Valerie Jarrett & Desirée Rogers

From August 2000: Jarrett and Rogers, both now headed to the White House, form two-thirds of a high-profile Chicago sisterhood along with publishing heir Linda Johnson Rice. Their friendship is described in this story by Marcia Froelke Coburn. Jarrett has been named a senior adviser to Obama and Rogers is said to be in line to be White House social secretary.

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Valerie Jarrett, Desirée Rogers, and Linda Johnson Rice
Jarrett, Rogers, Rice. Photograph by Tom Maday, as appears in The Sisterhood from the August 2000 issue of Chicago magazine

When Desirée Rogers returned to her native New Orleans to be Queen Zulu 2000 of Mardi Gras this past spring, her friends Linda Johnson Rice and Valerie Jarrett went with her. It was a difficult time for Rogers—her father, Roy Glapion, a famous New Orleans city councilman who was supposed to have been King Zulu of Mardi Gras, had died a few months before. Chicago’s power quotient plummeted when the three women traveled out of town. But Rice and Jarrett were there for Rogers—that’s what friends are for.

Each of the three is accomplished and successful: Rogers, 40, the former director of the Illinois Lottery, is the vice-president of corporate communications for Peoples Energy, a diversified energy company; Rice, 42, is the president and chief operating officer of the Johnson Publishing empire, which includes Ebony and Jet; and Jarrett, 43, the former commissioner of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, is now the executive vice-president of The Habitat Company, a real estate development firm and management company. But as close and long-standing friends, they are usually together—the three form a juggernaut of brains, beauty, and connections, proving that sisterhood is indeed powerful.

“These women are politically savvy, tough-as-nails operators with significant influence and clout in Chicago’s civic and cultural life,” says Laura Washington, the editor and publisher of the Chicago Reporter. “These are not tokens; they got there on their own talents and reputations. They are not dependent on any of the men in their lives—black or white—for their success.”

“They are black women leaders of tremendous value to the city,” says Ronne Hartfield, a museum consultant and writer. “But they are very different people.”

First, the similarities: Jarrett and Rice grew up in Chicago, and their parents know one another. They attended the University of Chicago Laboratory School together. One of their best friends from that time is John Rogers, the president of Ariel Capital Management, an investment firm. And Rogers, in turn, married Desi- rée, bringing her into the group in 1988.

Together the three have earned six degrees, including an M.M. and an M.B.A. (Rice from Northwestern University and Rogers from Harvard University) and a J.D. (Jarrett, from the University of Michigan). Rogers lives on East Lake Shore Drive, the most exclusive block in the city, and Rice resides on North Lake Shore Drive. They prefer designer clothes by Richard Tyler and Jil Sander. Jarrett lives at 50th and the lake, a mile from where she grew up, and wears St. John knits. Each woman has a daughter, and all three of the children attend the University of Chicago Lab School. Rice and Jarrett are divorced; Rogers is going through a divorce. Together they sit on 21 boards—and two of them (Rice and Rogers) recently caused a bit of a fracas when they left the Museum of Contemporary Art’s board of trustees. (Technically, Rice resigned with a year of her three-year term remaining; Rogers’s term expired, and she asked not to serve another one.)

Now, the differences: Rice is the heir to a dynasty. Her parents are pillars in the African American community in Chicago and nationally, and she, as their only living child, carries on their legacy. “Linda comes from tremendous privilege,” says Hartfield, “yet people are always amazed that she is such a human being.” Rice is outgoing, a laugh-out-loud, lay-it-on-the-line kind of gal. She is, by far, the most accessible of the group.

One of Jarrett’s grandfathers was Robert Taylor, once the head of the Chi­cago Housing Authority. In her own way, she has continued in a similar role. She is the most politically minded of the three women. She has the ability to focus with high-powered concentration and then shift that attention to the next subject. “Because of her political connections,” says one observer, “she has to be very careful about making alliances.”

Rogers originally came on the scene because of her marriage, but through her hard work, volunteerism, and social appearances, she has carved out a place of her own. With her tall, willowy figure, she is the most striking of the three; she is also the most inscrutable, sometimes coming across to new acquaintances as aloof. But “in her group of trusted friends,” says a regular on the social scene, “she can be the life of the party.”

