Leadership in Action: Q&A with Laurene Powell Jobs
This interview has been condensed for clarity and is shared here in transcript form as taken from a live event conversation hosted by Global Citizen Year.
Abby Falik [AF]: I have really been looking forward to this conversation, Laurene. I don’t know whether you’ll remember, but we first met when I was a freshman at Stanford. I needed a job and had the incredible fortune to come across College Track, just as you were launching. You interviewed me and I remember feeling lit up by something in you – I was immediately drawn to you and what you were building. I knew I wanted to be a part of it.
Laurene Powell Jobs [LPJ]: Oh, I remember really well! We were only a handful of people at the time with a big, bold idea.
AF: Let’s start by going even further back. I would love to hear about how your upbringing impacted your values and identity.
LPJ: We are all products of our lived experiences and education and explorations and practices. I grew up in northwest New Jersey, in a place that was much more rural than suburban. The natural rhythms of the seasons were one of my first teachers.
I had three brothers and we were all very close in age, so we sort of operated as a pack. We swam in the lake and skated on the ice in the winters. We were lower middle class. We didn’t travel at all. We didn’t go on holidays per se. But the place where we lived was abundant and full of interest and we were very curious kids. My father died when I was three years old, so my mother was the biggest influence on my life. She had been an educator and was very committed to our education and our learning. A lot of my travels happened through books and I was always very, very curious.
AF: I love you describing how, through books, you were able to have experiences and exposure that you might not have had otherwise. In your poignant commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania, you told the graduates that you had interviewed for the Peace Corps as you were finishing college, but for financial reasons chose to take a job at Goldman Sachs instead. I’m curious: how do you look back on that experience?
LPJ: I’ve always been drawn to service and I also wanted to connect my passion for discovering other cultures and places with my occupation. But at the time, I had the very real and practical need to pay off my student debt, which was pretty significant. I was on my own financially. I think I went through the entire Peace Corps interview as an idealist, but ended up making my decision as a practical person.
Working for Goldman Sachs was not like the Peace Corps whatsoever! It reminded me very much of my childhood with my three brothers; I was on the trading floor and it was pretty rough and tumble. I think women on the trading floor made up around 5% of the total when I was there. Overall, it was a great, great learning experience and I was open to it.
When you enter any relationship, there’s always the element of reciprocity. You don’t know if that relationship is going to be one for the next month or a year or throughout your life. And that’s OK. But you have to enter it with that intention of reciprocity and understand that what you are bringing to that relationship is of equal value to what you’re receiving.
My boss was Jon Corzine, who later became the senator and governor of New Jersey. And he was a great boss and mentor. He would give me books to read and he would bring me to meetings that I probably had no business attending.
After three years, my bonus ended up paying off all of my student debt. Anyone carrying student debt who has paid it off knows what it feels like. It was a momentous change in my life to know that I had within me the capability of taking care of myself and providing for myself and having the liberation now of not only an education, but no more debt. I felt like I could widen the aperture and see a broader horizon.
AF: I’m struck by the role specific people have played in giving you confidence and a sense of security. One of the things that we teach at Global Citizen Year is the importance of finding our teachers — people whose gravitational pull and wisdom light something up in us. Is there anything you’ve learned along the way about how to figure out who those teachers are?
LPJ: I love that question because the whole world is our teacher. We find our teachers everywhere. When I was a child, books and nature were my teacher. All of us can find the magic of the universe really anywhere if we have the right mindset.
One of my teachers was a woman, Ginetta Sagan, who I met when I moved to California. She lived near Stanford and had been one of the founders of Amnesty International. She lived a life of purpose in a way that helped me answer a question I’d always had, “What does it mean to marry purpose and passion and actually live it?” She was a great teacher for me.
I think you have to have faith in the seasonality of life. Sometimes you’re planting, sometimes you’re cultivating, and sometimes you’re harvesting. You can’t have everything at the same time because things take time to mature. And then, sometimes, you just need to soften the soil so that you can plant again.
