What It Takes

Paula Stern

Growing up Jewish in the South gave Paula Stern and her siblings insight on the civil rights struggle. Her brother became a civil rights attorney and lived with James Meredith when he became the first African American to enter the University of Mississippi. Her sister runs a foundation that brings together diverse students to examine the connection between history and their moral choices. Stern, 65, chairwoman of the Stern Group, an international advisory firm on business and government strategy, chose government. She has presidential appointments from three presidents. She served on the International Trade Commission for Jimmy Carter, chaired it for Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton appointed her to the President's Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations. She has also served as a director of companies such as Avon, Hasbro and Neiman Marcus. An accomplished sculptor whose work has been commissioned for sale and exhibited, Stern wrote a book about the origins of American foreign policy. She and her husband of 38 years, Paul London, an economist, writer and former government official, live in Northwest Washington, have two grown children and a granddaughter.

Why she's successful: "I'm curious and tenacious. I like to be on a steep learning curve. I credit my parents for equipping me with the intelligence, education and exposure to many different worlds -- the business world, the commercial world, as well as the bigger world of the community in which we live."

Biggest obstacle: "On the gender issue, I still think we have not overcome ... I had a case when I was on the Hill. I wanted to work on the foreign relations committee and I went for a job interview with a senator who was on the committee ... He said, 'I can't hire you because you're a woman. And it would be written about if I ever did overseas trips.' So I sent him an article I had written in the Atlantic Monthly ... The article started off, 'I had a job interview and the first question they asked me was, 'Ms. Stern, are you in love?' Do you think they asked the other candidates, seven guys, the same question?' ... Several years later, I had to appear before him at the foreign relations committee ... and he said in the hearing, in front of everybody, 'One of the worst things that I ever did was not give Paula Stern this job.' ... It was Joe Biden."

First job: Stern grew up in Memphis, the youngest of three children. Her parents ran a furniture store. She was a stellar student, though she was rejected from being a high school cheerleader because the squad already had a Jew. She attended tiny Goucher College in Baltimore, then Harvard University for graduate school. She interned for U.S. Rep. George Grider (D-Tenn.) in 1966. "He was only in for two years. He was part of that LBJ sweep that came in. He was a great civic leader, for civil rights, a white man. He had been a naval submarine [commander]."

Best job: chairing the ITC. "It required the application of law to the economic facts ... I got to know about every industry conceivable and in depth ... It was a position of incredible responsibility. I got to use my own judgment based on the skill sets I had developed in school and in life. Being chair made me feel very satisfied that people who knew my work trusted me and looked to me to set certain standards. When I go back to retirement parties, even now, it makes me feel so happy that people come up and hug and kiss me, whether it's the guards or one of the other people who were so deeply committed to government service."

Proudest accomplishments: Her children and her work at the ITC. "I'm proud of my record and the fact that some of those opinions stand up, even today ... I'm proud of my book, 'The Water's Edge.' I think it stands up today and helps people understand how America makes its foreign policy and the role of domestic politics. I'm proud of my sculpture, my art. I started to cast my terra cotta in bronze after 9/11 because I wanted a lasting legacy of something that was beautiful."

Smartest move: Not taking a position with the Carter transition team. "I bided my time ... I went back to work for [Sen.] Gaylord Nelson, got the book ready for publication. Then, when the Carter people got in the White House, they circled back to me" and Carter tapped her for the ITC. "By that time, the book was ready. I had delivered my wonderful son Gabriel, who came on his due date. I was at a hearing on 5/5/77 and that night he came. It was a smart move not to grab anything. Frankly, the positions they were offering initially didn't show respect for my intelligence and accomplishments."

Biggest misstep: "Maybe I should have gone into the Clinton administration ... It's about timing, and it was time for me to take a break from those 16 years [in government] and focus on the family and time for Paul to go in."

What inspires her: "Nature, music, art. I get inspired by my kids. I get inspired by babies. We've got a baby next door who is the age of my granddaughter ... Gabriel's little daughter, Dalia, is 2 1/2 ... She's completely bilingual. She'll talk to us and we'll say, 'Dalia, do you like the beach?' She'll say, 'Mare!' which is Italian for beach."

What lies ahead: Good health and a position in the Obama administration, she hopes. "I am interested in government service. If not, other board assignments. My artwork is something that it's always living and experimenting. I like to be on a steep learning curve."

Advice to the aspiring: "I think tenacity is so important. If you can't go in the front door, try to find a side door. You have to keep trying. I think stick-to-it-ness is so important no matter what goal you are trying to achieve."


Avis Thomas-Lester

 |  July 13, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  |  Category:  success stories Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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