Malia Cohen discovered when she was a child that she wanted to serve in government. She visualized herself in her dream job and then made it happen. Today, she has moved on from that role and sits on the California State Board of Equalization and serves as President of the San Francisco Police Commission, the first African-American woman in both of these roles. So how has she powered forward to make her goals a reality in spite of many obstacles along the way? On this episode, she shares her story openly and honestly, and imparts wisdom and advice that can benefit anyone in any career. Listen and be inspired.
Meet the Guest
Malia M. Cohen serves as a Member of the California State Board of Equalization (BOE), California’s elected tax commission. She was elected to the BOE in November 2018, served as Chair in 2019, and is the first African-American woman to serve on the Board.
As the BOE Board Member for District 2, she represents 10 million constituents living in all or parts of 23 counties extending from Del Norte County in the north to Santa Barbara County in the south. In January 2019, her BOE Board Member colleagues unanimously selected her to serve as Chair of the Board.
A strong advocate for social justice and inclusion, Board Member Cohen pledges to ensure that the views of all who come before the Board of Equalization are considered carefully, with respect, civility, and courtesy. She further commits to collaborate with her colleagues to guarantee that all the actions of the BOE are open, transparent, and above reproach.
Prior to being elected to the Board of Equalization, Board Member Cohen served as President of the Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco. She was first elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2010 and re-elected in 2014.
As a Member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, she served as the Chair of the Budget and Finance Committee. As Finance Chair, she oversaw the adoption of an $11 billion budget, and measures concerning bond issues, taxes, fees, and redevelopment and real estate matters. She also served as a fiduciary member of the San Francisco Transportation Authority, which manages the proceeds of a half-cent sales tax that generates $100 million annually for transportation investments in the County.
Previously, she served as a Commissioner of the San Francisco Employee Retirement System (SFERS), which manages a $23 billion pension fund. As President of SFERS, she led efforts to divest from fossil fuels and thermal coal investments and moved $100 million into a fossil fuel-free index fund.
Throughout her life, Board Member Cohen has fought for diversity and inclusion. She has championed policies and programs that protect public health, foster economic development, promote new affordable housing, and that create good jobs through protecting and expanding our manufacturing base.
Board Member Cohen was born and raised in San Francisco. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Fisk University, a historically Black university in Nashville, Tennessee, and a Masters in Science in Public Policy & Management from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Beth Davies, host: Welcome to Career Curves, where we talk to people who have interesting careers and explore how they got where they are. I'm your host Beth Davies.
We've all heard news reports about people who are "firsts" in business or politics. The first woman in a role. The first African-American. The first... well you get the idea. What's it like though to actually be one of these people?
Our guest on this episode, Malia Cohen, knows. She's the first African-American woman to serve on the California State Board of Equalization, California's elected tax commission. She was elected to the board in 2018 and in 2019 was unanimously selected by her colleagues to serve as chair of the board.
Her career includes many other high points and accomplishments. She's currently president of the San Francisco Police Commission, and previously served as president of the Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco after being elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2010 when she was just 32 years old and then reelected in 2014.
I'm thrilled to have Malia here to share how and why she got into politics and government, and the steps she's taken to build her remarkable career.
Malia, thank you for joining me.
Malia Cohen, guest: Thank you for having me. I'm happy to be here.
Beth: I want to start with what you're currently doing. So, you currently serve on the California State Board of Equalization. Tell me about the Board of Equalization. What does the board do?
Malia: So the California Board of Equalization has been around for a long time. It's been around just about as long as the state of California has been incorporated and its own territory.
The State Board of Equalization is an agency that monitors and regulates and oversees and basically runs the property tax system. Now this tax system that I'm talking about, and what I'm about to describe is a $70 billion industry here in the state of California, and it's critical to our local services. So think about your public library. Think about your fire departments. These are all public tax dollars, particularly property tax dollars.
Property tax goes into public education, so if you went to public school, you're dealing with property tax dollars. And the reason why this system is important is because it is so large and it's reliable. People are paying their taxes and we are grateful because we are going to need those tax resources in the years ahead, as we begin to pull ourselves out of this pandemic.
Beth: My understanding is there are five people on the board. What does that actually mean that you do?
