In a recent episode of the Model Majority Podcast (@modelmajorityp), its co-host Kevin Xu (@kevinsxu) interviewed Tina Tchen (@TinaTchen), former Assistant to President Obama, Chief of Staff to Michelle Obama, and Executive Director of White House Council on Women and Girls, about her story growing up in the Midwest, going summer Chinese camp in Amish country, working in the White House to protect women from violence, promoting gender equality in the workplace, and her favorite holiday dish.
An edited transcript of their conversation is below. Click HERE to listen to the full episode.
KEVIN: Alright everybody. Welcome back to the podcast. On today’s episode we are absolutely honored to be joined by Tina Tchen on the Model Majority Podcast. Now for those of you who are not familiar with Tina, she was the Assistant to President Obama. She was the Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama and she was the Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, for the entire eight years of the Obama presidency. She is now currently a partner at the law firm, Buckley Sandler, where she is leading the firm’s Chicago office. Tina thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join me on the podcast today.
TINA: Oh, I’m delighted to be here.
KEVIN: So to get things started we always like to begin with our guest’s personal story, so we love to hear a little bit about where did you grow up, how did you grow up? And you know what led you first of all to a career in law?
TINA: Well a lot there. However I’ll try to do it really quickly. My parents were immigrants from Shanghai, China and these days when I talk about it and I think it’s important to say not just that they were immigrants to the United States, but they were refugees you know coming to America in 1949 and fleeing the revolution that was happening in China right then and we’re really welcomed into the United States by a welcoming American public. So they came in 1949 and my dad decided to settle in the middle of the country in Ohio sort of far from you know the concentrations of Chinese communities in the Northeast and in the West, because they’d heard about the discrimination that some of his friends and family were experiencing. So we wound up in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, where I think when I grew up there in the 50s and 60s, there were about six Chinese families and we knew them all.
TINA: You know and from there I went to college, my dad had two daughters and really put all of the ambition he would have had on us, in our Chinese culture into me and my sister. And I ended up going to college at Harvard and then I found myself getting married, going to Springfield, Illinois, where I worked for state government there eventually going to law school at Northwestern University and you know basically made Illinois my home for the last 40 years. So Chicago is really hometown now.
KEVIN: Right right. I want to actually dig in a little bit deeper into your father’s choice to move to Ohio, because you know he knew about the discrimination that was happening pretty actively on the coasts where the Chinese enclaves were and you grew up in a town where there are only six other Chinese families. Did that translate to less discrimination and more just curiosity from the local population? How did that feel growing up?
TINA: Well I think it wasn’t just six in my town which was Beachwood, Ohio. It’s six like in the all of the suburbs of Eastern Cleveland. And so I was the only Chinese kid in my elementary school and high school at the time. And you know it was I do think more curiosity than outright kind of discrimination you get when there’s fear or involved or you know there’s a there’s a large concentration but you know but very curious and certainly grew up feeling like you know the odd person out.
KEVIN: Right. And did that kind of translate to a lot of hard time making friends and all these kind of things or did they just eventually kind of brought you in, because you were different but you were not threatening.
TINA: Oh yeah no I think it was the latter and I have to say I had a great childhood. You know I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. People were actually more curious because I wasn’t Jewish because there were issues with dating boys because I wasn’t Jewish. But it was a wonderful community. I became the president my student council and you know all those kinds of things. We lived in the same community all through my elementary and high school years. And it was nothing but a warm and wonderful feeling about that time. But I gave my parents a lot of credit for maintaining a connection to my Chinese culture. One of the things my parents did was to start a Chinese family camp, which we went to faithfully every summer as an entire family with other Chinese families from the Midwest area, a lot from Chicago and other parts of Ohio from Indiana. It was held in central Indiana in Amish country, which was always a kind of an interesting phenomenon where we went to town, on the banks of Lake Wawasee, which is a big recreational lake in the center of Indiana and that camp continues to this day. It’s been around for like almost 60 years, and the people that I grew up with in that camp feel like an extended family to me. And now there is a lot of families who’ve adopted kids from China who go to this camp to have a way of reconnecting with the Chinese culture. So that was a big part of my childhood as well.
