Who Is Hilary Pennington? A Few Questions for Ford's New Executive Vice President
Who has had the greatest influence on you as a professional?
My mentor, Arthur White, who was a businessman and founded [the marketing and research firm] Yankelovich, Skelly & White. I started working with him when he was 60 and I was 28. We founded Jobs for the Future and worked really closely together while I was in that role for over 20 years. He remained a very influential mentor as I transitioned into working in philanthropy. He was unusual in that he saw potential in me as a young and untested person. He let me take on enormous responsibility and gave me credit and support in doing it.
From the beginning, he treated me as his equal when we met with corporate CEOs or with governors like Bill Clinton. He would structure the meetings and conversations so that I did half the talking. He was a big visionary who needed someone practical to help him realize those visions, so we had a unique partnership founded on deep respect. I was incredibly lucky to work with someone like that.
Thus far, what have been the worst and best events in your life, and what did those experiences teach you?
One of the worst was when I was three years old and my father died, leaving my mother with three children. I was the oldest, and my younger sister was born in the final months of my dad’s life. She was born with a fairly serious cognitive disability. My mom was amazing. She never remarried, and she worked full-time, so she was unusual at that time as a single-mother professional, and she was a great role model.
My father’s death changed our entire lives and my role in our family. Because of my sister, I have an acute sense of how much privilege you can have without earning it, and how different her life chances were from mine. That has been a big motivator for the kind of things I’ve worked on. The best thing that happened to me is a happy second marriage.
What, if anything, keeps you up at night?
The ways in which the norms of civility, empathy and tolerance that stitch societies together seem to be eroding all over the world, and how serious it is for cultures and societies when that happens. It’s puzzling, because I think, in essence, it means that people in many places are saying, “This is too much change. I can’t handle this anymore.” And they’re reverting to almost tribal ways of trying to deal with things. So how do you build back from there? How do you reignite the sense that what we have in common is greater than what divides us?
What is your definition of happiness, or, what is your philosophy of life?
My philosophy of life is to really live your life aspiring to make a positive impact. That requires working really hard to find joy and build trust in your personal and working relationships. If you hit a wall, you try to find the door in that wall, or make a door in that wall...