Arianna Huffington: Media mogul, lifelong learner
Published Wednesday, XX May 2019 12:00 AM ET
hen Arianna Huffington went to meet with journalists at Fortune magazine, Editor-in-Chief Clifton Leaf thought they would discuss business strategy — Huffington being the successful founder of The Huffington Post (renamed HuffPost in 2017), the news website she sold to AOL for $315 million in 2011.
Instead, she talked about the miniature bed she had made for her iPhone, which came complete with a blanket and a separate bed for a spousal phone, the idea being that people should stay away from their devices in the evening, to get a good night’s sleep.
“There were, like, 10 editors of Fortune on either side. And then there were three or four people on one side of the big, long coffee table. And … I was quizzing her about business models. And she was talking about this little bed that she was putting her phone in,” Leaf told CNBC’s “The Brave Ones.”
It was the first significant meeting Leaf had with Huffington, and she was on the cusp of starting Thrive Global, a website and consultancy that helps businesses manage their employees’ wellbeing, founded in 2016. The new project would include a pop-up shop selling her iPhone bed, and Huffington was “giddy” about her new company.
Some years before Huffington had started literally putting her smartphone to bed, she had an epiphany. It was 2007 and she had arrived in the U.S. on an overnight flight for an interview with CNN before heading back to her desk. Catching up with emails, she collapsed in her office, hitting her head on the desk and breaking her cheekbone.
“I had really bought into the collective delusion that the way to succeed, the way to be super mom and super founder was to burn out. To allow myself no time to sleep, recharge, refuel,” Huffington told “The Brave Ones.”
“That was the wakeup call. That was the moment when I realized that not just I, but a whole world had bought into this delusion. And that the consequences were really catastrophic, both in terms of our health and our performance, our relationships, and we now see increasingly, our mental health.”
HuffPost had started as a news website with a focus on politics, but after her collapse, Huffington added a section on sleep. “At the time, it was very much a fringe issue. But we covered it seriously. We covered the science. And we covered all the manifestations of stress, how they were affecting our health,” she said.
A section called Screen Sense was also introduced, and soon wellbeing topics generated more web traffic than HuffPost’s coverage of politics. “I could see that the world was hungry for this conversation. And as I became more and more passionate about these topics, I wanted to make sure that I gave more of myself, that I covered them in a way that was very intentional,” she said.
“She really understood that other than eating and breathing, the thing that puts the ‘well’ into ‘wellbeing’ is sleep,” Leaf said. “And she realized that, wow, she just wasn't getting any of this. So that transformed her whole thinking about … how do we even define what a successful person is?”
“It's not where you went to college and what you're doing at work and how much you're making but, you know, how you are with the world, how balanced your life is, how good you feel,” he added.
She was so keen on the subject she published her 14th book, “Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder,” in 2014, and stepped down as editor-in-chief of HuffPost to launch Thrive Global in 2016. That’s also when she ran a pop-up shop in New York City selling a smartphone charging station in the guise of a miniature bed — for $100. “The idea is human beings learn through ritual and the charging station lives outside everybody’s bedrooms,” she told CNBC in 2017.
rianna Huffington was born Ariadni-Anna Stasinopoulou in 1950 and she and her sister Agapi were raised by their mother Elli in a one-bedroom apartment in Athens, Greece.
Their father, Konstantinos, was a journalist taken to a Nazi camp during World War II for writing an anti-German article. He survived the concentration camp and married Elli, but the relationship was troubled. As a girl, Huffington encouraged her mother to leave her father, Agapi recalls.
“I remember the conversation. And my mother saying: ‘But Agapi loves her daddy so much. She's going to be so upset.’ And (Arianna) said: ‘Mommy, she'll grow out of it. It's very important that we're all happy. And if you and Daddy are fighting, it's not happy for anybody.’ She was 12. And she had this wisdom and this insight that what really mattered was that … we were able to be in an environment that was more peaceful,” she told “The Brave Ones.”
It was a turbulent time for Greece: a political crisis in 1965 had created civil unrest and in 1967, the country’s monarch, King Constantine II, was exiled after a military coup. One afternoon, when Huffington was 15, Athens was under army occupation, but she was due to attend a class.