Malia: On the State Board of Equalization, there's four of us that are elected and then the fifth seat is occupied by the Controller. I represent 10 million people, which is approximately 22 counties, from Santa Barbara all the way up to Del Norte County, which is just South of the Oregon state border. So that's a huge swath of land. Beautiful.
And what do I do on a daily basis? We come together on a monthly basis and we have a board meeting. And what we do is we are largely listening to cases where people are in disagreement with how their property is assessed.
Now, what is most relevant today, in this pandemic, is people are losing their homes. People are not able to pay their property taxes. People are not able to pay their mortgage. So what have we been doing since this time last year? Well, we've been working very hard to try to figure out how we can alleviate that tax burden.
Another issue that we are dealing with on a daily basis is a result of the election just this past November. There was initiative called Prop 19. Well, Prop 19 changes the way property is passed on from parent to child and grandparent to grandchild. And so we have been in long conversations with the legislature, giving our input on the policy that voters ultimately voted on.
I'm your friendly taxpayer advocate. I like to say that.
Beth: What do you enjoy about the work that you do?
Malia: What I enjoy about the work period, whether it's the Board of Equalization, the Board of Supervisors, or even on the Police Commission, is that I'm a problem solver. Big thinking, big picture, problem solver that can go all the way down to the fine details.
When I was on the Board of Supervisors, I dealt with everything from my neighbors' bees keep pooping on my car to big issues, policy issues, like the chokehold. Getting rid of the carotid restraint with the San Francisco Police Department. So there's a wide breadth and depth opportunity here and I love that.
So when people ask me what I do, I say I'm an elected official but, in the end, a servant. I serve and I solve people's problems.
Beth: In addition to the Board of Equalization, you recently took on another problem-solving role, which is in August 2020, you were nominated to serve on the San Francisco Police Commission. And then, about five months later, you were elected as president of the Police Commission. Why did you decide to take on this additional role?
Malia: You know, that's a really good question. We remember last summer. Last summer was absolutely brutal. It was difficult to watch George Floyd be murdered in real time. Watch the facts come out about Ahmaud Aubrey who was running and was killed. To think about Brianna Taylor being murdered by Kentucky law enforcement.
I spent a considerable amount of time and effort doing a lot of police reform work when I was on the Board of Supervisors back in 2015, 2016, and 2017, we did a lot of reform.
Mayor Breed came to me in August of last year and asked me to serve on the Police Commission. I was hesitant to tell you the truth. I'm like, "I'm a statewide elected now. I don't need to be dealing with San Francisco politics in that area and serving on that level."
But I really had a quiet moment and was reflective on why I serve, and it really is to solve problems. I have a skillset that is unique and a history that goes back far enough that I know what I'm talking about. And I have respect on all sides: the Police Department, the Mayor's Office, very progressive voices in the community, relationships within the Police Officer's Association. And so, really being a bridge builder to bring all of these entities, all of these stakeholders, together to help us solve some of the problems that we are having in law enforcement. Ultimately to bring about criminal justice reform.
So that is why I signed up to serve on the San Francisco Police Commission and it has been quite a rewarding experience because this is a job that you're actually able to see some pretty immediate results.
Beth: So what do you actually do on the Police Commission?
Malia: The Police Commission is unique. The Police Commission is an oversight body of civilians. None of us have a law enforcement background. Some of us have law degrees and some of us do not.
And what we do is we sit as a body and we hear discipline cases of officers. That's one element. And then we make policy recommendations to the Chief of Police on ways to improve policy for the San Francisco Police Department.
I am focused on calling attention to bias in policing and then working to eliminate it as much as possible.
Beth: What you've described sounds like two full-time jobs. Help me understand the reality. How much time are each of these taking for you?
Malia: Beth, I'll be honest with you. The Police Commission is taking a lot more time than I had anticipated. A lot more time.
And the Board of Equalization, I've got excellent staff that really helps me do the heavy lifting. So for the Board of Equalization, it's a lot of reading, writing and thinking. On the Police Commission, it is a lot more actions. A lot more reading, writing, and then analyzing, and then applying what you find.
And you're right. It's a full-time job. And I'm doing it the best I can, to the best of my ability. I believe what really fuels me is that it's so rewarding.
