A member of the Wellesley College class of 1981, Desirée Rogers attended Harvard Business School and soon after earned the position of director of the Illinois State Lottery. In 2008, she was appointed White House Social Secretary, the first African American to hold the position. Rogers is now the CEO of Johnson Publishing Company.[This interview has been edited for clarity and length].
Q: Why do you believe President Johnson will be a good president for Wellesley College?
A: Well, I am certain that she will be a fantastic president. I think that her experience and her dedication to women’s issues in the health arena really shows that she has always been interested in what happens with women. What more important area to specialize in than your health? Without your health you don’t have anything, really.
Q: In your personal experience, what are some challenges you have faced and had to overcome to get to where you are now?
A: Every day’s a challenge. I’ve been a lot of firsts — the first person of color and in many instances the first woman in many assignments that I’ve taken on. You can’t change who you are so when I was presented with these opportunities, it’s not as if I was never going to be a black woman, I am a black woman taking these opportunities. And I think because I was the first in so many of these, whether it was the state lottery directorship or running the two utilities in Illinois, or the first black Social Secretary for the President, you know, sometimes people were uncomfortable, just based on their experience or, I really say, lack of experience. I really think that people tend to be uncomfortable with people that are different from them if they have never had experience with those people. What I think is so important is that we all experience people that are different from us.
Q: What advice do you have for Wellesley students who want to follow in your footsteps?
A: Well, the first thing I would say is that you never want to follow in anyone’s footsteps. You want to create your own footsteps. And so I’d be honored and humbled if someone wants to have some portion of my life but it’s so important that we build our own lives and not model them after what someone else has … Things are going to happen. You can’t be worried before they happen. You’re going to have to worry enough when they do happen. You’ve got to think about what you’re doing. Of course don’t be careless and reckless, but at the same time, don’t get yourself so worried. Many times women, especially young women, say, ‘I’m so afraid I’m going to fail.’ I think sometimes you just have to take a moment and say, ‘It’s going to be all right. Let’s get a plan together, just like we plan everything else. You have to get the noise quieted down in your own head and surround yourself with people that are intelligent, people that calm you.
Q: How has being a woman changed from when you were in college?
A: I think the openness, I think women are more fearless, perhaps, than when I was in school and much more willing to go against the fray. There are more women that are willing to take a chance and say what they think than when I was here. I also think that the world has changed a lot in terms of how young women think about things. I don’t think they’re sitting there thinking, ‘I’m a women and this is going to be hard for me, and I’m not going to have the same opportunities.’ They’re not thinking that — I mean, my daughter certainly isn’t thinking that way. But, the important thing is that over time you’re going to see that there are occurrences where you’re not treated as well as you’d like. We’re not making this up. It’s better, but it still exists. When I see that only five percent of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women, that gives me pause. When I see that women are still not in many instances making the same dollar amount as men, that gives me pause. I think that it’s important that we not put our heads in the sand and pretend nothing is going on, but at the same time don’t carry that on our sleeves every day. We’ll get there, but we’ve got to push.