Valerie Jarrett – senior advisor to the Obama Foundation, businesswoman, political activist, and author – discussed her new book, Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward, in addition to her forthright, optimistic perspective on the importance of leadership and the responsibilities of citizenship at SXSW 2019.
Exploring her early life and family history, Jarrett spoke of her father, a physician, who had a difficult time finding good work and pay in the United States because of a color barrier. Wanting to find better opportunities for their family, Jarrett’s parents looked for work in different countries and eventually landed in Shiraz, Iran. “My parents had never been any further than Europe. They didn’t know anything about Iran; the culture, the people, the government, the language, anything at all!” said Jarrett. During their time in Iran, her father ceased being referred to as an African American physician and was simply an American physician. “His confidence grew in Iran and I came into this world thinking that I was as good as everybody else,” Jarrett added.
From these stellar moments in her family’s history of overcoming obstacles and countless barriers to achieve their dreams – including her great-grandfather, Robert Taylor, who was the first African American to attend MIT – it got Jarrett thinking about her own mentality when times get tough.
“Anytime I’m nervous, and think maybe I can’t do something, I just think about him [Robert Taylor], standing on his shoulders, and what he accomplished in his lifetime.”
The session then switched gears to Jarrett’s time in the White House as the Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama. Moderator Melissa Bell of Vox Media asked about women and their roles under the Obama Administration and the tactics Jarrett used to ensure these women had a voice.
Jarrett was the only woman in a senior position that worked on a campaign and had a history with the president. With a number of issues at hand – the state of the economy and brand new atmosphere combined with the number of men who worked on the campaign – Jarrett noticed the women’s voice dwindling. Obama had the senior women staffers over for dinner and listened very closely and ensured the culture at the White House would be one to be desired.
“He [Barack Obama] wanted to create an environment where diversity was viewed as a strength; diversity of ideas, life experiences, gender, race, religion, geography, you name it.”
Lastly, Bell asked Jarrett what advice she had to offer the audience, she responded with: “Technology is an incredible tool, it has changed the way the world works. It has brought us all closer together, but there is no substitute for human interaction. So, once in a while, look up from your device and talk to the person sitting next to you and be present in their lives, in the hope they will be present in yours!”
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Featured Session: Valerie Jarrett with Melissa Bell – Photo by Nicola Gell