That Made All the Difference - Season 1
Sometimes, one moment can change everything. In this season of the podcast, host and Bank of America executive Alicia Burke explores the defining moments that inspired achievers to make a difference.
SEASON 1: EPISODE 6 Arianna Huffington, Founder and CEO of Thrive Global
Arianna worked around the clock on her company HuffPost until she collapsed on the floor. This "wake-up call" launched a new mission: to help people avoid burnout.
Arianna Huffington: I got up and I collapsed. I hit my head on my desk, broke my cheekbone. The medical conclusion was, "Arianna, you have civilization's disease. Burnout." And he said, “There’s nothing the medical profession can do for you. You have to change your life.”
Alicia Burke: That’s Arianna Huffington. In 2007 she was working 18-hour days to turn The Huffington Post into a media powerhouse.
But reshaping the media landscape for the internet era had its costs. After years of prioritizing work over everything else, she finally focused on her own wellness, simultaneously opening up a brand new chapter of her career.
I'm Alicia Burke and this is “That Made All The Difference”, an original podcast from Bank of America where we talk to people about the moments that changed the course of their lives. And inspired in them the power to move forward. We’ll meet people who have made a positive impact on the world, and on the lives of others.
I sat down with Arianna at the New York office of her company, Thrive Global. I wanted to know where her drive to challenge the status quo began.
Arianna Huffington: So I was very blessed to grow up with an amazing mother. We lived in this one-bedroom apartment in Athens, Greece, and she always made us feel that we were bigger than our circumstances.
Arianna Huffington: Even though we had no money, I never grew up feeling, "Oh, we have no money." She was the kind of mother who cooks all the time, and our little kitchen was like a sanctuary. Any problems we had, any upsets, we would discuss them. It was like a real center for therapy, food, love.
We would sit around the table and talk about everything. And she would bring out more and more food. (Laughs)
Alicia Burke: And that really set you on your way. And I also love her approach to food, I have to say. I always feel if I’ve made something and the kitchen smells good, the kids will come in and be happy and will have food karma.
Arianna Huffington: A pivotal moment was when I saw a picture of Cambridge University on the cover of a magazine as I was walking home from school. I rushed home and told my mother I want to go there, and everybody else I said that to responded very rationally with the fact that, "You don't speak English, you don't have money, and it's really hard for even English girls to go there." But my mother said, "Well, let's find out how you go there." The best thing about that whole journey was that she never made me feel that if I didn't get into Cambridge, I wouldn't be worth anything or she wouldn't love me as much as she did, any of those things that often stop people from taking risks.
Alicia Burke: Arianna made her dream a reality, and went to Cambridge, where she studied economics and became president of the debate society.
She credits her education and her mother’s encouragement as the foundation of the writing career she’s become famous for. Arianna moved to the United States and eventually launched The Huffington Post, which started with the humble belief that bloggers could be serious contributors to the modern political and cultural conversation.
Arianna Huffington: So we started very, very small. It's hard even to remember what the media industry was like at the time, but definitely, bloggers were people who were held in contempt as working in their parent's basements in their pajamas because they couldn't get a job. And the first thing that I wanted to achieve with HuffPost was to elevate blogging,
When the HuffPost was launched, the reviews were very mixed. Some of them were downright negative. I remember one of them by heart. The writer said, "HuffPost is an unsurvivable failure. It's the equivalent of movies like Gigli, Heaven's Gate. All movie flops, all rolled into one." A year later, she emailed me, the writer, and said, "I was wrong. HuffPost has become an indispensable part of the internet. Would love to write for you."
Alicia: Wow. What did you say?
Arianna Huffington: I said yes because I never believe in holding grudges.
Alicia Burke: Good for you. You remember the comment, but you moved on.
Arianna Huffington: Yes. I do remember. It was very evocative. (Laughs)
Alicia Burke: Well everyone is wanting to see what you are putting out and I would imagine the atmosphere is pretty intense. Can you talk a little bit about your own work balance, and life balance?
Arianna Huffington: It is nonexistent. I was the divorced mother of two daughters, I was the founder of HuffPost, and I had bought into the collective delusion that I could be super-mom and super-founder, and sacrifice my sleep and everything else that would help me recharge, and that's what I had to do. And two years into building HuffPost, I collapsed.
Alicia Burke: Take us to that day in 2007 when everything changed for you.
Arianna Huffington: What is ironic is that if you had asked me that morning, "How are you, Arianna?" I would have said, "Fine," because I had gotten so used to running on empty that it had become my new normal.
I got up to get a sweater because I was cold, and I collapsed. I hit my head on my desk, broke my cheekbone. When something happens like that, you go through a litany of tests, MRIs, echocardiogram, to see if you have a brain tumor or heart defect, and basically, the medical conclusion summed up by a great doctor was, "Arianna, you have civilization's disease. Burnout." And he said, "There's nothing the medical profession can do for you. You have to change your life."
I took that very seriously, being a kind of nerd, I also started studying and looking at all the science and data and seeing that actually, hundreds of millions of people were suffering from burnout.
Alicia Burke: And when you say you took it seriously, and you're a very curious person, how did you change things in your own life?
Arianna Huffington: I changed my own life dramatically. Sleep is non-negotiable. I saw very easily that I'm an eight-hour girl. And when I get eight hours, I wake up, and I feel ready to take on any challenge, and to also bring joy into what I'm doing. But also, I launched a dedicated section on HuffPost on sleep. And I remember my board issued a complaint saying, "a sleep section is not a serious thing," because at the time it wasn't a serious thing. That's one of the things that has changed. Practically everybody I know now is willing to acknowledge that they are exhausted or stressed out or overwhelmed, while in 2007, we're all walking around wearing our busyness and our sleep deprivation like badges of honor.
Alicia Burke: Once again, you were a pioneer. I read The Sleep Revolution, and loved it and found out I'm a nine-hour girl. I learned so much, not only about me and what I needed, but about my family, And I know during that time you wrote Thrive and in 2016, you decided to leave The Huffington Post. How did you know it was time?
Arianna Huffington: So, in 2014, I published Thrive, and I was in Hongzhou, speaking at the first women's conference that Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba had organized. He had listened to my speech which was all about Thrive. And he said to me, "You know, if I were you, I would leave the Huffington Post and launch a company on the themes that you discussed today in your speech." And if you decide to do it, I'll invest in it."
And at the time I honestly thought that was a crazy idea. I was polite, and I kind of smiled and nodded, but it was as though he had planted a seed.
And by 2016, two years later I realized that I really, really wanted to do this full-time. I had been running the Huffington Post for 11 years. And I decided that it was time to leave and launch a new company. We called it Thrive Global, not just because we could get the URL-
Alicia Burke: Although that's always important.
Arianna Huffington: Although that's very important, but because we really do believe that burnout and the consequences are a global problem, and the solutions are global.
Arianna Huffington: I'm now so convinced that when I take care of myself, I'm actually a better founder, more creative, I'm more empathetic, I'm better at dealing with the inevitable challenges of starting a new company. So I have no doubt about that.
The whole foundation of Thrive is how to help people move from awareness to action. And that's why Thrive is a behavior change company. Making small incremental daily changes that build muscle in this new direction is the way to go.
Alicia Burke: In terms of how you've set the culture for your employees at Thrive Global, can you name a couple that may be different from when you had started HuffPo?
Arianna Huffington: Yes, absolutely. So we made it very clear that we are not a laid back company. That's not what “Thriving” is. We are a very ambitious company with big goals and objectives and a big mission, and we make that very clear when we hire. Because sometimes people may think that this is a good place to chill under a mango tree, and it's not. You may have to pull an all-nighter to ship a product. If you have a client presentation, you may have to work extra hard over the weekend to get that ready, but the difference is that then, we ask you to take Thrive time.
Arianna Huffington: We ask you to take that time immediately. Otherwise, you forfeit it because if you don't, that's when you're more likely to get sick.
Alicia Burke: It catches up with you.
Arianna Huffington: Very quickly. Look around you. I'm sure among your colleagues you can see somebody may have pushed hard, come back from an international trip, kept working and then they get sick. So who benefits? (Laughs)
Alicia Burke: Absolutely.
Arianna Huffington: It's just so hard to look around and see the casualties proliferating.
Alicia Burke: Well, and because of you, I've evolved. There is some advice you had given, and it's around putting on your out-of-office when you go on vacation. And for a few years, I have not been doing that. I think I... self-inflicted wound, but a feeling like if for some reason someone realizes I'm on vacation, or feels like they can't get to me, that will be a weakness. So I recently put on my out-of-office, I was on vacation and it was so freeing // The other piece is where I have still a ways to go, Arianna I realized recently when a colleague in the spring took a two and a half week vacation, and I jokingly called it his sabbatical, and I did it a couple times. I think I vacation shamed him and even though it was a joke, I think that that is not okay to do. So I apologized, and it was through all of your work and what you do with Thrive Global that I became aware of it.
Arianna Huffington: But what is so interesting is that we are all works in progress. Nobody's doing this journey perfectly, and I know I'm very conscious of that. Part of it, Alicia, is because we are swimming against the cultural current. So even though the culture is changing, the dominant culture is still rewarding people who don't take vacations or are available during vacations, or are always on, or answer texts in the middle of the night. And we are in the spirit of transition, where multiple behaviors are coexisting, but that's why what I love is about you and so many leaders who are becoming new role models.
Alicia Burke: That's progress. I just listened to your new podcast, Meditative Story,
Meditative Story Clip
which I love, which to me is incredible because it is both riveting and calming at the same time.
Arianna Huffington: Beautiful. I'm writing that down. I love it.
Alicia Burke: Oh, great. You can take it.
Arianna Huffington: We are never going to be able to eliminate stress from our lives, but we can course-correct from stress very quickly if we are conscious. So Meditative Story, by bringing together storytelling that is riveting, and mindfulness and nudges can help us de-stress Here you get into meditation in a way that is not obtuse.
Alicia Burke: You don't even know it.
Arianna Huffington: You don't even know it, suddenly you have the sounds and the music…
I've always loved to meet people where they are. If you don't want to meditate, that's fine. I'll find another way to get to you. And so in a way what I'm saying to everyone is that we all have that place in us of peace and strength and calm and wisdom, and we just need to give ourselves a few moments to connect with it.
Alicia Burke: Arianna, my last question for you is, can you just share your pre-bed ritual?
Arianna Huffington: Yes. (Laughs) Going to sleep and staying asleep is becoming a major modern challenge. Most people, literally, are on their phones until the last moment, then put their phone on the nightstand and turn off the light. They may go to sleep because they're exhausted physically, but their brains have not slowed down so it'll wake them up in the middle of the night and then it's harder to go to sleep. My transition ritual is to pick a time at the end of the day, that you declare the end of your working day.
Arianna Huffington: And we declare it by turning off our phone and charging it outside our bedroom. That's the ritual. And I end the day by writing down three things I'm grateful for from that day. It could be tiny things like being here with you today will make the list because that has been an inspiring conversation, it could be my cafe latte, it could be anything that was a joy trigger.
Alicia Burke: Well, Arianna, thank you. I will be charging my phone outside my bedroom tonight, and thank you for recharging us.
Arianna Huffington: Thank you so much. Thank you.
Alicia Burke: If you find Arianna’s journey as interesting as I do, you may want to check out the podcast she mentioned: Thrive Global’s Meditative Story.
You’ve been listening to “That Made All The Difference.” You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
And while you’re there, be sure to check out some of Bank of America’s other original podcasts, like The World To Come, where we explore life in the future, by talking with the visionaries of today. And Merrill Perspectives, where you’ll hear insights into topics that are making their way from the news headlines,right to your kitchen table.
