Update, May 5, 2022: The below column, originally published in Aug. 2021, features Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House principal deputy press secretary. Months later, we’re republishing, as it was just announced that Jean-Pierre will soon become the new White House press secretary, making her the first Black person and the person openly LGBTQ person to hold the position, per CNN. Below, more on how she got to this career-defining moment.
In ELLE.com‘s monthly series Office Hours, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, worst jobs, and everything in between. This month we spoke with Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House principal deputy press secretary and member of the Biden administration’s historic all-female senior communications team. Jean-Pierre is used to breaking barriers in her career: Last year, she was chief of staff for then-vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, becoming the first Black person to hold the role, and this May, she became the first openly gay woman to lead a White House press briefing and the first Black woman to do so in 30 years. She was also a staffer in the Obama-Biden White House, a political analyst for NBC and MSNBC, the chief public affairs officer for MoveOn, and a lecturer at Columbia University. Below, she shares what it’s like to now have her dream job, the complicated nature of being the “first,” and the career advice she never follows.
My first job
I grew up in Hempstead, NY, and my very first job was working for an environmental organization. I was a phone canvasser, and I was terrible at it. It’s really hard to ask for money, especially over the phone. But that turned into this other really good job, where I would go to the beach in the summer and observe these birds calling piping plovers, which are an endangered species. I’d count the eggs and make sure they were still in the nest. Then we’d watch over the summer as the eggs hatched. I was originally a science major, and I always enjoyed anything that had to do with science or the environment.
The job I’d never want to do again
I once had a job where I was essentially a fundraiser assistant. It was a volunteer thing I was doing, and I didn’t like it. We went to a very wealthy donor’s house somewhere in Manhattan, and I remember thinking, This is the part of politics that I’m going to leave to the experts. It’s something that takes a very important, special skill that I just didn’t have.
What it’s like to have my dream job
I love the fact that I get to come back for another historic White House. I will never have a job like this ever again. It doesn’t matter what I do; it will never amount to what we’re doing today. I am this Black, queer, immigrant woman, and I get to walk into the gates of this White House. I have an office in the West Wing. And I’m doing this in an incredible, important moment. I’m doing it on behalf of President Biden, who I’ve known for over a decade. Everything we’re doing, we’re trying to help the American people. So I can’t imagine a better opportunity.
How being raised in an immigrant family has shaped my career
My parents were born and raised in Haiti. They left at a time of a dictatorship, because they wanted something better for themselves and their children. They wanted to make sure they could provide everything they didn’t have for themselves. I grew up understanding that my parents sacrificed so much. My dad was a New York City cab driver, and my mom was a home health care aid. They had multiple jobs, worked six or seven days a week, and I barely saw them. I grew up with the understanding that it is an honor to be here in this country. The American Dream is not easy, especially if you are a person of color. My parents instilled in me to never give up an opportunity, work incredibly hard, and appreciate what you have. Now I get to pay it forward by being part of an administration that’s helping people who are just like my parents. With everything I’m doing, I think about my parents. I think about how I grew up and the millions of families who are going through the same thing that I did.
How I feel about being the “first”
It’s so layered. I want to do a good job in the role I’m given. That’s the most important thing. How do I do the job to my best of abilities and succeed? It’s not until people bring up [being the “first”] that I think about that component. Then when I think about that, it’s an honor. It’s an honor to have broken a barrier or to have been a symbol or a leader. But then it’s always like, wow, we still have a lot of work to do. I want to make sure that I’m not just breaking the barrier, but also bringing people with me as well. It is a lot of pressure, because you want to succeed. You’re doing the job you’ve been given and also not letting a community down or your boss down or your family down.
The career advice I don’t follow
I’m inherently shy and introverted. I think people kind of roll their eyes when I say that, but it’s true. People used to be like, “You need to speak up in a meeting. You need to put your foot down.” And sometimes, that’s not for everybody. You just have to find who you are. You have to find what works for you. Sometimes being the person who’s listening, the quieter voice, is a lot more impactful. It’s important to be who you are authentically, and people will see that.
How my child influences my work day
I have a seven-year-old, and when she’s having a tough morning, or she says, “Oh mom, I don’t really want to go to school,” “I don’t want to do this,” I think it’s always important for me to show positivity. I’ll let her know, “You have all this support around you. We love you. You’re so smart. You’re going to get this done. You’re an amazing person.” And in some way, telling her that also helps me to be positive and know that, even if I fail, I have a community that’s going to hold me up. Once I have that positive attitude, I bring that into work and try to lift up everybody around me. It stems from being a mom and having my seven year old and trying to lift her up every morning.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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