My column, In The Room, has given me and my readers a front-row seat to important and poignant lessons on leadership. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing the first and only female president of Harvard University, the first and only African American woman to run the American Civil War Museum, the chief information officer of the CIA, the head of cybersecurity for Ernst and Young, and a national best-selling author and world-renowned psychologist.
I realized, though, during a recent run (where I do my best thinking), that everyone I’ve featured so far is American and either my age or older. Enter 31-year-old phenom, Larisa Hovannisian, founder of Teach For Armenia. Last month, Larisa co-hosted the Teach For All Global Conference in Armenia, which gathered 450 members of their community. Teach For All is a global network of independent organizations in 53 countries, whose shared mission is to develop collective leadership to ensure all children have the education, support and opportunity to fulfill their potential. We met for coffee to talk about leadership, lessons learned, and love.
‘Armenia Needs You Too’
While Larisa went to a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin and taught in Phoenix, Arizona, she spent most of her childhood in Russia. She shared vivid memories of her birthplace, Armenia, where she returned every summer to spend time with her grandmother. Her poignant stories about her early life reminded me of the challenging history of the region during that time.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia became an independent country. As the fledgling government struggled to become a self-sustaining country, the region suffered a devastating earthquake that killed thousands. The conditions, in part, led to Larisa’s parents moving to Russia to build a “more stable” life.
But Russia, too, was reeling from the break-up of the Soviet Union. Relationships with former satellite states of the USSR were naturally tense and the country was in a deep financial and economic crisis. Terrorism was spreading, and children were being abducted for ransom money.
“This sounds like a lot,” I exhaled. She admitted that her parents were very protective, and she had very little freedom growing up. She was grateful that her father was able to provide a comfortable life because of his work as a lawyer for an international firm. But, she was well aware of the broader context and strife. Many of her friends lacked access to basic services, like education and food.
“I knew I would come back to do something to help someday,” she said of her home country. “I just wasn’t sure how or when.” When she decided to join Teach For America she remembered her Mom saying, “You know, Armenia needs you too.” The seed was planted.
Discrimination in Many Forms
As an Armenian in Russia, she was considered “dark” and “other”—and she felt the effects of this regularly. The unstable financial situation in Russia led to a lot of finger-pointing and resentment. “Armenians are taking our jobs,” she and her family would hear on a regular basis.
She was incensed by the inequities and the scapegoating, and it helped her develop a deep commitment to “justice and fairness.”
We talked about what it was like to attend a mostly white college in the United States. Many people “could not figure out what I was,” she recalls, because she was, literally, the only Armenian on campus. Luckily, she found a band of other women who became her best friends and a personal support group. “The token people of color bonded together,” she joked, but adds, seriously, that the tight-knit circle helped make her college experience. “People didn’t mean to be offensive, so we had to take it with some humor.”
She also felt a responsibility to educate Americans about the Armenian genocide (which was recently recognized as a genocide by the House of Representatives on October 29, 2019) and other aspects of her culture and country. “I ended up [engaging] in activism whether I liked it or not because no one else would.” In a way, she explains, she was grateful because her college experience thrust her into a leadership position.
I asked how she would compare conversations about race here with those in Eastern Europe. “It’s not that there is less or more in different countries,” she reflected, “but at least we live in a country where people can talk about it. In countries like Russia, it’s tough for this to be even acknowledged.”
Having lived in multiple countries, she is deeply aware of how discrimination shows up in so many different forms. “Discrimination [happens when one group considers another] to be ‘other’ or different or minorities…this includes race but also religious beliefs and sexual orientation.”
Focus on Being a Good Teacher
Larisa and I are both proud Teach For America alumnae, having joined the corps right after college. We were both called by the two-part mission: do everything possible to provide students in schools with a game-changing education, and take the lessons learned from the classroom to fight for equity more broadly. Being a classroom teacher and joining a mission-driven organization had a profound impact on my trajectory, so I wanted to know if it was the same for Larisa.
