In ELLE.com's monthly series Office Hours, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, worst jobs, and everything in between.
If you know anything about Symone Sanders' meteoric rise, you'd probably assume she's an expert at asking for what she wants. As reported in Fortune's latest "40 under 40", Sanders was only 25 when she became the national press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign.
She then moved on to CNN, working as a commentator and analyst, before being recruited by a handful of 2020 candidates. Ultimately, she chose Joe Biden, becoming one of his senior advisors, the youngest in his "inner circle" and his highest-ranking Black staffer. Sanders isn't afraid to tackle protestors, call out rude guests, be Baited—or speak up when she discovered she was being left out of a daily call for top Biden strategists.
But don’t be mistaken. “It is not what I want,” Sanders explains. “It is what I've worked for.”
Below, the now 30-year-old, reflects on that work, including the job she’d never want to do again and the career advice that changed her life.
My very first job
It was at Time Out Foods in Omaha, Nebraska, and I was a cashier. Time Out is this local, Black-owned restaurant, and they serve the absolute best fried chicken and dirty rice I have ever had. Working that job is what let me know I needed to get good grades because I hate to mop.
The job I'd never want to do again
I interned at a law firm while I was in college. Part of my job was Bates stamping, and it was the most boring thing I have ever done in my life. That's when I realized the firm life was really not for me, and perhaps I didn't want to go to law school and be an attorney and become a judge.
My true dream job
My actual dream job would be to either have my own show or be one of the co-hosts on The View. I think the people on The View—Joy Behar, Whoopi, Sunny Hostin, and company—they have the coolest jobs in America.
The worst career advice I've ever received
The worse career advice I think I ever got was someone telling me not to take the Sanders press secretary job in 2015. They said it would ruin my career, I would be branded for life, and I would never be able to get another job.
What my work/life balance looks like
In the current campaign, there is some semblance of work-life balance because I'm at home with my partner all day long. We have dinner every night. I woke up this morning, and I cleaned the kitchen. Those are things that I was not doing seven months ago, let alone things I'd be doing 50 days out from election day, if we weren't all working from home. Part of it is really carving out time, so when we are having dinner I do not take phone calls. I will probably answer some emails. If people text me, I will text back, but I don't take phone calls. There are days where I just need to leave the house, so I will do a mobile order at Starbucks. I will take two meetings in the car just so I can get a change of scenery. Those are the ways that I find sanity in this crazy work-from-home world.
A lesson I learned the hard way
When I worked for Senator Sanders, I remember we had a press conference in Baltimore. Earlier that day, Senator Sanders went on a walking tour of Freddie Gray's neighborhood. Freddie Gray was a gentleman who died in police custody in Baltimore. After the tour, I went out to brief the reporters. I made a joke—it was not a good joke—and said, "Guys, we're in Baltimore today, so can you please try to ask some questions about Baltimore, and not make all your questions about ISIS?" Because it was at the time where people were asking Senator Sanders about ISIS a lot.
As soon as I walk out of the room, a couple of the reporters tweet that Bernie Sanders' press secretary just told us not to ask about ISIS. It was so terrible. It was blowing up. Senator Sanders had to go out there and do this press conference, and of course that was the first question. I just slinked to the back of the room. The next day, I saw Senator Sanders in our campaign office, and he came over to me, and I'm like, I'm definitely getting in trouble. He said, "I think you've learned your lesson." I said, "I think I have, sir. I don't have any jokes for the reporters, not one joke, and I don't have any sarcasm." He said, "Okay. All right." But I was really devastated. What I learned is that everything you say, especially in the role of a press secretary or a communications person, in the presence of reporters without some caveats is, in fact, reportable. We have to be sharp, and when I am not sharp, I have the potential to make my principal look bad, and if I'm doing that, I'm not doing my job.
How I know when to ask for more
I realized that if I would like the things I believed I had worked for, I had to ask for them because no one is just going to give them to me. If you have done the work, if you are capable, and you have earned what it is that you are asking for, you should feel emboldened and empowered to ask for it. I didn't ask to be the press secretary for Senator Sanders in 2015 and then not know how to write a press release or pitch reporters. It would have been very problematic if I didn't know how to do the job. You don't ask to get into a meeting and then never have anything to contribute. If we are asking for the things that we believe we've worked for, that we believe we deserve, we have to be able to perform when we get there.
Why I always take the meeting
The best career advice I got was someone encouraging me to sit down with the vice president's then-campaign manager, Greg Schultz, and then the vice president. Joe Biden has been in public office for 47 years. I incorrectly assumed there was no space for me in his orbit. Getting to know folks who have worked for the vice president, getting to know the vice president and Dr. Biden personally, just really being welcomed into the Biden family, that's what has been most amazing about this experience.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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