MARIA SHRIVER: Making the World A Better Place In True Kennedy Style

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When you think of Maria Shriver, so many things come to mind: Her iconic family, mom to four beautiful children, the former first lady of California and, of course, her unending philanthropic work that she holds so close to her heart. Coming from such an influential and service-oriented family, Shriver learned early on that much was expected; with that, she has inspired, influenced, and helped millions of people worldwide.

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Shriver’s work is driven by her belief that all of us have the ability to be, what she calls “Architects of Change” — people who see a problem in their own lives or the community around them, then step out of their comfort zone to do what it takes to create a solution.

It is what she herself has done all her life. She has championed for women’s empowerment, economic entrepreneurship, and social justice. She has created programs, issued reports, and produced films, all with the singular goal of advancing women personally and professionally.

With every role she takes on, Shriver commits herselfwith equal passion. As California’s First Lady, she created pioneering programs and initiatives that addressed the emerging needs of women, the working poor, military families, and the intellectually and developmentally disabled. Under her direction and vision, the California Governor and First Lady’s Conference on Women grew into the world’s premier forum for women.

In addition, Shriver is one of the nation’s leading advocates for families struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. Her father was diagnosed with the disease in 2003 and passed away from it in 2011 at the age of 95. In 2009, Shriver co-executive-produced the Emmy Award-winning, four-part HBO documentary series “The Alzheimer’s Project,” which opened millions of people’s eyes to the devastating disease.

Shriver has also been a lifelong advocate for those with intellectual disabilities. She is an active member of the International Board of Special Olympics, the organization her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded in 1968. She is also on the advisory board of Best Buddies, a one-to-one friendship and jobs program for people with intellectual disabilities. Currently, Shriver is executive-producing the critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film, “Still Alice,” starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, and Kristen Stewart.

With all of these projects on her plate, it was a true honor to sit down with one of the most inspiring women in the world to find out how she does it all – and does it all so well.

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Can you describe “a day in the life of Maria Shriver”?

It is probably the same as many people – it’s never the same and is always evolving. Usually I wake up around 6 a.m., make coffee and feed the dogs, then do my daily meditation. I then wake up my son, make breakfast, and if I am lucky, I drive him to school. He is in a carpool, but he often lets me drive him, which is a gift. He is a junior [in high school], so I have another year and a half of that and then that will be over, and that will be another new beginning.

But every day I try to start my day with a meditation of gratitude for my health, for my life, for my family, for my faith, and for the gift of the day. It’s been such a gift to me to start my day off that way.

Then of course I have various projects that I work on. I have a really great website [MariaShriver.com] that I work on with the people here in my office. We try to put really inspirational content on there that I like to call, “Architects of Change.” I have a nonprofit that is called “A Woman’s Nation,” which has a lot of inspiration and initiative in it, as well as The Shriver Report, my work with the “Wipe Out” Alzheimer’s Movement and The Shriver Corps Poverty Initiative.

I also work with NBC and [on] films. Right now, I am working on “Still Alice,” a film about Alzheimer’s, so I am trying to promote that and make sure I am available for that. I also try to give myself some time to think and create because I am a big believer in igniting ideas. You know, A Woman’s Nation is all about women’s ideas and actions, how you think of ideas and how you actually implement them – that is what I do. I try to touch base with my children, and touch base with people who I care about, that is kind of what my life is about.

You certainly are quite busy. With all that you have going on, it’s nice to hear that you start
off each day just like so many of us – making breakfast and driving your son to school.

Yes, I’ve been driving to school now for 20-something years – my oldest daughter is 25 and Christopher is done a year from this June. I think this is something that parents can identify with, being in the carpool. First it starts with Mommy and Me and then it goes to preschool, kindergarten, first grade, and if you are lucky enough to have a couple of children, it keeps you on that cycle, right? And then, at some point, that cycle ends and a new cycle will begin.

I think that is one thing that I have learned: Your life is consistently changing; therefore you have to be thoughtful and inventive with what your day is like. The life that you craft is always changing, so you have to change with it.