I’m Alicia Burke, thanks so much for joining us this season; I hope that listening to these stories has helped you look at your own life, or business, and inspired in you the power to move forward. Thanks again for listening, and I’ll talk to you soon.
© 2023 Bank of America Corporation. All rights reserved.
SEASON 1: EPISODE 5 Sal Khan, Educator and Founder of Khan Academy
When Sal tutored his young long-distance cousin in math, it sparked the inspiration for a non-profit that would provide a free world-class education for anyone, anywhere.
Sal Khan: There was a mother in the early days who he said both my sons have a learning disability and your lessons are the only way that they're able to keep up with their class. And through these letters and through these interactions with my cousins I started to discover what people would call a sense of purpose.
Alicia Burke: Sal Khan is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur of a different strain; there’s no IPO in his future because the company he built is a nonprofit, one with the ambitious goal of reshaping education on a global scale.
Through tutoring his cousin in math, he discovered a way to help millions learn at their own pace. The results are inspiring and the free online institution Khan Academy continues to grow.
I'm Alicia Burke and this is ‘That Made All The Difference’, an original podcast from Bank of America where we talk to people about moments that changed the course of their lives, and inspired in them the power to move forward. We’ll meet people who have made a positive impact on the world, and on the lives of others.
I am happy to be speaking with Sal Khan today. I caught up with Sal in Palo Alto near the Khan Academy headquarters.
Alicia Burke: Sal, how would you describe what the Khan Academy is, and who's it for?
Sal Khan: The Khan Academy is a not-for-profit with a mission of providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere, and also, to allow people, even folks who might have access to an education, to be able to do it in a way that's much more custom to their needs. We are trying to cover, essentially all of the core of someone's education, and eventually connect it to opportunities.
Alicia Burke: So really, it spans from, you can learn something from scratch, or, you have a gap. You were at your course this week, and you just didn't get that part of the concept that your teacher was trying to share with you,
Sal Khan: That's right. We have about 17 million people of all ages. I sometimes say young people, but there's actually some people who are, you know, middle-aged or more. Of those 17 million people who come every month, a good chunk of them are people who, maybe they have a chemistry exam the next day, and they don't understand what's going on in class, the textbook's not helping them, and they might go to Khan Academy. We get a lot of letters from adult learners, folks who maybe are leaving the military, and want to go back to college and say, you know, "I haven't seen math in 10 years, but I'm using Khan Academy to refresh, but also build my knowledge to go back to school." Over 2 million of those 17 million, are students in classrooms using a tool like Khan Academy, the teachers are able to allow every student to learn at their own time and pace, and it's all free, and it's all non-commercial.
Alicia Burke: I love that. I actually have a 14 year old son, and a 12 year old daughter, and my 14 year old son Charlie said, "Oh, that's so cool, Mom. You're interviewing Sal. That's what I've used when I needed help.”
Sal Khan: Yeah, you know, if, for any parents listening, who might not be fully familiar with Khan Academy, uh, yeah, ask your kids about it. A majority of kids at a lot of grade levels, a lot of age groups, are now using us at least once per year.
Alicia Burke: Sal, I'd love to go back in time a little bit to where it all began for you.
Sal Khan: I was born and raised in New Orleans.Your classic South Asians at that time you know, came, engineers, very straight laced. My family gravitated to New Orleans because it was New Orleans. So in a lot of ways (laughs), lot of ways uh, you know we're, we're a South Asian Bengali family but we are very New Orleanian and all of the eccentricities (laughs) of New Orleans. Is fully embodied in my family. It's a lot of love and let's say not love with each other. (laughs) I was kind of raised, you know, single mother. Uh, she did what it took to support me and my sister. You know, the cashier at the local 7-Eleven. An uncle of mine, who was studying to be an engineer at the University of New Orleans. He was in his 20s, I was, I think seven or eight years old. He's had all this math on this notebook, and I was like, "What is this? What are you doing?" He's like, "Oh, this is calculus."
And I was like, "What- what is calculus?" And he's like, "Oh, well this is math, we're and I said, "Why are you studying?' And he's like, "Oh, I want to become an engineer." And then I remember saying, "Well, I'd like to become an engineer. Can you can you teach me calculus?" (Laughs). He said, "Well, it'll take you a little time to learn calculus," but he told me, "If you want to become an engineer, you should go to MIT." And I had no idea what MIT was, what it stood for, (laughs) where it was, uh, but somehow, when I was eight years old, it got into my head that I should go to MIT.
And I remember when I went to my guidance counselor when I was 16, at Grace King High School, and he says, "Well, where would you like to go to college?" I said, "MIT," and he says, "No one has ever gone in the history of our high school, to MIT, but I guess you can give it a shot." Luckily, things worked out.
Alicia Burke: It really shows what an impact someone can have on you, a loved one especially, or someone you admire. And Sal, I read... that in addition to math and science when you were younger, you were also interested in art, and maybe even being a cartoonist?
Sal Khan: Yeah my mom used to work until 6:00, 7:00 in the evening, so my sister and I would come home from school on the bus, back in the 80s, they called them latchkey kids and we would essentially turn the TV on, and then I would sit and draw for the next four hours or so until my mom came home.
Alicia Burke: I was also a latchkey kid, but I was home watching soap operas and eating Milky Ways, while you were uh, doing all those drawings-
Sal Khan: Oh, I was watching the soap operas. I would watch it all!
Alicia Burke: I'm right there with you. Those also teach you things, mostly what not to do.
Sal Khan: My- my journey has been somewhat unexpected for me. I go to MIT, and I ended up majoring in math and computer science, I ended up coming out to Silicon Valley for my first job, and then, I remember when the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, I immediately said, "Well, maybe I should go to business school." And it was over there that I actually found this real strong interest in finance, and I realized that it was really intellectually stimulating.
I did have in the back of my mind that, hey, it would be nice to pay off debt to- help my family, you know, my mom clearly had no retirement! I got a job at a very small hedge fund based in Boston. It was one guy Dan Wool, he was kind of coming out of his master bedroom to start this fund, and he- he took a chance on me, because I really didn't have any background in it.
Alicia Burke: How did you feel about the hedge fund work?
Sal Khan: You know, I really loved it and I, and I really think it's a testament to Dan, my boss. I assumed I had to work 80 hours a week and I remember one day he saw that I was working, like after the markets closed and he's like "Oh Sal, you should go home." And I said "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm going to go work from home." He's like "No, no. You should go home and do something else." His whole point is our job as investors is not to just churn and tire ourselves out. That's the best way to make bad decisions.
I got married a year out of business school, so I’d been working for Dan for about a year. It was actually right after my wedding that my cousin Nadia, 12 years old, her and her family were visiting me in Boston and I find out she's having trouble in math and I had time- not a ton of time- but I had two or three hours in the afternoon and I said "Hey Nadia, I'm completely convinced you can understand your math, how about when you go back to New Orleans I can tutor you remotely." And she agreed.
First we used to try to type out the math which isn't so easy. And then Yahoo had this little function called Yahoo doodle. You could use your mouse to kind of scribble a little bit. And that kind of worked but then I bought a little pen tablet for me and for her. And so then we were able to write instead of using the mouse, and between a shared digital notepad and our pen tablets and the phone, it really felt like we were at the kitchen table together working through math.
At that point I became what I call a tiger cousin. And I (laughs) I uh, called up her school. I'm sure educators appreciate these types of calls from random people. They said well who are you? I said I'm her cousin. And I said I really think Nadia Rhaman should be able to retake that placement exam from last year and they actually let her and that same Nadia who was a few months ago in a remedial math class was put actually into the advanced math class. I got kind of hooked. It was a fun way to connect with family and it was able to help her. And so I started working with her younger brothers as well.
Alicia Burke: I think that's extraordinary to not only be that connected with your cousins and a much younger cousin, but also really invested in the success of everyone in your family.
Sal Khan: You know when I was leaving for college Nadia was only three years old, but I remember I had baby sat her so I had a connection to her and so it was a fun way for me to not only help her but have a family connection.
Alicia Burke: Not only did it help Nadia, it helped you spark the next thing for you. Did you see a difference in her?
Sal Khan: Oh, it was a night and day difference. And, I don't think anyone has fully dissected it but around eleven twelve you do have a lot of young girls who start to think that they just don't have the math gene, that they're just not cut out for it and that was happening to Nadia. Once she got caught up or even a little ahead of her class she was both happy but she was almost angry because she's like I can't believe this stuff which is now so straightforward and intuitive was what was convincing me that I wasn't smart.
You never want to be a tiger parent. It creates a strange relationship with with your kids. It is great to find a tiger cousin, or a tiger uncle. You know, your children might not want to listen to your career advice or et cetera et cetera, but if there's someone who's kind of half a generation between, they're more likely to uh, I think listen and that's what the connection that Nadia and I had. Word gets around the family that free tutoring was going on so I soon had ten or fifteen cousins, and I saw the same patterns over and over again. I saw that they had gaps in their knowledge they just needed more practice and that was what kind of was the genesis of Khan Academy. I started making tools for them.
Alicia Burke: Sal loved the one on one instruction of tutoring his cousins, but as the demand grew he couldn’t keep up.
A friend suggested he upload lesson videos to YouTube and Sal began using that same tablet to record his pen-strokes; drawing figures and numbers while teaching difficult concepts with humor and zest.
He may not have realized it at the time, but this key transition let his lessons reach far beyond his family and enable the exponential growth of his approach. But it also set up a tough decision about his future.
Sal Khan: Those first videos were in 2006, they're really just things I have to really keep reviewing with my family and after about a month I asked them for feedback and they famously told me that they like me better on YouTube than in person.
And, you know in fairness to them and to me, they were saying hey when it's 10 pm and you're working for a problem set or homework your cousin might not be around but the videos are there. Or if you're in an algebra class and the reason why you're having trouble with that equation is because you forgot how to divide decimals, you might be embarrassed to ask your cousin or your parent or your teacher, but now the videos, there's no judgment.
Alicia Burke: And you could play it again and again. I could see where that non-judgmental factor is so key.
Sal Khan: But yeah so those videos were out there and it soon became clear that people who were not my cousins were watching. Comments started coming on YouTube, a lot of those were just simple thank yous, even that was I thought, a pretty big deal. Most of the comments on YouTube are not thank you. (laughs) A little bit edgier than that.
Uh, but then people started writing this is the reason I was able to pass my algebra class, I thought I was bad at physics but now I love it. There was a mother in the early days who said both my sons have a learning disability and your lessons are the only way that they're able to keep up with their class so me and my family are praying for you and your entire family every night. I mean that's powerful on any level, but you gotta remember my day job I was an analyst at a hedge fund. I was not used to people praying for me. It definitely was a signal to me that something powerful was going on.
Sal Khan: You know so much in life you try to find someway to pay your debts, to get a down payment on a house, and support your family, we had a young child on the way. And through these letters and through these interactions with my cousins I started to discover what people would call a sense of purpose.
All my friends are like oh Sal, so are you going to try to start this into a company or… and I was so protective of it because I was feeling the psychic reward with my cousins and these strangers from around the world I said no no no, this is just my hobby. It almost felt strange to think of it in those terms. And so one thing led to the next by 2008 I incorporated as a not-for-profit.
