Maria Shriver: It’s Time for Action

UPDATED: October 22, 2010
PUBLISHED: October 22, 2010

After a hectic day packed with morning meetings and a photo session, Maria Shriver takes time to sit down for an interview. Dressed for a charity dinner later that evening, she exudes grace and confidence; she seems the epitome of a first lady.

Much has changed in Shriver’s life since her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was elected governor of California seven years ago. “When I became first lady I was a working journalist with four young children,” she says. Now, two daughters are on their own, a son is about to leave the nest and her younger son is in middle school. Her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver—“the most instrumental figure in my life”—has passed away. Her father, Sargent Shriver, has Alzheimer’s disease. “So I look at my life differently today,” she says.

“I used to define success as getting the anchor job, by having a book on the best-seller list. Since I’ve done that and realized actually it didn’t make me feel more fulfilled, I’ve gone back to the basics to really ask myself, What does it mean to be successful in one’s world?

When she became first lady of California, Shriver had to give up her job with NBC, “which seemed like the worst thing in the world,” she says. But a funny thing happened. “I’ve become more of myself through the [first lady’s] job,” she says. “As a journalist, you’re really a messenger of everybody else’s stories and everybody else’s opinions, and as first lady you step out of being the messenger and really look at what’s of interest to you. How do you want to use your own voice? How do you want to step into your own life?”

Shriver found her voice—and her mission—as a champion for women and families. Her crowning achievement has been The Women’s Conference®. Touted as the premier forum for women, the conference is a three-day, megawatt event that attracts a powerful lineup of more than 140 speakers, authors, celebrities and business, spiritual and political leaders. More than an event, though, The Women’s Conference is the launching point for an ongoing effort that has positively impacted millions of lives in California and beyond.

“We’re a movement; we’re a main event; we’re about personal transformation,” Shriver says. “But we’re also about giving you the tools to go out and become an architect of change, not just in your own life, but in the world around you.”

Finding Her Own Path

Born into an American political dynasty, mother Eunice was sister to President John F. Kennedy and Senators Robert and Ted Kennedy—Maria Shriver grew up with a sense of duty to make a positive difference in the world. But she was not interested in a life in politics, and knew she needed to find her own path.

As a teenager, she accompanied her father on campaign flights during his run as the vice presidential candidate on the George McGovern ticket in 1972. Sixteen-year-old Maria sat in the back of the plane near the reporters. She felt comfortable around them, and an idea began to take shape.

Shriver received a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and began her journalism career in 1977. That same year, she met a handsome bodybuilding actor at a charity tennis tournament at her family’s home in Massachusetts. Nine years later, she and Arnold Schwarzenegger married.

As the young couple created a life together, their careers blossomed. Schwarzenegger became a box office icon and Shriver worked her way up from local stations to positions with CBS in 1985, and NBC in 1987, where she co-anchored Sunday Today, NBC Nightly News and Dateline NBC. She also won Peabody and Emmy awards for her work. In 1989, Shriver and Schwarzenegger celebrated the birth of the first of their four children.

Going into politics wasn’t on Shriver’s agenda, but her husband had different ideas. A republican, he ran amid a crowded field of candidates in the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election. Shriver supported her husband’s candidacy without entirely realizing what his election would mean for her life. After he was elected, Shriver had to give up her job with NBC.

The transition was not easy. On her first day in the office, Shriver asked if there was a job description for the first lady. “They said, ‘You can pick out the Christmas ornaments.’ And I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”

When she was shown to her office at the state’s capitol building, one of the first things she did was remove the sign on her door that read VERY SPECIAL PROJECTS OF THE GOVERNOR. With a father who was instrumental in the formation of the Peace Corps and a mother who founded Special Olympics, it was not in Maria Shriver’s DNA to be anyone’s “special project.” Instead, Shriver set out to create her own job description—one that would allow her to use the influential position to make a difference.

