obama welcomed disagreement, which made it easier to say what you thought. His strength in leadership is that he makes people feel comfortable disagreeing. Even if you disagreed with his decision, you could not question his decision-making process. You knew he heard your voice, digested your argument, and valued your position. Ultimately, he made the decision, and we rallied around those decisions. He ran a tight, thoughtful, and inclusive process.
Tell us about the Barack Obama Foundation and being back in the private sector.
We launched the Barack Obama Foundation five years ago today. Our goal is to continue to help train our next generation—to inspire, empower, and motivate—to go from hope to action.
I have had this richly diverse career in multiple sectors. Learning is not a finite journey, it is a lifelong passion. You have to be curious and have the humility to appreciate that you always have more to learn. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Do you have any advice for our students?
Volunteer, right now. Kick the tires and see what it’s like. Volunteering is hard work, but it is extraordinarily satisfying. I am sure there are services in close proximity to Drew that need you.
I stopped making predictions a long time ago. I think polling is woefully inadequate, and ultimately, elections turn on turnout. I want you to be informed and educated voters, and sign up to vote. If you can vote, please vote.
Do you feel optimistic?
I do. I have met so many people doing extraordinary things. Do your part.
Future Drew Forum events will be announced by the University in the coming months.