When the IRS asked you a mission statement I filled out “free world class education for anyone anywhere.” I said I'm going to keep working on this maybe other people will volunteer, maybe some people could donate. But by 2009 it had kind of taken over my life. There were about 50,000 people who were using it on a monthly basis. The letters were just coming in from around the planet, every night. I frankly had trouble focusing on my day job and so uh, I sat down with my wife. We had we had some money saved up for a down payment on a house, our first child had been born. But we figured there's a real thing here so I decide to quit my day job and try to build this nonprofit from scratch.
Alicia Burke: And was that a really difficult decision or was it not a decision because you felt like you had to do it?
Sal Khan: It was both. I- I was convinced that there was something here and that it you know, was 50,000 people in 2009, why can't it be 50 million people one day? Why can't it be 5 billion people one day? Maybe it was a little delusional, I was operating out of a walk in closet (laughs), I spent a lot of time by myself. But on the other hand it was incredibly scary because, you know, I had kind of decided when I was young that I would not have to have the same financial stresses that my family had.
You know a lot of folks I think in that environment kind of, that bit flips like you're not going to be in that same situation.
To think of quitting a good job and career to live off of savings to start a nonprofit that is a little bit non conventional because it's kind of a tech nonprofit. So about 10 months into that we had dipped into our savings about 50 or 60 thousand dollars. Um, I couldn't sleep at night. I would, I mean I would wake up in cold sweats just kind of, "What have I done to my family? What have I done to my career?"
But then I would look at the letters from folks and I was like, "No but there's something here." People were donating to the effort, a few hundred dollars a month were coming in. But then all of a sudden a $10,000 donation came in.
And her name was Anne Dower, she was local, she was based in Palo Alto. I immediately email her and say you know, "Dear Anne, thank you so much. This is the most generous donation that Khan Academy has ever received. If we were a physical school you would now have a building named after you." (Laughs)
And Anne wanted to meet and we had lunch at an Indian buffet restaurant not too far from the studio (laughs) where we are right now and she said, "You know, what's your goal here?"
I told her about the mission free world class education for anyone anywhere. And I remember her saying, "Well that's ambitious.” but I showed her the letters I was getting from around the world. I was showing her how the usage of the software and the videos was growing exponentially. I showed her these tools that I was building for myself as a tutor but already I had some teachers who were using this in their classrooms so they could real do true differentiated instruction for their students. We can cover every subject from pre-K through the core of college. Literally create a world, where anyone on the planet, if you're in a slum in Mumbai, that you could have a world class education."
And- and Anne said, "Well you know, you've made a surprising amount of progress. I only have one question. How are you supporting yourself?" And in as proud of a way as possible I said, "I'm not." And she kind of processes that and we part ways and about 10, 15 minutes later I'm driving into my driveway in Mountain View which is the neighboring town and I get a text message from Anne and it says, "You really need to be supporting yourself. I've just wired you $100,000." So that was a good day.
Alicia Burke: Wow.
Alicia Burke: And is Anne still involved?
Sal Khan: Anne is now our chairperson. A month later Anne was at the Aspen Ideas Festival and said that "Bill Gates is onstage last five minutes talking about Khan Academy." And I see a video of Bill Gates, Walter Isaacson asks him what he's interested in and he's like, "Yeah, there's this site I use called Khan Academy. I use it with my kids, I use it myself." Two months before I was questioning like had I ruined m- my and my family's life (laughs) two weeks later I'm in my walk-in closet about to record a video and the cell phone rings, it's a Seattle number. And you know, I'm like, "Hello?" And the caller's like you know, "This is Larry Cohen, I'm Bill Gates Chief of Staff. You might have heard that Bill's a fan. If you're free over the next few weeks, we'd love to fly you up to Seattle and learn about how we could maybe uh, partner." At the same time folks from Google reached out. So it all of a sudden started, they started saying that, "Hey a lot of us have been using Khan Academy, we want to support efforts that could educate the world and everyone thinks that this is the best way to do it."
So all of a sudden it's fall of 2010, the Gates Foundation and Google each gave uh, roughly $2 million for us to get office space, hire up a team, become a real organization.
And obviously now Khan Academy's over 200 folks. And it scaled you know a hundred fold since those early days but today I still have sleepless nights, because as much as we've grown and as much as the impact is and we're reaching you know, we're- we're the budget of a large high school but we reach over 100 million folks each year. It's hard to raise that budget. I'm fundraising a lot, we're actually running a deficit right now of about $10 million. So that kind of stuff keeps me up at night.
Alicia Burke: And your mission has remained the same.
Sal Khan: Yeah and a lot of folks ask me, "Hey don't you wish Khan Academy was a for-profit company? By this point, it would be a unicorn billion dollar company and et cetera et cetera." Uh, but I don't regret it one second. Uh, I think by us being a not-for-profit, it brought a lot of people out of the woodwork to- to help our mission. A lot of people were wondering, will you be able to attract great talent in Silicon Valley without offering stock and being a nonprofit.
We're attracting arguably the best talent in the valley 'cause I think people who are really great at their craft, they want to use their craft for the maximum impact. We have some literally the world leaders in- whether it's design, software engineering, management, we've had over 14,000 people volunteer for this effort. We're starting to talk to governments, to ministers of education about how can we move the dial for tens of millions of kids. And- and I don't think that level of trust uh, would have happened in our mission and our vision if we weren't nonprofit.
Alicia Burke: I was gonna ask you Sal, how Nadia's doing and how she likes being part of this story.
Sal Khan: She's about to enter into a program to become a clinical psychologist. Nadia lives in New York now and I was just talking to her about you know, just the social side of her life and- and she had some questions. And my wife was just, "Is this gonna be your new project Sal? Are you going to start giving dating advice to people?” (Laughs). Which I like to give-
Alicia Burke: I will look forward to that actually, that would be a big audience for that. Sal, thank you so much for your time today I am personally so excited to see what's next for you, for the academy and I can guarantee not only my kids, but I'll be tuning in too.
Sal Khan: Thank you.
Alicia Burke: The results he saw from tutoring his cousins and the letters he received about those early videos, inspired in Sal the power to take an uncertain leap; to leave the security of a well-paying job for the possibility of giving back to millions of people he’d never meet.
Today, Khan Academy is a platform covering topics from Math to History to SAT prep -- with workbooks, problem sets and peer to peer forums where students worldwide can tutor each other -- all built upon thousands of lesson videos, including some of the originals that Sal had made for his family.
You’ve been listening to “That Made All The Difference.” You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, be sure to check out some of Bank of America’s other original podcasts, like The World To Come, where we explore life in the future, by talking with the visionaries of today. And Merrill Perspectives, where you’ll hear insights into topics that are making their way from the news headlines right to your kitchen table.
In our next episode of “That Made All the Difference,” I’ll sit down with Arianna Huffington to talk about how severe burnout led her to create a company focused on teaching us all to take better care of ourselves. I’m Alicia Burke, thanks so much for joining us, and I’ll talk to you soon.
© 2023 Bank of America Corporation. All rights reserved.
Equal access to education is critical to the health of our communities and our economy. The coronavirus and its impact on society have shone an even brighter light on many long-standing economic and racial inequalities across our country, including at America’s schools. These school systems are working to end inequality in education and create opportunity for their students after graduation.Read More
SEASON 1: EPISODE 4 Loretta Claiborne, Chief Inspiration Officer, Special Olympics
Loretta and Mary Davis, CEO of Special Olympics, discuss how Loretta moved past her disabilities – and her critics – to become a repeat gold medalist.
Learn more about our long-standing partnership with Special Olympics
Loretta Claiborne: My sisters were in regular ed and I couldn’t read. I wanted to be like them and be in the things they were in. But I couldn’t be in those things. So I developed an anger inside of myself. But my saving grace was this thing that I wanted to be an athlete. And there was this thing called Special Olympics.
Alicia Burke: Loretta Claiborne was born partially blind and with clubbed feet. Her doctors corrected her eyes and her feet, but when they realized she would also have an intellectual disability, they recommended she be institutionalized. It was 1953, and institutionalizing people with intellectual disabilities was commonplace. Loretta’s mother decided not to follow their advice.
When we look at the bigger picture, Loretta’s story intersects with the advances we’ve made in this country for equality across race, gender and for people with differing abilities.
For Loretta, it began with the strides she took on the race track at Special Olympics.
I'm Alicia Burke and this is “That Made All The Difference”, an original podcast from Bank of America where we talk to people about the moments that changed the course of their lives. And inspired in them the power to move forward. We’ll meet people who have made a positive impact on the world, and on the lives of others.
We’ll meet people who’ve made a positive impact on the world, and on the lives of others.
Loretta is a lifelong athlete. She just competed at the World Games in Abu Dhabi at the vibrant age of 65. And she is also the Chief Inspiration Officer for Special Olympics.
I had the privilege of sitting down with both Loretta and Mary Davis, the CEO of this incredible global organization.
Alicia Burke: Loretta, do you remember the first time you met Mary?
Loretta Claiborne: I don't think so. I know we saw each other in 2003 at the games.
Mary Davis: We did.
Loretta Claiborne: And I'll never forget that day when I ran there. That was the race of my lifetime. Everybody was there cheering me on because I was running really well. A lot of my competitors were international, quite fast, and much younger. But I out ran them.
Mary Davis: And the 2003 games were in Dublin in Ireland. And I was the CEO of those games and Loretta was a competitor and participant in the games.
Alicia Burke: And I wonder. Was it good running weather that day, Loretta? Ireland tends to be probably good running weather.
Loretta Claiborne: Actually, it was. The 3,000 was a great race for the weather. A lot of people were hot, but I enjoyed it. I didn't care for the rain, but the rain kind of cooled things off.
Mary Davis: And that was one of the great concerns actually when the games were being awarded to Ireland at the time. "Ireland, it rains all the time. We'll be canceling the events always." I said, "No, no, no, no, no. That will not happen during the games." Right enough, it did not.
Loretta Claiborne: It didn't.
Alicia Burke: That's amazing. That goes to show the power that you all have. Loretta, I would love to go a little bit backward from 2003 and just ask you a little bit about your growing up and what that was like for you?
Loretta Claiborne: I grew up in York, Pennsylvania in a housing project called Parkway, which is still there.
We didn't have much. It was seven living children. Two didn't make it into the world. It was tough because my mother knew that the child that she had was a big bouncy baby, but this child was going to be different.
Old Doctor Howard looked at her and said, "Miss Claiborne, if you're going to consider having any more children, you might want to consider putting this one away. She's not even going to live that long." And my mom, being the big broad woman she was, she said, "You let me take care of my babies and you take care of your job. And I’m gonna raise my child the best way I can."
She knew she had off the jump street that she was going to have trouble with me being accepted. So she raised me. She was much harder on me than my sisters and brothers because she wanted me to grow up and survive. And it was not fun in school. I repeated the first three grades in school. So of course, I was the one to be picked on. The one to be taken advantage of. But I had to learn to hold my own.
Alicia Burke: Were you close with your brothers and sisters?
Loretta Claiborne: I was close with my brothers and sisters. It was five girls and two boys. We were very close. But as soon as you leave the house, it was a whole different ball park. Cause my sisters were in different grades. They were in regular ed. And I couldn’t read. And I wanted to be like them and be in the things that they were in. I couldn't be in those things. I was just basically isolated. And so I developed an anger inside of myself. The only way I could speak was not to use my mouth, but to use my hands.
Alicia Burke: And Loretta, what was the first activity, the first sport that you got engaged in? I've heard you say you've been engaged in a lot of different sports.
