Since 2005, Patricia Harrison has been CEO and president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She faced critics who thought her politics would get in the way, having been assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs and acting under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs under Colin Powell and former co-chair of the Republican National Committee. Instead, her political savvy helped to keep public broadcasting a funded and viable source of news. She has done that by making sure it remains part of the federal budget conversation. Raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., she learned the art of survival by negotiation on the playground. She is coming to Pittsburgh Tuesday for a private reception at WQED to mark the station's 60th anniversary.
You have had an interesting career. I read you started out in real estate, so how does one go from selling real estate to assistant secretary of state?
[Laughs] I really didn't start out in real estate. I started out as a writer. My husband was a Realtor, and I got my license, but I never really did anything with it. I was always a writer. I consider myself a writer today.
OK, so how did you go from being a writer to assistant secretary of state?
[Laughing] Well, as they say, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice." I really always had a point of view, and I had small children at the time and was doing freelance writing. I started out writing a column about women in business and the challenges they faced. You know, balancing home and work. One thing led to another. I wrote two books, one about America's new women entrepreneurs. That was the first book because that was the point where women were really hitting the glass ceiling and decided it wasn't worth it. They were thwarted at every level, and they had these great entrepreneurial skills. They started their own businesses, and suddenly they turned into this incredible statistic and people started noticing. I decided I wanted to find out if there was a common denominator. They were women, they were all ages, they were all races, but I did discover they had certain key qualities like high energy and drive and a self-confidence that was not based on braggadocio. It was basically, "I can do this. I believe in myself." After that I wrote "A Seat at the Table." At that point women were making some gains but not a lot in terms of corporate America. I think there was a very embarrassing statistic that these companies did not have diversity on their boards. So I created an organization called the National Women's Economic Alliance. The mission statement was on identifying qualified people who happen to be women, and we recognized corporations that had a diversified board.
So you were recognized?
Believe me, if there is one thing I convey to people it is that it is never a straight line. It's not A to B to C. The more you do, the more you learn -- and it expands how you think. I decided I wanted to make a difference on a larger platform. I had formed a lot of ideas about women; women in politics, women in business, and at that point I think it was right after Bob Dole had lost the election for president, and I felt I needed to talk to somebody about the fact that the Republican Party, unless it connected with women and minorities, was really going the way of the dodo bird. I decided to run for co-chair of the RNC. I didn't know anybody and I won! [Laughs.] So one of the things I did was create an organization called the New Majority Council. It was 1997. I had looked at all the statistics, and minorities were becoming majorities. Why not claim that? Why not say we are going to be the majority, and we are going to be involved at higher and higher levels of responsibility in business and politics -- across the board? I worked with the Black Chamber of Commerce and Hispanic organizations, and many of the people I worked with were on the other side of the political aisle, but we built a very strong friendship.
One of your strengths is your ability to bring opposing sides together. Is that just part of your makeup, your nature or something you learned in the playground?
Oh, my God, you want to talk about the playground! I grew up in Brooklyn, and if I were to write a book about the playground the title would be "Hand Over Your Lunch Money." [Laughs.] I do think what was formative for me was I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood where none of my friends had grandparents because they had been murdered in the Holocaust. So at a very young age I was very aware that bad things could happen to good people. My grandparents, who are Italian, they lived in an Italian neighborhood. I was very good friends with Jackie Robinson's [first black Major League Baseball player] niece, who happened to live in my neighborhood. You would go from one block to the other at that time, and you were in a different country. You didn't want to be fighting on the playground all the time, so you had to find a way to connect with some sort of common denominator, or you wouldn't survive, you know, third grade [laughing]. Everything I learned about life I learned in Brooklyn. That's pretty much what shaped me.
What about insecurities? How do you vanquish them when you are dealing with powerful individuals or corporate bullies?
I think what I learned early on is very few things are personal. There are going to be people for whatever reason who are not going to have a parade for your success, who are going to thwart you in every way they can, and it's not personal. It's all about who they are. I have had that experience throughout my life, and I've handled it terribly in some cases, well in some cases. What I have learned is an old adage, "Revenge is a dish best served cold." If I can just meditate for five seconds and not say what is running from my brain to my mouth, then I can figure out really the best way to deal with the bully.
Speaking of fighting and diplomacy, how is the fight to get more federal funding back going?
It's ongoing. The interesting thing is that public media, public broadcasting, public radio, public television, online, on-air in the community is such a value and a treasure for the American people. You own it. You can shape it. What we have to do, CPB, we are the stewards of the federal appropriations. When the money comes from the taxpayer through Congress to us, our job is to make sure there is a multiplier effect. It goes back into communities, it supports educational content. It's really what we call lifelong learning.
With so many news outlets being marked as partisan one way or the other why do you think it is that public broadcasting still has the public trust?
I think there are two things going on here: One is for free, and the other is commercial free. What that means is our driving mission isn't to sell your child a toy or food or [you] a weight-loss plan [laughing] or moisturizer. It is really to tell the story in a way that connects with people because the story is told with integrity and authenticity. I started researching women, fictional and real, and how their stories were told on public media. I only went back as far as Julia Child, who certainly didn't fit any stereotype of someone who would have her own television show. I mean she's 6 feet tall, she had this quavery voice, but she was so real we connected with her. Even if you fast forward to the characters in "Downton Abbey" and the dowager played by Maggie Smith. It's this woman of a certain age who has an opinion.
So perhaps you could develop a reality series about dealing with the government and trying to get funding back. I mean "House of Cards" is popular, so why not go with the intrigue?
[Laughs] So in other words Kevin Spacey, who has killed two people, by the way, in the series, would then advocate for funding for public media and kill whoever doesn't support it? Where are you from originally?
There's a Brooklyn vibe there.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/pasheridan.