Karine Jean-Pierre explains why working at Biden’s White House is her dream job
Im ELLE.comIn the monthly Office Hours series, we ask people in powerful positions to tell us about their first jobs, their worst jobs and everything in between. TThis month, we sat down with Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House’s senior deputy press secretary and a member of the Biden administration’s all-female historic communications team. Jean-Pierre is used to breaking down barriers in her career: last year she was chief of staff to vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris, becoming the first black person to hold the post, and in May, she became the first openly gay woman to lead a White House media briefing and the first black woman to do so in 30 years. She was also a member of the Obama-Biden White House staff, a political analyst for NBC and MSNBC, the director of public affairs for MoveOn and a lecturer at Columbia University. Below, she shares what it’s like to now have the job of her dreams, the complicated nature of being “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 sucked at it. It’s really hard to ask for money, especially over the phone. But that turned into another really great job, where I would go to the beach in the summer and watch these birds calling piping plovers, which are an endangered species. I counted the eggs and made sure they were still in the nest. Then we watch over the summer while the eggs are hatching. I was originally majoring in science and have always loved anything that had to do with science or the environment.
The work that I would never want to do again
I once had a job where I was basically a fundraising assistant. It was a volunteer activity that I did and I didn’t like it. We went to a very rich donor somewhere in Manhattan, and I remember thinking, This is the part of the policy that I will leave to the experts. It’s something that requires a very important special skill that I just didn’t have.
What it’s like to have the job of my dreams
I love that I can come back for another historic White House. I will never have a job like this again. It doesn’t matter what I do; it will never equal what we are doing today. I’m that black, queer, immigrant woman, and I can walk through the doors of this White House. I have an office in the west wing. And I’m doing it at an incredible and important time. I do this on behalf of President Biden, whom I have known for over a decade. Everything we do, we try to help the American people. So I can’t imagine a better opportunity.
How growing up in an immigrant family shaped my career
My parents were born and raised in Haiti. They left in a time of dictatorship, because they wanted something better for themselves and their children. They wanted to make sure they could provide whatever they didn’t have for themselves. I grew up realizing that my parents had sacrificed so much. My dad was a taxi driver in New York City and my mom was a home help. 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 taught me to never give up on an opportunity, to work incredibly hard, and to appreciate what you have. Now I can pay it forward by being part of an administration that helps people who are like my parents. With everything I do, I think of my parents. I think about how I grew up and the millions of families who are going through the same thing as me.
How I feel to be the “first”
It’s so layered. I want to do a good job in the role given to me. This is the most important thing. How can I do the job to the best of my ability and be successful? It is only when people raise [being the “first”] as I think about this component. So when I think about it, it’s an honor. It is 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 don’t just break the barrier, but also bring people with me. It’s a lot of pressure, because you want to be successful. You do the job given to you and you don’t let down a community, your boss or your family.
Career advice that I’m not
I am inherently shy and introverted. I think people roll their eyes when I say that, but it’s true. People would say, “You have to speak up in a meeting. You have to put your foot on the ground. And sometimes it’s not for everyone. You just have to find who you are. You have to find what works for you. Sometimes being the listener, the quieter voice, has a lot more impact. It is important to be who you authentically are, and people will see it.
How my child influences my working day
I have a seven year old daughter, and when she’s having a rough morning, or she says, “Oh mama, I don’t really wanna go to school”, “I don’t wanna do that” I think. it’s always important for me to be positive. I will let him know, “You have all this support around you. We love you. You are so clever. You will get there. You are an amazing person. And in a way, telling her that also helps me be positive and know that even if I fail, I have a community that is going to hold me back. Once I have that positive attitude, I bring it to work and try to uplift everyone around me. It comes from being a mom and having my seven year old daughter and trying to lift her every morning.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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