Loretta Claiborne: I got engaged in running following my brother, Hank, at the age of 12 in 1966. We tried to start a track team in the school. There was no girl sports. It was called Title Nine. And all across the country, people were fighting for girls to have the same rights. So at our school, they wanted to have a track team.
For us to run in the hallway, not at the track, we had to get a petition signed by the teachers. I raised money selling the candy bars, track is a school activity, and I got all the petition. I went to Mr. Eckero and he says, "You ladies can run in the hallway, practice. You cannot run at the track." Then, finally, we got a chance to practice at the track then, they said, "We have a track meet." The girls all turned around and says, "We don't want no retards."
That just ripped me apart. I was so upset. I thought my world was broken. Here I was in this thing that I thought maybe -- they don't have nothing for people like us, I'm not worthy. What’s the point of it. There were some times that I wished my life should have end.
But my saving grace was this thing that I wanted to be, an athlete. It was this thing called Special Olympics.
Alicia Burke: And Loretta, how did you first hear about Special Olympics?
Loretta Claiborne: I was going to a school to work program. I got in some trouble. It was bad. I took a hammer to a guy. And the counselor, I never forget his name, Lee Gelry, looked at me and said, "Loretta, I think we can fix this." I just looked at him. I was just so angry inside. I didn't feel worthy. Why should I change? And he called me one day. And he called me into his office. He says “I think I have something for you.” After that terrible day. He gave me a paper. I looked at it. Only thing I could read was Olympics. I took the paper, put it in my pocket, and got home. I put the paper down. My mom, she says, "What's this? Special Olympics. I don't have this." Her neighbor looked at it. The lady she was playing cards with, she says, "I think this would be the best thing for Loretta. It's better than all those pills she's taking. Rita, why don't you give her a chance. Let Loretta have something."
So I thought she forgot about it. That Saturday came, it was not pretty. She banged on the door. She few choice words, "You get up. You get out my house. You made a promise to that man. And that was my start of Special Olympics. I went to the first practice. And I knew I had to show up. 49 years later, here I am, this January will be 50 years, I have been in something that was probably the best thing that ever happened in my life.
Alicia Burke: 50 years.
Loretta Claiborne: This January, coming up 2020, will be 50 years.
Alicia Burke: That’s incredible. And Loretta, what did running make you feel like?
Loretta Claiborne: Running was my saving grace. When I get upset and angry, whether it was in the family, I run and I think it. And running, still to this day many years later, is still the same tool that I use to think instead of my fists.
Alicia Burke: So you become involved in Special Olympics and how does your life change, Loretta?
Loretta Claiborne: Like I said, I thought I wasn't worthy of anything. When that coach came to me and says, "I'd like you to be a part of this." First thing I thought, "This thing's going to be over with." Then, I had the opportunity in 1972 to go away across the country. And I thought to myself when I got to this track meet in Los Angeles, "Who cares about us?" But I saw something totally different, that somebody did care. I didn't know about this woman named Eunice.
Alicia Burke: The woman that Loretta met that day was Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics.
The games grew out of Eunice’s first hand knowledge of what was possible when people did care.
Eunice’s older sister Rosemary had an intellectual disability but Eunice witnessed Rosemary thrive when she was included in family activities and sports.
Eunice wanted to share that experience with others. She wanted all people to understand the gifts that people with intellectual disabilities have to share.
And for those on the other side, those who were often ostracized and discriminated against, Eunice’s message was simple. They are worthy.
Alicia Burke: So Loretta when you took your first trip from York, Pennsylvania to Los Angeles for those games, you met Eunice Shriver.
Loretta Claiborne: I met her that night. I was upset over my race because a girl from Indiana cut across from me. And my coach said, " See that lady over there. She started this event." … I’ll never forget she talked to my coach. I couldn't hear what they were saying because I was watching everybody else. I was upset, I was nervous, I was kicking my feet in the ground. She said to me, "Did you have a good day?" I said, "Yes, ma'am." And who would've ever thought that I would ever meet that lady again? In 1981, I was running a race in Washington, D.C. I can see this lady weaving through the crowd. She looked at me. She says, "Hello. You're a good runner." I said, "Well, thank you." She looked at me. She says, "How would you like to be my friend?"
Alicia Burke: And you were friends after that?
Loretta Claiborne: Ever since.
Alicia Burke: Wonderful.
Alicia Burke: Mary, can I ask you, when you hear about Loretta's first introduction to Special Olympics and how it changed her life, what kind of reaction do you have?
Mary Davis: Well, I think about Loretta herself and how much she had the will and determination to change her own life. When you hear those stories, and she says that Eunice was a very good friend of hers. But actually, I would say that Eunice felt very privileged to know Loretta, to be inspired by her, and to have her as a friend.
[Music in ]
There was a restlessness in both of them. There was an urgency to what they wanted to do. And Eunice, she was always pushing the barriers in relation to ending discrimination. She could see it, she had seen it in her own sister and she could see it in the lives of the Special Olympics athletes that she was working with as well. And she inspired so many others to do the same and be the same. I was one of those that was inspired by what I saw, not just in Eunice, but in every single athlete that I worked with. Because I was a teacher, and I was a coach as a volunteer with Special Olympics in Ireland for, oh, 10 to 12 years before ever I joined the staff.
Alicia Burke: Mary, I'm so glad you brought that up, because I was going to ask you, you were a volunteer and a teacher, and then you started working for Special Olympics. I wonder, was there a moment, that you decided, I am going to make the leap and no longer be a volunteer, but work here?
Mary Davis: Well, I continued to be a volunteer, cause you always volunteer in Special Olympics, even if you work there. But for me, it was the interaction with Special Olympics athletes and with students with intellectual disability.
It actually touches something deep inside of you that… that brings out the best in you as well as a person. And I could feel that in myself, and I could feel that change beyond anything else that I had done in my life. And I just felt, maybe is this a calling? Is this what I'm supposed to do? I'm driven by it, I'm encouraged by it, I'm influenced by it. So I just wanted to do more and more and more.
Alicia Burke: Now I see the commonalities in all three of you. I know Eunice isn't in this room, but the pushing, the determination, and also the optimism, that you are all changing mindsets. That brings me to Loretta. I know you have done so many things with Special Olympics, run so many marathons, gotten so many medals. And then, you were asked to take on the role of being Chief Inspiration Officer. What's the most important job of being a Chief Inspiration Officer?
Loretta Claiborne: You know, when they first asked me about it, I said, "What is it?" Then I said, "I'm not interested." Then of course, I was told, "Loretta, you need to think about it." They gave me time to think about it and I thought that I can be a small part to help the movement grow in all ways for all people. Now when I look at the Special Olympics, it used to be it's for people with intellectual disability. We have unified sports, we have young athletes, where they learn to play with regular ed kids. There's less bullying in schools, there's less suicide attempts. And they feel worthy, because this child that they bullied, they found out they're much more like them. It might be a slowness, but they think the same, if they give that person a chance. That's what my job is, is that Special Olympics could help to change the world for better in all people.
Mary Davis: So you can see why we invited her to be our Chief Inspiration Officer. And we want to amplify the voices of many other athletes in the organization, to ensure that they are going to be the future leaders of this organization. And I couldn't think of anybody better to inspire and to help, and be a role model for those athletes than Loretta.
Alicia Burke: So you're really, Loretta, setting the vision of how people can change their mindsets, and also the future of Special Olympics too.
Loretta Claiborne: I'm hoping. They used to say Special Olympics segregates, but I always told people from the beginning, it educates. Because the people who made a difference in my life, I've met through Special Olympics. If it wasn't for Special Olympics, I know where I would be today. Two places, either in somebody's prison or six feet under.
Alicia Burke: Mary, is there one thing particular, the biggest area of impact that you think Loretta has been able to have, based on all the work that she's done?
Mary Davis: I think she has by her engagement with people, and not just Loretta, and other athletes in the organization as well they have changed the mindsets of thousands and thousands of people, and will continue to do it. That's our big goal at the end of the day. We want to show, through the power of sport and through the ability of the athletes, that they can change the mindset of others.
Alicia Burke: And I want to ask both of you, I'll start with you Loretta, when you think about what's next for you and Special Olympics?
Loretta Claiborne: I don't know what's next for me. I can't judge the future. I don't have a magic ball. But I'd like to see next with Special Olympics that Special Olympics is bringing the world together through the power of people, both with and without intellectual disability. In Abu Dhabi, I was just there, and I love the term that they use, people of determination. And it's fitting for everyone. My mother was a person of determination. I know what she went through being African American, being black, being in segregated schools. But when I look back, she was a person of determination that raised seven children and keep all seven of those children and not ship her one child off. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a person of determination to see that her sister had the same rights, as much to her ability as she can. And that's, when I looked at the games, when they use that term people of determination, we all can be people of determination, and that doesn't separate anyone.
Alicia Burke: People of determination. Mary, how about you?
Mary Davis: Well, Loretta has actually said it better than I could. That's what we are doing. We need to continue our work through the power of sport, of bringing people together, And we want to encourage people to, what we say is, choose to include. It's an easy thing to do. You don't have to give anything if you want to. You just make a choice in your lives and choose to include.
Alicia Burke: I love that because it's a great lens to have in your life, choose to include no matter who you are, no matter where you are. And if you do that, then the understanding takes care of itself. Well I just want to thank you so much, Loretta, Mary. Thank you.
Loretta Claiborne: Thank you.
Mary Davis: Thank you so much Alicia. I think we both feel, and many others as well, that we’re a part of a revolution, but a very friendly revolution of inclusion so thank you for allowing us the opportunity.
Alicia Burke: Being a part of Special Olympics has made all the difference for Loretta Claiborne. It’s changed the course of her life and helped her realize her inherent value. A message at the very core of Special Olympics.
You've been listening to “That Made All The Difference.” You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
And while you're there, be sure to check out some of Bank of America’s other original podcasts, like “The World To Come”, where we explore life in the future, by talking with the visionaries of today. And Merrill “Perspectives”, where you'll hear insights into topics that are making their way from the news headlines, right to your kitchen table.
In our next episode of “That Made All the Difference,” we’ll talk to Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, about how he went from making tutoring videos for his cousin to delivering a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.
I’m Alicia Burke, thanks so much for joining us, and I’ll talk to you soon.
© 2023 Bank of America Corporation. All rights reserved.
SEASON 1: EPISODE 3 Lisa Ludwinski, Head Baker and Owner of Sister Pie
Lisa explains the inspiration behind her much-loved Detroit bakery, which has a hyperlocal vision, a broad influence and pies with buttery, flaky crusts.
Lisa Ludwinski: I think something that I try to challenge myself to think about is when a business practice or a way we're doing something makes me uncomfortable, is it something I can change? I just never want to be the person saying, "I'm sorry, we have to do this" or "This is just the way it is." You know? There's more ways to do things than that.
Alicia Burke: That’s Lisa Ludwinksi. The owner of Sister Pie, a small bakery in Detroit with a hyperlocal vision but an influence that extends beyond the city limits.
She’s a James Beard Award Nominee and I’m a big fan of her cookbook. It was featured in the New York Times as one of the best cookbooks of 2018 and in fact my daughter Anna and I bake her recipes together all the time.
Like many of us, Lisa wanted to make a big change in her life—in her career. Once an aspiring actor and theater director in New York City, Lisa is now the founder and visionary behind the baking brand Sister Pie. Along the way, she’s focused on the values that have shaped her, and is intent on putting community and sustainability into the very fabric of her work.
