Cabinet Picks

Who’s Obama’s Next Women’s Ambassador? (Photos)

Valerie Jarrett, Helene Gayle—or Meryl Streep? Top candidates to succeed Melanne Verveer. By Katie Baker.

Jamie McCarthy/WireImage, via Getty; Vera Anderson/WireImage, via Getty; Molly Riley/Reuters, via Landov; Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty; Andrew Burton/Reuters, via Landov

Jamie McCarthy/WireImage, via Getty; Vera Anderson/WireImage, via Getty; Molly Riley/Reuters, via Landov; Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty; Andrew Burton/Reuters, via Landov

By Katie Baker


As the pioneering Melanne Verveer departs, who might take her place? From Valerie Jarrett and aid heavyweight Helene Gayle to even Meryl Streep, a look at a few top candidates.

Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters, via Landov

Beth Brooke

Global vice chair of public policy, Ernst & Young

A regular on the Forbes World’s 100 Most Powerful Women list and a Clinton Treasury vet, the former Purdue basketball star has been an outspoken voice for the advancement of women in the corporate world. As one of the Big Four accounting giant’s top executives, Brooke oversees a $24 billion company with 167,000 employees in more than 150 countries—and she’s been instrumental in making sure the firm’s workforce integrates women at every level. Under her leadership, the company is a regular on “Best Places to Work” lists and has been named one of the best employers for working mothers.

An openly gay woman (she came out publicly last year in a video for the “It Gets Better” campaign to discourage suicide in LGBT youth), Brooke would certainly bring diversity to Obama’s team—and her expertise with promoting female entrepreneurship would serve her well in an ambassadorial role. After all, the issue is on the forefront of minds in the business community: at Davos this year, International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde promoted the idea of “inclusive growth,” telling her C-suite audience, “the evidence is clear, as is the message: when women do better, economies do better.” Brooke would also draw on a deep network of influence—she’s a member of the State Department’s International Council on Women’s Business Leadership (along with PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi and Cheri Blair) and on the prestigious Committee of 200, which connects the world’s top female CEOs and business leaders.

Dominic Bracco II/UPI, via Landov

Helene Gayle

CEO and president, CARE USA


An international aid and relief superstar, Gayle’s résumé is dauntingly impressive: a 20-year stint as an HIV/AIDS expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; five years with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where her work helped forestall a looming AIDS crisis in India; chair of Obama’s Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS; and currently the head of the global anti-poverty juggernaut, which provides close to $626 million annually in aid to hundreds of millions of people worldwide, and which tackles everything from famine in the Horn of Africa to microfinance and global climate change. The Buffalo, New York, native—who has been described as a “force of nature” and one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers—is a regular on shortlists for influential government posts; her name was previously floated as a favorite for surgeon general and the head of USAID, and she’s been a longtime Obama supporter. 


Throughout her career, Gayle has—as she wrote in Newsweek in 2008—“put a special focus on empowering women and girls, because we believe they hold the key to long-lasting social change.” This has meant everything from promoting investments in maternal health and pushing for women’s access to contraception, to helping expand reproductive choices and preventing disease (females make up 60 percent of new HIV infections in Africa, and in the U.S. disease rates are soaring among women of color), to partnering with corporations like Walmart to develop workplace skills for women abroad, and developing programs to invest in girls’ education in places like Afghanistan. “Few things symbolize progress in the fight against poverty,” she once wrote, “better than the face of an educated girl.”

Andrew Burton/Reuters, via Landov

Geeta Rao Gupta

Deputy executive director, UNICEF


Another high-profile name in the fight against HIV/AIDS, Gupta has spent her career—which has included time as president of the International Center for Research on Women and as a senior fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—tackling the disproportionate vulnerability of women and girls to the disease. (Among the startling statistics—in sub-Saharan Africa, young girls are as much as four or five times more likely to be infected with HIV than young boys.) She headed a groundbreaking 15-country study in the 1990s that ferreted out the social and economic roots of high HIV infection rates among women and, at UNICEF has brought the United Nations’ resources and attention to bear on ending the scourge of child marriage. Gupta is also an expert on maternal nutrition and on the disparities between girls’ and boys’ access to education, health, and societal protection. “Closing gender gaps in all stages of childhood and eliminating gender discrimination—whether against girls or boys—are fundamental to inclusive and sustained progress for countries around the world,” she has said. And she’s a breast-cancer survivor, to boot.

