Tag Archives: career

Michele Jolin – A policy shaper and lifelong mentor

Today I continue my series on Celebrating a Whole Life, which shares what inspires me about women I’ve met who live their lives creatively at a time when we often end up stuck in a conversation about trade-offs vs. having it all. Anne Marie Slaughter’s article on the topic from a few months ago again stirred the pot, yielding what I thought was a welcome flurry of conversations about the choices women make and the context in which they make those choices. I won’t dive into what I thought about the article, but I will say that I believe we are just at the beginning of a period when we are able to recognize versions of success that defy the traditional expectations of both professional and personal achievement. When we measure achievement based on things like meaning, fulfillment, purpose, and yes, happiness, and not only on title, position, or the ability to sacrifice all for family. Each post in this series is a celebration of women who are making bold choices and doing so in a way that is imbued with a true spark of joy.

Michele Jolin was perhaps the first woman I thought of when I decided to write this series. She joined Ashoka about a year after I did over a decade ago, and arrived just after having served as the Chief of Staff for President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors. It was the most impressive title I had ever heard, and I knew before I even met Michele that she was a star. Once I did meet her, she exploded any notions I had of what it means to be a very smart, very accomplished, very-important-person. She was ridiculously warm, accessible, and committed to sharing her own stories (of success and failure) to help women that were coming after her to navigate both professional and personal pathways.

I was working as the associate for Ashoka’s Environmental Innovations Initiative at the time, and her job was to lead a parallel effort in education, an issue about which she was passionate.  I immediately sought out an opportunity to work with her on a gathering of Ashoka Fellows from around the world all focused on education which would take place in South Africa. I saw it as both an opportunity to get out into the world and close to the Ashoka social entrepreneurs, but also as a chance to learn from Michele.

Throughout this project, and particularly during out time together in South Africa, I saw in Michele someone who was at ease with her own leadership – able to respectfully facilitate a group of strong-willed social innovators with diverse opinions about how to improve education and protect children,  and then take insights from those discussions and push them to the highest levels of policy change. She blended hard and soft, showing the patience required by this diverse community of Ashoka Fellows and the discipline to move things forward when needed.

I have tried to emulate these qualities since, but the greatest lessons I learned from Michele came not from a few months together planning a gathering of social entrepreneurs. They have come from having stayed in touch for over thirteen years, and being privileged to have watched her make choices about her life, career and family that have been a model and an inspiration to me. She is someone who truly deserves to be celebrated for building a whole life when at every moment she has been faced with tremendous opportunities and has chosen carefully and wisely in order to create a mosaic of priorities that fit together beautifully.

When I first met her, she seemed to be at a critical juncture, shifting from a period of prioritizing her career (which had obviously paid off) to prioritizing her personal life and her desire to start a family. At her wedding, and then later meeting her first child, I saw in her a wisdom to go after those things she valued with focus and passion, whether it was an opportunity to shape economic and social policy, or start a family. I observed with keen interest when she developed a flexible schedule at Ashoka, allowing her to continue to have an impact on an issue that mattered to her, while being present for her family the way she wanted to be.

When I had my first child, she came to see me with her three children in tow, and I was again inspired by her willingness to embrace the chaos of a large family while still relentlessly pursuing opportunities to shape policy and champion social innovation.

I was perhaps never more inspired by her, though, than when she told me she had decided to take one year away from work at a moment when the demands of her life made her feel like she needed to make a shift. Her clarity and confidence to do what was right for her and her family, trusting that she would pull all the pieces together again when the time was right, has stayed in my mind as a hallmark of what it takes to follow a unique path in life.

Michele is someone who has worked on both the domestic and international fronts at the highest levels to create lasting positive change. She has also stood as someone who fearlessly makes her family a priority, and she has been a friend and a role model that has continuously opened up new worlds of possibilities for me. For that and so much more, I celebrate her.

Below are Michele’s responses to my five standard questions:

1.       How do you define success?

One word: Balance.

2.       What is your greatest struggle?

Guilt:  Feeling guilty about never having enough time for friends, kids, family or work.

3.       What are you proudest of?

My 3 children.