I'm Alicia Burke and this is “That Made All The Difference”, an original podcast from Bank of America where we talk to people about the moments that changed the course of their lives and inspired them the power to move forward. We’ll meet people who have made a positive impact on the world, and on the lives of others.
Today I couldn't be more excited to be talking to Lisa. I travelled to Detroit to meet up with her at Sister Pie see for myself the power to build a community in action.
Lisa Ludwinski: So we’ve got this, it’s a very bright space. The whole front and the side entrance is all big tall windows that kinda go floor to ceiling almost. And when you walk in there’s a big community table made out of plywood on the right hand side. And then behind the counter there’s about 6 bakers working back there, mixing pie filling, melting chocolate, serving customers.
Alicia Burke: Could we talk a little bit about life before Pie?
Lisa Ludwinski: Sure. My mom now tells me that I always used to say I wanted to be a baker, a movie star, and a haircutter when I grew up. But I really went with the movie star aspiration first. I went to Kalamazoo College and studied theater there. That's when I transitioned into wanting to be a director. I think I liked having the whole vision in my hands. And I think I also liked the communication and the challenges that came with opening that up to others.
Alicia Burke: And you did some improv ...
Lisa Ludwinski: I did.
Alicia Burke: ... at the same time, right?
Lisa Ludwinski: Having that alongside my theater education and also my human education was really incredible. It was something that terrified me when I first started college. You would go to the shows and just think “I have no idea how they do that.” It was kind of humbling I think to have this thing where you sometimes feel like you're getting better, but then you can also just have a totally off day where it doesn't make sense, it doesn't work and the kind of way that that ebbs and flows is a really helpful way to look at life.
Alicia Burke: I think so too. I took my first improv class when I was 49. I wanted to do it
before I turned 50. First of all, I thought, I wish I did this 20 years ago. It almost felt to me like Latin is the foundation and helps with so many other languages. I feel like improv is the foundation and helps you with so many things in life.
Lisa Ludwinski: Absolutely, yeah. I think I apply it daily.
Lisa Ludwinki: So I moved to New York a couple of months after graduating from college. I was an assistant director, on a couple of productions that were at the vineyard theatre. I worked at the Starbucks in Park Slope for about a year-and-a-half. That was the job where I first had the revelation that I just really liked preparing something for someone like something to drink. I remember doing the crosshatch pattern on the caramel macchiato and just being like, "This is the best."
Alicia Burke: Were you a barista?
Lisa Ludwinski: I was, yeah. I was a barista.
And also I was in New York City. Suddenly, the world was my oyster and there were all these amazing things I wanted to eat. I don't think I had ever considered myself to be someone who was super interested in food before or at least in creative pursuits of food, but something was clicking. My passion for theater started to wane a little bit as I was online in my free time looking at food blogs all day, and starting to feel this curiosity creep up inside me.
I had done this silly YouTube video show with one of my friends. I then started my own show that I called Funny Side Up. I would put my laptop on top of my refrigerator. I would just film myself making a new recipe. I can take my original passion and this thing that I know a lot about, performing, and then combine it with something that I want to learn.
Alicia Burke: And I've seen a few and they're amazing.
Lisa Ludwinski: Oh wow. I wasn't expecting that.
It got kinda weird but really fun and was truly just this way for me to experiment. That's when I really realized there's something in this that I want to keep pursuing.
Alicia Burke: And Lisa, was there any mentor during this time in New York that was really standing out for you?
Lisa Ludwinski: The first thing I can think of was when I first encountered Milk Bar.
I just remember the feeling of walking in and smelling the cookies being freshly baked and seeing all of the women working behind the counter. I thought, there's something special about this place. I think that was the first time I could see myself in a kitchen. It was the first time that I thought, maybe I want to take this to a different level.
I applied to work behind the counter and I got that job probably because I was a super fan. I did love working behind the counter, but I think I knew all along that I wanted to get into that kitchen. I think when I first started at Milk Bar in the kitchen, I instantly felt this desire to unite the staff. Every morning, I would lead the staff in stretches and then I organize a cookie swap with the employees at the holidays. I was really interested in developing community within the workplace. How do we make everyone here really happy and what can we do to bring everyone together. And I just I really like that feeling that I got when I was planning those things. And I was also I think at the same time feeling a little homesick.
I was six years into living in New York and I still felt like I didn't know what my place would be there long term. All during this time, my parents back in Michigan are trying to entice me back. I think when I first moved to New York, I thought, I'm never moving back to Michigan, that is not going to happen. But they would bring me to eastern market here in Detroit when I would visit. We would go to Russell Street Deli for lunch. They would take me to Avalon International Breads. I was seeing these businesses that I really admired. They were different than the businesses I was seeing in New York. There's not as many of them. They're all very rooted in these personal stories and there was a lot of heart in these businesses.
Alicia Burke: Your parents knew what they were doing.
Lisa Ludwinski: They did, yeah.
I went to California for the very first time in the spring of 2012, San Francisco specifically. I visited these cooperative style bakeries like Arizmendi and Cheese Board. I went to Bi-Rite Market and Tartine. I was just seeing these businesses that were thinking about food in this different way, employee owned, creating really delicious food using local fresh ingredients but were also really talking about what their community needed. And it was that trip that made me realize, oh right, that's what I saw in Detroit. I can take some of this and then all this other stuff I've been learning about and working with and open my own place.
There was a true moment when I was driving on California 1. Well, I wasn't the one driving. My friend was driving. I had the revelation and I was just furiously writing. I just turned to my friend and then I said, "I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to move back to Michigan. I'm going to open my own food place." At that point, it was truly just food place. I didn't really know what exactly it would be, but I felt strongly about that.
Alicia Burke: Lisa’s epiphany propelled her back to Michigan, where she started baking pies in her parent’s house and selling them to friends and family.
She used this incubation period to her advantage, honing the recipes and molding the values that Sister Pie would embody. Word of her craft spread and she built an avid following. Lisa moved the business into a commercial kitchen to fulfill wholesale orders and sold pies in person at a neighborhood market in Detroit’s West Village.
When a “for rent” sign went up in the space across the street, Lisa made her move. With the help of some grants and the support of her community she opened the brick and mortar Sister Pie in twenty fifteen.
Lisa Ludwinski: When I was thinking about where would my business want to be I wanted to make sure that I had some sort of connection there and that I wasn’t just planting myself in some random spot that looked like it had opportunity. I wanted to talk to people first and sort of see that there was that demand. Selling at Parker St. Market really gave me that opportunity. I would spend a lot of time there, I even volunteered to work for him a shift a week, so I could just sit there and talk about my business and sell my pie and they sold out of our stuff so often that I just kept coming back and forth and in the process it became really hard to not fall in love with this neighborhood.
Alicia Burke: What was the day like for you when you opened Sister Pie?
Lisa Ludwinski: It was probably one of the best days of my life. A couple of days
before we opened, we had a party for friends and family and all the people would help us peel the wallpaper ... Oh that's actually the funny part I should mention. The building used to be a hair salon. That's how it tied together all three of my career aspirations. The day we opened, we did have a line out the door. It's hard to just plop yourself down and open and be like, "I'm here," without having any prior relationship with the neighborhood. I think especially in Detroit when there's so much development and so much change happening all the time. Felt good to know that we had started to garner a good relationship and reputation with the neighborhood.
Alicia Burke: What do you look for as you hire?
Lisa Ludwinski: A really big factor for me in hiring is “do you live nearby?” I’m really trying to focus on hiring people who live in Detroit, and if you live within walking distance of Sister Pie, even better. One of the reasons I wanted to open this business here was to help with the unemployment rate. Of course we’re doing it in a very small way, but it is sort of setting a trend and saying “hey we’re hiring Detroiters and we’re committed to this.”
Alicia Burke: How many people do you have right now?
Lisa Ludwinski: I think the current count is like 17? Including me. And they’re all women, yeah. It’s pretty cool. I can’t really imagine going back to a workplace that’s not all women. It’s like the best.
Alicia Burke: Lisa, what was it like to go from being Lisa the baker to Lisa the boss?
Lisa Ludwinski: It was really scary. It's one thing that I didn't really think about. Now, whenever
someone asks me, "What are resources that you think entrepreneurs need when they're first starting?" My first answer was always, "Teach them how to be a boss." I didn't have any training in that, I didn't know what I was doing. I was just winging it, improving. I think the thing that really changed when we opened was that I realized I wasn't ever going to sleep well if I thought that Sister Pie wasn't a good place to work.
I remember sitting through a lot of difficult conversations. There were conversations about organization, conversations about race, conversations about customer expectation and just a lot of employees who were willing to have those conversations. I'm grateful for the fact that I didn't have some set idea of how to run my business in terms of my staff when I opened because over the years, we've been forced to build those expectations, and the employee handbook, the way that we do everything alongside our staff. They've really given me so much of that material based on their experience.
Alicia Burke: I love what you say about openness, my own experience is the older I get, the more I have to be conscious of being open because you can without knowing it, close yourself off or not be as open as you should be, and that's where the learning comes in.
Lisa Ludwinski: I think something that I try to challenge myself to think about is when a business practice or a way we're doing something makes me uncomfortable, is it something I can change? I just never want to be the person saying, "I'm sorry, we have to do this" or "This is just the way it is." There's more ways to do things than that.
I like the idea of servant leadership. I came here with this privilege. I came here with this opportunity. I had this amazing chance to start my own business. Now, I want to be able to use those resources to make this the best place for you. I want to give you everything you need to succeed. I'll just keep doing that forever.
Alicia Burke: I love that term. Servant leadership. Lisa, can we talk a little bit about the triple bottom line? What does the triple bottom line mean for Sister Pie?
Lisa Ludwinski: This is one of my favorite things to talk about. In traditional business speak, of course, the bottom line refers to the profit, but with the triple bottom line, you have three of those things to take into consideration when you're making decisions. For us, that's people; it's our employees, it's our customers, it's our neighbors down the street, it's the farmers that are delivering produce to us. It's anyone that's affected in any way by Sister Pie. With our neighbors especially, it's about making sure that Sister Pie is a welcoming and accessible place and that they can walk in that door and have a good experience. We're so committed to that.
Then, planet. As a food business, we're creating a lot of potential waste. We want to be really mindful of what we do about that. We're composting, we're recycling, but we're also making sure that we're using every ingredient we have. We take our pie dough scraps and we roll them out to make pie sandwich cookies, and then we fill the sandwich cookies with buttercream that we might use with a little fruit juice that's left over from a pie filling.
Then, of course, profit is still one of the Ps. We need money to run. We need money to pay our employees and to pay our bills. I think most importantly, we need money to invest back in our business so that we can be sustainable and continue to support people and support the planet as much as we can. This year, we were able to raise our minimum wage from $10.50 to $12 an hour. We were able to take the profit and put it back to the people.
Lisa Ludwinski: So right now we’re right in front of the register, at the beverage cooler actually, and on the side of it we have our Pie It Forward wall. What can happen is that people will come into the bakery and buy a slice of pie for someone else, they’ll get a little slip of paper, they write their name on it, and hang it on this refrigerator. When someone else comes in they can take it from the refrigerator and use it to cash in on a piece of pie. It’s kind of this spirit of generosity, anyone can take it whether you feel like you can’t afford a slice of pie that day or maybe you’ve never been to Sister Pie before and you’re kinda nervous about trying a beet pie, There are so many ways you can use it and we just want to make sure there’s always pie available for everyone.
Alicia Burke: It sounds like, Lisa, you're directing a different kind of theater troupe.
Lisa Ludwinski: Totally.