Molly Riley/Reuters, via Landov

Mellody Hobson

President, director and chairman, Ariel Investments


Head of the big-time, black-owned Chicago investment-management firm Ariel Investments, Hobson is a longtime friend of the Obamas and the Emanuels (she’s known the couples for more than a decade) and a red-carpet fixture on the arm of her fiancé, a certain George Lucas. As the highest-ranking black female in the mutual-fund industry, the 42-year-old started at her firm in a summer internship and worked her way up to the executive suite, where she now oversees more than $31 billion in assets. She also serves on the boards of such multinationals as Starbucks, DreamWorks, and Estée Lauder. 


Hobson would certainly bring glamour to the ambassador’s role, as well as access to Hollywood’s star power (not to be underestimated when a celebrity like George Clooney or Angelina Jolie can effectively turn the world’s attention to a pressing humanitarian issue). And she’s long been a leading voice in advocating for minorities—and especially black women—to achieve financial freedom and learn good investment strategies, just as many women in developing countries are desperately hoping to do.

Charles Dharapak/AP

Valerie Jarrett

Senior adviser to President Obama, chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls


Not only is Valerie Jarrett the person closest to the first couple in the White House (nicknames include “Obama’s First Friend,” “Barack’s Secret Weapon,” and “The One Who Gets the Boss”), the Chicago businesswoman is also the president’s unofficial champion of minority issues, from women’s rights to ending discrimination against gay citizens. She was instrumental in keeping Obama’s 2008 election campaign focused on the power of black, Hispanic, and female voters, and she’s widely acknowledged to be one of the driving forces behind Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court and the health-care provisions on contraception that had the Catholic Church up in arms. Inside the White House bubble, on a staff that is mostly white and male, Jarrett provides an essential outsider viewpoint to the president (and fellow female and black staffers tend to view her as something of a hero).


Far from being a distraction from her role as Obama’s consigliere, an appointment as ambassador-at-large for women’s issues would dovetail nicely with the causes to which Jarrett has already devoted herself (including heading the White House Council on Women and Girls). Jarrett would have the power to help expand the purview of the appointment, making it an essential point of liaison between Foggy Bottom and the West Wing. As it’s shaping up, Obama’s second-term looks less likely to be occupied with crisis-managing a Great Recession and more focused on, among other things, pressing foreign-policy issues intimately bound up with women’s rights, such as America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, al Qaeda’s quest to impose sharia on North Africa, the crisis in the Congo (where rape is endemic), and the post-Arab Spring Middle East. As such, it might make sense for Jarrett to shift her sights as well, away from being a liaison to the business community (a relationship that has become fraught) toward deploying her skills as a defender of the civil rights of women and minorities, at home and abroad. (She’s also got a personal link to some countries where women are struggling to be heard—Jarrett was born in Shiraz, Iran, and spent part of her childhood traipsing across Africa.) People close to the president have said that Jarrett’s most important function is to be the person who reminds Obama of his deepest ideals and the reasons he came to Washington in the first place. Allowing half the planet to reach their full potential is surely among them.

Cindy Ord/Getty

Pat Mitchell

President and CEO, the Paley Center for Media


As the first female president and CEO of PBS, a former president of CNN Productions and Time Inc. Television, and an award-winning broadcaster and producer, Mitchell has long been shattering glass ceilings in journalism. One of the most influential women in media, documentaries produced under her watch—on subjects such as Women in War, Afghanistan Unveiled, and women’s rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran—have won a slew of Emmys, Peabody awards, and Oscar nominations. Throughout her decades-long experience in radio and television, she’s made sure to put women’s issues front and center—from her A Century of Women programming for Ted Turner’s cable empire, to her much-vaunted Woman to Woman interview program and her recent She’s Making Media and She’s Making News series for the Paley Center, which have featured pals Katie Couric, Eve Ensler, and Jane Fonda. She’s also a co-producer of the buzz-worthy TEDxWomen conferences, and counts rising female leaders such as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg among her mentees.