In many ways, it is not surprising that the three are one another’s confidantes and cheerleaders. Who else understands the pressures, the history, the dreams for the future? “So much of what I do is so strictly confidential,” says Jarrett, “that it’s nice to be able to discuss, or vent, or laugh about something and not read about it in the newspaper the next day. And I know the others feel the same way.”

Here, then, is a portrait of three outstanding women and one amazing friendship.

 

THE IMAGE MAKER

“You’re not going to be talking to me about socialite kinds of things, are you?” asks Desirée Rogers. “I may be in the paper from time to time, but I am a serious businesswoman.”

That is obvious from Rogers’s résumé. She holds a B.A. in political science from Wellesley College and that M.B.A. from Harvard. During her ten- ure as the director of the Illinois Lottery, from 1991 to 1997, instant ticket sales more than doubled, thanks in large part to Rogers’s innovative theme marketing. Three years ago, she joined Peoples Energy as the vice-president of corporate communications and is helping oversee an extensive “branding campaign” designed to present a more unified, easily identifiable public image.

“We are a 150-year-old company,” Rogers says, sitting in her large, sparely decorated office at Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue. “But, really, energy is not something you think about. You expect it to work; you get your bill, you pay it.” As markets are deregulated, however, Rogers’s job is to make her company stand out. The project started with putting its local utility companies such as Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas under the corporate umbrella of Peoples Energy. Then Rogers oversaw the updating of the company’s logo to a design that now appears on everything from banners at sporting events to the Peoples Energy trucks.  “It’s a matter of thinking about how my product touches people’s lives and how can I make people aware of that,” she says.

In person, Rogers is formidable. Wearing a perfectly tailored gray glen plaid suit and black suede heels that add several inches to her five-foot ten-inch height, she looks aggressively regal. Her manner, which is cool and clipped, matches her appearance. But her friends say there is more to Rogers than immediately presents itself. “I think people often find Desirée cold, even to the point of frosty at first,” says Linda Johnson Rice. “But that’s an initial reaction. Underneath, she is a warm and funny person.”

Rogers was born in New Orleans, where her parents, Roy and Joyce Glapion, were hardworking and community oriented. Her mother owned and ran daycare centers (Rogers’s sister-in-law now oversees the business); her father was a public school teacher and a junior high basketball coach who, after retiring from that career, became a beloved city councilman. When he died of cancer in December 1999, a horse-drawn hearse carried his coffin through the city’s streets. The Times-Picayune called it “as big a jazz funeral as any in recent memory,” estimating that nearly 2,000 mourners had joined the marching throng. Rogers’s mother is now waging a campaign to assume her late husband’s city council seat.

“My parents were always passionate about what they were involved in,” says Rogers, “and they passed that kind of passion on to me. They always stressed, Get a good education, do your best work, and be so passionate that your passion becomes contagious.”

After she finished school, Rogers worked briefly as a marketing manager for AT&T in New Jersey. But the East, she thought, lacked a certain kind of hospitality that she, growing up in the South, was used to. She moved to Chicago in 1986, she says, because it combined “both big city sensibilities and graciousness.”

In 1988, she married John Rogers, and they have a daughter, Victoria, who is ten. In 1998, the two separated amicably and began divorce proceedings. “It was one of those matches that looked perfect on paper—two smart, accomplished, business-savvy people,” says one insider, “but there was a real clash of styles. John is painfully shy, and he won’t eat anything fancier than hamburgers. Desirée, although reserved, is much more outgoing. And her tastes are high-octane sophisticated. In many ways, it’s amazing that they stayed together as long as they did.”

On her own, it is hardly surprising that Rogers is wary of being miscast as a socialite. For years, her boldface name has punctuated the personality columns of the newspapers. “It’s hard not to know Desirée,” says Susan Sher, the vice-president and general counsel for the University of Chicago Hospitals. “She goes to a million events.” Part of that had to do with her high-profile job as the director of the lottery; it was also dictated by her high-profile marriage. And then there are her clothes. “She chooses the best designers,” says one regular on the social scene, “but both she and Linda [Rice] go for designers who have a flamboyant flair. These are not button-down Anne Klein kinds of people.”