4.       Who inspires you, in terms of how they live their life?

My 3 children. My oldest because she is determined, big-hearted and brave; my middle because he is imaginative, free-spirited and fearless; my youngest because she is strong, resilient, fun-loving, uninhibited and hilarious.  Also, Ashoka Fellow Sister Cyril Mooney (and many other social entrepreneurs around the world) because she is optimistic, effective and passionately focused on making life better for the most vulnerable children.

5.       If you had a free 8th day of the week, what would you do with it?



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When do you know enough?

During a recent workshop with the Op-Ed Project, a program launched by Echoing Green Fellow Katie Orenstein that is bringing more women’s voices into public discourse, I struggled with an exercise designed to help the participants talk about our areas of expertise. In the workshop with me was a stunning array of women with tremendous accomplishments under their belts.

The exercise was simple, I thought at first, just a fill-in-the-blank exercise. My name is Yasmina and I am an expert in _______ because _________. The only instructions were to make it narrow, specific and short. Little did I know that I would struggle so mightily with this simple task, even after watching over a dozen women go through the exercise before it was my turn.

Make it narrow. Sounds simple enough, but I couldn’t do it. I was so worried about not communicating the breadth of my knowledge, that I picked an area of expertise that was both hard to communicate, and far from unique. It was something about helping entrepreneurs solve major global challenges. Huh? One by one, each woman struggled to state one area of expertise that was narrow, and in which they had more expertise than others in the room.

An expert in International Affairs? No, try “I’m an expert in backpacking across Kyrgyzstan as a journalist.”

An expert in children’s literature? No, try “I’m an expert in Free to be You and Me.”

As I listened I found these new answers painfully narrow. Yet the revised answers made me far more curious to learn from these diverse accomplished women. And of course, one can be expert in lots of different things. But why bother figuring out how to describe a narrow expertise? Because someday, you may need to share what you know with someone else, and it they will probably want to know something specific. But as I try to think about what I know that makes me some kind of expert, it seems impossible to think of anything for which there aren’t 5 people I know that have deeper expertise. So maybe there’s another way to get at this. In the past few weeks several people have asked me to speak to them to share my expertise (who knew?). All of these people are working on projects with real social impact with organizations I deeply respect, and I haven’t hesitated to share with them what I know.

I have a momentary pause – do I know enough to be of assistance? And then I decide I’ll let them decide. I’ll share what I know, no more, no less, and they’ll decide if it’s helpful. They may not reveal to me whether it is truly useful, but worst case scenario, they’ll know I tried to be helpful. And I’ll learn a little more about what I know. Because whether or not I ever figure out what I’m an expert in, I do want to learn how my knowledge can help others.

So, after my recent conversations with people who seemed interested in what I know, here’s take two:

My name is Yasmina and I’m an expert in how to tell the story of a social enterprise because I’ve been working with social entrepreneurs on 5 continents for 15 years, helping them share their stories at events, through media and in academia.

It’s a start.  What’s your expertise? Remember, narrow. specific, short.

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Antonia Bowring – Inspiring on many dimensions

In this, my second profile in the series “Celebrating a Whole Life,” I am privileged to write about Antonia Bowring, a woman who has inspired me for many years and who truly deserves to be celebrated. Antonia is someone who I have admired for her thoughtful choices and honesty, but what first amazed me about her was something I discovered in a freezer.

I was impressed by Antonia from the moment I met her. She was facilitating the first staff retreat I attended with Acumen Fund nine years ago, and her approach to guiding us through complex and sometimes delicate conversations was both intimate and commanding. She had the complete trust of our CEO, and I was so curious about her story – who was this woman who could pop into our three day meeting to help us as we shaped some of the key elements of our strategy as a freelance consultant.

So I was already curious about her when on our second day at the offsite retreat I opened the freezer to find ice cubes and found small frozen pouches of milk and naively asked what they were. She was nearby and told me she was pumping milk for a baby she had at home. The whole concept was foreign to me at the time (though it is all too familiar now) and I suddenly had to replay the past 24 hours. In the past day of marathon working sessions, interspersed with the kind of intense social time that was possible for a team of about 11, she had been finding time to fulfill this commitment to an infant somewhere hours away.