I try to support the initiatives [of] my brothers, which are [ones] my parents had started. I approach all of these things as a journalist, a storyteller, and as someone who believes that every individual is capable of making an impact. That is what I try to do with MariaShriver.com – to honor the small and the big, to honor people who are doing amazing things with their lives, who are paying it forward.

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The Women of the Oscar nominated Still Alice, from left to right: Lisa Genova (Author), Kristen Stewart (Actor), Sandy Oltz (Early-Stage Advisor), Julianne Moore (Actor), Maria Shriver (Executive Producer), Pam Koffler (Producer), Dr. Maria Carrillo (Chief Science Officer), Elizabeth Gelfand Stearns (Co-Producer)

Your parents were so influential in their quest for positive change in the world. Your father was the founder of The Peace Corps and your mother, the Special Olympics. Did you feel
you had a lot to live up to with such strong role models?

When you grow up in a family like mine, immediate and extended, you’re surrounded by people who are achieving on a big scale. I think every individual has to find their way and find how to make their own individual life matter and not copy what everyone else is doing. I think everyone needs to figure that out for themselves.

I was certainly aware it wasn’t good to sit around and do nothing and that much was expected. My mother was unusual for her time, and really just unusual – period. Both of my parents would wake up every day and just want to change the world. So I was highly aware of their work, and the work of my (extended) family.

I think I expected more of myself because of my parents. I think everyone grows up wanting to make their parents proud, right? I wanted to make them proud, and even though I lost both of them within the past five years, I still want to make them proud. I think I am different from my parents and I am a different woman than my mother, although she was the most important role model in my life.

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Having been so successful in your career, what do you think is the single most important factor to success?

I think there isn’t one single factor. I think you have to have an incredible belief in yourself, be self-confident, and have a strong work ethic. Don’t let the no’s get you down. Don’t let the failures derail you or destroy you.

Life has a way of bending you, pushing you around, and I think you just have to keep going. Keep hanging in there. Keep pushing forward. Keep believing in yourself, and I think that is easier when you have to deal with other people … you just believe that you have a reason to be here. You have a mission that is greater than yourself.

I never was the type to get perplexed or daunted when people say no to me. For some reason,
it never seems to bother me. I always looked at it as a challenge and how I was going to get around it. I think I have a strong work ethic but I’ve never sat there and thought “Oh, I am successful.” I don’t think that way at all.

I remember once thinking, “I am successful” a moment after I wrote my first children’s book, “What’s Heaven,” and I got the call that it was on the New York Times bestseller list. Even though it was a children’s book, it was on the same list as the regular books and it was the same day I won a Peabody Award. I remember sitting down in an office in New York and just crying. I think that was the only moment I felt like I did good. Then it goes away and you realize that these things are just fleeting.

Now I concentrate on how I feel, day in and day out, and don’t look to the outside world anymore to tell me I am doing a good job or being successful. I ask myself, how do I feel about what I am doing? How do I feel about myself as a person? How do I feel about my relationships? Am I doing well by that?

I have a different definition of success today than what I thought in my early 20s. I used to think, if I get that anchor job, then I will be a success, or if I write a book, success. It is an evolving thing this “success” thing.

There is not one thing that you can think, “Oh, if I do that, then I will be a success.” I’ve learned that over the years. I didn’t know that when I was younger, but we change, we evolve. What matters most is my relationship with my family and God, that my children are good human beings, and that I have done something in my own way to give back to the world.

How do you find balance?

That’s a tricky one. If I try to [find] “balance,” I always end up feeling unbalanced and off. So I don’t look for that anymore. I try to see how I feel at the end of the day in my personal, professional, and philanthropic life – the three Ps. I don’t want them to be uneven, but I look at it like being a part of a circle. Are they in sync? One shouldn’t be 99 percent and the other nothing.

My mother always said to me, “It is a marathon – this thing called life. You want to look back at the end of the day, the end of the year, the end of decade, and think, ‘I did well by all of these things.’”

You mentioned earlier your work with the Special Olympics – can you tell us a little more about the World Games that are coming to LA this summer and how people can help?

