Think you know Chelsea Clinton? Think againAmerica sees her as the polished, private daughter of the world's most famous power couple.
Chelsea Clinton, 33, is having a Fear Factor moment. We are at a primary school on the outskirts of Kigali, Rwanda. She is standing on the school’s field, wearing a trim white blazer and jeans and surrounded by a group of students in vibrant yellow and blue uniforms. The kids crowd around, mouths open and eyes wide with anticipation. On a table in front of Chelsea and her father, President Bill Clinton, sits a bucket of water so thick with grime you could lose the sun in it. In a few minutes, Chelsea is going to drink this water.
Chelsea dumps a small packet of powder into the bucket and begins to stir. While she and her father take turns with the spoon, representatives from the Clinton Foundation and some of its partners explain that the mix will trigger a chemical process that has brought more than 6 billion liters of drinkable water to the developing world. President Clinton gets a little lazy with his stirring. Chelsea gives him a nudge. “C’mon, Dad,” she teases, “like you mean it.”
Chelsea’s face—a grin you’re not used to seeing on the serious, measured woman once known as America’s Most Private First Daughter. It’s the grin of a woman who straight-up loves her job.
The job in question is as vice chair of the new Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation (previously known as the William J. Clinton Foundation; it was renamed this spring to reflect the increased presence of Chelsea and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). After years of avoiding the family business, Chelsea’s now fully committed, helping to shape the foundation and even putting her name on the door.
She looks happy—but what Chelsea should be is exhausted. Kigali was day six of a whirlwind tour through sub-Saharan Africa. We’ve been in four countries, visiting more than 20 different foundation facilities. By the end of this day, Chelsea and her father will have helped fit children with hearing aids, met young medical trainees who are learning lifesaving technologies, and rubbed elbows with dignitaries at a state dinner. Chelsea will also squeeze in some gym time, leave her husband a rambling good-night voice mail, respond to every email she’s received in the past 24 hours, and catch up with a friend over a late-night glass of wine. It’s a day that would bring most of us to our knees, but for
Chelsea it’s Monday as usual, and she’s savoring every minute.
The new gig is a major change for Chelsea, who for years took pains to keep her work separate from that of her parents. “I was proud of my parents and grateful for the work that they did, but I was living my own life,” she says. After earning degrees at Stanford and Oxford universities, she took jobs not in politics but at McKinsey & Company and later Avenue Capital Group. “I loved working on Wall Street,” she says. “I loved the meritocracy of it and the camaraderie of the trading floor. There was one metric for success: Did you make or lose money? I think we need to care about the metrics of success in life, and I’m a pretty competitive person. But whether I made the company $2 or $2 million just didn’t matter to me. I didn’t fundamentally care about making money.”
She started to think about public health—an issue that had interested her since her dad’s White House years. She went to Columbia University, quietly earning a master’s degree while keeping her day job at Avenue Capital. “I was working full-time and going to school at night and on the weekends. It was just crazy,” she says. “At one point a month had gone by, and Marc—my then boyfriend, now husband—and I hadn’t gone out on a date. I was like, I don’t want to be this person. I want to be a person who cares where she’s investing her time and energy. And I want to be a good wife, daughter, and friend.”
Chelsea took this conundrum to her grandmother and oracle, Dorothy, Hillary’s mother. “She had strong ideas about what I should do with the opportunities I had been given. I realized that as much as I tried not to care about the things my parents cared about, I did care about them,” she says. “Which was frustrating, in some ways. My grandmother, in her wizened way, just said, ‘Yes, I’ve been waiting for you to come to this realization.’”
Chelsea tried to leave her job, “but my bosses asked me to stay and I just said, ‘Oh, I’ll—totally. I’ll stay.’ I think a lot of women struggle with this. Marc came home and was like, ‘So, did you quit?’ I said, ‘Well, I agreed to work part-time.’ And he just said, ‘What’s wrong with you? If you were a man, you would have quit.’ And that’s probably true.” But in November 2011, Dorothy died—and the loss cast a veil of grief over every aspect of Chelsea’s life. “It was such a fundamentally unmooring event for me,” recalls Chelsea. “I’ve never been so lost as I was when she passed.” Chelsea and Marc had been married a little more than a year; the loss pushed them to examine what they wanted their lives to be about. “We sat down and said, ‘Here’s what we want to do.’ The first thing on the list was simple: We want, God willing, to start a family. So we decided we were going to make 2014 the Year of the Baby. And please,” Chelsea pleads, “call my mother and tell her that. She asks us about it every single day.” Next on the list? “Work really, really hard, and in a way that makes an impact,” says Chelsea. “I was ready to answer that calling and be the person my grandmother had always known I was.”
By then the foundation had more than 1,400 employees and volunteers in 40 countries. Chelsea had held a board position since 2011 and routinely offered advice (“often unsolicited,” she admits), but she took her time signing on the dotted line, first taking a gig as a special correspondent at NBC. She also considered other nonprofits: “I looked for a place where I could be more effective, but there wasn’t one,” she says. Then her mother’s tenure as secretary of state came to an end, and Hillary made a home at the foundation as well. Just like that it was a family affair. (When I mentioned to Chelsea that the tfoundation would make a great launching pad for a 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential bid, she politely replied, “I’ll support my mother in whatever she does. Always.”)
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