On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Dr. Donna Shalala, a highly renowned educator, and politician who is known as one of the most honored academics of our generation and who has been described by the Washington Post as “one of the most successful government managers of modern times.” Dr. Shalala served as the Secretary of Health and Human Services for eight years, becoming the longest-serving HHS Secretary in U.S. history. During those eight years, Dr. Shalala directed the government’s welfare reform process, made health insurance available to more than 2.5 million children, raised child vaccination rates to the highest levels in history, and made so many other strides toward creating lasting progress that she was awarded the highest honor any American can receive—the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She then went on to serve in Congress, where she represented Florida’s 27th congressional.
She’s been the president of both a private and public university—first, she was the president of Hunter College, and later she served as President of the University of Miami. She was also the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which made her the first woman to lead a Big Ten Conference school, and only the second woman in the country to head a major research university. She was even President of the Clinton Foundation. On this episode of Bring It In season two, Donna and Sam talked about everything from why the process is so important to how we can make education more equitable and effective.
Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.
Below are some of the insights Donna Shalala shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.
Sam: So Congresswoman, you obviously have a wealth of experience. I would love to just hear from you on what got you to where you are today.
Donna: I’m a graduate of Cleveland public schools, and in the process of going to high school in particular, I got involved with an organization called Junior Achievement, which basically created a whole generation of entrepreneurs. We started companies every year, and our advisors were the heads of large corporations and people that worked in large corporations in Cleveland. So my first experience was not in social policy. It was actually in entrepreneurship. Every single company I had made money and I was president of all of them. The idea of creating new opportunities for people and thinking about products and how you sell products started with me at a very young age. I’ve always been interested in the economy, interested in creating jobs, and even though my career has taken me from the Peace Corps to the Academy, to teaching at great universities and doing research and running the government. My fundamental interest has been in educating people for very good jobs and making them nimble enough and flexible enough, not just for their first job, but for their sixth or seventh job, that’s what my career from my point of view has really been about.
Sam: So many business owners I talk to have very polarizing perspectives on the value of a college education today. What is your perspective on the value of a college education today and how it’s changed?
Donna: I think it’s fundamental, and I hope that they’re not thinking too narrowly. While I’m committed to apprenticeships, I’m also committed to broad education.. Many of the corporate heads who talk about narrow technical jobs are sending their kids to liberal arts colleges. We need to prepare people not just for their first job, but their ability to absorb new technologies and new ideas. And the one thing that four years in college will do is both teach you how to work together as a team, which I think is just as important as the actual academics, as well as how to absorb new information, which is going to be very important for the future. I include that in the humanities, the creativity, the social sciences, as well as the scientists themselves. Whatever makes you not only think, but learn new ideas, and makes you nimble enough to absorb the future. That’s what I think college education does best.
Sam: What message do you have to business owners on how they can be more politically active in a healthy way for our communities today?
Donna: I think it’s very important when you go to see elected officials that you can answer the question: what is it that the government can do for you, but more importantly for your family? You need to think about those kinds of things that push politicians, and not just say “I’m for this bill” or “against this bill,” but how they’re thinking about helping people. I learned a long time ago from President Clinton that campaigns are not about the candidate; they’re about improving people’s lives. And that essentially is what the business community is going to talk to government officials about. They want to improve people’s lives by creating good jobs, by sustaining good jobs, by taking care of their workers, and by creating products that are of use.
Sam: I had listened to an interview where you made the comment: why do people get elected to public office if they’re not ready to make tough decisions? That really stuck with me, because I think business owners have to make a lot of tough decisions, and you’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions over your career in a lot of different corners of our community. Can you give some of the managers out there some advice on how do you do that today?
Donna: Some of it is just communication. If you’re going to make tough decisions, make sure your top leadership is on board and that you’ve talked it through. Then, once you decide you’re going to make that decision. how are you going to implement it? That may be as important as anything else. If it involves workers, for example, or the nature of your business—that communication, that drawing people in, that sense of fairness is really important. Whenever I’ve had to lay people off in the healthcare area, it was far more important to me than the initial decision, how people felt they were treated, whether we continued their healthcare or their support for their kids, whatever we did, whether we really focused on finding them new jobs. After I lost the election, I found every single person who worked for me a better job, and I worked hard at that so people that have worked for me over the years—while they don’t like some of the decisions I’ve made—they have a sense of fairness and they know that I’ve cared about them in the process. It’s the execution that’s as important as the decision itself.
