Arianna Huffington

A Force of Nature

Arianna Huffington’s name has become synonymous with online news, and for a lot of people The Huffington Post is an integral part of their daily routine. eniGma’s Editor-in-Chief Yasmine Shihata interviewed Arianna Huffington at the World Economic Forum in Davos and discussed creating media empires and changing the world with this influential female leader…

Huffington was Born in Athens, Greece. She studied economics at Cambridge University then moved to New York in 1980 to pursue her career as a writer. For many years she was an author who wrote a number of books covering politics, economics and even arts including Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend and Third World America. In 2005 she reached an important milestone in her career when she launched the online site: The Huffington Post. The site provides news, analysis, and commentary on everything from politics and economics to comedy and entertainment. It became an instant success and now boasts an average of 37 million visitors per month. In 2011, AOL acquired The Huffington Post for $315 million, a historic deal that made Huffington the President and Editor-in-Chief of The Huffington Post Media Group and a successful media mogul. She has led an interesting life to say the least which has allowed her to become one of the most recognisable names in media around the world.

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How did you start your career and what inspired you to get into media?

In college, I joined the Cambridge Union debate society. A British publisher happened to see me on television debating the importance of women not throwing, so to speak, the baby out with the bathwater, and sent me a letter asking if I would be interested in writing a book on my views. I was in my last year at Cambridge and was planning to leave the next year to get a graduate degree at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. So I sent him a letter saying, thank you, but I don’t know how to write a book. He wrote back: “Can you have lunch?” Thinking of all my friends wandering around looking for a home for their manuscript, I decided it was at least worth a train ride to London. By the end of lunch, Reg Davis-Poynter had offered me a contract and a modest advance. And that contract marked a new beginning in my life.

Did you face any particular challenges professionally as a woman?
For me, as for so many women, I’ve struggled less with outside voices than with the inside voice of doubt, which I call the obnoxious roommate living in my head. It’s the one that tells you you’re not good enough, you’ll never succeed, who are you to be trying this? So whether that voice is coming from inside or outside, it’s important to ignore it. Because, as Montaigne said, “There were many terrible things in my life, but most of them never happened.”

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What is the story behind The Huffington Post? What were the challenges you faced and do you feel you have achieved your goals?
Bringing together people from different parts of my life and facilitating interesting conversations has always been part of my Greek DNA. So from the beginning, the whole point of The Huffington Post was to take the sort of conversations found at water coolers and around dinner tables – about politics, art, books and food – and open them up and bring them online. As The Huffington Post grew, my co-founder Kenny Lerer and I were obsessed with what professor Clayton Christensen has famously called “the innovator’s dilemma.” In his book of the same name, Christensen explains how even very successful companies, with very capable personnel, often fail because they tend to stick too closely to the strategies that made them successful in the first place, leaving them vulnerable to changing conditions and new realities. They miss major opportunities because they are unwilling to disrupt their own game. More than seven years in, the challenge we face is to strive every day to grow and seize new opportunities, but at the same time stay true to our DNA, rooted in our core values of engagement, starting conversations and helping people live the lives they want, not the lives they settle for.

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Politically you started out as a Republican then changed to a Democrat. What triggered that change?
It wasn’t the goals that I thought our society should be striving toward that changed, but my thinking about the best way to reach them. At a certain point, my understanding of the role of government changed. I had once believed that the private sector could step up to the plate and address the major issues our country was facing – income inequality, for example, and the need to care for those left out of America’s prosperity. But I saw firsthand that this wasn’t enough. So it became clear to me that we could never really address some of our society’s most fundamental problems without both the private sector and the raw power and agenda-setting potential of government action. And there is nothing left or right about caring for the more than 25 million people in America who are unemployed or underemployed.

Have you ever run for office?
I ran for governor of California in 2003. It was a short campaign, less than two months, and I withdrew before the end, but it taught me a lot about the uses of the Internet and its power to start conversations.

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Would you try that again?
Definitely no! I feel very blessed to have had so many incarnations. It feels like I’ve lived many lives in one and I can say for sure and very happily, that The Huffington Post is my last act.

Have you visited any countries in the Middle East?
Last January I visited Doha, Qatar, for the GOALS Pre-Forum, led by Emir Sheikh Hamad. It was a fascinating gathering of leaders, many of them from the sports world, talking about creative ways to build industry, infrastructure and engagement through sports leadership.

What is your advice to Arab women who see you as a role model?
The most important thing is to trust ourselves and not let fear of failure stand in the way of our dreams. Also, this is going to be the century of women. We already see a shift in our culture that is granting more value to what were traditionally considered feminine traits. But men and women alike need to tap into traits that will lead us to a more compassionate future – more heart, more nurturing, more collaboration. At The Huffington Post, we’re doing that with GPS for the Soul and our 18 lifestyle sections centered on the theme “Less Stress, More Living.” It is also vital for women to be really supportive of each other – a need that is all the more important in areas of the world where women’s rights are still very much a work in progress. Society offers women a double whammy: along with the traditional – and almost universal – fear of failure, women also have to deal with being considered too ambitious and too assertive. My advice to all women, wherever they are in the world, is to find what I call a fearlessness tribe: a group of people who are always in each other’s corners, always there for each other, whether we succeed or fail.

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How can Arab media develop in a way that would benefit the region in light of the Arab Spring?
Nearly three billion people will join the Internet community by 2020. And we’re witnessing an unprecedented surge in our most precious natural human resources: our collective capacity for innovation, our ingenuity, our empathy. The Arab media can capture that innovation, ingenuity and empathy by inviting as many voices as possible to participate in the global conversation, and as many people as possible to take a seat at the table.

How do you think young people could be encouraged to be more politically active?
Young people are probably the best equipped to seize the opportunities of our brave new world of media, especially the game-changing shift from using social media as a way to make our lives more fun to using social media to make the world better. Examples abound, from Wael Ghonim in Egypt to many other less famous, but just as influential, young activists across the region and the world. And I think that seeing the results other young people have achieved is the best encouragement.