One of Mitchell’s greatest strengths as an ambassador would be her deep Rolodex (she’s on the board at AOL, Knight Ridder, the Sundance Institute, and the Mayo Foundation, among others), as well as her natural diplomatic skills. (A Georgian, she’s known for her Southern charm.) At PBS, she had to leverage both assets to keep Republican lawmakers, critical of diversity-friendly broadcasting, at bay; to successfully lobby Congress for funds; and to bridge divides across the political spectrum. Considering the looming battle over government budgets, a leader who knows how to diplomatically get money for women’s issues would be an asset to the State Department indeed. 

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Maria Otero

Former undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights


An expert on poverty alleviation—she used to run Accion, the microfinance pioneer—Otero is a Washington fixture. Previously, the Bolivian-born polyglot worked in the Women in Development office of USAID and served on the board of the United States Institute of Peace under Bill Clinton before Hillary Clinton tapped her to be an undersecretary in 2009. (Until her appointment ended this month, she was the highest-ranking Hispanic official at the State Department and the first Latina undersecretary in its history. Her advice to young Latinas looking to go far: “Help other young women as you go, see yourself as a leader, and never think that you have to do this alone.”) 


Seen as an “industry-builder” and hard worker, Otero has racked up an impressive track record—under her tenure, Accion expanded its combined portfolio from $274 million to close to $3.6 billion, with an eightfold increase in people served. And in her role as undersecretary—where she earned the nickname “Hillary’s Human Rights Warrior”—women’s issues were very close to her heart. She focused much of her work on women in poverty and other vulnerable spots, and spoke out passionately against human trafficking as a global security issue. Between her microfinance background and her focus on “helping women empower themselves through work so they can be leaders in their own lives,” Otero has proven herself to be an important voice for women’s rights at State.

Ida Mae Astute/ABC, via AP

Robin Roberts

Anchor, Good Morning America 


Is there any woman more inspiring at the moment? The Good Morning America anchor beat breast cancer five years ago—chronicling the fight in intimate detail before our very eyes—only to be hit with the rare blood disorder MDS, a complication of her cancer treatment, last year. It’s a diagnosis that would have discouraged even the strongest of women—but Roberts vowed to her fans, “I’m going to beat this.” And, it seems, she did: following a harrowing recuperation after a bone-marrow transplant, she’s set to be back on GMA this week and is slated to co-host ABC’s Oscars pre-show on February 24. Through it all, Roberts tried “to give people hope”—“I choose to be fearless” she said—and even netted a landmark interview with President Obama during which he announced his support of same-sex marriage. 


Long before her diagnoses, Roberts had proven herself to be a passionate supporter of women’s progress, particularly in the sports world, and a keen observer of inequality (she’s won several Emmys, including for a series on racism in sports). Even if GMA would never part with her (she’s helped catapult the show past NBC’s Today), the much-beloved Roberts would certainly be for the world’s women what she’s been for ABC: a fighter full of heart and soul.

Jamie McCarthy/WireImage, via Getty

Zainab Salbi

Founder, Women for Women International


As Bill Clinton once gushed about the Baghdad-born Salbi, “What makes Zainab one of the most inspiring women I’ve met is not her amazing personal story, but what she has done with it.” The daughter of Saddam Hussein’s personal pilot, Salbi escaped Iraq on the eve of the Kuwait invasion. A few years later, as a young newlywed in the United States, she and her husband were so moved by the horrific stories coming out of Bosnia—in particular, the plight of thousands of women sent to rape concentration camps—that the couple started their own “sister-to-sister connection” for survivors of the war. Since then, Women for Women International has grown into an internationally acclaimed organization, helping hundreds of thousands of female survivors of conflict in places like Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Kosovo. Through donations, loans, and job training, the group partners with women—many of whom experienced terrible violence, sexual and otherwise, during war—to rebuild their lives, their families, and their communities through access to education and economic opportunities. (Women for Women International’s microlending program, to help women start small businesses, has an incredibly high repayment rate. “You can’t rebuild a strong economy without strong women,” Salbi once remarked.) 


