When our forever First Lady Michelle Obama counts the list of people who’ve influenced her the most, Valerie Jarrett is right at the top.
What started as a meeting between Mrs. Obama (then Robinson) a young, ambitious attorney and Jarrett, and the seasoned deputy chief of staff for Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, evolved into a nearly three-decade mentoring relationship.
“Valerie was one of my earliest, and best, role models for how to be a confident woman and mother in the workplace. She helped me while I was #FindingMyVoice, and I’m so proud to see @valeriebjarrett helping others find and use their own voices,” Obama posted on her Instagram page.
Jarrett, a political insider, businesswoman and former senior advisor to President Barack Obama, is credited with playing a key role in helping the Obamas campaign and ultimately win the White House. Jarrett explains that the secret weapon behind the successful longevity of their mentorship and friendship is pretty simple: authenticity.
“The first time I met Michelle Robinson in the summer of 1991, rather than bragging to me about her extraordinary resumé instead she told me her story and I just fell for her completely over her story,” Jarrett tells theGrio.
“I think sometimes we’re so busy selling ourselves and our credentials, we forget to sell ourselves as people.”
Jarrett would be there for the highs of winning two presidential campaigns, and the lows such as when Mrs. Obama broke down in tears before her over personal attacks about her comments questioning her taking pride in this country for “the first time,” in her adult lifetime.
Before being a clutch player on the Obamas’ team, Jarrett was breaking her own barriers, working initially for the first Black mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington before transitioning to Daley’s administration. She credits part of her success to that of another Black woman who extended her hand in mentorship.
“I had the experience of having been mentored by a Black woman who was my client when I worked for city governments. I really just tried to do what she did for me,” Jarrett says.
“She encouraged me. She pushed me to excel way outside of my comfort zone. She pushed me to go and ask my boss for a promotion, which I was not inclined to do and she forced me to do it. She accommodated me as a single mom in more ways than I can count.“
With that support, Jarrett managed a demanding career, while raising her daughter Laura Jarrett, who is currently a reporter for CNN.
Now, several years after the end of her days in the White House, Jarrett has penned her memoir “Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward,” opening up about how others can do the same to secure a path to success and fullfillment.
“What I say to people who want to be mentored, you have to work hard at your job, but you also have to build relationships with the people with whom you work,” Jarrett tells theGrio.
“Not just your boss, but people all around you because you never know. In my career, I’ve had people who I once supervised, who then went on to supervise me and the reverse as well.”
“Mentorship comes out of relationships. It’s not a drive-by. It’s somebody who’s invested in you, who cares about you and who wants to see you succeed. Dozens will mentor you when you’re in the room. They’ll pull you aside and help encourage you and give you constructive criticism, but also someone who will advocate for you when you’re not in the room and that is what I have tried to do for others.”
A pocket full of pressure
Once you’ve snagged your career mentor, Jarrett says the next step is learning how to carry the weight on your shoulders that can come with success.
“When you are the first, you carry the responsibility of learning to comport yourself well because you know that young people are watching your behavior. Part of being a trailblazer is that you recognize it’s going to be harder for you. The bar is going to be higher for you,” Jarrett tells theGrio.
“I know I felt a sense that if I messed up and that that would reflect on President Obama and his administration and then that would make it harder for the next Black President. I felt that pressure every day and it is what propelled me out of bed in the morning with a sense of fear.”
Staying true in the midst of storms has served Jarrett well. She has remained unbothered and steadfast, whether she was the subject of racist tweets (“Roseanne WHO?”) or on the bullseye of conservative critics who resented her influence with the President.
Regardless of the haters, she wants people to know, confidence didn’t always come so easily, but neither does perfection, which she believes isn’t required to make an impact on the job, at home or in the world.
“I put my whole story out there just as Michelle Robinson had done when I first met her 28 years ago. People could see the circuitous route my life and my career have taken and how I struggled to even trust my own voice let alone listen to it,” Jarrett explained.
“I grew, I learned and I tried to use it to be an agent for change and to empower others to discover the power of their voices. I know that’s something we can all do.”
Add “Finding My Voice” to your summer reading list and hit us with your thoughts on social media using the hashtag #GrioBooks.