“At 4 p.m., Arianna had to go to her lesson. And … outside our door there were soldiers with machine guns,” Agapi said. “And the radio just announced that nobody's allowed to go out in the streets or they'll be shot, basically … (but) I see (Arianna) from our living room window, she’s walking down our street and the soldiers say: ‘You have to come back, you’re not allowed out, what are you doing?’ And she said: ‘I have a class at four o’clock and I can’t miss it’.”
“She does not give up easily. She's incredibly resilient. And that to me, is the definition of being brave.”
Another time, Huffington was coming home from school and she saw a picture of Cambridge University on the cover of a magazine. “I bought the magazine and put it on the kitchen table and said to my mom: ‘I really want to go there,’” she told CNBC.
“And my mom didn't say: ‘Don't be ridiculous, you don't speak English, we don't have money, I'm sure it's hard even for English girls to get into Cambridge.’ My mother said: ‘Let's see how we can make that happen’.”
Her mother didn’t make her feel as if Cambridge was do or die. “She always made me feel that it was a grand adventure. And that if we didn't succeed, if we didn't get into Cambridge, life was still a grand adventure and there would be other things. And that she wouldn't love me any less,” Huffington recalled.
The two visited the university, “a kind of early version of visualization, to imagine myself in that place,” she said, and Huffington got in on a partial scholarship.
She studied economics at Girton College and became the third woman president of the Cambridge Union, a process that involved some determination, in part because of her heavy Greek accent. “There was a lot of snobbery around accents. And when I first stood up to speak … I was a terrible speaker, I was reading every word, and I had this heavy accent. So, people kind of wrote me off. And I persevered just because I really loved it. And also because again, back to my mother, it was OK if I failed.”
Agapi describes their young lives as a world that was “a big stage, a playground where you can really experiment, you can try things.”
Failing was OK too. “We had very little money, but my mother had always made us believe in ourselves beyond our circumstances. My mother used to say that failure is not the opposite of your success, it’s a stepping stone to your success,” Huffington said.
Huffington became an author after a publisher saw her on a televised Cambridge Union debate on the changing role of women. He wrote to ask if she could write a book about it, but she declined, saying she couldn’t write. Meeting her for lunch, he persuaded her, and she published “The Female Woman,” in 1974, a riposte to Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch.”
“It was basically arguing in favor (that) of course women should have every right, every opportunity, equal pay, all the things that we take for granted now, but also, we don't need to throw the baby out with the bathwater and denigrate women with children or who choose not to pursue a career,” Huffington explained.
“And because the book was a success, after that, everybody wanted me to write more on women. But I feel I had said absolutely everything I knew about women. I was 24,” she told “The Brave Ones.” Instead, she worked on a book about political leadership, but it was rejected 37 times, and she wondered whether her first book had been a fluke. She managed to get a loan from a London bank and finally got her book, “After Reason,” published in 1978.
She had been dating the journalist Bernard Levin, after they both appeared on “Face the Music,” a classical music quiz show on BBC TV, but Huffington broke off the relationship when she realized he never wanted to marry or have children.
“By the time I was 30, I really knew I wanted to have children. And I felt that if I had stayed in London, I would not have the courage to leave him. So, I put the Atlantic Ocean between us and moved to New York.”
She continued writing: Biographies of Maria Callas and Pablo Picasso followed and in 1986 she married oil heir and merchant banker Michael Huffington, who went on to become a Republican congressman from 1993 to 1995. They had two children together and divorced in 1997. But even for Huffington, this personal crisis was an opportunity to help others.
“I always felt when I learned something, I wanted to share it if it would help others. And the same happened with my personal realizations. When I went through a divorce with two young children, I wanted to talk about the importance of co-parenting,” she said.
“You know, obviously, if you are getting divorced, you're angry, you're resentful. And yet, you share these children together. And how can you put your anger and resentment aside? Not ignore it, but not let it affect the way you co-parent. And so, my ex-husband and I, we're really able to do that. It wasn't easy.”