She initially was overwhelmed by the stories of her students, many of whom were living in abject poverty. For some, “the only hot meal they got was school lunch…so I started bringing bags of juice and sandwiches just to make sure my kids weren’t hungry.” Some would describe violence they witnessed in their neighborhoods in great detail. “I wasn’t sure I could do it,” she told me, because her heart would break a little every day.
“One day I talked to my dad,” she remembered gratefully. He gave her some simple and yet profound advice: “Focus on being a good teacher.” He helped her see that she was expending a lot of energy on things she couldn’t control, as opposed to investing in the one thing she could. “I had to reframe my mindset…and that is when I started having an impact.”
We talked about what a critical leadership lesson that was on two levels. First, it is important to focus on what is in your control and your own efficacy in fixing it. Second, the ability to shift your own mindset can, in fact, produce different results.
Her eyes lit up when she told me about her former students. One boy in particular had severe autism and entered kindergarten having not spoken any words other than reciting lines from cartoons. Within six months of being in her class, he started talking in short sentences and could hold a conversation. His mom told Larisa, “You’ve given my son an opportunity to talk to me and our family—and that is always something I’ll love you for.”
Asking Men to Be Allies
Shortly after her two years in the classroom, Larisa decided to start Teach For Armenia. She wrote a business plan, started assembling a Board of Trustees, and looking for money—at the ripe age of 23.
It turns out this was even more audacious than it sounds. “Back in 2013, not a lot of young women started companies in Armenia,” she tells me. “The idea of a young entrepreneur and underdog is an American thing…[Armenia] is very patriarchal and ageist.” But her own childhood adversity, college, and teaching experience gave her confidence, drive, and leadership skills. She laughed and shared, “Being young and naive—not arrogant or overconfident—I thought ‘the sky is the limit, why not risk it.’”
She tells me about many “nasty” attempts to prevent her from succeeding—from usurping her intellectual property to attempting to discredit her in key circles. She recalls plenty of meetings where prospective donors, policymakers, or powerbrokers cut her off in mid-sentence, posed questions to her male colleagues even though she was the CEO, or didn’t acknowledge her presence at all.
I got mad just listening to her, remembering my own battles. Like me, she learned how to advocate for herself. “I’ve gotten good at saying things like, ‘you cut me off, I need to finish my thought or it’s going to be tough for us to have a productive conversation,’” she tells me. “This may come off as me being curt or even mean, but we have to do things to make our voices heard.”
She also shares the important role others have played in addressing inequity. “I am lucky to have male colleagues who are real partners in the work…in one meeting, [my male colleague] said, ‘Actually I’m going to have my boss answer that for you.’”
Personally, I was struck by this example. I am hard-pressed to remember many times when a male colleague was this overt of an ally. Larisa reacted to my surprise. “Sometimes I have to ask or explain,” she said. “The men in Armenia often only shake the hands of other men. I now tell the men I work with that I’d like for them to shake my hand. They weren’t aware it was a problem.”
This exchange makes me wonder if I have been explicit enough with male colleagues about what allyship looks like—I always just felt it was my responsibility to figure out a way to be heard. “Maybe this is a sign of progress,” I remarked, “both that men have been such clear allies for you and that you are so clear about how they need to show up.”
Embracing Meditation and Love
I can’t help thinking about how much is on her shoulders, so I asked her what she likes to do outside of work and how she takes care of herself personally. She shared that for her first few years starting and running the company, she didn’t think much about this and she felt like she paid for it.
“At one point, it caught up to me,” she admitted. Like others I’ve interviewed for In The Room, she started to struggle with anxiety, and eventually experienced full-blown “panic attacks that would come out of nowhere.” They were so profound that the first time it happened, she actually called the doctor because she thought she was having a heart attack.