Living with Authenticity

Figuring out how to do that required some soul-searching. Her best-selling book, Just Who Will You Be, published by Hyperion in 2008, describes that personal journey of self-discovery. And it all boiled down to being authentic, being true to herself. “My lesson was, don’t try to be like some other first lady; be yourself. Develop programs you’re interested in. Make the job a reflection of you, as opposed to you trying to fit the job,” she says.

The first lady’s position provided a firsthand view of the state’s challenges. Shriver was particularly interested in helping women, realizing the tremendous impact they have on family life and on society: When women are happy, healthy, strong and financially stable, their families and communities reap the benefits. She recognized a need for continuing education and mentorship, but the state’s overburdened budget couldn’t provide the necessary financial support.

She envisioned the opportunities The Women’s Conference offered, and sought to use the event as a tool to fund programs that empower women and families. The conference had been founded in 1985 as a nonpartisan effort to support women business owners. The program drew a few thousand people.

Today, Shriver and her small executive team have transformed The Women’s Conference into a three-day event that draws crowds topping 30,000. Women and men come from across the state and nation to learn from renowned activists, authors, social entrepreneurs, health advisors, business leaders and spiritual teachers. Mirroring the household of the governor and first lady, the conference brings together voices representing the entire political spectrum and offers a safe place for people to discuss meaningful issues and find their own voices.

Beyond the three-day event, is an interactive community where people connect to share ideas and tap into the wisdom offered by experts on topics ranging from health and financial matters to careers and relationships. The ongoing WE programs, funded in large part by The Women’s Conference, also provide education and resources that help women and families to live healthier, happier lives and become architects of change in their own communities.

Shriver’s staff receives great volumes of letters and e-mails from people describing how the conference or website provided resources, training and encouragement for them to make positive changes in their lives or communities. Countless women have become entrepreneurs or taken their businesses to the next level of success. Many have launched or committed to support charitable organizations.

‘Energized, Empowered and Transformed’

At this year’s conference, scheduled Oct. 24-26 in Long Beach, speakers in addition to Shriver and Schwarzenegger include Jillian Michaels, Tony Robbins, Suze Orman and Dr. Mehmet Oz; business leaders Phil Knight, Howard Schultz and Carol Bartz; actors Sally Field, Jessica Simpson, Rita Wilson, Robert Redford and Rosario Dawson; TV personalities Paula Deen and Oprah Winfrey; singers Mary J. Blige and Sarah McLachlan, along with a host of other journalists, authors, personal-development experts, business leaders and celebrities.

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in those three days because I find it transformative for myself,” Shriver says. “I love to watch people be transformed by the sessions and the speakers. I love to watch some people feel validated in their choices and others moved to action. They come out of that energized, empowered and transformed.”

The Women’s Conference opens this year with the March on Alzheimer’s followed by a candlelight vigil. Additionally, The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s will be released in conjunction with the conference. The report examines the impact this disease has on individuals, families and caregivers, as well as the need for research and a cure.

When her father was diagnosed with the disease in 2003, Shriver says there wasn’t much information available and even less hope for patients and their families. Alzheimer’s was mentioned in hushed, fearful tones and thought of as an “old person’s disease.”

In 2004, Shriver published What’s Happening to Grandpa? to help her children and herself understand the changes they were seeing in her father. In 2009 she was executive producer of the Emmy-winning HBO documentary The Alzheimer’s Project, and testified before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. “We have to put Alzheimer’s on the front burner,” she said in her testimony, “because if we don’t, Alzheimer’s will not only devour our memories—it will cripple our families, devastate our health care system and decimate the legacy of our generation.”

Shriver’s passion is personal, but she recognizes that millions of Americans are dealing with Alzheimer’s every day. “The numbers of people affected by it—not just who get it but everybody around them—is mind-blowing,” she says. “And it’s going to blow the mind of everybody in this country unless we find a cure, because it’s going to impact everybody in one way or another. It is a financial, emotional and spiritual disaster for millions of families.”

