Social Impact Authors: How & Why NPR’s Stacey Vanek Smith Is Helping To Change Our World

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Credit: Sylvie Rosokoff

…What do you do when the policy you need is not in place, or the workplace and the profession you’re in isn’t particularly woke. What do you do if you are getting interrupted during meetings all the time? What do you do if you find out you’re getting paid less than you should be? What do you do if you’re trying to get a promotion and it’s not happening? What do you do on an individual level? What do you do then? I wanted to help. I wanted to offer advice that was based on research and data, and offer actual solutions…

As part of our series about “authors who are making an important social impact,” I had the distinct pleasure to interview Stacey Vanek Smith. Stacey is the host of NPR’s hit economics podcast, The Indicator from Planet Money. In her new book MACHIAVELLI FOR WOMEN: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition, and Win the Workplace (Sept. 7, 2021; Gallery Books), Stacey studies Machiavelli’s The Prince, the nearly 500-year-old political manifesto, as a blueprint to show how women can take and maintain power and applies The Prince to the 21st century challenges women face and demonstrates how to navigate the workplace:. The book is a fusion of Princely ideas, current research, and personal stories, and includes Vanek Smith’s interviews with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, blockbuster screenwriter (Crazy Rich Asians) Adele Lim, Wall Street executive Sallie Krawcheck, Olympian Alysia Montaño, Michelin Star Chef Niki Nakayama, Tech unicorn founder Neha Narkhede and AI entrepreneur Vivienne Ming.

Thanks so much for joining us in this series, Stacey. Before we fully dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory, how you grew up and what eventually led you to your career in journalism?

I grew up in Boise, Idaho. My parents had a cattle ranch. We didn’t live on the ranch and I would work on the cattle ranch on the weekends. I got into journalism later in life. I thought I wanted to be a college literature professor. I loved books. When I was in grad school, I was doing some copy editing work for a magazine to raise money as a graduate student.

A reporter for the magazine dropped out and I ended up getting assigned this little story. It was for a tourist magazine. The story was a profile on a park, and I got so excited about it. I looked into the history of it. I started with interviewing the beekeeper at the park. I woke up thinking about this article. I went to bed thinking about this article, and I started thinking: I’m supposed to be doing this just to support myself, but I’m much more excited about this than the thesis I’m supposed to be spending the next eight years on.

That is when I realized I probably wanted to be a journalist. I wasn’t sure what to do or how to do that. I went back to Idaho where my parents lived and got a job working at the Idaho Statesman as a Copy Editor. Then I got a job at Idaho Weddings writing about, well, weddings in Idaho.

I was applying for millions and millions of jobs. I didn’t really know how to get a job. I thought: A job gets posted, you send your resume to HR and that’s how you got a job. It seemed like a reasonable assumption, but of course, that is not how most of us get jobs.

I wasn’t getting the jobs I wanted so I started looking around at journalism schools thinking that might help. I eventually applied to Columbia Journalism School and got in. That’s when I started doing radio and probably the reason I am not still writing for Idaho Weddings.

So you’ve recently written a book that has a strong social impact angle. It seems like your purpose is to empower women to be more in control of their destiny, so to speak. When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action and change your life? You’ve written a book right now that wants to inspire others. Was there a book that had that effect on you?

I have always been very affected by books. I remember when I read ‘The Fountainhead’ by Ayn Rand in high school, I decided all of my friendships were based on weakness. So I ditched all of my friends and was going to be an individual. My English teacher very sweetly took me aside and asked what was going on. I told him it was important to forge myself as an individual. He said: “Well, maybe have some friends too.” He was very sweet. He didn’t laugh at me. He felt it was wonderful that I was so affected by books, but for me to maybe also be a bit more tempered.

So that gives you an idea of how very affected I am by books. I love ideas, and of course, that’s what drew me to economics.