She came to cherish and prioritize people in her life who gave as much as they took. She embraces and understands the importance of sleep, which she said she took for granted when she was younger. And, she found transcendental meditation. She said she tried yoga, mindfulness, and other things—but meditation was what finally worked for her. It’s become an integral part of her day.
Our most intimate moment came when we talked about our respective life partners. Larisa married someone she describes as her soulmate, who deeply inspires her. She was “introduced” to him on the shelves of a Phoenix bookstore, where she spontaneously purchased a memoir he had written about his family.
Moved by his story—and the cute photo of him on the book jacket—she connected with him briefly online, but they never met. (I admit this highlighted for me the generational divide between me and Larisa!).
Three years later, while pitching a funder, she ran into him at a coffee shop in Armenia. The rest, as they say, is history.
They make time for each other, by scheduling calls and date nights, even it if is just 30 or 45 minutes. They make it a point not to get disconnected even as they are both working on literally solving the country’s biggest problems. “Like me,” she says, “he doesn’t distinguish work and life. It’s not one and then the other—just one big thing.”
Larisa makes me hopeful that the next generation of leaders is up for the task of solving big things.
Confession time: I ran a few minutes late for this interview with Kris Lovejoy, the global head of cybersecurity for Ernst and Young (one of the world’s largest professional services firms) and Juliane Gallina, the chief information officer for the CIA. But it turns out when you interview two sisters like these, there’s no need to worry. As I logged on to the video chat, ready to apologize for my tardiness, I found them so engrossed in conversation they hardly noticed I was there.
Fifteen minutes of get-to-know-you conversation later, I still hadn’t asked a single question about their accomplishments because I was so moved by their closeness. Once we started, though, it was a far-reaching and, at times, emotional conversation about leadership, loss and love. This is my first joint interview of the “In the Room” series, and I was interested to see how these two women had achieved such unprecedented success in notably male-dominated industries—especially because they both majored in English and were raised by their mother, a teacher. But it turned out to also be a great idea for a different reason. Like so many badass women I’ve known, Juliane (Julie) and Kris each play down their own accomplishments, and it was often up to the sibling to fill in the gaps. And it’s a good thing, because the full stories of each of these women are almost unbelievable.
Kris Tells Julie’s Story Juliane attended the US Naval Academy after high school. “I was fascinated by the shuttle program and learned that many astronauts had been Navy or Marine Corps aviators.” With only about 10% of the incoming class being female, this was hardly a conventional choice. The pair lost their father when they were young, so money was scarce and the desire for structure and certainty was strong. “I liked the fact that it was free—I could be self-sustaining after graduation. And I wanted a challenge.” During her senior year at the Naval Academy, Julie discovered she didn’t meet the specifications to be a pilot. “I had short legs and didn’t make the cut.” Julie tried to end her biography here and wrap up by saying she became interested in national security from a roommate. Fortunately, Kris was quick to say, “Julie is too humble.
Let me brag about her.” It turns out that during her time in the Naval Academy, Julie excelled. The Navy sent her to graduate school to specialize in space systems and national reconnaissance. Her experience in satellite systems and remote sensing led to her technical job at the CIA and her second master’s degree in Electrical Engineering. Julie explains, “As a kid, my favorite toy was Dad’s wood workshop at our cabin. He’d give us a hammer, box of nails and scrap wood and say, ‘Go figure something out.’ Looking back now, I had mechanical aptitude—but I wish I’d been exposed to engineering earlier so I could have fallen in love with it earlier.”