Antonia became somewhat of a beacon for me as I thought about having a family years later. Wondering how it would all work, I would think of her and know that it was possible to achieve tremendous professional respect even in the midst of nursing a baby.  This may seem obvious to the many many women who do this every day, but to me, at that moment that I peered into the freezer, it was a revelation.

It had a big impact on me years later when I was nursing my first child and returned to work. Rather than aim for subtlety in managing the oh-so-fun process of pumping 3 times a day at work for months, I decided to be relaxed and open about it, wondering if perhaps some younger woman might make a mental note, as I had, that this was something that people do, and it can work.

Antonia has stayed in Acumen Fund’s orbit, and I have continued to watch her career and life with fascination, moving from success to success, now the mother of two beautiful boys and the COO of the Open Space Institute. The Open Space Institute (OSI) protects scenic, natural, and historic landscapes for the public as well as for the sake of environmental conservation. She manages the systems and finances of an organization that has protected more than 116,000 acres and made more than 70 loans and grants for nearly $80 million to protect 1.6 million acres valued at over $530 million. From her work in women’s microfinance internationally to serving as a portfolio manager at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation – one of New York’s most innovative education philanthropies – and now serving on the board of ioby, a grassroots environmental organization, she has found so many ways to make a difference on so many important issues.

When I decided to write this series of posts I knew I would reach out to her. In part because I already owed her a tremendous debt for cracking open the idea of combining mothering and contributing professionally in such a powerful way, but also because I wanted to better understand her story.

We had dinner together recently and I was able to form a more nuanced picture of her work at the Open Space Institute, balancing the needs of two children a few years older than my own with her leadership responsibilities. She was refreshingly honest about tradeoffs she had made, but I saw that the same art that I had observed when I first met her to put the pieces together was still in full effect. She agreed to answer my five questions, and I had one more for her before we parted ways after our dinner. “What is the bottom line, when it comes to work – what can’t be given up?” Her response – “Making a difference.” I was so glad we’d stayed in touch and that I would have a chance to celebrate Antonia, and thank her, in writing, for helping show me a path I could learn from.

Here’s how Antonia answered the 5 questions I pose to all of the women I highlight in my Celebrating a Whole Life series.

1.     How do you define success?

When I “started out”, I defined it as “making a difference”.  By that I meant a difference in resolving the inequalities faced by many people – my focus was economic inequalities faced by women in developing countries.  I still want to make a difference….but my tableau right now is more local.  I can’t work if it doesn’t have a positive benefit for society one way or another.  But my definition of success now also includes raising two strong, capable, thoughtful, adventure seeking young men.  Oh yes, I’d love to define success by winning a tennis tournament. I know it will happen ONE DAY.

2.     What is your greatest struggle?

It’s such a cliché.  Its feeling like I don’t do much of anything well because I’m so scattered.  I do “ok” work; I’m an “ok” mom; I’m an OK athlete, I’m an ok board member; I’m not sure if I even rise to the ranks of “ok” life partner.

3.     What are you proudest of?

Hands down, my two boys.

4.     Who inspires you, in terms of how they live their life? 

I don’t recall her name.  She is the publisher of Julia Child’s cookbook series. (I can look it up.)  She was a pioneer in believing in the book and its impact.  And now in her 80s in VT, she is still a pioneer raising organic cattle.  I love that she still has a sense of adventure, creativity and she hasn’t just stopped “thinking” and watches TV all the time.

5.     If you had a free 8th day of the week, what would you do with it?

 I’d cook, I’d have friends over, I’d eat and drink with them, and we’d all have scintillating conversations because I’d have time to keep up on news and read books about philosophy!  (And I’d listen more to my boys in a non distracted way.)

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Ariel Kaminer: An Honest Voice

This is the first in a series of posts called Celebrating a Whole Life. I’m thrilled to be writing tonight about Ariel Kaminer, who’s warmth and encouragement gave me the confidence to start with her.

Ariel and I met through our children, two toddlers who picked each other out to become friends.  I’ll never forget the two of them, 2 years old, holding hands at a Halloween parade. It’s not always wise to assume that the friendship of small children will correlate with the potential for friendship among their parents, but as my husband Marlowe and I got to know Ariel and her husband better, I started to really look forward to our random park meetings or playdate discussions. And when Ariel and I conveniently became pregnant at around the same time, we had even more to talk about.