As far as the books I’ve loved, or have changed my life or the way I thought? Oh man, so many! But if I have to pick one, there’s this book called ‘How Proust Can Change Your Life’ written by Alain de Botton. I actually re-read it while I was writing ‘Machiavelli for Women’. I originally read it in college. What I loved about it was it had this warmth and intelligence about it. de Botton is clearly super smart and the amount of research he did was amazing, but he’s so funny and warm. You feel like you’re brought in. You don’t feel excluded. It sort of feels like he brings you into this amazing conversation.

It was very early on that that kind of voice appealed to me. I wanted to be a journalist at that time, but I think looking back, that was probably the moment I realized that I wanted to be the facilitator of these kinds of conversations. I wanted to be like de Botton in that I wanted to talk to all the people and get all the facts, but then present it as an inviting conversation.

That’s what I really tried to do in the book. I tried to make it fun and interesting and funny and engaging because the last thing we need is another book about how things are rough and unfair for people at different moments in their careers. Even though we all know this is true and it’s important, it was important to me to make the book feel exciting and funny to read.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

I’ve done a lot of research on the topic for years because of my job. One of the things I’ve noticed and the thing that always frustrated me was that all of the solutions that were presented were always either policy or company level changes, or they felt very trite, like: “You go girl! Go to the office and ask for what you’re worth!”

It didn’t feel as if there was any actual research, or it felt like there was a gap between those two things. What do you do when the policy you need is not in place, or the workplace and the profession you’re in isn’t particularly woke. What do you do then?

I wanted to help. I wanted to offer advice that was based on research and data, and offer actual solutions. For example, what do you do if you are getting interrupted during meetings all the time? What do you do if you find out you’re getting paid less than you should be? What do you do if you’re trying to get a promotion and it’s not happening? What do you do on an individual level?

My greatest hope for the book is that it will help people navigate those situations and feel like they have options and some power in a situation where it’s easy to feel trapped or powerless.

Fantastic. Can you recall the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

One of my favorite stories from the book is about how I tracked down a person I was so excited about and that is Adele Lim. She’s the screenwriter for ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. She walked away from the sequel because of equal pay. They offered her something like $100,000 to write ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ 2 and 3. Her male co-writer was offered something around $800,000, and she just walked away from the deal.

When I read this, I was like I have got to talk to this woman because that’s really hard! Walking away from a hit like that when those kinds of things don’t come along that often.

But this happens to women all the time. It felt like such a familiar conundrum for me, but in a way ratcheted down level. I’ve never written a blockbuster movie, but just the idea that you’re so lucky to be at the table at all, that makes it that much more difficult to fight for things.

One of the things that’s prevented me from negotiating or pushing for what I wanted was the thought that they’ll just give it to someone else. What am I going to do? Walk away? I was not willing to walk away, and it made me feel really powerless in negotiations in the past. I think that happens to a lot of people and not just women or marginalized workers, but I think it happens to everyone when they are in a position of wondering: What’s my power in this situation or who’s holding all the cards?

It can feel like that often in journalism. There is always the threat of: Oh, there are a million people lined up behind you who would want to take your job. And, it’s true.

I was really excited to talk with her about that story and that process. It was a very cool conversation. She is really funny and honest. She told me that it was really hard to turn it down. She said she cried. She said her mom was horrified! She said the man she was working with, the male co-writer, offered to split his salary with her so they would be paid equally, but she still said no because she said it wasn’t about the white man making less. It was about her making as much. She wanted the studio to pay her an equal amount and when they wouldn’t, she walked away.

That story still resonates so deeply with me. She has a daughter and she told me she just kept thinking about her daughter and said: “What would I want her to do in this situation? What kind of role model do I want to be?

So she just walked away from the job and she has since directed Raya and the Last Dragon’. She’s directing a Lionsgate movie now. ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ was a huge blockbuster mega hit. It was that faith she had in herself and that faith she had in her own worth after years and years of enduring the crucible of Hollywood writers’ rooms as a woman and a woman of color.

She is hilarious and so smart and funny and tough, but just the fact that she was willing to make a call like that. It’s like they say: ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’ I thought: I would write the script for ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ for free just because that would be so cool to have a credit on a movie like that. That’s transformational for a career, and she had the courage to say: ‘No, you’re either properly going to value me or forget it.’

