Pull a bill out of your wallet or purse and take a close look at it. While it may seem ordinary enough, if it was printed in the last eight years, there’s something special about it: It bears the autograph of Rosie Rios, the woman who’s been making waves as the current Treasurer of the United States. It’s thanks to Rios that, come the year 2020, you’ll see more than just a woman’s signature on your money. It’s been her efforts that have led to the recent announcement of Harriet Tubman replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, a move timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. The new design, along with renovated $5 and $10 bills, are set to be unveiled then and will be in circulation shortly thereafter.
Rios has always been a trailblazer. After attending Harvard—where she’s now the first Latina woman in the university’s 380-year history to have a portrait of her commissioned—she entered the public sector by contributing to the development and financial revitalization of several cities in Northern California. In 2009, this background in financial turnaround led Rios to be selected as one of 23 finance professionals to join the Treasury-Federal Reserve transition team at the height of the financial crisis. From there, she rocketed to the top position in the office: Treasurer of the United States.
Rios recently sat down for a candid chat with Barneys’ EVP of Marketing and Communications, Charlotte Blechman, a powerhouse leader in her own right who has led Barneys’ holiday campaigns for the past five years and spearheaded the company’s efforts surrounding gender equality and philanthropy. Read on to discover what inspired Rosie’s drive and passion to see females represented, why she thinks failure is impossible, and what’s next for her when she leaves office later this year.
Charlotte Blechman: I want to start at the beginning, with your upbringing. Your mom sounds like a truly incredible woman, having raised nine children as a single mother. What would you say is the most important thing that you learned from her?
Rosie Rios: She’s definitely my role model. I would say that two things she was sure to teach all of her children were strength and perseverance, but beyond that, she taught by example by always being a leader. Even though she was obviously very busy raising nine kids, I remember that she was always helping everyone in the community. She was the neighborhood translator. She would give shots to neighbors who were diabetic. She was one of the few people in the neighborhood who could drive, so she was taking people to their doctor’s appointments left and right. I remember her holding a neighborhood meeting to get a stoplight installed in front of our school. She was constantly focused not only on her family, but also on the greater good. If she could do that and raise nine kids—and not only survive, but thrive—I think that was the best message she could have passed on. If she could do that, then we could do anything.
CB: She sounds like a force of nature! Did her mother have that same drive?
RR: Her mom and all of my aunts and uncles as well—the strongest common thread among them all was the emphasis on education. My mom was a single mother, and my grandmother wasn’t in that same position, but what they did focus on was a common interest in making sure that education was at the top of the list.
CB: You’ve clearly taken that and become very successful, but everyone has a different definition of what success means. What does it look like for you?
RR: I would define success in one word: sovereignty. If you look up the definition of sovereignty, it’s going to say ‘absolute power or authority.’ So whether one chooses to be an artist, a stay-at-home mom, or queen of the world, as long as it’s their decision, their passion, and their ability to choose that path for themselves, that’s success. It’s the ability to make your own decisions for yourself.
CB: For a lot of people, they see success as ‘having it all.’ Especially professional women—there’s a lot of pressure to conform to some form of that. What does that idea of ‘having it all’ mean to you personally?
RR: We do need to redefine what that means for today. There’s no such thing as ‘having it all’ in terms of the accepted definition. People assume that it means you can have kids, a fulfilling job, a clean house—and the truth is that while that’s possible, it’s almost impossible to have it all at the same moment. The way I think about it for myself is what I call ‘The Rosie Pie of Life.’ Before I took this current job, my time was divided into many different kinds of slices. I had my work and my kids, but I also had time with my girlfriends, with my sisters and my mom, plus time for working out. The second we moved to Washington D.C., my pie became only two slices: my work and my kids. Nothing else exists, and I choose that. It’s my choice, my priorities, and what I can handle. We need to get away from the guilt that we tend to feel when we think we need to check every other box at the same time. It’s not reality. The more you can accept that ‘having it all’ means whatever is best for you at a certain time, the more you can walk away from that guilt. If you walk into my house, it may not be as clean as I’d like to be every single day, but I’ve accepted that there are times I have other priorities. At some point in my next phase, my afterlife post-administration, it could very well be that I’ll be able to integrate other slices into my life, but I’m perfectly happy with how it is now. And that’s by choice.
CB: That’s amazing that you’ve achieved that balance. What would you say has been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced in achieving it?
RR: The hardest part comes right at the start, in terms of finding the right fit in your job itself. You have to be able to integrate your home life with your work life and make sure that that the work allows you to have the flexibility to make decisions for the home. You can’t just accept a job for the sake of accepting a job—you have to interview the job as much as they interview you. You have to know up front what you’re getting yourself into and be strategic when making those decisions. It takes a little more time before you go into that new career path or job, but it’s well worth the investment because that’s how you achieve that delicate balance.
CB: As a woman who has worked primarily in the male-dominated fields of finance and government, have you ever personally felt that you were at a disadvantage because of your gender?
RR: If anything, I’d say I’ve actually used it to my advantage in terms of it giving me a different frame of mind. Whether it’s gender-related, cultural, or political, having a different perspective helps to further the conversation. A different frame of mind, a different way of thinking, a different perspective—the more types of opinions you have at the table, the more you’re able to do your due diligence in making a decision. It’s an asset, and I’ve always used it to my advantage.
CB: It’s wonderful that that’s been your experience and that you’re in a position to implement that in your own offices. Prior to rising to the level you’re at, was there ever a time in your life when you felt that, because you’re a woman, there wasn’t someone who was giving you that opportunity to make your voice heard?