Beth: For these two roles, are these both paid positions? Is one of them volunteer? Help me understand.
Malia: Sure. The Police Commission is strictly a volunteer position, but the State Board of Equalization is my full-time work.
Beth: So we're already talking about major responsibilities that you have that are taking more than full-time. Our listeners can't see you, but I can, since we're talking over Zoom and you're using a mug that says, "Mommy Established 2020", so you're also a new parent. How do you balance all that you're doing with this new role that you have?
Malia: The greatest gift has been to be able to work from home. I'm a mother of a six-month-old daughter and, quite honestly, it's the power of technology that has allowed me to be able to be on a Zoom, to be rocking my kid below the camera frame, or to be bouncing, or even to be nursing, and to be present.
I love being a mother. And one of the things that motherhood has done for me, is it has brought me very, very close to my own mother. She comes over and she helps me on my Board days, on days when I just need that extra support. And then my husband is home in the evenings and he's helpful with baby.
Beth: If you had to come up with say a strategy or a philosophy for work-life balance for yourself, what would you say has been your philosophy or is becoming your philosophy?
Malia: Quite honestly, my philosophy has just been just to relax and just to breathe through it. Just like my labor and delivery. Taking the deep breaths, deep cleansing breaths, and breathing through.
And knowing that I am not the first mother – the first working mother – and I have a unique space to fill, I have committed myself to helping working mothers find adequate and affordable childcare. That reality has become a sobering one. How many women have left the workforce because of childcare? And as a new mother, I can connect with that.
Beth: You mentioned a few moments ago, your mother. So let's go back in time and talk about your family and your childhood, because I'm sure that was an influence that has led you to where you are today. So tell me about your family and where you grew up.
Malia: Sure. So I grew up right here in San Francisco and I have four wonderful younger sisters.
Beth: Did you step into a leadership role early in your family?
Malia: You know, Beth, I think that is the absolute truth. I have been organizing and running the program for a very long time. My leadership skills started very early, organizing my sisters on what Father's Day gifts we would give our father or a Mother's Day gift or birthday gift, collecting money, driving to the mall and picking out the gifts. So, yes, I have been in a leadership role. I always joke and say, "I was born to do this work," and I've been in a leadership role.
As I've actually gotten older, I've learned that I don't have to always be in control and at the head, unlike when I was in high school. I now have adopted an approach more like a servant leadership style that you can lead even from the back. A lot of these principles guide my leadership style today.
Beth: Tell me about other seeds from your youth that have shaped who you are today. Were there say messages from your parents about what you could and should be, or were there experiences that you had say in high school that helped shape where you are today?
Malia: It's a really interesting question. A story that I don't really share very often, but my third grade class took a trip to City Hall and Miss Nicholosi exposed us to City Hall and I loved the building. Loved it. So it was always a dream of mine, ever since I was eight years old, to work in San Francisco City Hall.
Then fast forward and I came into high school. I applied to a program called the Maris Youth Forum. At the time Frank Jordan was the mayor and this Youth Forum was the predecessor of what we have now called the Youth Commission. It exposes youth from different parts of San Francisco into the workings of government: how the department works, how commissions work, how budgets work. I really think that that experience was very pivotal and planted a seed in me.
I recall walking the second floor hall – that's where the Board of Supervisors' offices are located – and visualizing my name on the door. I had an opportunity to go into the Chamber of the Board of Supervisors. The lights were very dim and I went in through the anterooms. I didn't go through the public entrance; I went through the back entrance. And I just sat there and I just kind of absorbed and felt what it would be like to be giving a speech, to be speaking as a member of the Board of Supervisors.
I didn't know it then, but I now have developed a practice of visualization to help me manifest what I want to achieve. And it was really at that point in high school that I wanted to be a member, but my vision only incorporated the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. So to be fair, I did not really visualize the State Board of Equalization and I'm still working on the next step.
Beth: I love how this exercise that you were doing even in high school was just bringing it all to life and making it real. Tell me a little bit at this point, too, about representation. When you were envisioning yourself in this role, were there other African-American women already in this role to help show you that that door was open, or did you have to imagine yourself breaking through that barrier?
