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Famous Working Women Share Career Advice They Learned From Their Moms

Sonia Sotomayor, Cecile Richards, Tracee Ellis Ross, and other famous women share advice you can apply to your own career.

Mothers can play a profound role in our careers that we may not even realize until decades later.

Below are the reflections of 12 famous politicians, lawyers, activists, writers and actresses on how their mothers influenced them and the lessons they passed down.

Cecile Richards, activist and former president of Planned Parenthood

“I didn’t think I was skilled enough to take the [Planned Parenthood] job. ...I had never raised that much money, been responsible for a huge national organization with this almost hundred-year history, and so I was afraid of failing. And so I called my mom [former Governor of Texas Ann Richards] and she said, you know, ‘Get over yourself. You never know unless you try and the things you really regret in life are the chances that you didn’t take.’ And so I went for the job interview. And then, lo and behold, you know, 12 years later I’ve had the honor or being the president of Planned Parenthood ...

“I think [my Mom] was always regretful that she, you know, missed some time. She let social convention get in the way. So her best advice was, ‘This is the only life you have, so do it.’ And whatever it is, never turn down a new opportunity. She used to say when I was worried about taking a new job — or to other women who would say, ‘You know, I’m not sure if I’m qualified’ — she said, ‘Look. What’s the worst thing that could happen?’ And I think that’s really good advice when you’re thinking about starting a new business or changing jobs. It’s just, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen,’ because usually, once you can imagine that, it’s not that bad.” — from the “Success! How I Did It” podcast, 2018

Tracee Ellis Ross, actress and producer

Singer Diana Ross with her daughter Tracee Ellis Ross 
Singer Diana Ross with her daughter Tracee Ellis Ross 

“My mom [Diana Ross] told me really young when I was singing in a talent show in high school and so terrified that nervousness and excitement are actually the same feeling in your body, but just have a different label ... The thing that’s so interesting is that my career is filled with nerve-racking, risky things, and I have a tendency to be like, ‘That’s scary, let’s do it,’ because that’s just the person I am.” People Magazine, 2018

Soledad O’ Brien, broadcast journalist and executive producer

Mindy Kaling, actress, writer and producer

“She has a saying. I don’t think she invented this, but she told me, so it was new to me. She said, ‘Before you can say, “I love you,” you need to be able to say “I,”’ which has been something that I have seen in my romantic relationships, my platonic relationships, my professional relationships ... Before you can give yourself to somebody else, you need to know what you stand for. And anytime I have been in an unsuccessful relationship in my past, I have noticed, ‘Oh, it’s because one of us was not able to say, “I.”’... I thought that was very useful and has proven true over and over again. — “SuperSoul Sunday,” 2018

Eva Longoria, actress, producer

“My mother gave me one piece of advice that’s always stuck with me. Don’t forget where you came from.” — Cosmopolitan for Latinas, 2013

Mary Barra, Chairwoman and CEO of General Motors

“My mom grew up during the Great Depression. She taught my brother and me two lessons: There is no substitute for hard work. And work before you play.” LinkedIn, 2017

Stacy Brown-Philpot, CEO of TaskRabbit

“My mother worked a job that didn’t pay a whole lot of money, so she had to make a lot of sacrifices. But she prioritized education. She would fall asleep helping us with our homework at night. She always taught us that no one can take your learning away from you. And with that, you can go anywhere and do anything.

“So I focused on getting good grades. I wasn’t always a popular kid. I didn’t have the best clothes. But I was a smart kid.”New York Times, 2018

Mazie Hirono, U.S. Senator

“The best advice I’ve ever received was to take risks. I learned this from my mother, not through her words, but through her actions. Rather than suffer through a terrible marriage in Japan, she risked everything to seek a better life for her family in Hawaii ...

“I continue to be inspired by the courage it took for her to plan our escape in secret and head into the unknown.” — Hawaii Business Magazine, 2013

Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

Sonia Sotomayor with her mother Celina Sotomayor. 
Sonia Sotomayor with her mother Celina Sotomayor. 

