In honor of Women’s History Month, Obama Foundation CEO Valerie Jarrett visits William and Mary to speak at Values Week


Tuesday, March 7, Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to former United States President Barack Obama and current CEO of the Obama Foundation, came to speak at the College of William and Mary in honor of Women’s History Month and Values Week, reflecting on the importance of female empowerment and gender equality. Co-sponsored by Alma Mater Productions, Community Values and Restorative Practices and the Center for Student Diversity, the event brought together students and community leaders alike to hear Jarrett speak in Sadler’s Commonwealth Auditorium. 

Jarrett receiving her bachelor’s degree from Stanford University in 1978 and her Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan Law School in 1981. In 1987, Jarrett left her corporate law firm to begin her public service career in Chicago, Illinois. Jarrett served as the Deputy Corporation Counsel for Mayor Harold Washington, the Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development and the Chair of the Chicago Transit Board. Jarrett also served on numerous civic and corporate boards ranging from Ariel Investments to Sesame Street Workshop. 

Jarrett made history by becoming the longest-serving senior advisor to a United States President, working throughout President Barack Obama’s 2009-2017 presidency. During her tenure at the White House, Jarrett chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls while overseeing the Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs for the White House. 

Despite Jarrett’s myriad of achievements in the federal government, she called attention to the significance of local government throughout her career. Jarrett highlighted its importance as it helps people gain experience and create relationships through interacting with communities firsthand.

“I learned more in local government where you look right in the face of your constituents,” said Jarrett. “By the time I had served eight years in Chicago’s local government, people knew who I was. I couldn’t go to the grocery store or dry cleaners without somebody coming up to me and saying ‘this is what I want you to do.’”

Following her tenure in the Obama administration, Jarrett now focuses her work on nonprofits and foundations. She is the current board chairman of Civic Nation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to education initiatives to address national issues, co-chair of The United State of Women, which builds coalitions among nonprofit organizations that are focused on women and gender equality, and CEO of the Obama Foundation, which is focused on the impacts of ordinary people.

“There is something just so replenishing being around young people who aren’t jaded, who do believe they can make a difference, who are willing to be civically engaged and feel this sense of power that I think sometimes dulls as people get older,” Jarrett said.

Jarrett stressed that the importance of young people stems from their engagement with societal issues, especially regarding college students who are admitted into programs led by the Obama Foundation. 

“The focus we admit into our programs all have already established at a very young age, far younger before I was actually engaged civically, that they care about their communities and that they feel this sense of empowerment to make a difference,” Jarrett said. “We want to inspire, empower and connect them even more, and have their differences that they’re currently making make it to scale and help them to connect with one another.” 

When asked about how she maneuvers the high level positions in the face of racial and gender inequality, Jarrett stressed that gaining people’s trust can help one gain respect. 

“Yes, people might look at me a certain way because I’m a woman and they may look at me a certain way because I’m Black, my goal is to get them to trust me — to trust me as a human, to trust me because of my intellect and trust me because I respect them,” said Jarrett. “If you treat people pretty well over the arc of your life, it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to face discrimination, doesn’t mean that life isn’t always fair, but ultimately there’s no better revenge to all those haters than success.”

When asked about how she integrates her values into everyday life and her surrounding community, Jarrett credits her parents for instilling a moral foundation within her character.

“They provided me with a safety net, so if I stumbled and fell, I knew they would pick me up,” said Jarrett. “It was the adage, ‘To those whose much is given, much is expected,’ and the expectation was that I work really hard and that I would figure out my path to give back.”

Jarrett further explained that her father, Dr. James E. Bowman, gave her important advice, as he always emphasized having a strong moral compass.

“My father always said, beginning when I was about five years old when I had a coloring book, ‘Color well within the lines,’” Jarrett said. “That should be your moral compass in life. Just don’t get close to the edge.” 

Williamsburg community leader Connie Matthews Harshaw, a retired Federal Executive and President of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, said that Jarrett’s words about morality and ethics was a notable theme throughout Jarrett’s talk.

“You know in your heart, you know in your mind what’s right and it is very black and white, there’s no gray area,” said Matthews. “The difference between right and wrong is non-negotiable. And I think that if more people would think that way, we’d be in much better shape in the country.

Punnammal Gross ’24, Impact Chair of Alma Mater Productions, said that the importance of inviting Valerie Jarrett as keynote speaker relates to empowering women and women of color, since the College has had a history of gender exclusion and racial discrimination.

“I know that there was a time where the school didn’t accept women, and on top of that didn’t accept Black women or other women of color, so seeing the intersectionality of these two identities being able to speak in a crowd full of students and community leaders was such an amazing opportunity,” Gross said. “I’m thankful that I got to a school where this is possible and I got to learn a lot about leadership and values and boundary setting.”

During the talk, Jarrett also discussed the importance of authenticity, as it creates confidence within one’s self and in other people.

“I think I try to be as authentic as possible, I have been really open with you guys here,” said Jarrett. “If you’re comfortable in your skin, which takes some time to get that comfortable, and you treat people well, and you work hard, over the arch, you tend to make a difference and you build relationships with people.”

Shiyanna McLeod ’23, the Office of Community Values and Restorative Practices Representative, stated the importance of a Black woman taking center stage as the Values Week keynote speaker. 

“I thought it was amazing to have specifically a Black woman be our keynote speaker,” said McLeod. “I think that it resonates within me to see such a reflection of myself be brought to our school to share her insights and her experience during Women’s History Month as our Values Week speaker.”

McLeod also said that Jarrett’s words on initiating connections with your neighbor is imperative because it can help bridge differences, especially on college campuses. 

 “I think something that stood out to me from the talk was her advice to not exist inside an echo chamber,” McLeod said. “It really ties into her insights on being a leader and also getting involved in your community. You aren’t able to know what your neighbors are thinking without taking the first step and asking them, and so I think that that is extremely relevant.

Jarrett’s advice to women who are seeking high level positions is to show up and work hard, and to be open to new opportunities and forging new connections.

“Do your job, I always say to people,” Jarrett said. “It is fine to aspire, but there are no easy steps to get to where I have been or where anybody goes who works in the White House.” 

Jarrett’s final advice to the audience was that life is not a clear cut path and that a diverging path can lead to new opportunities. 

“The adventure is in the swerve, and I was on that straight line,” said Jarrett. “I’m so delighted that I had the courage to take a different direction. It changed my life.”


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