KEVINThat’s so fascinating. So during these camps did you guys have like Chinese lessons there? I’m sure you cooked a lot of Chinese food.
TINA: Oh yah, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
KEVIN: Was it kind of competitive as well with all the other Chinese kids though? Did that happen too?
TINA: Well…a little bit. You know they were always the world class piano players and violin players. Our family was not musical at all so we were always the kids who were bringing our guitars and play Simon and Garfunkel songs, while everybody else was doing up you know Beethoven pieces.
KEVIN: Yeah that’s amazing. So fast forward a little bit in your life story. You ended up being a lawyer at Skadden for I believe 25 years.
TINA: 23 years.
KEVIN: Yeah, and you were a partner there for like 13 years or so is that right?
TINA: A little bit longer. Probably but yeah, something like that.
KEVIN: And Skadden is obviously a very prestigious law firm and you were there as a partner when I’m assuming at a time, there were probably very few female law firm partners to begin with. What was that like?
TINA: Yeah I mean you know the legal profession has been slow and remains slow, so the numbers haven’t really moved that much in the last 10 years. Even so I don’t remember specifically what the numbers were at Skadden overall. Even today women are only about 30 percent of equity partners at large law firms. But Skadden was a terrific support to my practice, putting me out there in front of clients. I was a litigator, so I tried cases, did internal investigations. A great source of business for me I will have to say were women general counsels at big companies, who really were very supportive of me in my career.
KEVIN: Gotcha. And then you became one of the earliest supporters of then Senator Obama when he was first starting to run for president. I’m curious to hear what gave you that conviction so early that he was the right person to be president when the vast majority of country was probably still learning about him against a much better known candidate.
TINA: Well I have known him for many years before that. He and I and Mrs. Obama, the three of us, met long enough ago that none of the three of us remember when we first met. So I had I known him certainly long before he ran for U.S. Senate, during that time or even before he was in the Illinois legislature here. So he’s someone I had known, whose career I had supported and followed for many many years before he ran for president. And you know including I think the time when he really caught the country’s eye was when he ran for U.S. Senate, which itself was by no means a sure thing. At the time he announced for U.S. Senate, it was very much similar to his presidential run, when there were other better known candidates in the field already. He was a state senator but hadn’t run statewide yet, and won. And because he’s someone who’s, I always say this about him, he’s the smartest person I have ever met even in the White House when he was surrounded by the best and the brightest scientific and legal and economic advisers in the world. He invariably was still the smartest person in the room having read more things about even an expert’s field and sometimes the experts had themselves. And he is a true progressive, and believes in diversity and inclusion and equality and justice. And it’s just such a great leader all the way around, and it’s very rare. I’ve done politics a lot in my life and having all the talents that he had in a single person is actually quite rare.
KEVIN: Right, what do you think, I mean having known him for that long time, what do you think made him that, I guess for lack of a better word, smart or intelligent. Because I have always known him to be a very intellectually curious person. He reads a lot. He obviously is an amazing writer. Do you think that was part of what made him just constantly getting smarter even though he was at the top of his game and leading the country.
TINA: Oh absolutely. He’s a voracious reader as you know. Even as you know, we would send him home with a briefing book every night that was a foot thick, and he still reads and consumes all of that, and still comes to meetings the next day having asked us about some obscure article in some obscure publications somewhere or he would have consumed everything in the New Yorker. You know my stack of New Yorkers just stacks up. He’s current with everything that’s in it. And he remembers everything. I mean the other thing about him that you experience is he’s got a really photographic memory and remembers everything and digest it and understands that he doesn’t just remember it to regurgitate it back, he’s synthesized it with other information and comes out with an analysis that’s usually insightful and oftentimes much deeper than the people who are expert in the field have thought of.
KEVIN: Right. Now during your time in the White House which of course spanned the entire Obama presidency. There were lots of ups and downs but what was your favorite moment or story you think that encapsulated what public service meant to you?
TINA: Well I mean it’s hard I get this question a lot and it’s hard as you know.