Malia: It's interesting to be labeled "the first" because when I'm running for office, I'm not running thinking I'm going to do this because I want to be the first or I'm going to do this because I'm the only one. That's never been my focus or my mindset.
I've always just been focused on winning. Achieving the goal. Then you get there and someone else will say, "Oh well, did you know that you're the first African-American woman to sit on the Board of Equalization? You are the first constitutional officer to have a child in office. You are the youngest constitutional officer."
I'm like, "No, no, no, no. I'm not running for all of that." I didn't even realize that. It's like the California State Historian told me all of these things.
It is a game changer to have representation and to be at the table. Otherwise, the culture doesn't change. Thoughts don't change. Thinkings don't change.
I would also say that I've learned, as a graduate from Fisk University, which is one of the country's oldest historically black colleges and universities, that we may be African-American or black, but we are not monolithic and that there was so much rich cultural diversity in the diaspora. So, you maybe look like me but grew up in the Caribbean and have a vastly different experience. Or grew up in the UK and have a different philosophy. And those are just two examples.
Beth: So Fisk University, like you just mentioned is a historically black college and university, why was it important to you to go to an HBCU?
Malia: Well, it wasn't to tell you the truth, it wasn't. Fisk was my backup school. My dream was to go to USC. I had a cousin who was a year ahead of me and she attended Fisk and she made me apply. I remember praying saying, "I'm going to go wherever I get in," and I got into Fisk. I cried because I did not want to go to Fisk. I wanted to go to USC.
I said, "Okay, God," I made a deal. I said, "All right, I will go to Fisk," because Fisk then put some money on the table, so how could I refuse that? So I said, "Okay, I'm going to go to Fisk for a semester," because I was wait-listed at USC, "and I'm going to attend USC in the fall semester."
So I get to Fisk. Beautiful, beautiful campus. History all around me. Rich history from Civil War era, post-Civil War, civil rights. I mean, you name it. John Lewis is an alumni of Fisk University. I was woefully ignorant.
When I graduated from high school, I had the thinking that I would be getting a subpar education going to an HBCU. I don't know where or why or how I picked up on that, but I did.
But there was a spiritual awakening for me on the campus. And we're talking about hallowed halls. Fisk was established in 1867, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. And so the legacy of Fisk University, is it educated children of slaves and to be a part of that was phenomenal. To be able to sit in class and study Diane Nash, knowing that Diane Nash led the integration of Woolworth lunch counter in downtown Nashville, it was quite provocative and inspiring. And I found myself wanting to be a part of this.
And I learned so much about myself. A lot of my inner strength comes from the four years that I spent at Fisk University.
Beth: While at Fisk, you majored in political science, which obviously follows the path that you had set for yourself of getting into government, particularly in San Francisco. Was there anything that happened at school that helped to solidify for you or cement for you that you were on the right path, or maybe even the opposite. Was there anything that caused you to doubt the path that you were on?
Malia: That's a good question. I never doubted the path I was on. I knew I was on my right path because it was easy. It was seamless. It was very natural. Studying wasn't a task. It wasn't difficult to retain the information. I genuinely am interested in history and I love politics and I am interested in policy.
Political science is the study of who gets what, when and how much. I learned that from PolySci 101. It was very much in line with who I am.
And I was active in student government also on the Fisk campus and that allowed me to be not only active on the campus, but also connected me to Nashville. Nashville is the state capital for the state of Tennessee. And so I had internships with elected officials. Those internships really opened my eyes that yes, I want to serve. I want to be an elected official.
Beth: You went to grad school, but you didn't go straight from undergrad to grad school. So tell me about those intervening years. What was your strategy and your plan because you clearly had a goal in mind? So what were the steps that you decided to take to help further you on this path?
Malia: I finished Fisk and then I applied to a post-graduate program called Coro Fellows Program, where I was a fellow in a fellowship in St. Louis, Missouri. It was experiential learning. I had different assignments in different categories, different subject matter areas. I dove in and it was incredible. It was a leadership training program. I highly recommended it to college grads.
Then I moved back to San Francisco and I worked because I knew I wasn't ready to go back to graduate school. I didn't know what I wanted to study. I was really on the fence between a graduate degree or a law degree.