Julie Tells Kris’ Story
Kris went into public service after college, working on policy issues such as the housing desegregation case for the Yonkers City Council. After several years, she explains, “I was burnt out, so I escaped through marriage.” She and her husband, a Marine pilot, were stationed in a remote military town in North Carolina, where Kris struggled to find her place. “I was so bored that I started volunteering…trying to help improve communication between wives and their husbands who were deployed.” Again, it was the other sister who filled in the gaps for me. “It is incredible the determination and grit Kris needed to get herself out of the limiting situation [she found herself in],” observes Julie. “And she did it while raising two kids!” The internet was barely in existence at that point. “The idea of talking to a remote spouse was unheard of.” Yet, Kris taught herself an early form of coding and networking and discovered, “I have a knack for this.” When her then-husband was transferred to Washington, D.C., she got a job as a network engineer and never looked back. She helped build and sell three technology companies and served as IBM’s chief global security officer before her current role heading Ernst and Young’s global security.
Lines for the Women’s Room Are Getting Longer
It is hard to imagine two women breaking more ceilings than this duo: a naval officer and engineer for the CIA, and a self-taught technology entrepreneur and national cyber-security expert. “I imagine you’ve had countless instances where you are the only woman in the room,” I correctly assume. “Tell me about that.” Kris is first to answer. “In technology, less than 10% of leaders belong to a minority group.” She then jokes, “At least there are no lines in the bathroom!” She says she has always been aware of this imbalance, but became acutely aware in her first role as CEO of a start-up. At a technology conference break-out session focused on the lack of diversity in the C-suite, she was the only woman in the room, and there were only a few people of color. “A guy stands up and said, ‘I’m sick and tired of this conversation. There are no women in the room. We have to ask, is it us or them?’” Kris waved her hands demonstrably, “Like, hello!” Finally, one of her male colleagues reminded him that she was, in fact, in the room. He apologized: “Sorry, I thought you were one of those event people.” Julie was reminded of a time in her corporate experience when she showed up to a meeting early to set up her laptop for her presentation. A man walked in and she asked if he was there for the meeting. “Yeah,” he replied, “but I’m here for the technical meeting,” and walked out. “He assumed because a woman was in the front of the room, he was in the wrong place,” Julie reflected. In 1998, when Julie first arrived in D.C., she noticed that only 10-15% of the people in the room were women. “Most of the time they were running charts on the computer on the side. We called them the ‘straphanger in the meeting.’… Sitting on the back wall and listening to the executives.” Both sisters see progress. Julie observes, “The lines in the bathroom are getting longer … and every time there is a line, it almost always comes up.” 25 years ago, the rare women leaders were often childless. But she also notes that many emerging female leaders are also moms.
Motherhood While Leading
Both Kris and Julie bring up their kids long before I ask about them. This was also true of both Christy Coleman and Angela Duckworth, two great leaders featured in my previous “In the Room” columns. We all acknowledge that navigating motherhood and a career is always a challenge. Kris shares that she’s always had to work to help support her family and never had an option to think otherwise (the same is true for me). She recounts a time when she ran into her daughter’s Brownie troop leader at the grocery store. The troop leader said, “I don’t know how you do it … who takes care of your children?” All Kris could think to say was, “I give them a box of cereal and lock them in the closet.” She wasn’t just angered by the assumption that she had the luxury of not working—she resented the implication that she didn’t take care of her kids as a result of being a working mom. Julie recounts the difficult decision she made at one point to leave the CIA—she joined a private company before recently returning to the agency. “I had been traveling a lot, working on a cool project, and so wrapped up in myself.” She started to feel increasingly out of touch with her kids and felt like she needed a “course correction.” They are also both aware, though, of how their success in the workplace has also had a positive impact on their kids. Kris jokes that only recently did her son discover she is a “senior executive,” by Googling her. She repeatedly refers to how strong-willed and purposeful her kids are, and that’s clearly because of her example. “Even though part of me always feels like a bad mother, and will always feel like a bad mother, I think my kids are proud of me and they have drive, which makes me feel good.” Julie recently took her daughter to a high-profile conference. “What a gift to be able