Ariel is a widely read and extremely talented writer and editor who writes The Ethicist for the New York Times Magazine, and has also been the NYT’s City Critic and Editor of the Arts & Leisure section.   I love The Ethicist, and it’s always the first thing I flip to in the Magazine, but I wasn’t going to go and admit that.  What I always wanted to ask her about was how she juggled writing multiple extremely popular columns for the New York Times while being so clearly dedicated to her family. But I felt like I shouldn’t go there – our common ground was not work, but those two little ones that had essentially introduced us. So I never really brought it up.

But then our second children, both daughters, made a secret pact before they were even born to arrive on the same day. And when we found ourselves on April 22nd at the same hospital, just down the hall from each other, with our older children playing with balloons together in the hallway of NYU’s maternity ward, I sensed that our friendship would grow deeper. And it has.

As I’ve gotten to know Ariel, I’ve come to really admire her unfussy approach to embracing motherhood and a career as a successful editor and writer on ethics, culture and the city.

She may be responsible for wrestling major ethical dilemmas to the ground, but she doesn’t act like it. She has an approach to the ups and downs of life with a career and family that reminds me to take things a little less seriously. I ran into her shortly before a one-night trip away from her family, the only one she’s ever had, after her second daughter was born, and rather than talk about feelings of guilt or worry, she shared her excitement about a rare opportunity to sleep past six am. A new, and better, twist on traveling for work.

It’s impossible to know what all the daily challenges are for any particular person are, but Ariel is among the most candid people I know about the juggling act, and also the most humorous. I find the more time I spend with her, the more I reflect on how these dilemmas are truly the side-effect of a privileged life where having a family and pursuing satisfying work co-exist. So we should smile about it. I celebrate Ariel for bringing humor to this wild ride and reminding me in ways both subtle and direct that we who get to make these choices are the lucky ones, and also how funny this stuff can be.

Here’s how Ariel answered the 5 questions I’ll pose to all of the women I highlight in my Celebrating a Whole Life series.

1.       How do you define success?

Accomplishing the goals you set forth for yourself. Btw I’m terrible at setting forth goals for myself.

2.       What is your greatest struggle?

See above.

3.       What are you proudest of?

My friendships and my family. I’m proud of the work I’ve done, and I’d like to do more work that I’m more proud of. But in truth, lots of people could have done it. Which is to say, if I’m useful to my employer, or to the world of journalism in general, terrific. But I’m irreplaceable to my daughters, and I’m proudest of all that I’ve been there for them.

4.       Who inspires you, in terms of how they live their life?

My mother was my big inspiration. She founded and ran an innovative company that helped thousands and thousands of kids. But she was home every night for dinner, and she always made her own children feel that they were the very center of her world. She was the happiest person I know.

5.       If you had a free 8th day of the week, what would you do with it?

Exercise, read books, do my modest part to help heal the world. Where do I apply for this 8th day, and how long does it take to kick in?


Filed under Careers, Celebrating a Whole Life, Work and Life

Celebrating a Whole Life

This year I’m going to throw a party. A year long celebration of something I haven’t quite defined yet. This is my, dare I say it, New Year’s resolution.

I saw a dear friend recently. We were meeting up with our two kids of roughly the same age in tow, and we had a great conversation, in the moments that we weren’t chasing after our kids. And the conversation worked its way around to careers – she just got a very impressive PhD and is thinking through next steps.

And in this conversation, we talked about the way that being a mother and a professional can have a slight dampening effect on one’s career. She mentioned how rare it was to meet a tenured female professor with kids. The reasons for this phenomenon boils down to something we called, for the purpose of simplicity, “choices.”

No blame, no victims, just choices.

The choices I make are not just about being with my children, but about trying to create some sort of whole life. But it feels like unchartered territory and every move is shadowed by a totally useless sense that I’m not making the right choices. What has been most useful to me in this process is conversations with women who are a few years ahead of me working on this same project of making a life. Women with kids or serious commitments to family, with careers, with a powerful sense of their unique contribution to the world. I have met a few of these women over the course of my life, and they amaze and inspire me.