The effervescent Salbi—whose fans include Oprah Winfrey, Sheryl Sandberg, Queen Raina, and Amartya Sen—has a knack for getting celebrities on board with her causes, be it the organization’s annual “Join Me on the Bridge” campaign to its collaborations with high-end designers to promote the work of female artisans in former conflict zones. Salbi has also somehow found time to write two books (one on her childhood in Iraq, and The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope) and serve as a member of the Clinton Global Initiative Lead program. Salbi’s message is as simple as it is effective: “Women survivors of war are not the single image portrayed on the television screen, but the glue that holds families and countries together,” she has said. “Like life, peace begins with women.”

Vera Anderson/WireImage, via Getty

Meryl Streep

Actress and humanitarian


Perhaps it’s a pipe dream, but who wouldn’t love to see the luminous actress—and dear Hillary friend—take up the former secretary’s torch as the world’s favorite women’s rights advocate? The indefatigable Oscar-winner has long been an outspoken supporter of women’s issues, championing reproductive rights during the bitter bipartisan battles on health care and helping fund the National Women’s History Museum. Now, with a slew of awards too numerous to mention and the ability to fire up women of many different generations—she’s the quintessential “girl crush” for grandmothers as well as teens—Streep could turn the ambassadorship into the crowning role of her career. Surely Hollywood could spare her for a few years—and the thought of paparazzi trailing Streep to cover her visits to girls schools in Afghanistan or HIV wards in Africa is almost too delightful to bear.

Charles Dharapak/AP

Tina Tchen

Chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama, executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls


A longtime Windy City pal of the Obamas—she was a partner for many years in the Chicago office of Skadden, Arps and a big-time Obama bundler in his ’08 campaign—Tchen now serves as Michelle’s chief of staff and helps run the White House Council on Women and Girls, which is in the process of assessing every government agency to see which programs most benefit women. The Radcliffe grad, who has earned a reputation for being “driven,” “phenomenally brilliant,” and a ferocious yet cheerful multitasker, has a decades-long history of involvement with women’s rights. The National Organization for Women describes her as “one of our own” (she is a former vice president of the Illinois chapter) and shortly after college, Tchen even helped co-author a bill to expand Illinois’s rape statues to include all types of sexual assault and abuse. When the Obamas moved to D.C., she came along to direct the Office of Public Engagement before joining the East Wing, where she’s helped advance the first lady’s signature causes of fighting childhood obesity and supporting military families, and where she’s pushed an agenda focused on helping girls succeed in education and innovation. Thanks to Tchen’s efforts, as she recently reported, there is “enthusiasm across the board” for women’s issues in the inner circles of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Leigh Vogel/Getty

Alyse Nelson

President and CEO, Vital Voices Global Partnership

One of the main challenges for the new ambassador will be figuring out how to follow in the intimidating footsteps of Melanne Verveer and Hillary Clinton. How should a new diplomat build on their enormously successful legacies while still putting her own stamp on the role? For inspiration, look no further than Alyse Nelson, a Vital Voices co-founder along with Verveer and the former first lady. As president and CEO of the organization, Nelson has steered Vital Voices to new heights: over 12,000 female leaders are now part of its network in 144 countries worldwide. And far from being a boss who parachuted in from the outside, Nelson was deeply involved with the partnership's forerunner, the Vital Voices Global Democracy Initiative, launched by then-First Lady Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. As such, she's seen the inner workings of State (and the White House) and knows firsthand the legacy--of women's rights as a foreign-policy priority--that she'd be protecting and advancing.

Thanks to her work with Vital Voices, Nelson is in the advantageous position of having conferred with the globe's most influential female leaders, such as Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. She's also intimately familiar with the women whose tireless work made the ambassadorship possible in the first place—after all, it was Clinton's 1995 Beijing speech that inspired Nelson (then a college junior) to change her life path and go into public service. Throw in that Nelson is media-savvy—a nice bonus for any government official—and her multitasking abilities (she's found time to pen a book that includes a foreword by Hillary herself) and you've got a leader who would surely make Verveer and Clinton proud.