Huffington added a “Divorce” section to HuffPost in 2010 and discussed how she and her ex-husband eventually became friends in 2014.
efore founding HuffPost, Huffington made a career of being a conservative commentator in the 1990s, taking part in a Los Angeles weekly radio show “Left, Right and Center.” But by 2004 she had switched sides, announcing that she would endorse John Kerry’s presidential campaign on an episode of “The Daily Show.”
“I remember thinking that, all of her political commentary was focused on sort of people empowerment. And she had criticism. But it was always told with a wink and a nod,” Leaf told “The Brave Ones.”
“She's not a coarse person. She's not a meanspirited person, in any way. And so, you know, (whether) she was, (on) the left or the right, whatever, her commentary was sort of more humanist, I think, than political,” he added.
She also ran as an independent candidate for Governor of California in 2003 against Arnold Schwarzenegger, who went on to win. “I ran as an independent, it was a recall election. And therefore, the normal constraints of a primary where you need to pick a party did not exist,” Huffington said.
“It was a very short experience. Less than two months. And when I dropped out, Arnold Schwarzenegger became the governor. But I learned an enormous amount. I learned a lot especially about the power of digital news. And that was 2003. And (in) 2005, I launched The Huffington Post.”
“I saw the conversation moving online. I was fascinated by blogs and bloggers. I started my own little site called Arianna Online. And I posted all my columns as a syndicated columnist at the time. I posted them online and I started a chat room where we could have conversations,” Huffington said.
She asked journalist and celebrity contacts to write blogs for the site. “With a collective blog, which was the first time that you had a lot of people like Walter Cronkite and Larry David and Ellen DeGeneres and Nora Ephron writing about news, culture, in real time. And elevating the idea of blogging, which at the time, was seen as something that people who couldn't get jobs were doing in their parents' basement in their pajamas,” she said.
In May 2005, she and media executive and investor Ken Lerer founded HuffPost, to initially negative reviews. “The problem with blogs such as The Huffington Post is that they divert our attention from real and serious journalism,” wrote one critic. Another stated: “Judging from what ‘The Huffington Post’ has trotted out so far it feels mostly like a groupthink tank.” “This website venture is the sort of failure that is simply unsurvivable,” wrote a third — but a year later, that same journalist reached out to Huffington.
“(She) said: ‘I was wrong. HuffPost has become an indispensable part of the internet and I'd like to write for you.’ And I said yes, because one thing that I always remember my mother taught me is never to hold grudges,” Huffington recalled.
“The Huffington Post — it was a radical idea. The idea that you could have a front page to the internet, so you had this real new game changer come in out of nowhere,” Leaf told “The Brave Ones.”
Huffington wanted the site to be investigative, to use video and to cover global news, and selling to AOL in 2011 (now part of Verizon) meant her ambitions could be realized more quickly, she told “The Brave Ones.”
It shook up traditional media, Leaf said. “Instantly it became clear that here was a new model. It wasn’t just drawing traffic, it was drawing an audience. And so, I think that much of old media realized they had to sort of jump into this game.”
By 2008, it was drawing 5.1 million unique visitors a month, according to Nielsen and in 2012, a 10-part series on wounded veterans and their families won HuffPost journalist David Wood the Pulitzer Prize. In 2018, unique visitor numbers reached 68 million a month, per comScore figures.
Huffington was in her mid-50s when she founded the site, which her daughter Christina called: “incredible … in this era of everyone wanting to be super successful when they're 25, and have it all figured out and start a company that's, you know, a unicorn … she didn't do that until she was in her mid-50s,” she told “The Brave Ones.”
espite Huffington’s on-paper success, something was amiss. “We had this perception … business certainly does, that human beings are machines. And you want to try to minimize the downtime and get the most productivity that you can out of them. And so, workers were under the impression that they had to work, you know, 10, 12, 15 hours, whatever it was, a day and keep burning the candle at both ends,” Leaf told “The Brave Ones.”
“And what she discovered was, this is a myth, you know, that we're not more productive when we work like that,” he added.
After Huffington passed out at her desk and had her health epiphany, she switched her focus. She wrote her book, “Thrive,” in 2014, arguing that there is more to life than money and power, and advocating more sleep and meditation.