So I started working at a nonprofit organization in the Bayview-Hunters Point community of San Francisco. Again, sticking with the fact that I knew I wanted to run for office. So I went and I worked at a nonprofit in the Bayview, which ultimately, I would then serve.
The time that I spent at the Hunters Point Community Youth Park Foundation was just invaluable. Later on, it would bring me credibility to the community.
From there I met a man named Alex Turk who turned out to be campaign manager for Gavin Newsom's first mayoral campaign. I was hired to be a field organizer to organize that swath of Southeast neighborhoods of San Francisco.
During the campaign I was accepted into graduate school. I was accepted into Carnegie Mellon and I deferred a year because I wanted to work on the campaign. And then I got offered a position. So then I deferred another year. And at this time I'm like, "I don't want to go to CMU. I think I want to go to law school."
So I'm studying the LSAT. I'm taking the LSAT. I didn't do very well, and I wouldn't have been able to get into any of my top schools. I also was talking to more and more lawyers and I learned that I don't really need a law degree to do what I want to do. So I didn't pursue that.
I left City Hall. I went to work in San Mateo County for a San Mateo County elected official. And then I started a company...
Beth: What's that company?
Malia: It's called Power Forward.
But I worked eight years and then I went to graduate school. It was the most rewarding thing I've ever done.
Beth: This sounds interesting. Tell me about grad school.
Malia: I credit myself as going to CMU as the first adult thing that I did that I had no regrets. No regrets at all. I was in an accelerated master's program. I picked up and I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Didn't know anybody. Just went there to pursue my degree and I left.
And it was an amazing experience. I loved my time in Pittsburgh.
Beth: What was it that made it so amazing?
Malia: I think it was just being around so many smart, smart people. I was on a team that had policy majors, computer science majors, and business majors. We were all on a team. And we took classes in these different respective areas. So by the time I graduated from CMU, I could actually do some coding. I could build a website. I was also analyzing datasets and software that the business school students were using. So it was a very full program.
And CMU was also known for their arts department. So I took an improv class and that improvisation class really helped me feel comfortable in front of the camera. Be able to find my voice, be able to articulate it, to communicate a vision. And so, it really shaped me and gave a fuller picture of who I am today.
Beth: One more question before we move to your post-grad about those intervening work years. What did you learn about yourself or what skills did you develop over those years that you were working between undergrad and grad school?
Malia: You know what I learned? The kind of boss that I don't want to be. I also learned the kind of elected I don't want to be. I also learned the kind of black woman I don't want to be.
It was really interesting that that period of time I was in these experiences that didn't make me happy, kind of felt like I was languishing and not moving. So when we talk about the curve, I just felt like, "Where am I going? Is this path going to lead me ultimately to elected office?" I didn't know because I didn't see it at that time. We talked earlier about visualization. I didn't have the vision then.
In my life, when I reflect back, there are periods of time where the path was very clear. Like I said, it was very easy. That's when I knew I was on my path. When things got choppy, that's when I began to self-doubt. That's when I began to feel like I wasn't progressing or moving forward.
Beth: Can you give me an example of something that caused self-doubt?
Malia: Yeah. During that time I was fired from a job and I really began to have self-doubt. I'd never been fired from anything before, and I didn't know if I was as good as I thought I was. That's a period in time that, like I said, I'm grateful for because it taught me a lot about myself: How much shit I was going to take and how much I wasn't. How to stand up for myself. How to voice and be an advocate for myself and not allow myself to be in a work environment that was unhealthy.
Beth: How did you rebound from the experience of being fired?
Malia: I started my own business and then I went to graduate school. It was something about physically leaving San Francisco and stepping out of California that helped clear my head and help bring a different perspective.
Beth: How did grad school connect you back to your goal of getting into city government?
Malia: I left San Francisco to go to CMU knowing that I was going to run for office. In my mind, this was another step in helping me become an elected official. I figured that people are very, very smart. I'm relatively young. I probably will need some kind of a degree to validate me and to bring me some credibility.
I finished graduate school in 2008 and I knew I was going to run for office in 2010. I took a job at the Federal Reserve Bank for that interim year. And it was during this time at the Fed that I learned that I can't open a campaign committee in my name and run for office while working for the Fed for obvious reasons of compromising the integrity of the work that I was doing with the Federal Reserve Bank. So, I had to leave that position.
