Meghan Markle’s former chief of staff on the search for a ‘sense of purpose’
In HER In the Office Hours column, we ask people in important positions to tell us about their first jobs, their worst jobs and everything in between. This month, we spoke with Catherine St-Laurent, former senior communications officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Chief of Staff to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Since transition to a more consultative role at Archewell Foundation last month, St-Laurent has been focusing on its partnership with The Helm, a venture capital firm that supports investments in startups founded by women. Below, St-Laurent shares with HER what it’s like to work for the most powerful women in the world and how she learned to block out all the “outside noise” that comes with having a royal boss.
My first job
I babysit a family of four across the street from where I grew up in Montreal. They were all under eight and I think I was 12 at the time? Let’s just say that the age gap was not that big. Looking back, it was an inspiring leadership lesson. How do you make people want to follow suit, see the vision you have and be a part of it? Not because they were told to do it, but because you are painting something that they really believe in that they are excited about. I still believe in it as a philosophy.
How I navigate the maternity ward while working full time
Coming back to work after having my second child has been one of the most difficult times in my career. I juggled a toddler and baby at home, and meetings and pumping sessions at work. I remember being in our mom’s room on a conference call with my laptop in my lap while I was pumping, and I was like, “This is upsetting.” Even with good parental leave policies and exceptionally good onsite services for moms, there are so many emotions and demands on your time. It can be difficult to feel energized by work. I am grateful to the women I have worked with like Melinda Gates who are huge advocates for caregiving. It really is a difficult time for us – a time that we talk about, but that is not necessarily resolved by systems and supports.
Why we need better paid family leave policies
When you look at the impact of the pandemic in this country, you see how we have lost 30 years of progress for women, who are forced to decide whether to stay home and care for their children or to work. I am really passionate about the changes that need to happen in this space. I am happy to see a wave of support for better paid family leave policies, like the Marshall Plan for Moms, which is pushing policy makers to better meet the needs of mothers in this country as we recover from the pandemic. . This is where the standards need to change so that we can better accommodate parents and provide them with the services they need to return to work.
The advice that changed my life
There are times when I was hesitant about whether to do something or not to do something, or to take a new job or not to take a new job. A colleague of mine from the Gates Foundation once said, “You don’t have to know how to do everything yourself. You just need to know how to achieve it. It has always marked me.
How I went from communications officer to Meghan Markle’s chief of staff
I started my career in a consulting firm in Brussels, I worked in international sport for a few years, and finally, thanks to a common knowledge, I met the communication director of the Gates Foundation, who was looking to expand his team in Seattle. I did interviews, explored the city, and three months later moved to Seattle. A few months later, I was proposed as a candidate to work directly with Melinda and advise her on her profile, her communication strategy and the construction of her platform. I sit here today and think about the library of knowledge and skills that I have acquired that I hope can release good in the world. I have a learning mindset that goes into the different sectors I have now worked in, knowing what I bring, but also being open to learning more. There is a certain humility in knowing that I don’t always have the answers, but I try to ask good questions. I have had the benefit of working with incredibly talented and very intelligent people. I enter these interactions and experiences in the hope of learning and coming away smarter, better and more balanced.
Working for strong women gives me meaning
My job has always been to help the directors I work with to have the most impact possible. So I stay focused on the work I need to do to help them maximize what’s in front of them at that time. It was not a challenge for me to be distracted by the outside noise. We focus on the goals we want to achieve and the values that underpin those goals. I am fortunate to have a sense of purpose and admission in everything I do. I am also fortunate to be able to leverage what I have learned from the talents, advocates and world-class leaders I work with, and deliver it as a body of experience, networks and knowledge.
Why I invest in start-ups led by women
Women are building the businesses of tomorrow, and organizations like The Helm allow women from all walks of life to think, be curious, and test what it means to invest in them. Women actually control a lot of wealth, which is interesting because we tend to invest and give differently than men. It presents a unique opportunity to nurture more trust and community for women as potential investors. Right now, I’m especially excited about a startup called Mahmee, which helps parents in the early stages of pregnancy coordinate prenatal and postpartum care.
This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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