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Arianna Huffington is a writer, speaker, entrepreneur and media powerhouse best known for co-founding the popular website The Huffington Post. She’s also the founder of Thrive Global, a leading behavior change tech company with the mission of changing the way we work and live by ending the collective delusion that burnout is the price we must pay for success. Born in Athens, Greece, and fueled by her mother’s endless encouragement, Arianna has traveled across the globe promoting the power that can come when we take time to recharge and connect with our own strength and wisdom. Today, Arianna continues to inspire women and girls to live fearlessly and not be afraid of failure.
Tanja Babich is a news anchor for ABC 7 Chicago’s Eyewitness News in the Morning and is the daughter of Chilean and Serbian immigrants. In this interview, she talks to us about how we can cover the news of our own communities and shares tips for parents on talking to their kids about current events.
TANJA BABICH Once upon a time, there was a girl who would use her wit and determination to bring meaningful conversations into homes across the globe. Her name is Arianna.
BABICH Arianna grew up in Athens, Greece, in the 1950s, where she lived in a one-bedroom apartment with her mother, Elli, and her sister Agapi.
Arianna’s mother had never gone to college. But she loved to read, and had taught herself four languages. When Arianna was young, she was often found sitting at their kitchen table, devouring her mother’s delicious cooking and talking about Greek philosophy.
Arianna admired her mother and wanted to be brave like her. Elli had once been in the Greek Resistance, which secretly fought against the Nazis during World War II. She had also taken a huge risk when she separated from Arianna’s father, raising Arianna and her sister mostly on her own.
Armed with her mother’s endless advice and stacks of books, Arianna wanted to take risks for what she believed in.
And more than anything, she wanted to be fearless.
BABICH I’m Tanja Babich, and this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Arianna Huffington.
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BABICH Even though her parents were separated, Arianna often spent time with her father, who was a journalist. She loved the world he lived in: the world of words and ideas. But her father struggled with money. Most of his publications failed, and he eventually went bankrupt.
At that time, most Greeks saved money to pay for their daughters’ dowries – which is money a family gives to a woman’s future husband when they get engaged. But Elli, Arianna’s mother, told her daughters, “Your education is your dowry.”
Unable to rely on her former husband’s income, Elli borrowed money from family members, sold her gold earrings, and even sold the family’s beautiful heirloom rugs. After paying for bills and groceries, she put whatever she could toward her daughters’ education.
BABICH One day, when Arianna was 15 years old, she saw a photo of the University of Cambridge in England on the cover of a magazine. She brought the magazine home, threw it on the kitchen table, and told her mother, “I want to go there.”
When she told her friends she wanted to go to Cambridge, they told her it would never happen. It would cost a lot of money and the entrance exams were very difficult. And…Arianna spoke no English!
But her mother didn’t laugh. Her mother said, “If you want to go there, let’s see how we can make it happen.” Her mother never doubted her. So Arianna studied hard, learned English, and when the time came, she passed the entrance exam.
But there was one last hurdle — an in-person interview at the school itself.
So Elli scraped together the money for Arianna to travel to Cambridge. In the elevator going up to the interview, there were 11 other young women. One of them said “One of us is going to get in. That one is going to be me.”
Anxiety and self-doubt bubbled up inside of Arianna. But then she heard her mother’s voice in her head: “Even if you don’t get in, that’s not the end of the world — I won’t love you any less. Failure is not the opposite of success. Failure is a stepping stone to success.”
Arianna completed her interview, and soon after she found out that not only was she accepted to Cambridge…but she had also won a scholarship!
At just 17, she packed her bags and courageously set off for her new adventure.
BABICH Life at Cambridge was very different from life in Greece. While Greece was full of sunny days and sea breezes, England was damp and dreary.
Arianna had a hard time with her heavy Greek accent and the constant rain, and of course, being away from her family.
But there was one place that Arianna felt at home: The Cambridge Union, one of the most prestigious debating societies in the world.
Arianna watched students debate each other. She loved seeing the power of words move people’s minds and hearts. One day, Arianna took a risk and joined a debate herself.
When she spoke, though, the other students laughed at her heavy accent.
Arianna was embarrassed, but this only inspired her to work harder. She practiced and practiced. She debated more…and she lost more.
And then one day, she won.
Arianna was elated.
By her final year at Cambridge, she was elected president of the Cambridge Union — the first foreign student — and only the third woman — to do so.
BABICH In 1972, when Arianna was in her last year at Cambridge, she received a letter from a publisher. He’d seen one of her debates on TV, and he wanted her to write a book.
At the time, Arianna had plans to get a graduate degree at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. So she sent a reply saying, “thank you, but I don’t know how to write a book.” The publisher didn’t give up and eventually, convinced Arianna to write her first book, The Female Woman.
It was an instant bestseller and was translated into 25 languages.
At 23, Arianna was a well-known author whose work had become part of an international conversation about the role of women in modern society.
But something was missing.
BABICH Arianna thought there must be more to life than work, success, and money.
She just wasn’t sure what that was yet.