I went back to my own company that I started, Power Forward. I had a couple of clients that I was writing blog posts for and op-ed pieces and editorials and publishing them.
Beth: And so that was just enough to give you a stream of income so that you could then go full force and into your campaign.
Beth: So then you ran your first campaign. What was that experience like?
Malia: I remember there was a time I was on the bus. I was going to my consultancy office. I had quit my job, I had also let my clients go, and I was in the process of being foreclosed on. And I was waiting for election results when all this was happening.
I just threw it all and left it all on the field. I played hard, meaning that I ran a very competitive race. I exceeded people's expectations and was really discounted as a candidate and not taken as a serious candidate, but ultimately, we won.
But there was a period when I remember just reflecting, like I have no house, I have no car, I have no job. I better win this. And needless to say, we did.
Beth: That's so intense. And thank you for, so candidly sharing. One of the things I'm really appreciating, Malia, as you're telling this story is the honesty with which you're sharing experiences like being fired, like being foreclosed. Because sometimes we look at people who are successful and assume that none of that has happened to them, as opposed to the fact that a lot of people experience hardship. That's what comes with life and we have to do a lot of rebounding.
Malia: Yeah. There's a gospel artist called Mary Mary, and there's a lyric in one of their songs that says, "You see my glory, but you don't know my story." And so people will see the blessings. People see me in elected office where they have no idea the number of nights or early mornings that I cried in the shower. The moments of self-doubt that I absolutely had to push through. The moments of insecurity and questioning, "Can I do this? Do I have what it takes?" And making a concerted effort not to internalize other people's perceptions of me.
That mental toughness and agility is what gets me through and, I guess, allows me to serve on the Board of Equalization, while simultaneously serving on the Police Commission, while being an awesome mother to a new baby girl, and understanding and acknowledging my place in my family, as a leader in my family, a wife to my beloved husband.
And the thing is that my journey is really just the beginning, I hope. I hope this is not the end for me.
Beth: So you did get the position on the Board of Supervisors. And as you shared, you got it at a time when the rest of your life was very fragile. How did you manage that personal recovery with a position that wasn't going to necessarily give you the big bucks?
Malia: Going through a foreclosure as you're running as a first-time candidate is pretty tough. And then it became a campaign issue. My opponents tried to make it seem like it was my fault.
What it actually did for me was that it bolstered my resolve to do some heavy lifting work, to help other people that live in the Bayview that were losing their homes. I made the argument that I am no different than you.
And if you think about it, you want your representative to be able to walk in your shoes and to be able to connect. I know that fear and that anxiety. I know the shame of losing your home. And then for me, in such a public way.
So, I joined then District Attorney Kamala Harris' fight for homeowners and was a part of the class action suit and got a settlement for predatory loans that Wells Fargo was handing out. The year that I lost my home in foreclosure there were 1400 other homes in the Bayview, in my neighborhood, that also lost their home. So I did a lot of work around advocacy around foreclosure and making sure that folks that went through this experience we're able to build back their credit. It takes 7-8 years to build your credit back. I'm proud to say that I've got pristine credit now.
And not having a car, taking public transportation, really strengthened my resolve to bolster that transportation system in the Southeast quadrant of the city.
So out of all of my struggles, I really have been able to turn it into something incredibly positive, not just from myself personally which has been gratifying, but also for the larger public. They have been able to benefit through my efforts to put policies in place to help empower them. To give them a voice.
Beth: I hear that in your story. It's interesting, we talk about your undergraduate degree from Fisk and your master's from Carnegie Mellon, but you have this PhD as well that's coming from all of your life experiences. And you're using that piece of your education just as strongly as the more formal pieces of your education.
So now you're in the Board of Supervisors, this dream that you had had since high school. How was it different than what you had expected or how was it the same as what you had expected?
Malia: Well I gotta tell you it was very different, because in my dream there were roses and it was a sunshiny day, every day. And people were happy with my votes. Reality is that is intense scrutiny, intense pressure.