It is the same idea of orchestrating everyone to do things at once, sharing a vision for something and having this through line of what we are and who we represent. It's a people thing, it's a community thing. We're being just as silly and just as performative, honestly, as we were when I was directing a group of actors. Sometimes you spend a lot of time on one skill, or talent, or passion. It's just sore of setting you up for what's next if you're open to it.
Alicia Burke: And what you’re creating we get to eat, so thank you for that. Lisa, what is the origin of the name Sister Pie?
Lisa Ludwinski: It's actually a nickname that my younger sister and I started calling each other in
college, a term of endearment. When I knew that I was going to be making pie as the first thing my business would create, Sister Pie popped into my mind, of course. I thought, that's a great name and also it could really come to mean a lot of different things and we could explore sisterhood through our business and sort of think about the ways that we can express that in the values in our mission. I think the meaning behind it is growing and changing as we do.
Alicia Burke: That's fantastic. I know for me when I first saw the name of your cookbook, I have four sisters, and I love pies, and I put it immediately as I have got to get this, and I have got to give it to all my sisters.
Lisa Ludwinski: That's fantastic. I didn't even think about that originally even in the cookbook. I've heard people say that, so power to the sisterhood.
Alicia Burke: I started making some of the recipes with my daughter. It goes beyond pie, cookies, and scones. We are huge fans of the peanut butter paprika cookies. I wonder what it feels like to you to have your recipes, your philosophy, your approach have such a reach.
Lisa Ludwinski: I look at the past 10 years of my life as being inspired over, and over, and over
again by other people. Very early on when I had that moment on California 1, one of the reasons I wanted to even open the business was because I wanted to be as inspiring as all of these other folks were to me. I just thought that was so awesome. I wanted to be able to do that too. Given the fact that we've been pretty adamant about staying in Detroit and not shipping our pies, the cookbook seemed like the best way for me to share that with the world. I think something that is unique about the cookbook is that it's truly written from the perspective of someone who didn't go to culinary school and doesn't know everything there is to know about baking. I think it makes it a little bit more approachable especially the pie dough recipe, It's probably the recipe in the book that I'm the most proud of.
Alicia Burke: Would you share a little bit about the perfect crust from your perspective?
Lisa Ludwinski: So many people who have had bad pie experiences, it's really that there have been a bad crust experience. I prefer crusts with all butter. When you've got flour, a little salt and sugar, water, and then butter, the butter has to be the thing that's bringing the flavor. Of course, you want to make sure that everything is cold and that you're working quickly so that those butter chunks stay solid and will burst in the oven and creating flakiness. But you can still do that while touching the dough. You just have to really hustle. No one can see this, but I'm doing a lot of hand motions right now. I'm doing ...
Alicia Burke: Lisa's doing amazing hand motions right here. I make a lot of apple pies. What I notice when I will give them to people, they'll say, "Oh my gosh, you made the crust?" I think people feel so intimidated by crust making. You would think you've climbed Mt. Everest when you give someone a pie with homemade crust.
Lisa Ludwinski: It's so true. I think I guess I had one little tidbit about pie dough that I think is
really important and something I struggled with so much and still struggle with whenever I'm following a recipe is following the time instructions and being patient, because the dough really benefits from at least a two-hour rest in the fridge before you roll it out. A lot of times people are making pie at the last minute and they're like, "Oh, it's fine. I'll just roll it out right away." The likelihood that your crust in your pie is going to look better all depends on how long you let it rest in the fridge.
Alicia Burke: Well, I think that the way you've applied patience, Lisa, both to your business
and your baking and your life is a thread that goes through. It's a wonderful thing for us to listen to and learn from, because it's not something that comes especially today naturally to people. It's a discipline. Lisa, thank you so much for sharing Sister Pie, your approach to your triple bottom line, and your approach to life.
Lisa Ludwinski: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.
Alicia Burke: Lisa’s next step for Sister Pie is an expansion into a larger space near the original shop, creating a new hub in her community for local food, cooking education and of course delicious pies.
Alicia Burke: Lisa’s next step for Sister Pie is an expansion into a larger space near the original shop, creating a new hub in her community for local food, cooking education and of course delicious pies.
You've been listening to “That Made All The Difference”. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
And while you're there, be sure to check out some of Bank of America’s other original podcasts, like The World To Come, where we explore life in the future, by talking with the visionaries of today. And Merrill Perspectives, where you'll hear insights into topics that are making their way from the news headlines, right to your kitchen table.
As for us, on our next episode, we’ll meet Loretta Claiborne. She’s a Special Olympics athlete and their Chief Inspiration Officer with the power to lead and change opinions. I’m Alicia Burke, thanks so much for joining us, and I’ll talk to you soon.
© 2023 Bank of America Corporation. All rights reserved.
SEASON 1: EPISODE 2 Ken Burns, Filmmaker
Ken opens up about the emotional moment with his father that inspired him to become a filmmaker – and how choosing New Hampshire over New York helped him make a bigger impact.
Ken Burns: And I remember speaking to my late father-in-law, who was an eminent psychologist, and I said, “I seem to be keeping my mother alive.” He goes, “Yep.” He said, “But look what you do for a living. You wake the dead. You make Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson come alive for the rest of us. Who do you think you’re really trying to wake up?”
Alicia Burke: That’s Ken Burns. Over the course of the last four decades, his documentary films have tackled the biggest ideas animating U.S. history.
Classics like “Civil War,” “Baseball” and now “Country Music” are deep, emotional excavations into the American experience. Ken is a pioneer in how we connect with our past.
I am Alicia Burke and this is “That Made All The Difference,” an original podcast from Bank of America, where we talk to people about the moments that changed the course of their lives and inspired in them the power to move forward.
We’ll meet people who have made a positive impact on the world, and on the lives of others.
When I sat down with Ken, I wanted to hear how his journey to shape the way we look at history began on a quiet night watching a film with his father.
Alicia Burke: Ken, thank you so much for joining me. You had an early understanding of the power of image really early, during a moment with your father. Can you tell us that story?
Ken Burns: Yes. Well, my mother was getting cancer, and she passed away just before my 12th birthday. I used to stay up late at night with my dad watching movies on TV, and one night he cried. I was 12, and he cried at a movie, “Odd Man Out,” with James Mason, about the Irish Troubles. It’s taken me a long time to really fully understand. I like the movie. I remember watching it with my dad. I can picture exactly where the TV, where the chair he was in, where I was sitting, what was happening on the screen.
“Odd Man Out” clip: “Kathleen, where are you?” “It’s alright, Johnny. I am here.” “Is it far?” “It’s a long way, Johnny, but I am coming with you. We are going away together.”
Ken Burns: I’ve never seen him cry before. It was startling. I realized instantly that I wanted to become a filmmaker, because I realized that film had given my dad a kind of safe haven, a safe harbor to be able to express emotions that his life didn’t permit him to do.
And I’d had friends who’d commented. They said: “Your dad didn't cry at the funeral. He didn't cry then.” And so to see him cry was a great gift. And I realized the power of film to perform that kind of open heart surgery, if you will, and I wanted to be about that, whatever form it would take. For a long time, I didn’t really hold that out. It wasn’t like I took that moment and said, “I'm going to be, you know, a vacuum cleaner salesman.” As I got older, I began to reacquire parts of my past that were seared by tragedy and trauma. And as I reacquired it, I remembered these things that I thought began to give some sort of structure to my story, as I was beginning to figure out what American history’s story was.
Alicia Burke: And as you say, we don’t emote on cue as humans in the exact places we are expected to, and it comes often other ways, in other times, when we’re able to bring to life some things that were either incredibly painful or incredibly joyful. We’re not linear.
Ken Burns: We are not linear. And I think that’s a hugely important and very thoughtful understanding that we have to make. We want to superimpose something linear, a story, and then, and then, and then. And we want to ascribe a kind of consistency of motive. And you can’t get that. Human beings are far too complex.
Alicia Burke: To Ken, film hasn’t been merely an artform but also a way to unpack those complex emotions.
He saw how it enabled his father to express grief. And in the course of making dozens of films and mastering the craft, he discovered the power of film to help us all see the gray space within American history.
But along the way he found there was something unsettled inside himself.
There was someone he was still trying to find: his mother.
Ken Burns: I was around 40 years old, going through a kind of crisis myself, I realized, when someone had asked me that I didn’t know where my mom was. And you’d think, “Huh?” She had been cremated. But my dad had never picked up the ashes from the funeral home. And now here I am 40 years old and needing to find out where they went. Ultimately, my brother and I went on a very long journey, then tracked them down into a pauper’s grave 20 miles outside of the town we were living in in Michigan. And were able to find that.
I remember speaking to my late father-in-law, who was an eminent psychologist, and I said, “I seem to be keeping my mother alive.” He goes: “Yep. I bet you you blew out the candles on your birthday cake wishing she’d come alive." and I’d say, “Yeah.” And when I said this to my father-in-law and said that I did blow out my candles every single time, wishing not for the bike, wishing not for the this or the that but wishing for her to come back, he said, “That’s the magical thinking of an 11-year-old boy or an 8-year-old boy or a 6-year-old boy, as he’s confronting this in his family.”
He said, “But look what you do for a living.” I said: “What do you mean? Excuse me?” He goes: “You wake the dead. You make Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson come alive for the rest of us. Who do you think you’re really trying to wake up?”
Ken Burns: And so this is really personal for me. All this stuff becomes really personal and also cathartic and all about being in the editing room with my extraordinary collaborators and feeling that we’re corralling not just the facts but also this underlying emotional story that people respond to. I think the success of our films, such as they are, is born of the fact that they represent very complex, real emotions.
Alicia Burke: You know, as you’re talking and I’m thinking about your films, it makes so much sense to me, because I feel like when I’m watching your films, I’m as much feeling them as I am watching them. There’s a visceral experience happening.
I think I finally learned, when I was 50 or maybe over 50, people are not one way or the other. In fact, it was such a relief to learn that actually you’re both things, and most people are both things.
Ken Burns: Exactly. Yes, and I think, too, we learn, therefore, the capacity to forgive ourselves, and most importantly others.
Ken Burns: Wynton Marsalis in our series on jazz said that sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time. And we live in a media culture and a computer world that is imprisoned by a binary response. Everything has to be red state or blue state. Everything has to be rich or poor, young or old, gay or straight, north or south, male or female, whatever it is. We think that there is an on and off switch, and there’s not. And our experience shows us all the time that there’s not. It simplifies things if you put them into these terms of good and evil.
But it doesn’t do anything about how to live in this world, which is understanding that sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time.
Alicia Burke: And that’s exactly what we all get to see in the signature style Ken Burns created.
The roving camera brings still images to life, inviting us to contemplate the stories in the photographs we see on the screen.
Back when Ken started his film studies, no one was looking at still photographs in this way. In fact, even Ken began college with the dream of becoming a Hollywood director destined for big-budget features.
But at Hampshire College, he found something completely different.
Ken Burns: Hampshire rearranged all my molecules. So here I am, with this idea in the back of my head that I’m going to become the next Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford or Howard Hawks, whoever’s the reigning director of the day. And I run into film and photography teachers who are themselves social documentary still photographers, first and foremost, steeped in a great humanistic tradition and are reminding me that what is and what was can be as dramatic as anything the human imagination dreams up.
Here I was, 18, 19 years old, and suddenly I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. Somewhere along the line at Hampshire, I ended up making a film for Old Sturbridge Village, and all of it is live cinematography, up until the last shot, which is a pan from a painting.