Architects of Change

Alzheimer’s disease is just one of many topics discussed at The Women’s Conference. “Whether the issue is intellectual disabilities, death, Alzheimer’s, or your kid leaving home, I put all those issues out there so people feel comfortable talking about them,” Shriver says. “Unless people talk about them and do something about them, nothing happens.”

In the past, conversations held on the main stage have touched on far-reaching topics such as grief and healing, the environment and the economy. In breakout sessions, panels of experts take questions and offer specific, practical answers for people searching for guidance on everything from parenting and caring for aging parents to starting a business, managing finances, branding, networking, negotiating, becoming a more effective leader, living healthier and more.

One of Shriver’s favorite moments comes at the very end of the program: the Minerva Awards, which “recognize women who are architects of change who see an issue, see a problem and go out and create a solution.” Nominated by their peers and selected by Shriver and The Women’s Conference board of directors, winners receive grants to further their efforts. Since 2004, 33 Minerva winners have received more than $500,000. Recipients have included physicians, educators and social and community activists. Some are well-known, such as Sally Ride, Jane Goodall, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Billie Jean King, Louise Hay, Gloria Steinem and Oprah Winfrey.

Other Minerva winners, like 2008 recipient Betty Chinn, don’t have huge platforms, but have made powerful differences in their communities. Chinn was nominated for providing food, blankets and life-changing friendship to those living in poverty in her hometown of Eureka, Calif. She used the $25,000 Minerva grant and partnered with the local St. Vincent de Paul chapter to build a free, public shower and restroom facility that opened last April. In August, Chinn received the Presidential Citizens Medal for her continued commitment to helping those in need. As is true with the Minerva Awards, President Obama noted Chinn and the 12 other Citizens Medal recipients did not apply for the honor. “Instead, they were nominated by the men and women all across the country whose lives they have touched. And, even though their names may not be well-known—at least not until today—they are heroes to those who need it the most.”

Making a difference is what the Minerva Awards are all about. Prior to announcing the 2010 recipients, Shriver asked online community members, “What was your Minerva moment? When did you first realize you could make a difference?” Responding to that question herself, Shriver says that in her family, “Not making a difference wasn’t ever an option.” Her parents set the expectation that she and her siblings would help others.

That philosophy is well established in the Schwarzenegger/Shriver household as well—whether it’s through the conference and its programs, or through projects like Lovin’ Scoopfuls, the ice cream company she co-founded with her brother Tim Shriver to benefit Special Olympics, or supporting her daughter Katherine in selling her VIDA Bags to raise awareness of maternal mortality, in which a woman dies during childbirth.

The Next Chapter

As her husband leaves office this year at the end of his second term, Shriver ponders what’s next for her. “I don’t know,” she says candidly. Having held jobs since she was 21, she admits the uncertainty of entering this new phase is a little frightening.

Shriver has seen how abrupt life changes can bring opportunities. The transition from network journalist to first lady “actually turned out to be a blessing for me,” she says, enabling her to find greater fulfillment and purpose by helping so many women create their own success stories, by bringing attention to Alzheimer’s disease and by being the best she could be for those she loves.

She returns to the subject of success and what it means for her today. “Really, success for me was being a daughter to the end to my mother. It’s being responsible and caring for my father. Success for me is having time to parent my children and show up for them. Success is being the kind of wife I’ve set up for myself and the kind of woman that I would want as a friend.”

As she moves into the next chapter of her life, she says the theme of The Women’s Conference 2010—“It’s Time”—seems fitting. To Shriver, it wraps up what’s happened in the past seven conferences, while providing impetus for the future. It’s Time… to become an architect of change, to make that commitment to your health, to learn how to manage your finances, to start your own business, to enjoy your role as a parent, child, friend and leader. Whatever you’ve been putting off… it’s time now to take action.

“‘It’s Time’ really focuses you in your own life,” Shriver says, “to hear your own voice, learn what it is and then use it.”

Visit to hear Maria Shriver describe her struggle with being a child of Alzheimers.