Society places a big emphasis on finding mentors. In reality, people come to you organically. If you cultivate within yourself a certain type of magnetism, a certain sense of strength and resilience and compassion and love, then that magnetism draws others to you that have similar energy.
AF: Exactly. That magnetism is contagious, too. It’s like a magic that feeds on itself, and helps us find our people. Another societal expectation I find daunting is to “find your passion.” This is a tall order – especially when we’re young. I’ve started to think about passion as the thing that either breaks your heart or lights you up. The thing you can’t not do something about. What was that thing for you?
LPJ: I like this notion that you’re describing. We all have it within us, we just have to listen.
After business school, I was asked by a local high school teacher [in East Palo Alto] if I would come and speak to her class about college. Every Friday, the teacher had people from the community come in and talk to them. I went, and that day was a turning point in my life. Did I know it at the time? No, of course not. But when I got there and I met the students and I started talking to them, I realized that while theoretically they were endeavoring to go to college, they were not prepared to apply. I asked if any of them had seen a college counselor in their high school. None of them had. This high school of 6,500 students had one college counselor. I told them I would be their college counselor and would come every Friday.
As it turned out, I got to know them very, very well. Of our thirty-five students, only three could actually apply to a four-year college because the other thirty-two had not taken the classes that they needed. That was a lightbulb moment for me. All of them were capable students, and yet no one told them they needed four years of English or a certain level of mathematics or a laboratory science. And because of that lack of information, they had their hands tied behind their backs. They now had their life options limited because part of what they wanted to do in their lives was go on to college.
I felt it was unacceptable, unfair, unjust, and such a waste of incredible talent and human potential. After a year working with these students, I decided to sell my company and start a nonprofit.
I felt like these were my children. I took it very personally, and it’s still a very personal endeavor because education was my portal to opportunity. They saw it in the same way, and I wanted to make sure it was.
AF: It’s a delight to get to hear you reflect on the throughline of your leadership journey. We know the dots always connect looking backward, but in ways we never could have predicted.
At Global Citizen Year we define leadership as a daily – and lifelong! – practice, rather than a position, title or an arrival point. I’d love to hear about any practices you’re committed to in your daily life.
LPJ: I started to develop habits of mind and then those habits of mind became a habit of practice. I would always use an anchor moment – my birthday, the New Year – to reaffirm, OK, what is happening? I have one year plans, five year plans, ten year plans. I wrote them out and it wasn’t hard or fixed, but it was always a good practice for me to evaluate questions like, “Am I on track? Do I feel that I am using my talents and my full self in a way that is consonant with what is deeply important to me?” This is a very personal answer, but it’s really important to me to feel that I am giving something back to humanity out of gratitude for life.
I want my life to be a life of meaning and purpose, and so I examine it. And I want to operate from a notion of abundance: abundance of ideas, abundance of optimism, abundance of gratitude.
AF: Laurene, this conversation has been a delight. I’m so grateful for your willingness to show up whole and human. One final question before we close: what is one thing that you wish you could tell your eighteen-year-old self?
LPJ: I wish I knew that so much of life is about what we choose not to do, in addition to what we choose to do. I think that helps to ground us, and to be deliberate and intentional in our choices. When I was 18, I was reactive. I didn’t have a good sense of, “What is my intention and is this my active choice?” That might have served me better. On the other hand, I believe very strongly that as long as we put a premium on empathy and listening and kindness, we will make really good decisions at any point in our lives.
AF: So powerful, and such a reminder of why we do what we do – supporting young people in becoming empathetic and impactful leaders. You give us all something to aspire to. Thank you so much for your time.
LPJ: Thank you, Abby, I am so impressed with your organization. I met you when you were 18 and all of this energy and possibility and creativity and brilliance, you had it then, too. I’m not surprised that you have built something so beautiful.
AF: Thank you. We are so grateful you’re a part of it.