And I had no idea, at that point, at age 22, that 44 years later, I’d still be telling stories by panning from here to there and revealing something. It may be in the Civil War, where you’re seeing this cherubic face of a young boy, and then you tilt down and stuck in his waistband are two revolvers. That’s a story, right? Or start with the revolvers and all the sinister things that they might suggest stuck casually in the waistband of these pants, and you tilt up and find it’s a cherubic, you know, 12, 13-year-old. And then you realize what the possibilities of story are and what the possibilities of image are.
So at Hampshire I also became very much involved in also saying, “Why can't a documentary not be just expository, not just be political advocacy, but why can’t it obey the same laws of storytelling that the feature films do, but just not make stuff up?” Which means a documentary film, if done in a narrative fashion, is as fresh as any story you’ve ever come across. And that’s what I’ve been quietly practicing for 40 years. It came out of that experience in the early 1970s at Hampshire College.
Alicia Burke: And Ken, in that moment, you were not realizing what would become: something that would live on for all of your work and become a signature for you.
Ken Burns: No. I mean, if you told me there in 1975 when I graduated and I was turning in this film called “Working in Rural New England,” if you told me that you’d still be doing it 45 years from now, I’d go, “Are you out of your mind?” Of course not. I’m going to be doing this. I’ll do an experimental film, I’ll do a Cinema Verite film, I’ll do a feature film. I’ll do all of this sort of stuff. I’m not wedded. But in point of fact, I had found my calling.
Alicia Burke: You moved to New York right after Hampshire College, is that right?
Ken Burns: Well, I was half living in New York and trying to raise money for this film on the Brooklyn Bridge. Finally, I’d shot most of it, and in ’79, I realized I cannot live any longer in New York without getting a real job. But I so worried that I’d take the film that we’d shot, and I’d put it on top of the refrigerator, and then I’d wake up in two seconds and I’d be 45-years-old and hadn’t, you know, finished the film. So I moved to New Hampshire, to the house that I am in now, and I just wanted to go and see if I could follow through on this one thing. And we did, and it got nominated for an Academy Award. It told me that I was heading in the right direction. And everybody said, “Well, now you're going to go back to New York, or you're going to go to L.A.” I said, “You know, actually, I’m going to stay here.” And I have.
Alicia Burke: When you talk about Walpole and your decision to stay there, I think that’s really interesting. It’s one thing to decide you’re moving there. You need to save money. And then you decide to stay in Walpole, and I wanted to ask you about that. Was that difficult? Was there a tension there?
Ken Burns: I sort of missed the obvious. For about 30 years, I used to say the best decision I ever made was to move to Walpole, you know, professionally, and it’s actually the second best decision. The best decision I made was to stay.
It didn’t prove to be hard, because I love the place. It’s so beautiful. It’s so inspiring. People say, and they know I travel a lot, “What’s your favorite road?” I said, “The one home, the one that turns off New Hampshire 12 up into the town, and then I climb the hill to my farmhouse.” And so I actually switched about 10 or 15 years ago to saying the best decision I ever made was to stay.
One of the things about Walpole is that if I went back to the city, I would have increased my overhead. I’d be taking away from putting stuff on the screen, and it’s so interesting that when people come to visit us, considering whether or not to give money, everybody who visits here always gives money, because they suddenly walk in and they go: “Oh, my God. Everything’s on the screen.” Because everybody’s working together in cramped corners. I don’t even have an office in my own editing house. And they get it, that we’re all in the business of coming in here every day and making a film better. This is all about how can we take the grant money that we have and put it to the best possible use.
We’ve found that it’s the right kind of environment to do the hard work that we do. And we’re not isolated. We get out into the world. We travel to New York and to all around the country, particularly, to do our work. But we get to come back to a place that really feels like home.
Alicia Burke: Well I love that, and I think today we could all learn so much from that. When you know what’s right for you, and you follow your voice, then that’s what’s going to work. I’ve gotten to go to Walpole. What I felt like when I was at the edit house with your team is there’s something about it being electric and incredibly peaceful at the same time. You notice the chemistry.
Ken Burns: Well, I think it’s really true that there’s something better about collaboration. It’s a hard thing these days, because we live in a world in which we are encouraged to be independent free agents. Our devices send us there. The way we now absorb most of our information is solitary. My initial impulse to be a filmmaker was not a bad one, because what is that? They’re places where strangers go in dark rooms and watch stories up on a screen, and I love the communion between strangers. The thing that we’re talking about that unites and runs through every film is that “us,” the us of the U.S. That's what it’s all about.
Alicia Burke: Well I loved the “us” of your team. I was ready to move right in. Ken, you’re putting “Country Music” out into the world.
What is it that you hope to accomplish with your films, but probably most currently with “Country Music”?
Ken Burns: So I think it’s the same every single time. People say, “Who did you make this film for?” And I say, “Everybody.” And they say, “Oh, come on.” In the case of “Country Music,” I really, really mean it. I mean, people who are big fans, people say, “I don't really know,” and particularly people say, “I don't like country music.”
Ken Burns: Cause I wasn’t a fan of country music. I was a child of rock ’n’ roll and R&B. That’s what I learned. But it didn’t mean that I wasn’t open to it. And when you realize and study it, you realize it crosses all of these borders. And it obliterates our need that comes from convenience, it comes from commerce, to categorize things.
Country music has always ended up on the short end of the categorization stick. It’s one of the co-parents of rock ’n’ roll. It’s attached to every other music form, from jazz to the blues to pop to folk. This is it. Every single one of the Beatles’ entrance into music came from country music. In our film, we have Paul Simon talking about the huge influence of the Everly Brothers on his work. You have Elvis Costello and Jack White talking about how they’ve interfaced with Loretta Lynn. You begin to realize that these categorizations are absolutely meaningless. And music, particularly American music, because it’s such a mix, reminds us of the strength that we get from being a mixture.
And I think particularly today, where we are so divided, where the partisanship has become so hyper that you can’t possibly be a real person because you don't believe what I believe, you don’t live in the same place where I live, you don’t vote for the same person I voted for, that if you have a music that speaks to universal human themes of love and loss and all other things that everybody goes through, you suddenly have a new platform with which to have a conversation with people. So the wish is always the same: to just share stories and have conversations and remind us that if you say us, you can’t say them.
Alicia Burke: Ken Burns’s new documentary “Country Music” is out now
You’ve been listening to “That Made All The Difference,” a new podcast from Bank of America. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
And while you’re there, be sure to check out some of Bank of America’s other original podcasts like “The World To Come,” where we explore life in the future, by talking with the visionaries of today, and “Merrill Perspectives,” where you’ll hear insights into topics that are making their way from the news headlines, right to your kitchen table.
In our next episode, we’ll take a trip to Detroit and meet Lisa Ludwinksi. The owner of Sister Pie, a bakery with a mission that is bigger than its bottom line. I am Alicia Burke. Thanks so much for joining us. I’ll talk to you soon.
© 2023 Bank of America Corporation. All rights reserved.
SEASON 1: EPISODE 1 Dan Harris, News Anchor and Author
After Dan had an on-air panic attack, he realized he had to stop chasing the adrenaline he was accustomed to as a war correspondent and find healthier ways to attain happiness.
Dan Harris: A young man who goes off to war zones without thinking about the consequences. Comes home, gets depressed, is insufficiently self-aware to know it and then blindly self-medicates. That’s a cascade of mindlessness.
Alicia Burke: Dan Harris is on a mission to change the way we think. I discovered him when I read his best-selling books, “Ten Percent Happier,” and then “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics,” both of which fundamentally shifted the way I look at my day.
But most Americans discovered him as an anchor on Good Morning America and a correspondent for ABC News. It was during those days that something happened to Dan. He had a panic attack … live on national TV.
I am Alicia Burke and this is the first episode of “That Made All The Difference,” a new original podcast from Bank of America, where we talk to people about the moments that changed the course of their lives, and inspired in them the power to move forward. We’ll meet people who have made a positive impact on the world, and on the lives of others.
Dan’s live TV panic attack led him on a path of self-reflection. Today, he’s on a mission to help others discover the power to change their mind-set.
So I wanted to learn more about Dan’s journey. Turns out, it started when Dan was a war correspondent.
Dan Harris: I didn’t really think of myself as a hard-charging global correspondent. But when 9/11 happened, I became a war correspondent and covered all sorts of things and been in Iraq during that war. I was there six or seven times. I was in Afghanistan several times during the war, in Pakistan and Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza and covered the Lebanon War in 2006 and the second intifada in 2002 and it was incredible. It was scary, but it gave me this kind of global education that wasn't even really in my wildest dreams.
Alicia Burke: What was that like for you? You're in Afghanistan, you're in Iraq, you're everywhere.
Dan Harris: It was really thrilling. There is a book called, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”, and one of the ideas in the book was that war is like a drug, and that really spoke to me, that of course it's awful on a million levels, and I saw things that were really hard to describe, but it's also, for a young ambitious correspondent who was really deeply curious and idealistic, it was thrilling. There's an expression, "There's nothing more thrilling than the bullet that misses," and in my case they all missed.
Alicia Burke: And did you feel like it gave you purpose?
Dan Harris: Yes. I mean, my meditation teacher is very wise individual named Joseph Goldstein, talks about motivation, as running along a spectrum. So I try to be mindful of the fact that some of my motivations are pretty crass, and in the case of covering wars, some of it was careerist. This was a good way to advance my career, but as we move up the spectrum, curiosity is in there and idealism. I think it's very important to have observers telling the audience at home in the United States, in this case, what is being done at the tip of the spear in our name and with our tax dollars. But I don't want to paint some picture to you that I am all about the idealism, nothing else matters. I think part of what's intriguing to me about meditation is kind of seeing clearly the whole rich pageant internally, and some of it, to quote Joseph Goldstein again, "self-knowledge is always bad news." It tends to be really embarrassing when you look at what's really going on in this zoo internally.
Alicia Burke: You came back, and is that when you started doing “Good Morning America”? And, I do want to talk a little bit about 2004.
Dan Harris: Yes. Yeah, everybody wants to talk about that. It's my fault.
Alicia Burke: And what happened to you on air.
Dan Harris: Yeah. So the careerist impulses on my end around covering wars, they were correct It was good for my career. And I did not only became sort of more trusted within the building as an actual journalist and correspondent, but some of the powers that be started to eye me as an anchor who could be on some of our main shows, and I started to fill in on “Good Morning America.” Sometimes I would fill in for a young lady named Robin Roberts, who's now the main host of G.M.A. But at that time she was known as the news reader.
Alicia Burke: And tell us what happened in 2004. You were on air and you had a panic attack.
Dan Harris: That's exactly what happened.
I was on the air, it was like a June morning in 2004 filling in for Robin. I had done this many times. The job essentially is to, Charlie and Diane Sawyer, the main hosts of the show at that time would say, "O.K., we've done a few stories. Let's take a break and just run through some of the other major headlines of the morning. Now over to Dan Harris who's filling in for Robin."
So I had done this before, and I didn't have any reason to foresee what was about to happen, which is that a few seconds into my shtick of you're supposed to read six quick 20- to 30-second stories off of the teleprompter. I started to lose it.
G.M.A. CLIP: Health news now, one of the world’s most commonly prescribed medications may be providing a big bonus.
Dan Harris: My mouth dried up, my heart was racing, my palms were sweating.
G.M.A. CLIP: Researchers report, people who take cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins, for at least five years may also lower their risk for cancer.
Dan Harris: The more my mind started racing, the more my body went into mutiny mode. This is a vicious cycle, which accelerates from anxiety into true panic, where you feel like you're going to die.
