A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

5 changemakers share advice from the women who raised them

8 min
Four photos of women with their mothers sit on different colored pieces of paper on a green background.
Illustration by Hailey Merrill
This year, the world has needed heroes—and women have answered the call.

In the face of the pandemic, economic turmoil, racism, and violence, women have shown up as leaders, essential workers, health professionals, advocates, home-school teachers, caregivers, and—as we celebrate this weekend—mothers. As we envision the world we want to see on the other side, many of us are seeking guidance from the women who matter most to us.

Below, in honor of Mother’s Day, five inspiring women share wisdom they cherish from women who matter to them. Their words offer insights about fearlessness, self-esteem, connection, caregiving, and perseverance.

We hope you’ll enjoy reading their thoughts.

An animated image of two photos of Arianna Huffington with her mother and a text quote that reads "My mother dreamed of a world where all women are fearless, risk failure, and realize their full potential"
Illustration by Hailey Merrill

Arianna Huffington

Founder and CEO of Thrive Global

My mother gave me two very important pieces of advice that I’ve always carried with me. The first is that fearlessness is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of fear. And the second is that failure isn’t the opposite of success, but a stepping stone to success. And of course, the two are related — since fear, and especially fear of failure, can make us less likely to be daring and take the sort of chances necessary to achieve our goals in life.
In my mother’s case, she undergirded these truths with an unending and ever-present sense of unconditional love, which made it easier to take those chances, risk failure and get back up when I did fail. Her spirit and her wisdom were central to the mission and founding of Thrive Global.

And her advice is especially relevant for women in this moment. Women have paid the heaviest price for our always-on culture of burnout, bearing a disproportionate burden which has only grown during the pandemic. Too many women feel that they can’t take chances and risk failure because they’re already stretched too thin. But amidst all the tragedy of this time, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine how we live and work — and to create a post-pandemic world where, just as my mother dreamed for me, all women can be fearless risk failure and realize their full potential.
An animated illustration with a photo of Ai-jen Poo with her grandmother, and text on a chalkboard that reads "My grandmother taught me to ask, 'Are you taking care of yourself? Is anyone taking care of you?"
Illustration by Hailey Merrill

Ai-jen Poo

Executive Director of National Domestic Workers Alliance and Director of Caring Across Generations

“Have you eaten?” This is the standard greeting I would receive from my grandmother every time I saw her, regardless of the time of day or how long it had been since the last time I saw her. Different from the standard, “how are you?,” she was first and foremost concerned about my last meal. The question sometimes felt insignificant or shallow. But looking back, she was asking a profound question: “Are you taking care of yourself? Is anyone taking care of you?”

In the past year, in addition to a pandemic that took more than half a million lives, we’ve lost millions of livelihoods, and borne witness to police killings, racist attacks and mass shootings. This is on top of all of our societal pre-existing conditions and the more mundane heartbreaks and disappointments of life. For caregivers --those of us who are responsible for the care, health and well-being of others-- it's been a year of impossible choices, often without the time or space to breathe, let alone share a healthy meal. In that context, and perhaps always, the question of whether we are taking care of ourselves and each other is profound.

My grandmother survived poverty, war-induced migration, and raised three children. She was a nurse by profession, a caregiver for my grandfather before he passed, and played a huge role in raising me. I have many memories of us eating together - steamed fish, stir fried tofu and mushrooms, and veggie dumplings. At some point in the meal she would say, “if you don’t have your health, you have nothing at all.” My grandmother passed away in May of 2020, but I imagine her asking us all, “have you eaten?”, a simple reminder that we must take care of ourselves and each other. Our health, and our future depend on it.
An animated image with two photos of Glory Edim with her mother, and a text quote that reads "My mom taught me that perfect wasn't the goal in parenting, or in life"
Illustration by Hailey Merrill

Glory Edim

Founder of Well-Read Black Girl

I gave birth in the pandemic. As soon as I became a mother, I was paralyzed with self-doubt: How do I feed the baby? What’s the safest way to bathe him? How many naps should a newborn have a day? I was terrified and absolutely clueless about what I should do. Motherhood was my most important job and I wanted to get it perfect! Thankfully my mother was by my side as I was figuring it all out. She gently reminded me not to second guess myself and that whatever I decided to do would ultimately be the best decision.

