We’ve seen her next to and behind the president and know her as a powerful adviser. But who is Valerie Jarrett? Though quite elusive, she is an interesting woman with a fascinating story. Given her international exposure and strong pedigree, it’s not surprising that she is Barack and Michelle Obama’s “BFF.”
An only child, Valerie was born in Shiraz, Iran in 1956. No, her ethnicity is not Iranian and her parents were not in the military. Her father, James Bowman, rather was a geneticist and pathologist working for a program that brought American doctors to developing countries. They lived in Iran until Valerie was five at which time they moved to England for one year before moving back to the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago, where her parents had strong ties. During her childhood, she traveled around the world with her family. During the summers her father would often do research around the world. In an October 2008 issue of Vogue, she described how one summer they “went from Ghana to Nigeria to Ethiopia to Uganda to Egypt and then back to Iran.” This experience she says, “required me to be able to straddle a bunch of different cultures and worlds. It made me comfortable talking to anybody at a very young age.” These skills would certainly serve her well later in life.
Valerie’s family was full of “firsts.” Not only was her father a doctor and the first black to receive residency at Chicago’s St. Luke’s Hospital, but he also was the first black to receive tenure in his department at the University of Chicago. Her mother, an early childhood expert, came from two generations of firsts: her grandfather was the first black graduate from M.I.T. and her father was the first black to head the Chicago Housing authority. It was this family foundation that undoubtedly prepared her for academic and career success.
Valerie’s childhood was very different from many African Americans growing up in the 1960s. Considering her parent’s emphasis on education, it’s not surprising that she attended the both the University of Chicago Laboratory School and Northfield Mount Hermon boarding school in Massachusetts before heading to Stanford for undergrad. After graduating with a BA from Stanford, Valerie headed back to the Midwest where she attended law school at the University of Michigan where she received her JD in 1981. In 1983 she married William Robert Jarrett, childhood friend and son of a Chicago Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett. Though they were only married for a few years, they had a daughter, Laura. It was, in fact, the birth of her daughter that caused Valerie to make a career switch from the private sector as law firm attorney to the public sector. She told the Chicago Tribune, “I wanted to do something she’d be really proud of me for.” Her daughter now is studying at Harvard Law School.
After her transition to the public sector, Valerie held several positions under mayors Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley. It was during her tenure in Richard Daley’s office where she met a 27 year old Michelle Robinson (soon to be Obama). During that interview process she met the then fiancé of Michelle who not only grilled his future wife’s future boss but also established the foundation for a long friendship. Neither could have predicted that over 15 years later that same man would ask her to serve as Senior Adviser of his presidential campaign and Co-Chair of his Presidential Transition Team.
Saying that she keeps her plate full would be an understatement. She held the position of CEO at The Habitat Company, a real estate development and management company, where she joined in 1995 and worked for over 10 years prior to joining Mr. Obama. She has also held numerous board positions including the University of Chicago Medical Center, USG Corporation, and the Chicago Stock Exchange, where she also held the Chair seat from 2004-2007. If that wasn’t enough, she also served as the vice chair of the Chicago 2016 Olympic Committee.
On November 15, 2008, she Valerie was appointed to be the Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement. In this role Valerie manages a large portfolio of offices: the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, White House Office of Public Engagement, Office of Urban Affairs. In addition, she chairs the White House Commission on Women and Girls and White House Office of Olympic, Paralympic, and Youth Sport.
Though we may see her more than we hear her, we should not underestimate Valerie Jarrett. As one of the most trusted confidants of the president of the United States, she just may be one of the most influential women in the world.