“You have to be willing to listen,” Valerie Jarrett on Creating an Inclusive Culture

When Valerie Jarrett was in her early 30s, everything was finally going according to plan. She had a law degree from the University of Michigan, a career at a prestigious firm, a large office overlooking Lake Michigan, and a husband and beloved daughter. 

So why, on a hot summer day in 1987, did Valerie suddenly burst into tears in her office? 

“On that day,” she said, “I asked myself: ‘Is this my life, or do I want to pivot away from this perfect plan on paper that is a nightmare in reality?’”

That moment of reckoning set her on a winding course, leading from city government all the way to the White House, where she worked as senior advisor for President Obama from 2009 to 2017. 

She shared this story and others during a fireside chat with Melinda King, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for 23andMe. 

Their hour-long conversation, in front of an audience of 23andMe employees over Zoom, touched on a variety of topics, including Valerie’s belief in the next generation; the “uplifting” possibility of a Black woman joining the Supreme Court; the pitfalls of cancel culture; the critical role of inclusion in diversity work; and the real benefit she gets from her daily workouts. The exchange below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Valerie Jarrett headshot
On creating a workplace culture of inclusion for Black employees:

Start at home. Start within your company. Listen to the people who work there, and do it in a way that they feel comfortable. Be authentic – you need to actually care. Have them tell you their stories. 

I love storytelling; it’s a big piece of what we do at the Obama Foundation because it humanizes the issues. So then it’s not just about statistics – it becomes, ‘this is my story, and what I’ve been through and this is what I need to thrive in this environment.’ 

If you truly want to create an inclusive culture, then you have to be willing to listen, willing to check yourself and say, ‘well, have I really made an effort to have diverse friends? What does the senior level of this company look like?’ Because when people come in the door of your company, it’s hard to be what they can’t see. 

 

On her source of inspiration and optimism:

I draw inspiration from the younger generation. It was one of the reasons why President Obama was able to entice me to run the Obama Foundation, even though I was in a stage of my life when I was focused on being a grandmother and waking up every day doing exactly what I wanted to do. I initially agreed to do it as a favor until he found someone permanent. Then I started spending time with our young global leaders from Asia, Africa, and Europe and students at Columbia University and the University of Chicago. They’re so smart and strategic, they think outside of the box, and they are hopeful in a realistic way. They give me an enormous amount of inspiration.  

Recognizing that I stand on the shoulder of my ancestors and people who come before me, I know that I want to have sturdy shoulders for the next generation. So I will impart what I’ve learned, which they are free to accept or disregard. I believe our job is to make their life easier so they can tackle some of the big challenges of life.

 

On the pitfalls of cancel culture and the value of different perspectives:

Who was more unhelpful to the Obama Administration than Rupert Murdoch? But guess what, Rupert Murdoch cared about immigration reform. And I worked very closely with him on that. Part of what you have to recognize – if you’re true to wanting change – is this isn’t about you; this is about getting the job done. And it doesn’t taint or diminish you to work with people you may disagree with on 99 issues if you can agree on one. 

I worry that the temptation is to cancel anyone who doesn’t fit into a nice little package. But that’s not how we get things done. And it’s not how we get to know one another, which is part of the elixir of life – relationships. And I think the relationships made of strange bedfellows are even more interesting, and they’re more complicated. I encourage everyone to come out of their comfort zone and not just turn someone off because they don’t agree with you 100 percent, because, first of all, there’s a lot more grey in a lot of areas than that, and we get more done when we do things together.

 

On President Biden’s plan to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court:

I appreciate his desire for that diversity, and I’m really proud, for example, that when he and President Obama were in office, President Obama appointed 26 Black women to the bench. Now there’s a real treasure trove of women to choose from, not to mention those not on the bench who are just as qualified. The pipeline is a lot stronger today than it has been historically –  I think that’s a great thing. 

President Biden has received some backlash for saying it will be a Black woman, but the message he’s sending is, ‘I think a Black woman in that environment would be a healthy thing right now.’

I can’t wait to see who he selects, and I think it will be uplifting for us to have that representation. Representation matters. I had the privilege of working on Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court selection and confirmation, and the Latino community was euphoric; they felt like someone who is going to be making decisions that impact their life finally understood their story. And I think for the credibility of our judiciary, that’s an important step.

 

On listening to that quiet voice within:

Each of us should ask – ‘what replenishes me’? At a certain age, you should know yourself and know what makes you feel better and healthy. For me, I exercise every morning. Now, I do not enjoy exercise. The happiest moment of my day is when I’m done. But I know it’s good for me. It’s an hour I have to myself – my phone’s not ringing, I’m not looking at texts; it just settles me. 

And I also love my friends and family. When I’m in Chicago, my mom, who’s 93, has this Sunday dinner with all our cousins. (I’m an only child, so my cousins are like my siblings). At the end of that dinner, I just feel better. And when I was in Washington, I did that with my girlfriends. So do what makes you feel good to replenish yourself.

I don’t believe in work-life balance, just like I don’t believe in 50/50 relationships or that you can have it all simultaneously. I think we set ourselves up with completely unrealistic expectations. We just have to figure out how to give ourselves a little bit of a break and get back in the game. It’s easier to do that if you think what you’re doing is of value. Try to find a job where you feel like you’re adding value; that’s very satisfying. And it can be adding value in whatever ways make you fulfilled. Don’t look to someone else to tell you what will work for you.

That’s one of the things I realized that day I was in my office crying. I had been living the life that everyone else thought was a great life. But the only voice that actually matters is your voice – that quiet voice inside of you.