Maria Shriver: It’s Time for Action!
by Erin Casey
After a hectic day packed with morning meetings and a photo session, Maria Shriver takes time to sit down for an interview. Dressed for a charity dinner later that evening, she exudes grace and confidence; she seems the epitome of a first lady.
Much has changed in Shriver’s life since her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was elected governor of California seven years ago.
“When I became first lady I was a working journalist with four young children,” she says. Now, two daughters are on their own, a son is about to leave the nest and her younger son is in middle school. Her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver—“the most instrumental figure in my life”—has passed away. Her father, Sargent Shriver, has Alzheimer’s disease. “So I look at my life differently today,” she says.
“I used to define success as getting the anchor job, by having a book on the best-seller list. Since I’ve done that and realized actually it didn’t make me feel more fulfilled, I’ve gone back to the basics to really ask myself, What does it mean to be successful in one’s world?”
When she became first lady of California, Shriver had to give up her job with NBC, “which seemed like the worst thing in the world,” she says. But a funny thing happened. “I’ve become more of myself through the [first lady’s] job,” she says. “As a journalist, you’re really a messenger of everybody else’s stories and everybody else’s opinions, and as first lady you step out of being the messenger and really look at what’s of interest to you. How do you want to use your own voice? How do you want to step into your own life?”
Shriver found her voice—and her mission—as a champion for women and families. Her crowning achievement has been The Women’s Conference®. Touted as the premier forum for women, the conference is a three-day, megawatt event that attracts a powerful lineup of more than 140 speakers, authors, celebrities and business, spiritual and political leaders. More than an event, though, The Women’s Conference is the launching point for an ongoing effort that has positively impacted millions of lives in California and beyond.
“We’re a movement; we’re a main event; we’re about personal transformation,” Shriver says. “But we’re also about giving you the tools to go out and become an architect of change, not just in your own life, but in the world around you.”
Finding Her Own Path
Born into an American political dynasty, mother Eunice was sister to President John F. Kennedy and Senators Robert and Ted Kennedy—Maria Shriver grew up with a sense of duty to make a positive difference in the world. But she was not interested in a life in politics, and knew she needed to find her own path.
As a teenager, she accompanied her father on campaign flights during his run as the vice presidential candidate on the George McGovern ticket in 1972. Sixteen-year-old Maria sat in the back of the plane near the reporters. She felt comfortable around them, and an idea began to take shape.
Shriver received a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and began her journalism career in 1977. That same year, she met a handsome bodybuilding actor at a charity tennis tournament at her family’s home in Massachusetts. Nine years later, she and Arnold Schwarzenegger married.
As the young couple created a life together, their careers blossomed. Schwarzenegger became a box office icon and Shriver worked her way up from local stations to positions with CBS in 1985, and NBC in 1987, where she co-anchored Sunday Today, NBC Nightly News and Dateline NBC. She also won Peabody and Emmy awards for her work. In 1989, Shriver and Schwarzenegger celebrated the birth of the first of their four children.
Going into politics wasn’t on Shriver’s agenda, but her husband had different ideas. A republican, he ran amid a crowded field of candidates in the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election. Shriver supported her husband’s candidacy without entirely realizing what his election would mean for her life. After he was elected, Shriver had to give up her job with NBC.
The transition was not easy. On her first day in the office, Shriver asked if there was a job description for the first lady. “They said, ‘You can pick out the Christmas ornaments.’ And I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”
When she was shown to her office at the state’s capitol building, one of the first things she did was remove the sign on her door that read VERY SPECIAL PROJECTS OF THE GOVERNOR. With a father who was instrumental in the formation of the Peace Corps and a mother who founded Special Olympics, it was not in Maria Shriver’s DNA to be anyone’s “special project.” Instead, Shriver set out to create her own job description—one that would allow her to use the influential position to make a difference.
Living with Authenticity
Figuring out how to do that required some soul-searching. Her best-selling book, Just Who Will You Be, published by Hyperion in 2008, describes that personal journey of self-discovery. And it all boiled down to being authentic, being true to herself. “My lesson was, don’t try to be like some other first lady; be yourself. Develop programs you’re interested in. Make the job a reflection of you, as opposed to you trying to fit the job,” she says.
The first lady’s position provided a firsthand view of the state’s challenges. Shriver was particularly interested in helping women, realizing the tremendous impact they have on family life and on society: When women are happy, healthy, strong and financially stable, their families and communities reap the benefits. She recognized a need for continuing education and mentorship, but the state’s overburdened budget couldn’t provide the necessary financial support.
She envisioned the opportunities The Women’s Conference offered, and sought to use the event as a tool to fund programs that empower women and families. The conference had been founded in 1985 as a nonpartisan effort to support women business owners. The program drew a few thousand people.
Today, Shriver and her small executive team have transformed The Women’s Conference into a three-day event that draws crowds topping 30,000. Women and men come from across the state and nation to learn from renowned activists, authors, social entrepreneurs, health advisors, business leaders and spiritual teachers. Mirroring the household of the governor and first lady, the conference brings together voices representing the entire political spectrum and offers a safe place for people to discuss meaningful issues and find their own voices.
Beyond the three-day event, WomensConference.org is an interactive community where people connect to share ideas and tap into the wisdom offered by experts on topics ranging from health and financial matters to careers and relationships. The ongoing WE programs, funded in large part by The Women’s Conference, also provide education and resources that help women and families to live healthier, happier lives and become architects of change in their own communities.
Shriver’s staff receives great volumes of letters and e-mails from people describing how the conference or website provided resources, training and encouragement for them to make positive changes in their lives or communities. Countless women have become entrepreneurs or taken their businesses to the next level of success. Many have launched or committed to support charitable organizations.
‘Energized, Empowered and Transformed’
At this year’s conference, scheduled Oct. 24-26 in Long Beach, speakers in addition to Shriver and Schwarzenegger include Jillian Michaels, Tony Robbins, Suze Orman and Dr. Mehmet Oz; business leaders Phil Knight, Howard Schultz and Carol Bartz; actors Sally Field, Jessica Simpson, Rita Wilson, Robert Redford and Rosario Dawson; TV personalities Paula Deen and Oprah Winfrey; singers Mary J. Blige and Sarah McLachlan, a