They impact people’s lives, care for their families, and walk in the world as pioneers of a new kind of achievement. One that, as far as I know, remains largely uncelebrated. And it absolutely should be celebrated. Hence the New Year’s resolution. To more fully understand and celebrate this thing that some women do so beautifully and that I would like to do well. Rather than aim to “master” this ability to create a multi-faceted life, I’d like to commit to celebrating the women who inspire me, and to imagine a world where people (not just women) are honored for the wholeness of their life, not just the spikes in their ability to lead others, make money, make a name for themselves.

So, rather than wish for a different world, I’ll see if I can help build it, one celebration at a time. Stay tuned…and share your thoughts here on what a “whole life” looks like and who inspires you.


Filed under Careers, Celebrating a Whole Life, Work and Life

The Working Mother Mythology

I started tracking “working mother” on Twitter a few weeks ago, thinking it would lead me to content and tweets that I could relate to and potentially share with friends. But what I saw pop up after a just a few days of tracking this topic was that I was seriously deluded when I assumed that I would instantly connect with the plight of the average working mother. I thought that working mother problems were my problems. But they’re not. My problems are not problems at all. They’re just the symptoms of being one of a lucky few women who have the luxury of being able to enjoy work full of meaning, career success, and an emotionally satisfying relationship with my family. And to choose how I combine these things.

It’s not completely my fault – I have certainly had my own misguided assumptions instilled and reinforced by others, magazines like Working Mother or Pink, columns and articles I’ve read in the NY Times and New York Magazine, like “The Opt-Out Revolution” that Lisa Belkin wrote for the NY Times in 2003. There are enough books, articles, blogs and even the recent film “I Don’t Know How She Does It” that made me think that I could consider my issues as part of a larger societal question.  So many women seem to struggle with finding the right balance, seem to wrestle with guilt about the choices they make. In this context, it is easy to get caught up in a sense that the “problems” I face with are the problems of working mothers writ large.

I’m talking about problems like having to wonder if I’m really fulfilling my potential by allowing my professional life to slow down the teensiest bit because I have two kids under 4, or wondering if the stay-at-home moms at my sons preschool think I’m a slacker because I didn’t contribute to the bake sale, or just that feeling that I could do better at being a mom OR a professional if I just did one at a time. But it does not take much effort on my part to look at each of those “problems” and perform some mental adjustment that helps me realize that being a mother IS fulfilling my potential, that the stay-at-home moms could care less about what I bring or don’t bring to the bake sale, and most of all, that I am probably a better mom because I don’t try to do it all the time. I’m still not convinced that being a mom makes me a better professional (specially not the way I do it), but I could convince myself of that in time.

The messages I saw on twitter that opened my eyes were about moms who work to put food on the table, who can’t afford to stay home even if they want to, who don’t get to decide how many days a week they will ideally work, or exactly when they’d like to pursue a promotion. The complaints I noticed were about a degree of chaos and exhaustion that comes from doing it all, with minimal support, and no real reward. The women who I read about didn’t enjoy being at work, but didn’t have the flexibility to be home more and didn’t sound like they saw their kids much at all. They were doing what they had to for their family, with little personal reward. They were not what Lisa Belkin referred to as “educated professional women” who could pivot with minimal effort on how much time to work, what kind of job to do, what kind of outside assistance to engage. I realized that for many moms, work is not about identity, it’s about survival, and suddenly my issues were put into perspective.

As a friend (and fellow professional and mom) recently said to me, “these are the problems you want to have.” So, my quest to better understand the typical working mom made me realize that I have been confused about my situation. What I have are choices, and the tremendous sense of responsibility (or even self-doubt) that comes with those choices. I want to do the right thing because I can choose what to do with this embarrassment of riches. The real struggles for a woman who is giving her all to work and raise children without the benefit of graduate education, helpful networks, safety nets – these are things I can’t even talk about. My ignorance of them is too great, and tracking Twitter for days or weeks is not going to change that. There are real and documented challenges that impact professional women who have children, and I may get into that later, but for now, I will try to reflect a bit on the good fortune of having the “problems” I do.

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