Little wonder, then, that a miniscandal erupted when Rogers and Rice—along with Linda Walker Bynoe and Maria Bechily—left the Museum of Contemporary Art’s board last January. The four were the only female minority members among the 63 trustees, and when the story appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business, the departures were played up as a protest against the museum’s slow pace to diversify.

“It’s in the past,” says  Rogers. “I have nothing to say about it.”

But those closely involved with the museum are still abuzz over what prompted the exits and the bad publicity. Many people believe that a plan “was hatched” during a trip that Rice and Rogers took to Las Vegas last fall to celebrate Rogers’s 40th birthday. Several other women who have no connection with the museum, however—including Jarrett—were also on that trip. Others close to the museum believe that the withdrawals came as a reaction to a controversial exhibition there of work by the African American artist Laylah Ali. Called Small Aggressions, the show featured cartoon figures as both victims and perpetrators of whipping, spanking, torture, and hanging. A reviewer for the Chicago Tribune wrote that Ali’s works “pare the complexity of power relationships, racism and violence to stick-like figures placed in simple compositions.”

“I doubt that show had anything to do with the resignations,” says Ronne Hartfield, a former executive at the Art Institute of Chicago who has been hired as a diversity consultant by the Museum of Contemporary Art. “But many in the black community here were not thrilled with Laylah Ali’s work. She is big in New York, but she doesn’t play well here. However, the MCA did bring in Hyde Park painter Kerry James Marshall to speak, and the black community was very pleased with his lecture.”

According to someone close to both sides, the departures must be seen on an individual basis rather than as a sweeping protest. “Linda Bynoe left at the end of her term because of family health problems,” this source says. “And she can’t be too mad at the MCA because she is underwriting the hiring of Hartfield as a diversity consultant. Rice and Bechily [the latter owns a Hispanic-oriented public relations firm] are overwhelmed with business matters, although they have been active at the MCA in the past. Desirée’s term was up and, I think, she was feeling a little bruised because of her divorce. She wished she’d had more personal attention. In that case, it wasn’t about diversity so much as the MCA board not being a particularly welcoming or validating group.”

Sources say that since the departures, Rogers and Robert Fitzpatrick, the director and chief executive officer of the Museum of Contemporary Art, have had several “successful” breakfast meetings and that both sides simply want the uproar to fade away. “I am grateful for their efforts on behalf of the museum, and was sorry to lose them as trustees,” Fitzpatrick says of the four women.

Rogers is quick to point out that she currently sits on five boards—at the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Museum of Science and Industry, Ravinia, WTTW, and the Smithsonian Institution. “You have to figure out, What mark do I want to make?” she says. “And while it’s difficult to say no to great groups that are doing wonderful work, you can’t be everything to everybody. I have to figure out where my skills can be the most helpful.”

According to Kevin Bell, the president and chief executive officer of the Lincoln Park Zoo, Rogers is a prized addition to the zoo board. “Desirée has brought Peoples Energy money to fund our traveling zoo,” Bell says. “She has also worked hard to think of new methods of interactive learning.” To that end, Rogers was instrumental in the creation of a new carousel at the zoo, this one featuring endangered species.

None of this leaves much leisure time. When she can, Rogers likes to exercise by cardio kickboxing. And she and Rice and their two daughters try to have Sunday dinner together every week. She values her friendships going back a dozen years. “Valerie and Linda are both confidantes and colleagues,” she says. “I can bounce business ideas off them, and I can let my hair down with them. That’s a rare combination.”

As for the future, some say that Rogers may follow in her father’s footsteps and go into politics. According to sources, she was one of three final candidates considered to run for Illinois lieutenant governor with George Ryan, losing out to Corinne Wood.

“I want to run a business,” says Rogers. “That’s my goal. A large business.”

Government is a large business, isn’t it?

She laughs. “I’m not sure I’m that ambitious.”

 

Photograph by Tom Maday

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