KEVIN: This is an unfair question.
TINA: Over the course of eight years, there were so many. There was the day that we signed the Affordable Care Act and had the young man who my team at public engagement brought him to stand with the president. There was the day which doesn’t get as much attention. We signed a landmark bill on violence against women, which really made it clear that Native American women were going to get the protections that the federal government, when they were raped on tribal lands. And for that signing ceremony we had a woman introduced the president who was a Native American woman, who had been raped in her own home. And as she was introducing the president we were waiting behind in the green room and he heard her start to choke and not be able to get her words out and he quietly just walked out there and just stood behind her with his hand on her shoulder and waited for her to finish. And you know the moment that was so much fun that I talk about a lot, which is the day 104-year-old Virginia MacLaren, an African-American woman from Washington D.C., came to the White House. Our team had read about her in the paper. We found out she was 104-year-old foster grandmother and mentor, had never been to the White House even though she lived her entire life just a couple miles from the building, and we brought her in, and she was so excited to see the first African American president and first lady, and they all just danced together in the photo line. It was great.
KEVIN: I remember pictures from that event, it was so heartwarming. So kind of piggyback off of what you’re talking about, the violence against women act, and really a lot of work that you did as the ED of the White House Council on Women and Girls and fast forwarding a bit to current events. There has been just constant waves now of non-stop revelations of sexual harassment and abuse by men in power, which has led at least some of them to get fired or resign. I’m curious to hear your take on everything that’s been happening. Did this wave caught you in any way by surprise or was it kind of just long time coming, because the issues are so structural and in a sad way so ingrained in our culture.
TINA: Well I think what’s caught all of us by surprise is the fact that women are speaking up and now being believed and heard, and they’re are starting to be consequences for this behavior. You know this kind of behavior is something that’s been around in a lot of workplaces, not just the entertainment industry and not just politics for years and years and years and as women who have grown up in the workplace those of us who spent our careers there, we’ve all got stories that everybody has experienced something. But what I want to make sure that we do right now when I feel really strongly about is not to just focus on incidents of sexual harassment and individual firings of people. The real issue is diversity in the workplace, making sure that women and minorities are truly participating equally in our workplaces at all levels, including at the most senior levels. Because when you have diversity of thought, we have all the data that shows that it’s better for a company, it’s better for the way it runs, these kinds of decisions get dealt with differently and with better sensitivity and awareness. When you have that diversity of thought, but to get that diversity we need to address the structural issues as you mentioned. We did a lot of that work in the White House. Things like paid leave and equal pay, how you do promotion, retention, and hiring of people are all critical to having a diverse workforce and sustaining those efforts over time. One of the things I’m really excited about here at Buckley Sandler is I’m taking my experience from the White House Council on Women and Girls, my prior experience as a corporate lawyer, and advising companies at the most senior levels on their boards of directors and their CEOs, and combining all of that to build a new practice here Buckley Sandler, to help companies address workplace issues. I think these are issues that shouldn’t be just within the employment or H.R. function at companies. They need to be really part of the core business functions of every company and paid attention to it by the chief legal officer and the board of directors. Just like we pay attention to core business compliance issues. So I’m hoping to really help companies do that. My experience at the White House was that most companies want to do the right thing. They know this is good for their business. They’re just not sure how to do it. They don’t know how to go about it.
KEVIN: I see, so in your opinion given all the experience you’ve had this is much more about a “how” question than a “why” question?
TINA: I think so. I think the “why” has become very clear, meaning you know for years we made a big case of it at the White House, putting all of the data together that make what we call the business case for diversity that companies that have diverse boards have better returns. Decision makers when the team is diverse make better decisions. Companies know that if you’re a consumer facing company that’s selling products, most of your dollars, those decisions are getting made by women. Women consumers control the majority of spending in our country. So it’s good for business on that end. We’re now seeing with the current wave is it’s also good for business to avoid the risks, because bad things can happen to your company if you’re not paying attention to these issues. You can lose the opportunity to get a bank charter. You can lose a license that you need to do business. You can have the kinds of things that we see happening to some companies that are caught up in the sexual harassment issues. You know things that are happening to those companies can happen to your company if you’re not paying attention to these issues. So I think hopefully what we can really get, the important thing, is to get positive sustainable change in the workplace from all this.