I haven’t heard anything about the sequel to those movies, so I don’t know if they’re happening, but I know they would be better if she were writing them. She grew up in Malaysia so she knows and understands the cultural details. The Bible group scene with Michelle Yeoh in the beginning of the movie with all of the fancy purses and stuff, she said her mom is in that Bible group.

So, I think that is the most interesting story in the book.

Well, that’s great. That’s a very powerful story. It’s hard to imagine that in this day and age that the studios can get away with that, with all the publicity around it.

I think the technical reason the studio gave was because her background was in TV writing. She didn’t have enough screenwriting experience, and because that was her first full feature length screenplay. The guy had a lot of screenwriting experience. But, she wrote the screenplay.

Fascinating. So let’s, let’s talk a little bit about your book in more detail. The first thing that struck me when I saw the title Machiavelli, is that in the dictionary, “Machiavellian” means scheming and unscrupulous. So my question is: Of all the empowering figures you could discuss, why Machiavelli?

That is a great question. I have always been fascinated by Machiavelli, partly because of his terrible reputation, but also because he was a super interesting person. He was essentially a civil servant similar to the Secretary of State for Florence back in the 1500s, which was sort of a lark for him. He was not from a great family. Most of those positions back in those days went to really fancy families. It’s somewhat unclear how he got his job, but he did. He worked really hard, and he loved it. Popes knew his name and kings knew his name. This was a time of Italian city-states. He was wheeling and dealing with the likes of the King of France and the Pope. He loved his job and people loved working with him.

Then when Florence fell, and the de’ Medici family took over, he was thrown in jail and lost everything. He was run out of town. He wrote ‘The Prince’ from exile sort of as a cover letter basically trying to get his job back from de’ Medici, the people who had taken everything from him and tortured him.

I think he was thinking it was the smartest stuff he’s got. It’s a short book, only about 70 pages where he basically says: I’m going to give this the very best I have inside of me. I think he was hoping that Lorenzo de’ Medici would be like: Wow! He was working for the other side, but he’s brilliant! We have to have him work for us!

But, it didn’t work. Nobody read it. Everyone was horrified by the book, and I think at some point, the Catholic church threatened to excommunicate anyone who even had the book.

What Machiavelli writes and why I think his book is timeless and the reason it’s controversial is that he removed morality from the situation. He just looked at it sort of like a chessboard — what it takes to hold on to power and to gain power, and he doesn’t take morality into account. Morals can change with time often, which is what makes his advice very timeless. It’s very clear advice. It’s not cruel or evil. He will say something like: You should consider killing someone if you’ve wronged them so they’re not rattling around plotting revenge. It’s smart and a little chilling.

So he writes the book. He says there are two kinds of princes. There is the inheriting prince, the one who’s dad headed up the kingdom. And then there’s the new prince who’s conquered the kingdom.

For the inheriting prince, things are pretty cushy. People sort of assume the status quo, but for the new prince, it is much harder. Power seems uncertain and people are challenging him. They’re kind of like: Why are we paying taxes to this person? They’re challenging him, which makes it hard for him to establish his power and his right to be there.

I thought that was such a good proxy for women in the workplace. A lot of women have broken into new fields and this goes for other marginalized workers to minorities and the LGBTQ community- people who are sort of on the back foot in the workplace in certain ways.

So you’re there in the workplace, but you’re getting challenged all the time. People don’t automatically assume you deserve to be there. It’s a really good proxy. The book is basically advice to the new conquering prince: Here’s what you do to secure and grow this kingdom you just seized.

We don’t deal in tracks of land and like gold bullion anymore. It now gets measured in titles and shares of stock, but the advice is really smart and the crossover is pretty easy, actually. Some of it is very dated (like should you build a fortress), but a lot of it is really smart and timeless.

Would there be a place for a book called ‘Machiavelli for Men’? Would it make sense to talk about that in the 21st century?

I definitely think it does. We all face the same challenges at work — trying to get promoted; trying to be valued; trying to get to where we want to go in the workplace.

