Arianna Huffington gave The World-Herald an exclusive interview, via email, before her visit here. Read her answers to a variety of questions that touch on business, women, politics and her own life.
Women shouldn't have to be "cookie-cutter versions" of men to succeed in leadership, says one woman at the top: Arianna Huffington.
Huffington, whose name graces one of the best-known media corporations — AOL Huffington Post Media Group — will take this message to 2,000 women expected to attend an annual women's leadership conference Wednesday at the CenturyLink Center Omaha.
In an exclusive interview with The World-Herald, Huffington mused about a wide array of topics, including the role of women in leadership, the subject of her keynote address.
Huffington said it makes "a great deal of difference" having women in top leadership positions. Studies and "centuries of real-world experience tell us that women possess the smarts and skills to succeed," she said.
But one barrier is a cultural concept of femininity — that women are seen as nurturing and nice — can be at odds with ambition.
Huffington cited Sheryl Sandberg, a former Google and U.S. Treasury Department executive who now is chief operating officer of Facebook. Sandberg, she said, has publicly described this dichotomy: Successful, powerful men are liked by men and women; successful, powerful women are not.
"We need to expand our limited definitions both of how women are supposed to be and how leaders are supposed to be," Huffington said in an email interview.
Huffington's own biography paints a picture of an ambitious woman who sought a place in elite circles, whether it was Cambridge University's famed debating society (of which she served as president at age 21), the California governership (which she ran for unsuccessfully as an independent against former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003) or an online media company (the Huffington Post, founded in 2005) that has been so successful she twice was named to Time magazine's list of the world's most 100 influential people.
The native of Athens, Greece, holds a master's degree in economics, is a published author of 13 books and has been a familiar political pundit whose conservative voice evolved into a liberal one. She was formerly married to a U.S. congressman and is the mother of two daughters.
In 2005, Huffington launched the news and blog website that was both marveled at and criticized for being a massive aggregator of content from other companies. Magazines like Forbes and the Guardian have also put Huffington on their most-influential lists.
Last year, Huffington merged with AOL in a $315 million deal she described as "stepping off a fast-moving train and onto a supersonic jet."
Since the merger, the Huffington Post has added 175 reporters and editors and four international editions.
Interview with Arianna Huffington
Q: Let's just get right down to business and I'll ask you the hard-hitting question about ... nap rooms. I read that when the AOL-HuffPost merger occurred, you ordered nap rooms to be installed at the headquarters. Did that happen — and why? What is your philosophy on rest? (And how do I get my bosses to go for it?)
AH: I insisted that our AOL offices in New York include two nap rooms, which we've dubbed NapQuest 1 and NapQuest 2. I learned the value of sleep the hard way. Three years ago, I fainted from exhaustion. I hit my head on my desk and broke my cheekbone, and I got five stitches on my right eye. It was a serious wake-up call, pun intended. And so I began the journey of rediscovering the value of sleep.
You can start by telling your bosses to follow Dr. Michael Breus on Twitter, @thesleepdoctor. I've learned so much from him about the benefits of sleep. He swears, for example, that sleeping will do more to take off weight than exercise, and that getting a good night's sleep influences your creativity and judgment.
Q: You will be speaking to some 2,000 women in a state that typically ranks at or near the top of percent of women in the workforce — and toward the bottom in measures of women in leadership positions. Why haven't women seemed to move the dial nationally in terms of their representation in C-suites or on corporate boards? And what difference does it make to have women at the top?
AH: Our culture's concept of femininity — the demand that women should be nurturing and nice — often interferes with a woman's ability to be assertive and aggressive. As Sheryl Sandberg told Barnard College graduates last year: “as men get more successful and powerful, both men and women like them better. As women get more powerful and successful, everyone, including women, likes them less.”
It makes a great deal of difference having women at the top. And numerous studies — not to mention centuries of real-world experience — tell us that women possess the smarts and skills to succeed in any job.
But we need to expand our limited definitions both of how women are supposed to be (nice, non-threatening, submissive) and how leaders are supposed to be (aggressive, but in a particularly male way). Women shouldn't have to be cookie-cutter versions of men to succeed. I'm convinced that when they take the baby out, they put the guilt in, especially if you are a working mother juggling children and work.
Q: The degree to which having children affects a woman's trajectory — has that changed at all? Would life have been different for you had you had your children at a different — say earlier stage?
AH: I'm convinced that when they take the baby out, they put the guilt in, especially if you are a working mother juggling children and work. I'm sure my life would have been different in some way if I'd had my children earlier. Here's what I know: Motherhood brings out reserves of courage we never knew we had.
Huffington Post commentor Deborah Daniels Wood wrote: “Being a mom is probably the one thing that will make most women fearless. We would gladly step in front of a speeding train, a bullet, a raging mad dog, whatever it was that was threatening our children.”
Q: How did you get the idea for The Huffington Post in the first place?