KEVIN: Now, what kind of advice do you have for men in this picture, who obviously aren’t sexual predators or abusers of their power, who do genuinely want to push this issue along in the right direction. Do you think or is there anything that we men can do constructively or should we just kind of shut up and listen for a while which is something we should do more in general I think.
TINA: Well no, I think it’s more than that. I think first of all support women who speak out and believe them and give them your support. I think it’s also calling out bad behavior yourself. It shouldn’t be just on women to call out bad behavior. A lot of men witness bad behavior and can influence and put a stop to it or also report it when it gets serious enough to be reported. Part of this is changing what are the norms and cultures in our workplace. And men are a central part of that, of changing that culture and making it a workplace, where everyone both men and women feel safe and supportive and comfortable, and can do their best work. At the end of the day that’s what this is about. We did the same thing on college campuses. You might remember in combating sexual assault on campuses, we started It’s On Us campaign, which was led by students and is still going on on some 500 campuses right now. And you know it’s a lot of men who are involved in that, in really trying to change rape culture on campus and trying to change what’s acceptable or not. Because social science research shows us that most men are uncomfortable when other men are making lewd comments about women or making sexist remarks. But they don’t say anything because they think that’s the norm right? Everybody kind of laugh in the locker room and move on, when in fact actually if more men spoke up you could change what the norm is. I’m very hopeful because actually there have been a lot of young men, who stepped forward during the Its On Us campaign to lead that effort.
KEVIN: Right. Looking back here, you had a really long really good legal career and you jumped into politics and have been involved in politics for a long time. What led you to that kind of engagement and involvement, a willingness to want to be engaged in politics?
TINA: Well you know I’ve always been involved in working for my community, and I think I trace it back to my mother who is always involved. When I was growing up she was a Girl Scout Troop leader and my mother was quite ill for most of my childhood, and even though she was ill, she was doing things like the PTA and the American field service organization that brings in exchange students and was very involved and always in our schools. I kind of learned from her how important it is to be a part of the community that you’re living in, and not just go to work and go home at night, but be involved with your neighborhood or be involved with what’s happening in the city that you live in. And from that I got involved first in the women’s movement, then local politics here in Chicago and national politics. And I found it was a rewarding way to contribute back to my community. And I had to say, I’ve met some of the best friends of my life that way too. So it’s both done a lot of good for your soul and sometimes it can be great fun as well.
KEVIN: Absolutely. So wrapping up on a more fun question. It’s holiday time. It’s you know Christmas time almost. The First Lady’s office, and of course the social office that work really closely with your office, is in charge of a lot of the really fun festivities that happen at the White House right now, Christmas parties and all that. Do you remember what was your favorite food or dish you got to try out or eat during one of these super super fancy events?
TINA: Haha, right. Well, so the eggnog at the White House, which I have to say, which is a homemade eggnog recipe but dangerous, because it’s about five different kinds of alcohol, but the smoothest tasting eggnog that you’ve ever had. But actually the most delicious dish that I always remember, and I have failed at replicating in my home because I tried to do it, is the cauliflower mac and cheese. You know the White House staff made the best cauliflower mac and cheese made out of cauliflower, so it was healthy for you, but tasted exactly like creamy rich mac and cheese. And I probably remember that the best, not even all the really fancy dishes, it was cauliflower mac and cheese.
KEVIN: Wow. I mean the way you describe it…I think I missed that one for some reason. I was always near the lamb chop section and just never left…
TINA: And the potato latkes were pretty good too.
KEVIN: Oh those are amazing. Well thank you so much again for taking the time to talk to us. Really appreciate it. And we love to have you back in the future. Love to hear more of your work about workplace culture and you know closing the gender equality gap, because it is super super important for the future of our society.
TINA: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well I love what you’re doing with the podcast. So thank you. Thank you for doing this.
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