Then in 2015, her career took an unexpected turn. She had been running HuffPost for a decade and spoke at a conference for women, hosted by Alibaba and its co-founder Jack Ma in Hangzhou, China. “I spoke about all these issues and the dangers of the way our cultures globally were fueled by stress and burnout,” she said. That night, at a dinner for speakers, Ma suggested she flip her career on its head.
“Jack Ma said to me: ‘If I were you, I would leave The Huffington Post and start a company based on the views that you expressed in your speech and in your book.’ And he actually said that stress is becoming a bigger and bigger crisis everywhere, there are tens of millions of people in China suffering from mental health problems that are stress related,” Huffington recalled.
Ma said he’d invest in her, if she switched. “At the time, I really thought he was crazy. I had zero intention in 2014 to leave HuffPost. I really thought it was going to be my last act. I loved it like a third child. But it planted a seed. And by 2016, I decided I actually wanted to do that.”
Huffington sought the expertise of specialists such as David Agus, chief executive of the Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine at the University of Southern California, who she persuaded to join the board of Thrive Global. Agus said he “had” to be a part of an initiative that made corporations realize that if their employees did well, they would too. But he told Huffington it needed to be science-backed: “Arianna, I am only going to do this if it’s data-driven. I’m only going to do this if everything we say is driven by science. And if you show me something and it doesn’t make sense, you can’t do it,” he told “The Brave Ones.” Huffington agreed.
“You know, Thrive is risky. You know, going in and telling corporations, ‘I want to change the behavior of your employees. And it's in your best interest to do that … And we'll have a feedback loop to show why their behavior change will help you as a company,’ is radical … And she thought the greater good was, we needed this in our culture. And that is the American business culture,” Agus added.
Huffington thought she would be able to start her new company as well as running HuffPost, but quickly realized the business of Thrive Global was a new calling. Ma and Alibaba co-founder Joseph Tsai invested an undisclosed amount and Thrive Global has now consulted for Accenture, J.P. Morgan and SAP, and published articles by the likes of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who wrote about sleep, and pop star Selena Gomez, who discussed digital detoxing.
As well as being a media company, publishing articles such as “How to avoid getting overloaded when your colleagues take time off on holiday,” and “People quickly judge you based on trust and respect when they first meet you,” Thrive Global offers six behavior change programs focusing on topics such as mental resilience, performance and parenthood. Its Thriving Communication program, for example, aims to give teams a “compassionate directness.”
“The reason why behavior change has been so hard and there is such minimal compliance is because we've been treating people like Pavlov's dogs. And we've been forgetting that human beings are complex and messy, and we need to touch their hearts and souls. And not just give them nudges. Although nudges are important, they are not the full story,” Huffington said.
“Part of my sense of mission is to stop people from having their wake-up call,” she told CNBC’s Becky Quick during an episode of “On the Money” last year.
She also has a passion for introducing people to each other. Businesswoman Bozoma Saint John met Huffington at an event in Las Vegas. “She looked at me directly in the eye and was like: ‘Who are you? You look interesting.’ And she got up from her seat and walked around the table and sat down next to me. And like they say, the rest is history,” Saint John told “The Brave Ones.”
Huffington invited Saint John over for lunch to meet Uber co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick (Huffington was on Uber’s board until July). Saint John was then the head of global consumer marketing at Apple Music and iTunes, but as a result of meeting Kalanick, moved over to Uber as its chief brand officer in 2017.
Saint John, who is now chief marketing officer at Endeavor, said: “She's a good connector and a good collector of people and personalities, and then knows how to connect them to others. And so therefore putting the pieces together has been a real magical ability.”
Connectivity and curiosity seem to be the two things that have made Huffington herself thrive. “My curiosity has always kept me very engaged with what's happening in the world. And also helping me see a little bit around corners, you know, what's coming, where the icebergs are. And, as I've told my daughters again and again, it's such a gift to see yourself as a lifelong learner and to constantly be excited about learning. And — jumping into new things, even when you are afraid.”
Writer: Lucy Handley
Design and code: Bryn Bache
Editors: Matt Clinch
Executive producer, The Brave Ones: Betsy Alexander
Producer, The Brave Ones: Jamie Corsi
Images: CNBC and Getty Images