She worked hard on a second book, but when she sent it out to publishers, it was met with rejections. A lot of them — 37 to be exact. She finally got a yes on number 38.
She was also deeply in love with a brilliant writer and theater critic, Bernard Levin. They stayed together for seven years and loved each other fiercely.
But as time went on, one very important difference drove them apart: Arianna wanted children. Bernard…wanted cats.
BABICH Arianna came to the hard realization that she needed to move on. And for her, moving on meant leaving London. It would be too hard to stay in the city that held so many of their memories.
So, Arianna took another chance, and decided to build a new life for herself in the United States.
BABICH Arianna arrived in New York City armed with a handful of contacts and letters-of-introduction from her friends back home in London. She had no plan, other than to keep writing and to meet as many interesting people as possible.
The politicians, artists, activists, and other New Yorkers who Arianna met adored her. People were drawn to her bright smile, her quick wit, and the intense way she looked at them when they spoke — as if they were the only person in the world. This was a trait she got from her mother, who always lived in the moment.
BABICH The more people Arianna met, the more interested she became in politics. That interest was only fueled by her marriage to Michael Huffington.
Michael and Arianna were introduced by a mutual friend, and they connected instantly over their spirituality and their drive to find meaning and purpose in life.
After they married in 1986, Michael turned his eye toward politics and in 1992, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Arianna embraced her new role as a politician’s wife, but one of her greatest dreams had also come true: She had given birth to two baby girls.
But after 11 years together her marriage to Michael fractured. And in 1997, they divorced.
BABICH As Arianna’s career rocketed ahead, she suffered other personal losses.
In 2000, Arianna’s parents died within months of each other. A few years later Bernard Levin, her former partner who had continued to be one of her best friends, passed away. Arianna ached from each loss. She was especially heartbroken by the death of her mother, who had always been her greatest cheerleader.
During these years, Arianna had continued writing columns, and began putting them on the internet, on a site called Arianna Online, which allowed her to engage with her readers. She saw how many people wanted to be a part of the conversation, but wouldn’t think of creating their own platforms.
So in 2005 she launched The Huffington Post.
The idea was to take the sort of conversations found at offices and around dinner tables and open them up and bring them online.
BABICH She, and her friend and co-founder Kenneth Lerer, wanted the site to be a combination of an online newspaper and a collective blog, allowing people to add their voice to the conversation.
To start, Arianna talked to all her friends: artists, politicians, activists, scientists, and writers and asked them to write blogs — simple posts just expressing their points of view on topics they cared about.
BABICH The Huffington Post launched in 2005, when Arianna was 55 years old. At first, critics said it was terrible. Others proclaimed that it wouldn’t last.
But everyday people felt differently. They flocked to Arianna’s site to read what people had to say, or to sign up as bloggers themselves and join the conversation.
More and more people started visiting The Huffington Post. By 2006, the site had millions of readers, and by 2011, it boasted 37 million visitors per month!
Arianna’s new venture was a huge success.
BABICH Arianna was proud of what she and her team had accomplished. But to get there, she worked nonstop. When she wasn’t managing The Huffington Post, she was writing books, doing TV interviews, and speaking at conferences. In between all of this, she was also raising her two teenage daughters.
One morning in 2007, it all became too much. At the end of a week visiting colleges with her daughter during the days, and staying up most of the nights working, Arianna collapsed at her home and ended up with a broken cheekbone and a cut over her eye that needed five stitches.
Finally, after a number of tests, the doctors gave her the diagnosis: she was suffering from an acute case of burnout.
So Arianna asked herself a lot of questions about the kind of life she was living, like, was this the life she wanted? Is this really what success looks like? And gradually she began to make changes.
BABICH Arianna kept running The Huffington Post, but she also started exploring bigger questions.
She was passionate about helping people live better lives. She wrote two books about it that were instant bestsellers. And then she realized…it was time to make another leap.
She left The Huffington Post to launch Thrive Global where she helps people boost both their well-being and productivity.
At the heart of her new adventure was one simple question. One that Greek philosophers often wrestled with. The question was ‘What is a good life?’”
In her work and in every aspect of her life, Arianna continues to seek out the answer to this question.
BABICH She has published 15 books, is a world-renowned speaker and has now launched and run two successful companies. In all her big ventures, career moves, and leaps into the unknown, Arianna has carried her failures and successes with her—and learned to embrace them both.
“When we are fearlessly who we are,” she says, “we don’t need external validation, just an opportunity to express ourselves, live fully, and serve the world.”
Today’s episode was hosted by Tanja Babich. Journalist, Anchor for ABC 7 Chicago, and mother to three Rebel Girls!
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls and Boom Integrated, a division of John Marshall Media. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.
Our Executive Producers are Jes Wolfe and Katie Sprenger. This season was produced by John Marshall Cheary, Sarah Storm, and Robin Lai. Corinne Peterson is our Production Manager. This episode was written by Alexis Stratton and edited by Katie Sprenger. Proofread by Ariana Rosas.
Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi who has also sound designed this episode. Mattia Marcelli was the sound mixer.
Until next time… Stay tuned and stay rebel!