RR: I’ve been fortunate enough in my life that I never really had to think about gender issues. It was only once I came into this role that I became enlightened, and I refer to myself as an ‘accidental feminist.’ Coming into one of the most progressive and inclusive presidential administrations in history made me realize what a unique position I was in. As the first woman to hold this role, it was a wakeup call to be part of an agency where the eyes of the world were watching. When I came in in 2009, it was one of the most consequential times in our economic history, yet the senior team was limited in terms of its diversity. It was what led to my interest in the history of women in the treasury and in currency design, and it was what motivated me to want to make a difference. I decided to put the idea of my accidental feminism to the test and raise the very simple question of why our currency does not reflect the true history of our country. And the answer is just that no one had ever brought it up. It makes you wonder, what else are we not bringing up?
CB: You’re bringing it up and breaking new ground! We’ve seen in the press that the process has faced many roadblocks you’ve had to navigate. Have you ever just wanted to throw in the towel?
RR: There were definitely moments along the way where the odds weren’t in my favor, but there was never one second where I thought to myself that this wasn’t going to happen. You have to first have the trust and the belief, and then work backwards from that. I’ve been working toward this goal for almost eight years, but for me, ‘no’ was not an option. Failure was impossible.
CB: Is there any one watershed moment that prepared you for this incredible feat you’ve been able to accomplish?
RR: Ideas are a dime a dozen, but the turning point for me was when I approached this project with a very technical mindset as far as how currency is normally redesigned, which is with security featured first. Aesthetics usually come last. So we needed to be sure to tee up this proposal for then Treasury Secretary Geitner in a way that’d make it very difficult to say no. The moment where he actually said, after a very major presentation to him in October of 2012, “This is cool. We should do this.” That for me was, and continues to be, the highlight of my career here.
CB: You’ve literally changed the course of U.S. history.
RR: For me, it was never about me. It was about honoring those women who came before me, including the women in the treasury, the women in our American history, and my mom. But at the same time, also planting the seeds for our future, and in this case it was my 15-year-old daughter that motivated me.
CB: You’ve said before that you specifically took office with the intention of getting a woman on U.S. currency.
RR: It was very specific, it was very deliberate, and it was very much a secret.
CB: Was there a moment where you just woke up and said, “I need to do this, I’m going to do this, and I’m going to do it by being treasurer of the United States”?
RR: There was a day in December of 2008 where I was at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in the Historical Resource Center. I was just trying to get to know all aspects of the treasury as part of the transition team, and to see the number of archival renderings, engravings, and plates that really captured the history of our country was truly amazing. But to then realize how women were depicted on all these treasury products—not just money, but military payment certificates, savings bonds, postage stamps—it became obvious that all the women were allegorical. They were nameless and not real people. It was a light bulb that came on and it became my intention to rectify it.
And I’m not pounding my fist just to say, “We women are going to be accepted, or else!” It’s about recognizing and honoring all facets of the community. If there’s a group that’s not part of the conversation, that’s fundamentally contradictory to what this country was founded on. What makes this country so amazing is that it was based on the fact that people come from all over the world with the hope of contributing and making this country great. That’s the definition of democracy—the ability to have a voice in the dialogue. That’s also the theme that has motivated me my entire life and was the driving force behind my recommendation for the next generation of bank notes, which will now include a real woman for the first time in 120 years.
CB: What in your life do you think shaped your logical way of viewing the world?
RR: I was fortunate in that I had five older brothers and sisters who went off to college before me. In our disadvantaged community, it was a big deal just to graduate high school, let alone go off to college, and all nine of us did. For all of us, there’s definitely a survivor’s instinct. There’s a view that nothing is insurmountable if you focus and have a work ethic. But when I moved out of California—something my siblings didn’t do for school—and got to Harvard, I started to look around and realize that no one looked like me and no one thought like me. I call myself a “constructive disruptor,” meaning that I channeled that difference, something I viewed as an asset.
CB: There are a few phrases you’ve used like “survivor’s instinct”, “work ethic,” and “failure is impossible” that are clearly engrained into your DNA. What would you say are the three most important qualities a leader should possess?
RR: I’d put empowerment at the top of the list. To be able to lay the groundwork so that each member of your team feels empowered to move forward, that’s leadership 101. The second is the ability to put people first. As a manager, my job is to provide the support to allow the front-line staff, the people who are doing the day-to-day work, to do their job. Lastly, do your homework. There are too many people who take a political or hypothetical role as opposed to a practitioner role. You need to have a baseline knowledge and be well-versed in the priorities of your organization, even if it’s not part of your own job responsibility. If you’re in a team meeting, you need to be very familiar with what everyone else is talking about in order to be able to contribute. You need to be the one to connect the dots by understanding all the issues in front of you.
CB: You’re leaving office shortly, at the end of the current administration later this year. What are your plans then?
RR: I’m going to carry forward with the passion I’ve discovered in this role. There’s too much at stake not to. It’s about recognizing those who came before us, connecting with each other to form a collective voice to articulate our priorities as they relate to women and girls, and inspiring the next generation so that they don’t have to fight as hard for some of the things that we take for granted. There’s still so much more work to be done. It’s not just about currency design. It’s about women on corporate boards, women in top leadership roles, women in Congress, a woman in the White House. The truth is, if we’re strategic and organized enough, women can determine the outcome of every future election. That’s a powerful, powerful tool. And it’s just the beginning.