Lessons on Empowerment

Pippa Lamb, Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Pippa Lamb caught up with the closing keynote speaker of this year’s WSA conference, Heidi Cruz (HBS ’00) to discuss her views on empowerment, a career on Wall Street, working for President George W. Bush, and her time on the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign

Heidi Cruz (HBS ‘00) is an inspirational woman but would be the last to label herself as such. For all the bravado and gloss that comes with being front stage of a U.S. Presidential Campaign, she is remarkably candid, and refreshingly self-aware.

A big part of this self-awareness comes with her realization that “empowerment” does not come from a resume, but from embracing the decisions you make, and celebrating the path your life leads – wherever that may be.

To the average spectator, this might seem easy for someone with Cruz’s profile. Her career has taken her from Wall Street to Harvard Business School, to the White House, and then back to Goldman Sachs, where she now holds a national role in the Private Wealth Division. She’s poised, successful, and elegant, and even has a “1”-type answer to that irritatingly ubiquitous question asked of powerful women – yes, she has managed to have both a family and a demanding career.  Yet what’s most striking about Cruz is not this, but her frank interpretation of it all.

“I’m not going to give you one of those “Rah! Rah! You can do it all,” speeches, boasting how you can balance it all. Success is often pretty imbalanced.”

“I’ll be honest. I don’t think I have achieved balance. I’m not sure many people have. And when you look at successful people, that’s something you’ll often see. They put themselves off-balance. They extend themselves. That last equation calculated that put humans on the moon, or that breakthrough in medical research that was the cure for a disease, was not often achieved at noon.”

Unsurprisingly perhaps, a defining tenet of Cruz’s life is hard work. Under the Bush administration, Cruz worked for Condoleezza Rice at the National Security Council, who has had a clear influence on her life.

“Condi was a great boss.  People view her as strong, as extraordinary, and I agree. But what I love about her most is what she did to be strong. She arrived and left the West Wing at the same time every day. She kept her temper even, always. She exercised. She was fair to everyone. She even practiced piano a little bit every week.  Her commitment and ability to be in control of herself in every situation empowered her to do big things. To me, this is what ‘strong’ looks like.”

Cruz’s daily routine reflects this. “For me, I’ve learned I do my clearest thinking in the early mornings, so I’m up really early for some uninterrupted hours, then days are spent with our teams, clients, prospective clients and travel.  And by the end of the day if not traveling I look forward to a few hours with our two daughters, Caroline (8) and Catherine (6). After tucking them in I need to move, so do my workouts late at night. It’s a little unconventional to be in the gym at 10pm – but it works for me.  I do it because it empowers me. It helps me feel strong and I know it’s actually a little unwind time as well.”

While Cruz may not consider her life to be “balanced”, to many onlookers, Cruz has in fact managed to achieve balance in one very important part of her life – her marriage to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz.

Noticeably, of all the keynote speakers at this year’s HBS Women’s Student Association conference, Cruz is the only one whose family structure has two – for lack of a better word – “alpha” parents. Neither Heidi nor her husband – who she met working on George W. Bush’s 2000 Presidential Campaign – have chosen to take a permanent backseat role to the other’s career. And they’ve done pretty well.

“Ted came home from the U.S. Senate and said he wanted to talk about running for President of the United States. I found myself at a crossroads.”

“Everyone has their own story about how they’ve put it together”, she says. “And that’s what’s so satisfying and peaceful about life. Of course, there are tradeoffs – we’ve both made them. We have almost always commuted through our marriage. When I moved back to Texas, I didn’t move to Austin, I moved to Houston, because I wanted to stay in investment banking. And for Ted, he has a wife who works 70-80 hours a week, and he comes to my work events endlessly. But both of us are doing things that we love. It’s why this word empowerment is important. Because if you’re both going to have something going on, you must empower each other. It also helps that our careers are compatible, and we do a lot of things professionally together too.”

Yet for Cruz, there have also been times in her life when “empowerment” has meant having the self-assuredness to take a path less-travelled. For Cruz, this has translated into a career spanning both the private and public sectors, serving both clients and her fellow countrymen – the latter beginning with her years under President George W. Bush, and again most recently in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign.

“The title ‘Candidate’s spouse’, was very different to the job title I was used to.”

“Ted came home from the U.S. Senate one day and said he wanted to talk about running for President of the United States. I found myself at a crossroads. After much soul searching, I ultimately decided to talk to Goldman about taking a leave of absence. I realized I was going to have to be agile again. I was used to having control over my calendar. Gone. I was used to choosing who I would meet. Gone. I was used to things moving on time, and being able to change if they were not. Gone. I started to struggle a little bit.”

The turning point came six months before the primaries started, by which point her life had transformed into driving around states listening to Ted’s stump speech seven times a day, sometimes sitting for hours in a holding room alone. “I felt ineffective – not empowered. I wondered if I should go back to Goldman Sachs.”

“Then, one morning, after yet another journey in an unmarked black SUV to the airport, we were waiting in security when a supporter asked for a photo of us. The both of us. I looked down: I was wearing my favorite travel workout jacket and yoga pants. It was that moment that it struck me. We were running for President – the highest office in the land – and there I stood, in yoga attire. Something was wrong. And I knew I had to make a change.”

From that moment on, Cruz embraced her role in the campaign.

“I needed to make this job what I wanted it to be, and represent something I could be proud of. But most importantly I realized that it wasn’t about me. It was not about being comfortable, it was not about being efficient nor controlling my environment.  It was going to be about giving – to our team, to our supporters, to this country. When you give, you have to up your game.”

And that is something that Cruz managed to do – and elegantly at that, gracefully navigating one of the country’s most divisive presidential races in recent history. The subject of a particularly bitter Trump tweet on one occasion, Cruz’s steely poise reminded not only us but the nation, that so often, it’s not about us.

“You have to realize it’s not about you. It’s almost selfish to think that it is. If you have conviction in what you are doing and the reasons why, nothing else can bother you.”

So, what’s the one piece of advice would she give to HBS students?

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it” – Goethe

“That quote by Goethe is one of my favorites. Ultimately, I’d say, be intentional. It’s not letting life just happen to you. It’s taking charge. Do what you can do and make the ask.”

As I left Heidi to a crowd of students waiting patiently to chat with her, I was reminded of a moment a couple of weeks ago, when on a tour of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City. Walking through the halls lined with intricate murals, we passed an early rendering of Frida Kahlo, when our tour guide stopped and turned to us. “These frescoes are by Diego Riviera, the husband of Frida Kahlo”, she explained. “Of course,” she continued, “they were painted at a time when Frida Kahlo was the wife of Diego Riviera, not the other way around.”

After spending an afternoon with Heidi, I wonder whether the next time I see the Senator of Texas on television, instead of seeing one of the country’s leading politicians, I’ll instead see the husband of Heidi Cruz.

Quick fire round:

  •     What section were you in? D
  •     Biggest lesson from HBS? People of extreme excellence exist and are required in every field.
  •     HBS Summer Internship: Tech M&A on the West Coast
  •     HBS Hobby: Tennis
  •     Biggest lesson learnt from the working with President George W. Bush: The importance of building a good team. Everyone was empowered by the President, but most of all, they were all truly doing it for the country, and not for their own careers.

Pippa Lamb (HBS ‘18) worked for the British government on China/UK relations in Beijing and Shanghai, before transitioning into finance, spending time in London and Hong Kong. Hailing from the UK, Pippa is a Fulbright Scholar under the British Friends of Harvard Business School Program.