Photo Credit: Courtesy of Gianna Angelopoulos/mygreekdrama.com
You might not know Gianna Angelopoulos by name, but you get a sense of who she is when you hear a bit about what she's accomplished -- president of the Greek Bidding and Organizing Committees for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, credited with saving the Greek Games and turning them into a huge success, Greek ambassador, former member of the Greek Parliament, lawyer, active member of the Clinton Global Initiative, someone once named to the Forbes Magazine 50 most powerful women list and now author of a book, part memoir and part inspirational text for women, called My Greek Drama.
She has been described as a "force of nature" by newsmakers such as former presidential adviser David Gergen. Former President Clinton says she has "made a career of turning ideas into action." Dick Ebersol, former chairman of NBC Sports and Olympics, calls her "larger-than-life." And she is.
The "Lean In" Debate
When I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing her at NBC's offices recently, I was curious to hear her take on the much discussed "Lean In" debate, the title of Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg's book and movement designed to help women "lean in" more in their careers to get the corner office, the board seat or the CEO title. Gianna (she was adamant I call her by her first name!) did not disappoint.
"I don't like grumpy women," she told me. Yes, she really said that! "Do what you have to do and don't complain," she said when I asked if women may not be pushing enough for themselves in their careers or may be opting out even before they have kids. "Nothing was donated to me," she said. "For every success I had, any achievement, I had to sacrifice. Yes, life is not pink, is not 'la vie en rose,' as they say, the French people. Yes, you should expect other people to try to cut you...Is that an excuse? No, I say."
This is a woman who does not mince words. Her point was clear. If you are a woman and you have an ambition, you should go for it and not wait for "it" to come to you. "I've seized opportunities. I made the best out of every opportunity even if (it) didn't look like (an) opportunity to others," she said passionately. (I was quickly seeing what Gergen meant when he called her a "force of nature.") "And, of course, I was not waiting in my armchair to come through the sky, gifts like a good job, a position...or the success or recognition."
Glass Ceilings and Ash Trays
So I asked Gianna if we need to get the message out to women in a bigger or different way. Surely, there are plenty more ambitious women out there than the current and fairly low crop of female CEOs, board members and high-level executives would suggest. "Tell Margaret Thatcher, for example, Golda Meir, that they had to have a different kind of government way, a different recipe," she said building steam as she went along. "If we have to go aggressive, we have to go aggressive. If we have to break barriers, we break barriers. Glass ceilings, glass ceilings. Ash trays, ash trays. The thing is we cannot take as an excuse that there are barriers and obstacles. I cannot accept that."
Gianna is quick to point out she didn't come from a powerful background. She hails from a modest upbringing on the small island of Crete. Her family did not have big connections or wealth but her father did give her a precious gift. In her book, Gianna writes about how he never urged her and her sister to follow the traditional course, at that time, for a Greek woman -- marry and have a family. "He encouraged us to follow our dreams," she told me. "You know what he was saying when some friends...were asking him if he will have a son. His answer? 'I don't need a son, I have Gianna."
Would Greece Be in Such Trouble if More Women Were at the Table?
"It bleeds my heart," said Gianna when I asked about the troubling state of Greece's economy. Approximately 50 percent of Greeks under the age of 25 are without a job. 50 percent! That number is staggering.
When I worked at CBS News, I did a piece on research which suggested that if more women had decision-making roles on Wall Street, the banking and economic collapse might not have been as severe. This led to the question to Gianna -- would Greece be in the same situation today if more women had a seat at the table?
"I think the world could be a better place...because, as I say, (women have) skills, strength, endurance...and the decisiveness that sometimes I cannot see (in) men...and in a way we are also very practical and realistic," she said. Women "can be as charming (as men) and they can be as manipulative as it takes," she added with a smile.
When she was making a run for Parliament, her brochure, which she distributed to prospective voters, "celebrated" every woman who had entered the Greek Parliament regardless of whether they were from her political party. "People from the party were coming and telling me, 'Are you crazy?," she told me. She would tell her critics that despite their different political backgrounds, they share some of the same problems, and that seeing solutions from different perspectives could help to solve those problems.
"So yes, I celebrated women. The only thing is we are not so many to celebrate but still, sometimes I am biased in favor of women. I tend to be harder on them because of this argument...that they stop, they lean back and they say I cannot do this." Do not say that to Gianna! "You want me to be a tiger or a tornado or a combination. Tell me you cannot do this or this cannot be done!"
The G-Word: Guilt
Gianna's a proud mom of three grown children. Her daughter works in banking, one son studied economics and history, the other followed her path with a legal career. As I started to ask the "How did you do it?" question, the work/life balance never-ending juggling act, she politely cut me off. "Don't ask me this question. I will ask without asking," she said. "I always was feeling guilty when I had to leave them and I still feel guilty. And I don't believe there is any mom who can be persuaded by the best case studies in universities around the world that she doesn't feel any kind of guilt but this is our life."
She recounted a hilarious story about her run for office and her daughter who was three at the time. "She had memorized my office number and she was calling and saying, 'I want to speak to my mom,' and she would start in (with) a litany of complaints, 'You are the only mom who doesn't come (to) the bus stop..."
Gianna said she finally had to sit down and have a conversation with her toddler, giving her examples such as how she ran for office to fix things like a dangerous playground in their neighborhood. She also told her daughter there was something else at work. "This gives me pleasure and satisfaction," she told her darling daughter. "And it's better to have a smiling mom...than...a nervous wreck because she doesn't pursue in her life what she wants...One thing I don't want, I told her, grumpy faces," she said. There's that word "grumpy" again!
"What I've learned in my life (is) that...whatever you love and you want to achieve, you have to sacrifice something," she said towards the end of our nearly hour-long conversation. "At the end of the day...maybe this is an important lesson for our kids as well. Everything comes through pain, most of the time."
Wise words for women of all ages to keep in mind!