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What Kamala Harris' outgoing comms chief teaches her 6-year-old daughter about her career

Ashley Etienne, who is leaving the Biden Administration at the end of the year, chats with Know Your Value about being a single mom during the pandemic, her career journey, her hidden talent and more.
Vice President Kamala Harris' outgoing communications director, Ashley Etienne and her 6-year-old daughter, Vivian.
Vice President Kamala Harris' outgoing communications director, Ashley Etienne and her 6-year-old daughter, Vivian.Courtesy of Ashley Etienne

The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on working women.

And no one knows that better than Ashley Etienne, the outgoing communications director for Vice President Kamala Harris and deputy special assistant to President Joe Biden. Last week, Etienne announced that she was leaving The White House at the end of December. She told Know Your Value that "after more than 10 years of working at the highest levels on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s time for me to commit more time to my daughter and family.”

While serving at the forefront of America’s response to Covid-19, Etienne (a single mom) also experienced what many women in the country went through. Back at home, she was juggling childcare of her 6-year-old daughter Vivian in addition to adult care of her 74-year-old father, who went completely blind this year due to progressive glaucoma.

“Then [there was] trying to create space for me to focus on this really important, big job and making sure that I’m giving my full attention to it,” Etienne, 43, told Know Your Value.

Luckily, she was in good company at work. At least six on the White House communications staff are moms of young kids.

“My colleagues are all working moms. We have a table full of women all operating at the highest levels. Then we go home and we all start our second jobs which is Mommy,” said Etienne, who was born and raised in Texas. “I think all of us hope that there are some young girls around the country who are looking at us — aspiring to be where we are and beyond that.”

Etienne with daughter Vivian during a late night meeting when she worked in the Obama Administration.Courtesy of Ashley Etienne.

She added of daughter Vivian, “I think the one thing I’d love of her to take away from my career is that if you can dream it, you can be it.”

Etienne, who has also served as special assistant then-President Barack Obama and senior advisor and director of communications to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, said she is looking to "the exciting adventures on the horizon." She chatted with Know Your Value about her career journey, her best career advice for young women, her hidden talent and more.

The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity:

Know Your Value: You’ve worked for two history-making political leaders in America and now, you are working for a third. What have these experiences been like for you and what were the challenges?

Etienne: I feel really blessed to have had the opportunity to have worked and learned from each of these inspiring trailblazing, incredible leaders in American history.

Each one inspires me differently.

President Obama’s ability to be a transformative figure and to appeal to such a broad swath of the American public and the world. He inspired so many people to reach higher, to really challenge their own thinking, and mine too.

Then you look at Speaker Pelosi. I often tell people that working for her was a master class in watching her “boss up."

There were all of these questions about whether or not she should be Speaker and whether or not her time had passed.

It was an opportunity to see her transition from the “we” of shared power to using “I”. Then she passed on to me why.

I was prepping for a press conference and she said, “give me a note card”. She wrote out why she should be Speaker, and in each of those instances she led with the word “I”.

She told me, “Ashley, no one is going to advocate better for you than you.”

Then to watch her go head-to-head with the President (Trump) to save democracy. I’m at a loss for words.

Now I have the opportunity to work for the first woman Vice President and she happens to be not just brilliant and phenomenal and warm and compassionate and caring and driven, but also happens to be a woman of color….So to have a leadership role with her is a high honor.

In working for all of them… I’ve seen the beautiful parts of it, but I’ve also seen the challenges that come with it. Seeing them meet at the intersection of gender and race —what they had to endure, facing the sexism and racism at play in American politics and society.

Then to watch how they processed it, how they overcame it and how they transcended was really incredible.

Etienne, right, walking with Vice President Kamala Harris.Lawrence Jackson

Know Your Value What is a typical day in the life like for you at The White House working for the VP?

Etienne: I start my day at 5:30 a.m. reading the news. I start with the articles about the boss [Vice President Harris].

Morning calls and meetings start at 8:45 a.m. with a White House senior communications call. I walk over to the West Wing to grab a cappuccino at the White House Navy Mess (which is the dining room at the White House).

After the standing morning meetings are prep sessions with the boss, events with the boss, more meetings to discuss strategy on the VP’s top priories, her upcoming schedule, messaging, etc. I also have meetings throughout the day with my White House colleagues….

Know Your Value: Can you share with me a Know Your Value moment in your life— a time when you knew your value and spoke up for yourself?

Etienne: It was when it became clear that we were going to — the Speaker — was going to make the decision to impeach President Trump.

I was leading all of the investigations into the Trump Administration for two years before we got to that point —building out an integrative strategy to leverage the committees and the outside groups.

But when the moment arrived, I was really anxious and concerned that I wouldn’t be given the opportunity. I mean, I was already the communications director and I thought maybe they’ll bring someone in from the outside to run the operation ... and, take all the credit for all of the work I’ve been doing.

But, I knew that I had to take control of my own voice and make a case for myself. I called the chief of staff and the deputy chief of staff….They stopped me in mid-sentence and said, “Ashley, we’re gonna definitely make a recommendation that you do this.”

I never felt more prepared for a job. It was a real high point of my career….not only is it history, it is something that we’ll be talking about forever.

Know Your Value: What is your best career advice for women and young women just beginning their journeys?

Etienne: What has really worked for me is to be an incredibly effective listener. Because when you’re in a role of communications director, you have to know your principal. You need to understand how they think, what motivates them and what drives them so you can better anticipate. Then, all of a sudden you start to think ahead of them.

The other piece of advice I give is to really put your head down and do the work. Doing the work is an opportunity to forge relationships…demonstrate what you can really do. Doing the work means you’ll be even more prepared for what comes next.

Know Your Value: What is your walk-on entrance song?

Etienne: Oh, that’s my favorite question!

“So Fresh and So Clean” by OutKast …

It’s a song that just makes me feel like I’ve got the wind at my back and makes me feel empowered. The lyrics are: “Ain’t nobody dope as me.”

Know Your Value: What’s your favorite podcast right now?

Etienne: The Daily (NY Times) is great.

Most of my time, if it’s not work related, it’s Kidz Bop. My daughter always says “turn on Kidz Bop.”

Know Your Value: What do you do for self-care? What are the non-negotiables to keep yourself going?

Etienne: I’ve really started to go for hour long walks in the morning. I feel like 30 minutes is not long enough because your mind is still clogged up and you’re focused on what’s in front of you. But, by the time I hit the second 30 minutes, my mind starts to open up and my energy starts to flow. That’s the moment where I get my most creative thoughts.

Know Your Value: What do you always have in your bag for a go-to pick-me-up at work?

Etienne: I have on my phone two scriptures that I read whenever things are getting a little intense. I usually take a deep breath…talk to myself and start to pray really. More than anything else, I will…escape for 35-45 seconds. Get some clarity and calm before going back in.

Know Your Value: What is something you’re good at or that you enjoy that no one knows about or would ever guess?

Etienne: I’m really good at interior decorating. I really love it. And, you wouldn’t know that unless you came to my house. An ideal weekend is that I’m shopping. Everything from the Salvation Army finding cool crystal pieces someone discarded to… finding some stuff at a vintage store to street art. All of it is all over my walls.