Perfect, she reminded me, wasn’t the goal — in parenting, or in life. Instead, I should be vulnerable, trust my intuition, and aim for self-awareness and integrity. These sound words from my mother are applicable to so many milestones in life: Applying to college. Starting a new business. Becoming a parent. Navigating life and motherhood in a pandemic.

My mother always reminds me that it’s necessary to believe in yourself and push aside self-doubt. Whenever I feel uncertain, I repeat the phrase, “I can do this” and soon my fears subside. For those words of encouragement, I am forever grateful.
An animated image of text on a paper circle that sits on a green background with rocks and a eucalyptus leaf. The text reads "My grandmother taught me how to look at failure as forward movement."
Illustration by Hailey Merrill

Pat Mitchell

Editorial Director, TEDWomen

My grandmother, an uneducated tenant farmer, was a big influence on my life. She was a great storyteller, filling long evenings around the potbellied stove that heated her small home, with stories from her Native culture. She always found a way to insert a message, which I now understand was her way of giving me advice for my life.

One of her favorite characters was a young girl who was always in a hurry — running instead of walking — and, as a result, often falling flat on her face. This was clearly a description of me as a child in constant movement and often with the skinned-knee evidence of multiple falls. The message that would come at the end of these stories always went a bit like this: “The fallen girl would be picked up and told, ‘remember, honey, that falling on your face is, at least, a forward movement.’”

Throughout my life, I have found myself remembering my grandmother’s message each time I fell — physically (which I continue to do, given that tendency to move fast) or when I faced failure in a job, or a disappointing “no” to an aspiration or plan. Instead of questioning the run or the risk, I would mentally and emotionally pivot to consider the fall or failure as moving me onward: to new learning, new opportunities, and yes, each time, a forward movement in my life and work.

My grandmother’s advice is relevant for all of us right now as we recover from the pain and setbacks of the past year: How can the “falls” we’ve experienced help propel us forward?
An animated image with a small photo of Kimberly Williams Paisley with her mother, and a text quote that reads "My mother taught me how to form authentic partnerships for the greater  good"
Illustration by Hailey Merrill

Kimberly Williams-Paisley

Actor, author, co-founder of non-profit The Store, and advocate for Alzheimer's disease research

My mother, Linda Payne Williams, as a superhero fundraiser, knew how to form authentic partnerships for the greater good. Her best advice on how to get a million dollars for an important cause? “Don’t ask — offer.”

Mom believed her job was to provide opportunities for donors to make the world a better place. They treasured the experience. Many came back again and again to work with her. I often think about her wise perspective these difficult days as my husband and I raise funds for two important causes: our nonprofit, The Store, which addresses food insecurity, and research into Alzheimer’s disease, the illness that took my mom’s life in 2016.

If my mother were alive today, she would bemoan an increasingly divided world, where emails, texts and tweets often take the place of in-person connection. At the Michael J. Fox Foundation, where she was its first major gift officer for Parkinson’s research, she got to know potential donors well, sometimes over months or years, connecting with them on a heart level. One of her donors was a ballroom dancer, and Mom loved cheering her on at competitions. If a prospect was a parent with young children, Mom got down on the floor and played with them.

When it eventually came to the big “ask” for money, my mother knew who she was talking to well. After she made her “offering” i.e., “please consider giving us a million dollars,” she waited. Again and again, the answer was yes. . Powerful teams were born this way, full of optimism and excitement for taking on some of life’s biggest challenges.

Because of my mom, I strive to climb with others toward the summit of charitable support — one person, one step, at a time.