to take her with me,” she shares. “I love supporting my daughter by exposing her to a world of opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise know about. I can use my experience to help my children find a path…whatever path that is.” “Being a leader is learning how to be a good mother,” Kris offers. “Despite having hard-headed kids, you want to lead them to success. You can’t be angry, so you just have to mold them.” Turning Anger into Empathy Sometimes the injustice of continually being treated differently based on your gender can simply make you mad—so we got to talking about anger. When Julie first got to the Naval Academy she found herself pretty frustrated. “People reduced me to a stereotype they could understand.” There were only three options. “I could be a butch and blend in with the guys, a slut, or a bitch. None of those fit me—and I resented [being put in those boxes].” Kris says she’s gotten feedback over the years that she’s “too aggressive or sharp-elbowed.” She admitted that she constantly balances being decisive and bold versus collaborating, but she feels these observations are often due to “unconscious bias.” Indeed, research shows that female leaders are criticized for the very qualities for which male leaders are lauded. The three of us bonded over how we have learned to turn anger into motivation and empathy, most days. “I came out of freshman year determined to not be defined by those stereotypes,” said Julie. “I realized that was not healthy to be angry all the time.” She accepted that she couldn’t change others, but she could change her attitude and chose to forge her own path. Kris has learned to empathize with others, including those who perpetuate stereotypes. “It is a matter recognizing that the people you’re working with are human beings and there is nothing fixed in humans,” she said. “You can help them see the world through a different lens.”
Shout Out to the Moms
“Shout out to Mom! Because anyone who takes the minute to read about us [should know about her].” (I couldn’t help but smile ear to ear when she said this, since I feel the same way about my Mom, so very deeply.) “Our mom was tough as nails,” says Kris. “And our maternal grandmother came to the U.S. from Germany during World War I and supported herself.” “We had no weak women in our life,” Julie piles on. “The idea of being female as a detriment never crossed her mind.” One story epitomized their deep regard for the women in their family and reduced us all to tears. In the mid-1990s, Julie was set to graduate from the Naval Academy. Her grandmother traveled from her apartment in the Bronx to see her graduation. Through a highly selective process, Julie was asked to serve as the brigade commander—the first woman to serve in that capacity in the Navy’s history. “I got to the point where I was in the front of the parade [with 5,000 people following me]. I could feel the students marching and the drums were beating,” she shares with deep emotion. “I made a turn onto a field and the entire parade field is open in front of you … an official was in front of me by himself on the field. And his guest of honor was my grandma.” “In her lifetime, [grandma] had seen the transition to motorized automobiles, she survived the First World War as a young woman, and watched the Second World War as a German immigrant in New York. She survived the Depression and saw the civil rights movement and the rise of feminism…She was so strong and resilient, that it meant a lot to me to make her proud of our family,” she says thankfully. Hold Your Head High Deep into the conversation, Julie and Kris reveal that their father was murdered when they were 11 and 7, under cloudy circumstances that called into question his integrity. They reflected on their mother’s powerful example in the face of such adversity. “Mom stayed in our community when she could have left,” shares Kris. Julie adds, “She held her head high.” Partly as a result of their father’s death, both women have grown up with a fierce commitment to “duty and ethics…a passion to be successful, ethical, smart and honorable.” Says Julie, “The more I worked, the more it felt redemptive…like distance between me and this evil past.” Kris continues, “Everything we have done is to define ourselves as honorable.” Wiping away my own tears for the second time, I wondered how they endured and accomplished so much. “It was just part of me. If you’re going to do it, you just do it,” explains Kris. “You don’t think about how far you’re going to go, you just get it done.” This reminded me just how humble they both are, and I felt grateful again for having them both present for this interview. There is so much I would not have the privilege of learning if each sister had not provided key details for her sibling’s story. I have six sisters and several friends who are like sisters. Having lost some powerful women in my own family this year, I quietly reminded myself at the end of the interview to actively support all of these women in my life, purposefully and regularly. As sisters, we share our successes and struggles. May we all strive to be badasses who lift up those we love as openly as Kris and Juliane.