Sam: The concept of the future of work is obviously not new today. What is your hope for the future of work? As we think about how we create a world where more workers are included, have opportunity, and are paid a living wage. What hopes do you have?
Donna: My hope is that we’ll have continuing education; that workers will be in a learning environment their whole careers. That both the businesses as well as the education system will understand that once people are trained for a specific position, you have to keep training them. Many countries do this; Germany does it, so that they’re ready for the next job. Don’t misread me just because I have fancy academic credentials. I come from a working class family. One of my uncles died, and I sent his son to college and that son was a brilliant student. After two years he came to me and said, “I really want to be an electrician, and I have a chance through one of my father’s friends to get into the union.” I encouraged him not to stay in college, but to go get that apprenticeship. He graduated at the top of his class. He’s had a wonderful career. He’s made a lot of money and decided last year, he was approached about teaching the pre-electricians program at one of the technical colleges in Cleveland, which meant he had to go back and get his education degree. At the same time, they paid him a lot of money, but he had to go back and get his education degree. Meanwhile, he was teaching and he came to me and said, how do I get their attention? How do I get these kids’ attention? Because they’re simply all over the place. I said, tell him how much money you made last year—by the way that worked. It settled them down. I could’ve helped him with the curriculum in terms of breaking it down into pieces, but that’s an old teaching trick. He tells everybody that the one thing that got those young people to sit up straight and to pay attention to them is how much money he made last year. I went to a technical high school in which the vast majority of the students went on to apprenticeship to work, not to go to college. Many of them had to go into the military because they were drafted in my generation. I have a deep respect for people that have apprenticeships that work with their hands that have not had a college degree but are trying to get additional training. We’ve just gotta be more flexible. I’m not high on the for-profit schools because I think a lot of them are just ripping people off. I am high on the flexibility of community colleges that have short-term training programs with the understanding that we have to keep training. We have to keep educating. I don’t care whether it’s on the assembly line or whether it’s in a classroom, but we’ve got to think about that once we get our employees trained. They have to continue that training.
Sam: I was very surprised during COVID how, just like any other infrastructure, it seemed like a lot of businesses didn’t have the infrastructure technologically to react to a COVID moment. They were literally and physically disconnected from workers. How do we motivate businesses to be better there? Because so much of that continuous training falls on business owners to want to revamp their HR apparatuses and instead of just giving people playbooks, how do we lean into tech to lift people up?
Donna: I think we use tech. I happen to think that our commercial real estate business is going to be in a little trouble, because people are going to need less space because of working from home. I was on the board of the largest homebuilder Lunar. And Stuart Miller, the CEO, and I have been in conversation about their new housing and how they have to build offices for people. If you just look at healthcare, telemedicine has transformed the delivery of healthcare, not just for those that are primary care providers. The specialists are using telemedicine to communicate as well. There’s just a lot of work here. What we need to do is make sure every worker and their families have access to broadband and have good laptops that they could use. That will make a difference in terms of how we can do training and the kind of training that you’re doing in terms of making it more of a game is very important because a lot of the training that’s on the internet is pretty boring. As someone who often has taught through the internet, making it exciting and breaking it up is really important.
Sam: I saw Senator Elizabeth Warren yesterday talking about why we should be forgiving a college loan debt. I think about the impact on the psyche of a worker. If we do that, what is your perspective and why?
Donna: I would do a one-time forgiveness, and then I would straighten out the loan programs because there are too many kids that are borrowing money that should not be borrowing money. I tell kids not to come to the University of Miami right away and borrow a lot of money, but to go to a community college and then transfer in. There are all sorts of strategies that young people can use, and they certainly shouldn’t be going to these for-profits that will rip them off in the long run. They have to be very careful about loans and young people don’t think about loans, but it can change their lives in terms of what they can do in the future. I would do a one-time benefit and they’re talking about $50,000, but I would also straighten out the loan programs and work with the colleges and universities and the training programs to make sure that we don’t end up with this kind of a mess again.
Topics discussed: leadership, future of work, apprenticeships