G.M.A. CLIP: But it’s too early to prescribe statins solely for cancer production. That does it for news. We’re going to go back now to Robin and Charlie. All right, thanks very much. Dan Harris with the news … [fade under]
Dan Harris: I had to do something I had never had to do before on live television or anywhere really, which is just quit.
Dan Harris: Anybody who's ever had any panic or anxiety, for those people, it's really hard to watch because you know exactly what you're looking at. For others who have been blessed not to have experienced that, they will often say, "You know, it didn't look that bad." It doesn't look awesome, but it's not like that flop sweat scene in “Broadcast News,” the movie.
Alicia Burke: Right
Dan Harris: It really doesn't matter, because I know what was happening for me and it was awful. But the other thing to know is if I hadn't had the luxury of being able to toss it back to the main hosts of the show, it would have gotten there quickly. I just was able to bail myself out.
Alicia Burke: I think if the camera could actually have seen inside your head, we would all be terrified for yes, because that's where it was all happening. So then what happens, Dan? What did you do when that wrapped and you said, "O.K., what next?"
Dan Harris: So, first thing I did was lie to everybody, I said, "Oh, it's nothing. It's no big deal," and people kind of let me get away with it. But it wasn't actually until I had another panic attack that was much more mild, that I found this shrink, and he was an expert in panic, and he asked me a bunch of questions and one of the questions was, "Do you do drugs?" And I said, "Yeah, I do." And can I swear here?
Alicia Burke: Absolutely.
Dan Harris: I like to joke that he gave me a look that communicated the following sentiment. OK asshole, mystery solved.
So the backstory here is that I came home in the summer of 2003, so well before the panic attack … and I got depressed and I got depressed not because I was traumatized, but because I was, and I know this only now in hindsight, I was addicted to the adrenaline of these situations, and coming home, no matter how exciting my daily life was compared to most human beings, it was nothing compared to being in a war zone. And during this period of time, a buddy of mine offered me cocaine and it made me feel better. And I started to do it pretty intermittent and never when I was working, so it wasn't like I was just constantly doing cocaine, but it was enough according to this shrink, to alter my brain chemistry and make it more likely for me to freak out on television, or anywhere really.
So I quit doing drugs in that office right there with him, and because quitting drugs isn't that easy, he didn't think I needed to go to rehab, but he demanded that I see him once or twice a week, indefinitely. So I did that for years.
Alicia Burke: It already takes so much courage to recognize our problems and to make a commitment to fix them.
Dan could have left it at that. He could have kept his panic attack to himself, quit drugs, and quietly recovered with the help of his psychiatrist.
Instead, he went deeper. Dan took what he learned in his journey to recovery and shared it with the rest of us.
“Ten Percent Happier,” Dan’s memoir that delves into the worst day of his career, is also about how meditation transformed his life.
Today “Ten Percent Happier” has blossomed into an entire movement and a company. I found that moment, the one that made all the difference for Dan, fascinating.
Dan Harris: I stumbled upon a book by a self-help guru by the name of Eckhart Tolle. Actually, I shouldn't say I stumbled upon it. One of my producers, Felicia Biberica recommended that I read his book and I remember we are on a shoot with Pentecostal Christians, and we're sitting around talking, me and Felicia and the crew, and she was talking about Eckhart Tolle. She was like: "Dan, you should read his book. It's all about controlling your ego." And everybody started to laugh, because, of course, I'm a TV news guy with a big ego. But she didn't mean it that way, and Eckhart Tolle doesn't mean it that way. The traditional sort of limited definition of an ego is like some guy who uses a hair dryer a lot and is on television and wears makeup like me. I don't actually use a hair dryer, but I am kind of stereotypical white male, big ego guy.
That's not what Eckhart Tolle is talking about when he's talking about the ego. As I learned when I read his book, he's talking about the inner narrator. The voice that chases you out of bed in the morning and is yammering at you all day long. It's characterized by a lot desire or aversion, thinking about the past or thinking about the future to the detriment of whatever's happening right now. You're constantly sort of criticizing yourself, judging other people, comparing yourself to other people. And most of us aren't aware this is happening. I was unaware. This was the central feature, the most intimate part of my existence was this voice. Is this voice. Nobody had ever pointed that out to me.
So I'm reading the book and I was also deeply intrigued by this idea of the voice in the head.
And so, to Felicia's delight I said, "Let's go do a story on him," and so we flew to Toronto and I met Eckhart Tolle. And I asked him at one point, "What do you do about the voice in the head?" And he said, "Take one conscious breath," and I had no idea what that meant. And I asked him over and over, "What really do you do about this?" I didn't understand his answers at all. And so ultimately I realized that there is a way to deal with a voice in the head, and it's meditation.
Alicia Burke: So, that one conscious breath that led you to going down the path of meditation, right Dan?
Dan Harris: Yes, it did. It did. Eckhart Tolle had a massive effect on me. I hate to admit it. He really did change my life, and when I look at pictures of him, I sometimes joke about it, like, "I can't believe this guy gets me."
Alicia Burke: Well, and the truth is we're all complicated. We're not all one thing. So you take the best of, and you take what works for you and you took that and translated it into the work you've done on meditation, both for yourself and then now what you're offering other people. Can I ask you, what is the thing that changed for you when you started meditating? What was the impact on your life?
Dan Harris: Before I saw any personal benefits, I remember being at a cocktail party and hearing my wife saying to one of our friends, “Dan started meditating and he's less of a shithead.” And I remember thinking, “Well, that's an interesting data point.”
I didn't want to meditate. I really thought meditation was bullshit. Really thought that. It was seeing though that there's a lot of science, a lot of science that strongly suggests that doing a little bit of meditation every day can have a bunch of tantalizing health benefits.
Lowering your blood pressure, boosting your immune system, rewiring key parts of your brain. Like the neuroscience here is really interesting, still in its early stages but very intriguing. So that got me to do it and I was doing it like five minutes a day, maybe 10 minutes a day. So the first data point was my wife's comment, but then over time and not too much time, I mean weeks not months, I started to notice two things. One is that it really helped me with my focus and there's science that suggests that it rewires the areas of the brain associated with attention regulation. You know, we live in an era where there are a lot of demands on our attention. This is not a new observation. And I find and I found then, and I find increasingly so now that meditation helps me stay on point.
But the bigger benefit is this word “mindfulness,” which is now a bit of a cultural cliché. This is used all the time and lots of ... There are books about mindful sex and mindful parenting and mindful lawyering and blah, blah, blah.
One very simple way to understand what mindfulness is, is it's the ability to know what's happening in your head right now without getting carried away by it. And this is just a phenomenally useful skill, because we are buffeted internally by all sorts of random urges and thoughts and emotions, and we act on them blindly. The source of most of our most embarrassing things are because we're mindless. Like, for example, a young man who goes off to war zones without thinking about the consequences, comes home, gets depressed, is insufficiently self-aware to know it, and then blindly self-medicates with cocaine. That's a cascade of mindlessness. Well, we're all doing this all the time because we don't have visibility on our inner processes. And mindfulness is just this kind of waking up to our inner lives so that we're not driven blindly by this cacophony. And that is incredibly powerful.
Alicia Burke: Dan, I meditated this morning for 10 minutes.
Dan Harris: Good for you, that's a good stretch.
Alicia Burke: And I don't do it every day, but I felt like today it's almost like flossing before you go to the dentist, or praying when you know you're going to see the priest. But I always notice when I do it, I have a better day. And that's as much as I can say about it. It's always a better day. Where do you think you’d be without “Ten Percent Happier,” Dan, today?
Dan Harris: I worry that I would be pretty unhappy. You know, life is complicated, and there are lots of ups and downs. We have kids, our parents get older, we get older. And I think that having this inner skill of being able to meet these challenges with increased equanimity, again it's not infallibility or imperturbability but it's just a 10 percent ... Since I'm talking to a banker, a 10 percent that compounds annually. Improvement in your ability to deal with life's vexations, and by the way, the positive stuff. You're less distracted so that you can squeeze more juice out of the good stuff in your life. Like we had a baby shortly after the book came out. That's been incredible. And then also on the flip side or the downside, I think it becomes less depressing because your resilience is increased through these inner skills that you can develop through meditation. So I worry that I would be less, sort of, equipped to deal with the complications of life as we get older.
Alicia Burke: I love that it's made you happier and it's made your life fuller, because what you've done has also made us happier and made our lives fuller, by you sharing with us how to do it, how we can do it. So in that way, you've really paid it forward.
Thank you for taking us to the next frontier of self-awareness, Dan.
Dan Harris: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Alicia Burke: You can find out more about Dan Harris and meditation at tenpercent.com. And his podcast, “Ten Percent Happier” is one of my favorites.
You've been listening to “That Made All The Difference.” You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
And while you're there, be sure to check out some of Bank of America’s other original podcasts, like “The World To Come”, where we explore life in the future by talking with the visionaries of today.
And on Merrill's “Perspectives,” you'll hear insights into topics that are making their way from the news headlines, right to your kitchen table.
As for us, on our next episode, we’ll talk to the one and only Ken Burns about why his work is more personal than you may have expected. I’m Alicia Burke, thanks so much for joining us, and I’ll talk to you soon.
© 2023 Bank of America Corporation. All rights reserved.
SEASON 1: TRAILER Introducing Season 1
Sometimes, one moment can change everything. In this podcast, host and Bank of America executive Alicia Burke explores the defining moments that inspired achievers to make a difference.
Sal Khan: There was a mother in the early days who said both my sons have a learning disability and your lessons are the only way that they're able to keep up with their class.
Alicia Burke: That’s Sal Khan. The founder of Khan Academy.
Sal Khan: It definitely was a signal to me that something powerful was going on. And through these letters I started to discover what people would call a sense of purpose.
It’s stories like these that convinced Sal to quit his day job at a hedge fund and devote his time to building a platform that gives millions of people around the world access to a free education.
I'm Alicia Burke and this is “That Made All The Difference,” an original podcast from Bank of America.
Sal is one of the “remarkable” people we’re going to talk to. People who’ve made a positive impact on the world, and on the lives of others. We’ll learn about the moments that inspired in them a power to move forward and change the course of their lives.
Like Lisa Lundwinski, a baker in Detroit with a mission.
Lisa Lundwinski: I was just seeing these businesses that were creating really delicious food, but were also really talking about what their community needed. And it was that, that made me realize, oh right // I know what I am going to do, I'm going to move back to Michigan. I'm going to open my own food place.
Alica Burke: And Dan Harris, a news anchor who turned the worst moment of his career …
Dan Harris: If you just Google panic attack on live television, it's the first result.
Alica Burke: into a movement to find mindfulness.
Dan Harris: I realized that there is a way to deal with a voice in the head, and it's meditation.
Alicia Burke: We’ll learn what mattered, how it changed them and why it inspired them to make a difference. I hope you’ll join me for these conversations on That Made All the Difference. The series launches September 9th. You can find episodes of That Made All the Difference anywhere you listen to podcasts. Subscribe now.
© 2023 Bank of America Corporation. All rights reserved.
In Season 2 of our That Made All the Difference podcast, host and Bank of America executive Alicia Burke explores how achievers of all kinds are adapting to a changing reality.
In this season of our original podcast, host and Bank of America executive Alicia Burke speaks with scholars, artists, and advocates who are advancing equality. Hear about the moments that have defined their journeys.
In Season 4 of That Made All the Difference, host Alicia Burke talks with artists, business leaders and advocates about what inspires them to build a more sustainable world.