I learned how to disagree without being disagreeable. That is one key skill that I learned when I was on the Board of Supervisors: to disagree with someone but not be disagreeable. That is something that I'm proud of because I have been able to maintain relationships with people to this day that I can call on when I need help or have a question or need advice.
Beth: I think that's such an essential skill that, especially in today's climate, I think all of us could probably benefit from.
After eight years, you decided to leave the Board of Supervisors. This had been your dream. Why did you decide to leave?
Malia: Well, because of term limits. I had to leave.
And I was thinking, "Well, what was my next gig going to be?" And I remember thinking, "I've got all these skills. I mean, I served on the Pension Board, so I know investments. I know finance. I know how to handle campaigns. I know how to make tough decisions. And what would be next?"
I was very good friends with Fiona Ma – I call her my political godmother – and she was my predecessor on the Board of Equalization. She talked to me about the job and the function, and I thought I'd be interested in this.
Beth: Is this another role that has term limits to it?
Malia: Yes, so I'm in my third year of my first term. I'm up for reelection for the State Board of Equalization in 2022, which is just next year. Around the corner. And I will have an opportunity to serve another four years.
All constitutional officers can only serve eight years. When I say constitutional officers, I mean the governor, lieutenant governor, controller, secretary of state.
Beth: How do you balance doing the job with the need to run a campaign? I think that's something that's unique in government positions. But how do you find that kind of balance?
Malia: One thing that campaigning and campaigns have taught me is that you stretch yourself. You test the boundaries. You push through. You really find what you're made of when you are challenged. And it is challenging to work a full-time job and then have to go travel the state or to evening meetings and receptions or give a speech.
It is challenging. What I tell myself is that it's temporary. It's only for an appointed time and that it will end. Generally after campaigning, I always get sick. Very, very sick. Like lose my voice, body just completely shuts down. But they're long days. We're talking about 14-16 hour days.
Beth: So that becomes the reality of it. What advice do you have for people who are considering careers in politics or government?
Malia: I would say, specifically to women, we need you. We need more thoughtful policy-oriented women at the table and making decisions.
And I would encourage people to volunteer on a board or a commission to get that experience.
Overall public service is the most rewarding work I've ever done. I keep at it because it's so rewarding.
Beth: So my last questions for you. What would you say is the smartest career move you made, whether intentionally or accidentally?
Malia: There's two. Going to graduate school and then, before going into graduate school, being fired from the job that I had right before I went to grad school.
Beth: That's so powerful. When we're sitting here in COVID, we have a lot of people who lost their jobs unexpectedly, and it may not have been by fired, but still lost their jobs unexpectedly. When you're going through that experience, it's so difficult and it's so painful, but to hear somebody who's on the other side say, "There is another side and it actually can turn out to be a good move," is super powerful to hear. So thank you for sharing that.
Malia: What I learned in hindsight from being fired was if I was really honest with myself, it wasn't a fit. I was miserable. And I learned that it's okay to walk away. If it's not working and you've given it your all, but you know it's just not right, it's okay to walk away. You're not failing. You're just moving on.
Beth: If you could have one do-over, what would it be and why?
Malia: Hmm. I don't think I would do anything over. I think that everything that has happened has happened for a reason and I have benefited from it. Good and bad.
Beth: If you could go back in time to the young Malia and give yourself one piece of career advice, what advice would you give yourself and why?
Malia: My advice would be keep pushing. Don't get discouraged. Don't listen to the negative self-talk. Don't internalize the hate. You can rise above and keep pushing.
Beth: And my last question, how do you define success for yourself?
Malia: Success for me is when I am in line with my mind, my body and my spirit. So my spirit is at ease with the work that I'm doing, the work that my body is physically doing, and my body is able to manifest what my mind has created. So success is when all three of these entities are in line, and that they're in sync, and we are working in harmony.
Beth: It's a powerful definition because it really shows how much success is individual and about ourselves and something that we each need to internalize in that regard.
Malia, it has been a pleasure hearing your story. Again, I thank you for your candor, your wisdom, and then of course, all of the advice that has been sprinkled throughout. This is a powerful story and I'm so happy to be part of sharing it with the world.
So thank you so much for joining us.
Malia: Thank you for giving me an opportunity to share it.