AH: The idea for The Huffington Post came out of a desire to expand the conversation and bring in new voices. We wanted to take the sort of conversations found at water coolers and around dinner tables — about politics and art and books and food and sex — and open them up and bring them online. The development of the Internet allowed people to become much more engaged in how they learned about what was going on around them, and we wanted to take the lead in deepening that two-way conversation and using the power of the Internet to strengthen the idea of community.
Q: David Letterman recently asked New York Times columnist Gail Collins if he'll be holding a print edition of the Times in his hands when he's 90. Her answer? He'd have a “hand-held” something — and hopefully, she says, paper. What is your take on the future of the media? And what should the business model be?
AH: The future of journalism is a hybrid future, as traditional outlets adopt the tools of digital journalists — including speed, transparency and engagement — and new media adopt the best practices of traditional journalism, including fact-checking, fairness, and accuracy.
There are many new media business models, and HuffPost's is based on our belief in the value of the linked economy. That means free access to information.
Q: Your $315 million sale last year vaulted you (for the second time) to Time's most-influential list. How has life changed since the sale? And has your role/involvement day-to-day changed?
AH: As we say, joining AOL was like stepping off a fast-moving train and onto a supersonic jet. In the year since the merger, we've added 47 new sections, four international editions, 175 reporters and editors, and seen 59 percent growth in unique visitors. I still come to work each morning looking forward to being part of an organization that covers the most important — and most entertaining — stories out there, with the privilege of working with some of the most talented reporters and editors in the business. So, as far as my day-to-day role, I'm still doing the same thing, just more of it.
Q: What do you say to critics who complain about Huffington Post for using other news outlets' content?
AH: HuffPost is both a journalistic enterprise and a blogging platform. And even if we had an unlimited budget to produce unlimited original content, we would still aggregate, because our goal is to direct our readers to the best available stories — whether they were created by our reporters, editors, and bloggers, or by others. It simply adds value for the reader, which is the reason virtually every media outlet and publication now does some form of aggregation.
Q: Do you have a prediction for the 2012 election?
AH: I think it's crucial for the country — and the world — that President Obama defeat any of his likely opponents. But the question is — which Obama will be reelected? We've all seen the two Obamas in action. There's audacious, hope-generating, change-seeking Campaign Obama, and there's the cautious, compromising, grand-bargain-seeking, status-quo-maintaining Governor Obama. So if the question about whether Obama will win continues to recede, as I think it will, the question of which Obama will win becomes more and more paramount.
Q: Was your own political transformation sudden — or an evolution over time?
AH: It was an evolution. My understanding of our political, social and economic goals as a society stayed the same, but over time, what changed was my understanding of the role of government in achieving those goals. I saw firsthand that we could never really address some of our society's most fundamental problems — such as income inequality — without the raw power, resources, and agenda-setting of government appropriations.
But for me personally, and also in terms of our coverage at HuffPost, what's important is resisting the urge to view these problems through the outdated prism of left and right — especially as we head into the 2012 presidential election. There's no reason concern about the middle class, acknowledgment of climate change, favoring equality, or wanting access to education and health care should be considered “left-wing.”
Q: Who's the most important woman in the world today? Who is someone to watch?
AH: It's hard to pick just one, but here are some women to watch. Elizabeth Warren; Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code For America; Franca Sozzani, editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia; and Sally Osberg, CEO of the Skoll Foundation, whom I met last week at the Skoll World Forum, which brought together social entrepreneurs making improvements in lives all around the world.
Q: Tell me more about “doing well by doing good.”
AH: There's something in the zeitgeist — a desire to engage on a level beyond materialism, sex, money, and self-interest. Companies and brands are seeing that doing good is also good business. In his new book, “Who Cares Wins,” Havas CEO David Jones points out how this has become part of corporate culture: “the twentieth century entrepreneurs made their money first and then decided to give back. The new generation creates their business with a view to giving back from day one.” And, increasingly, technology has upped the ante in how businesses relate to their customers. It's hard to hide behind a glossy ad campaign now. People want meaning in all parts of their lives, including what they do commercially. Businesses that can authentically answer that need will be rewarded.
Q: Do you agree with some pundits that the health-care debate amounts (in part) to a war on women?
AH: Women's health should not be a political issue. But it's too often forced into the left/right Washington meat grinder, whether it's the health-care debate or the Susan G. Komen foundation's decision to end grants to Planned Parenthood — and subsequent reversal. But there are larger issues for women, as well, including those that aren't traditionally thought of as “women's' issues” per se. As Peggy Drexler blogged on HuffPost, the Komen episode is but “a spit of rain from a passing cloud compared to the massive storm front forming in the chambers of the Supreme Court.” She was talking about the legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act, and the possible consequences for the bill's many provisions safeguarding women's health. Depending on the outcome, “women will win big or suffer badly,” she wrote. “Like Komen, the debate will have little to do with their needs, or the quality of their care.”
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