We have been doing a lot to get ready, raising money and creating awareness. We are trying to get people to volunteer and trying to make sure people know what the Special Olympics is all about. It is much more than just an athletic competition. It is really more of a dignity revolution and [it] promotes tolerance. It shows how we are all different and yet all the same.

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Maria walking with Team Haiti at the last Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens

It is about putting down our judgments. It is about family and unity, and that is what we are working on … to make sure this City of Angels rolls out the red carpet for these athletes from 177 countries. It is hard to get people’s attention in this era. We are trying to make sure people are aware and that we welcome them to come join us. Bring your kids, raise money, and/or sponsor an athlete. There are so many ways to participate.

Is there any chance you would follow in so many of your family’s footsteps and run for office one day?

No, I don’t see that happening. I mean, I “never say never,” but I don’t see it happening. I think you can make big differences in the world without being in office. I don’t think that is the only place to make an impact.

I think my world will shift dramatically when my youngest son leaves for college. When you look into
an empty nest, you have opportunities available to you that you thought weren’t before that point. I am trying to plan the next year and half so I am present in my son’s life, since this is the last year and a half he will be home. Then I’ll turn my attention to the next thing I can manifest. That might mean more television, more films. I have no idea what it could be or where it could go.

I want to be excited and optimistic. I want to be able to dream what the next phase of my life could be once he graduates. Someone said the other day, “You sound like you’re in your 20s,” and in many ways, that is how I feel. I feel the same as I did when I graduated from college with my journalism career. It is not as clear as, “I want to be a newswoman or anchorwoman” and “here is the way to do it.” Now it’s like, “I want to have a new dream. I don’t really know how to do it, but I am going to try.”

I think you have to make room for new dreams…for other opportunities. I am trying to, as best as I can, get rid of the things that drag us all down. We all have those feelings of “Ugh, that didn’t turn out as I wanted… I wanted to do a better job there.” I want to get rid of those feelings and clear my mind to see what is ahead of me.

You are the executive producer on the critically acclaimed, Oscar nominated film “Still Alice” starring Julianne Moore, which focuses on a woman’s battle with early onset Alzheimer’s. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved?

The book was at a women’s conference that I was a part of, and when the director and writer came in and asked for my help, I was really happy to be involved. Actually tonight, I am presenting an award to Julianne Moore at the AARP awards. I think this is a moment not just for her but also for women – [ones with] Alzheimer’s and all of those who have been active in trying to wipe Alzheimer’s from our experiences. I really don’t want to get it, and I am hopeful.

You are also trying to raise $5 million for research, is that correct?

I am trying to build a movement of women to sign up and raise money to do research on women’s brains; ultimately, it is a movement to wipeout Alzheimer’s. I am doing it as a partnership with Women’s Nation and The Alzheimer’s Association. I agreed to lead that initiative and power through to learn why this [disease] happens to women. We each need our brains to power through and gather how we can be active in trying to get rid of this. I am determined to do everything I can to eradicate it.

What is your advice for the younger generation, for them to become Architects of Change?

I think they are already doing that. I think there are some people who are combining business with social and making money. There are a lot of people who are excited about how to use business, how to use technology, and I am really excited to work with them and create with them.

I think there are many young people who want to make an impact and are not just about the money. When I was growing up, you didn’t look to business for social good, you looked to politics. Certainly, good things can come from politics, but I think they react to everything else that is going on in the rest of the world. So I am excited and hopeful and feel like I want to be in that place. I don’t want to feel like my best days are behind me; I want them to still be in front of me.

I once read on your social media that you were promoting the idea that beauty is defined by you, which I loved since that is BELLA’s tagline. How do you define beauty?

I think it is self-confidence. I think it is something different. I see people who are not traditionally called beautiful but are beautiful because of their spirit. I tell my daughters, your spirit is what makes you beautiful, and your smile is what makes you beautiful. [It’s] your ability to be positive toward the world. It’s not a purse or a designer outfit. It is how you look at the world, your attitude toward the world. It is your smile…. the energy you bring to a room, to a home, to an experience. That’s what I think makes you beautiful.

And lastly, can you please finish this sentence: “I am happiest when…”

…I am sitting around the table with my family and everyone is eating and laughing.

 

Photographer: John Russo

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