“To this day, I can remember how devoted she was to getting her degree. My Mom was like no student I knew. She got home from school or work and literally immersed herself in her studies, working until midnight or beyond, only to get up again before all of us. She was a straight-A student who took the nursing test and passed all five parts on her very first try. With an example like that, none of you have to wonder why my brother and I had no choice but to do well in school ...

“The more important part of her story is her beauty as a human being. My mother is truly the most generous, giving person I have ever known. My mother gives unselfishly, giving what she cannot spare, and always without expecting anything in return. I cannot name all of the people who have relied upon my mother to come to their homes without pay to give them shots, to change their dressings, to incubate them, or simply to bathe them during their illnesses ...

“Everything I am, everything I have accomplished or can hope to accomplish, is so much a product of my mother’s many gifts to me.” 1998 induction ceremony to the United States Court of Appeals

Michelle Obama, former first lady

Michelle Obama watching a basketball game with her mother Marian Robinson in 2014.
Michelle Obama watching a basketball game with her mother Marian Robinson in 2014.

“My mother didn’t comment on the choices that we made. She was live-and-let-live. So one day she’s driving me from the airport after I was doing document production in Washington, D.C., and I was like, ‘I can’t do this for the rest of my life. I can’t sit in a room and look at documents.’ I won’t get into what that is, but it’s deadly. Deadly. Document production. So I shared with her in the car: ‘I’m just not happy. I don’t feel my passion.’ And my mother ― my uninvolved, live-and-let-live mother ― said, ‘Make the money, worry about being happy later.’ I was like [gulps], Oh. Okay. Because how indulgent that must have felt to my mother ...

“When she said that, I thought, ‘Wow — what — where did I come from, with all my luxury and wanting my passion?’ The luxury to even be able to decide — when she didn’t get to go back to work and start finding herself until after she got us into high school. So, yes. [Working as a lawyer while hating it] was hard.” 2018 interview with Oprah Winfrey

Nora Ephron, screenwriter and director

“If you came to her with a tragedy, she would — and God knows, children have a lot of tragedies — she really wasn’t interested in it at all. You know, she wasn’t one of those mothers who went, ‘Oh, honey, tell me what happened to you at school. What did the bad girls do to you?’ No. She just would say, ‘Oh, well, everything is copy,’ and all she meant was that, ‘Someday you’ll make this into a funny story, or a story, and when you do, I will be happy to listen to it but not until then.’ And I think she basically taught us a very fundamental rule of humor — probably of Jewish humor if you want to put a very fine definition on it, although she would not think so. Which is that if you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you, but if you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your joke, and you’re the hero of the joke. And it basically is the greatest lesson I think you can ever give anyone.” — 2007 Academy of Achievement interview

Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate

Hillary Clinton (R) introducing her mother Dorothy Rodham (center) and daughter Chelsea (left) during a campaign stop in 2007.
Hillary Clinton (R) introducing her mother Dorothy Rodham (center) and daughter Chelsea (left) during a campaign stop in 2007.

“I called my parents collect. This was maybe a month, six weeks into being there [at Wellesley College in 1965]. I was emotional because I was basically telling them, I can’t succeed here, it’s too hard, I don’t want to stay, I want to come home ... And my mother said, ‘No, you have to stick it out. And if you still feel that way at the end of the year, we can talk about it. But you can’t be a quitter, you have to stay...’

“My mother understood that any new experience is going to be rocky, whether people admit it to themselves or not. I was admitting that it was rocky, and I didn’t think that I could do it. And the idea that somebody would have the chance to go to this great school and walk out on it, because it didn’t work out exactly as you had expected or hoped was just unacceptable to her ...

“Which actually was exactly the right thing to say because she couldn’t say, ‘Oh I love my college years,’ since she didn’t go to college, or ‘Oh I remember how bad it was, I was a little off-balance too’ — she couldn’t say any of those things. She just was appalled that somebody with the opportunities that I’d been given might be a quitter, and I was just going to have to apply myself and work harder, and try to do better, and feel that this was more of the place for me. ” — “Going Through It” podcast, 2019