Desiree Rogers on Leaving the Obama White House

President Obama’s former social secretary discusses her departure from the White House and her new position as CEO of Johnson Publishing

I was in the White House for a year and a half. Up to that point, all my jobs had been very unglamorous. My world became much larger. As social secretary, I was responsible for putting together all the events that the President and the First Lady host. This President was handed an impossible deck; I wanted to make sure that everyone felt the warmth of the family. I think everything about [the security breach where two reality show stars crashed a State dinner] has been said. We could all have done things a bit better.

When I left, I wanted to make sure that whatever step I took next was something I wanted to do. I met with [Tribune Chairman] Sam Zell—I was serving on one of his boards—and he said, “Kid, you’ve graduated. You know what you’re doing. You’ve got to run your own thing.” I spoke to Gayle King, who told me, “Take your time. Look at all your options.” I probably met with more than 100 people.

Johnson Publishing offered me an opportunity to build back iconic brands like Ebony and Jet magazines. What I was worried about was my friendship with the founder’s daughter, Linda Johnson. She is my very best friend. I didn’t want to be in a position where I would put at risk her company’s legacy. Linda was very smart. She’d say, “How are your interviews going?” I agreed to come on as a consultant. I had no publishing experience and no cosmetics experience, but these are businesses that I love. The company had lost both of its founders and needed funding. I decided I could build a team and restore the halo on these brands.

I wanted to make Ebony prettier and more relevant. With Jet, people would say, “What are you going to do to my Jet?” We’re being very careful not to fall into a vacuum where we assume all black people want to read the same thing. That said, there are broad issues that impact the community. My daughter is 21, and she doesn’t see the world in white and black. But she wants to read about our history. She helped me think about things in a different way.

Washington is like playing the Super Bowl, only there are no timeouts, no potty breaks, and the arena is filled with the media. In government, you have to learn to put yourself second in a big way. But I am a business person at heart. I like to be in charge. —As told to Diane Brady   

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