I think that’s true for everyone. Negotiating is not just hard for women. It’s hard for a lot of people, but for women, often there’s an extra layer because the qualities people associate with women and the qualities people associate with leaders are often at odds. They expect women to be self-deprecating, kind, and compassionate. On the other hand, people expect a leader to be independent, assertive, and aggressive. When women display those qualities, there can be some backlash.

Women can often be in an extra delicate position at work. Machiavelli makes the point that the new prince is also in a delicate position because has to be both loved and feared. People still love him enough to be devoted to him, and he wants their loyalty. At the same time, they have to be scared enough to follow his laws and pay taxes.

I would say most of the advice in the book is for everyone. It’s just that there’s an extra layer of difficulty certain people can encounter. I came up with some solutions based on research and studies of things women and marginalized workers can do to navigate some of those extra difficulties.

But to your point: the workplace isn’t easy for anybody. It’s hard, and we’re all dealing with a lot of politics, our own feelings of self-worth, trying to be valued, evil managers, and long meetings… All of that stuff. The workplace is not an easy or uncomplicated place ever.

Super. One of the topics in the book is: How the gender pay gap is stuck. Can you explain why in 2021, could it be that for every dollar a man earns, a woman earns 80 cents?

The pay gap is a great mystery. No one quite knows why it’s stuck. I think part of it is because people offer women lower salaries, and part of it is because women tend to take part-time work, or go into fields or parts of fields that might be less demanding, often to accommodate child care. But it is a huge mystery. Economists debate it all the time. It’s unclear why it has been so stuck for so long.

So from the advice that Machiavelli gives to the prince, what do you think a woman can do to apply that today?

One of Machiavelli’s big pieces of advice is to act: When in doubt take action. He was very much against indecision and waffling. He thought waffling, indecision, or inaction were the worst things the prince could do. Doing the wrong thing was worse than not doing anything. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, but I think if I were to translate that it would be something in the vein of pushing for a raise, for example. Going after the things you want.

Dr. Linda Babcock from Carnegie Mellon University wrote this wonderful book called ‘Women Don’t Ask’. One of her pieces of advice, and I think this is just great advice in general, is how to walk into a negotiation.

Let’s say you want a $10,000 raise. Walk into the negotiation with ten things you want, so it’s not just this narrow discussion about the money. It’s broader. Maybe you want to do some additional training, or maybe you want a better title. Maybe you want to get on or off a team. Those things are also worth money, but it’s a more holistic approach to a negotiation so you’re not just going in like some mano-a-mano type high-noon standoff. It’s more of a holistic conversation about what’s going to make you happy in your job. Is it working from home one day a week? Is that going to make your life better?

In the book ‘Negotiation Genius’, Deepak Malhotra and Max Bazerman call this “log rolling”. They say the more you introduce into a negotiation, the more successful the negotiation is likely to be. I’m sure up to a point, but it gives you a chance to broaden the negotiation when you get stuck on something.

It’s also less antagonistic and more like: “Here’s what I want. What do you want? How can everybody get what they want?” And that makes it a much more balanced situation and a little less daunting because then you’re not going into some gladiator-like battle. You’re going to talk to the company that pays you for the work you do, and how you can move forward and have a future at this company that benefits everybody. It often gets turned into this mano-a-mano/Clint Eastwood situation, and it doesn’t have to be like that.

Is there a person in the U.S or in the world, with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this article, especially if we tag them.

I would love to meet Shonda Rhimes, partly because I have been watching ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ throughout the pandemic. There are so many seasons of it and it’s so good!

I think having talked to Adele Lim; I understand a little bit of what she faced as a female in the writer’s rooms and the fact she made herself into this superstar, into kind of a mogul with her story.

Of course, I love storytelling. That’s part of my job, so if I was to have breakfast with anyone, it would be Shonda Rhimes.

You should know, you are very good at storytelling.

Oh, thank you. It’s all I do, but I really appreciate that. I still love this weird job more now I think, than I did when I first started it.

I know you have to go and I’m grateful for your time, for your fantastic stories and insights and hope that we could stay in touch. I wish you continued success with this book.

Social Impact Authors: How & Why NPR’s Stacey Vanek Smith Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.