In ELLE's Office Hours column, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, worst jobs, and everything in between. This month, we spoke with Catherine St-Laurent, former Senior Communications Officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Chief of Staff to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Since transitioning to a more advisory role at the Archewell Foundation last month, St-Laurent has been focused on launching a new social impact consulting firm with her partner Rebecca Goldman as well as collaborating with The Helm, a venture firm supporting investments in female-founded startups. Below, St-Laurent shares with ELLE what it’s like working for the world’s most powerful women—and how she learned to block all the “outside noise” that comes with that.
My first job
I babysat a family of four kids across the street from where I grew up in Montréal. They were all under the age of eight, and I think I was 12 at the time? Let's just say the age gap was not very large. Looking back, it was a lesson in inspirational leadership. How do you move people to want to follow suit, see the vision that you have, and want to be a part of it? Not because they’re told to, but because you’re painting something that they really believe in and are excited about. I still believe in that as a philosophy.
How I navigate motherhood while working full time
Coming back to work after having my second kid was one of the hardest moments in my professional journey. I was juggling a toddler and a baby at home, and meetings and pumping sessions at work. I remember being in our mother’s room on a conference call with my laptop on my lap while pumping, and thinking to myself, “This is overwhelming.” Even with good parental leave policies and exceptionally good onsite services for moms, there are so many emotions and demands on your time. It can be hard to feel energized by work. I’m grateful to women I have worked with like Melinda Gates, who are huge advocates of caregiving. It really is a hard time for us—one that is spoken about, but not necessarily solved for through systems and supports.
Why we need better paid family leave policies
When you look at the impact of the pandemic in this country, you see how we’ve lost 30 years of progress for women, who are forced to decide whether to stay at home and care for their kids or work. I feel really passionately about the changes that needs to happen in this space. I’m glad to see a surge in support for better paid family leave policies, like the Marshall Plan for Moms, which pressures policymakers to better meet the needs of mothers in this country as we recover from the pandemic. This is where the norms need to shift so we can better accommodate parents and provide them the services they need to come back to work.
The piece of advice that changed my life
There are moments when I vacillated on whether to do something or not do something, or to take a new job or not take a new job. A colleague of mine at the Gates Foundation once said, “You don’t need to know how to do it all yourself. You just need to know how to get it done.” That has always stuck with me.
How I went from Communications Officer to Chief of Staff for Meghan Markle
I started my career at a consulting firm in Brussels, worked in international sports for a couple years, and ultimately, through a mutual acquaintance, met the chief communications officer for the Gates Foundation, who was looking to expand her team in Seattle. I did some interviews, scoped out the city, and, three months later, moved to Seattle. A few months in, I was put forward as a candidate to work directly with Melinda and advise on her profile, communication strategy, and the building of her platform. I sit here today and think about the library of knowledge and skills I’ve acquired that, hopefully, can unleash some good in the world. I have a learning mindset going into the different sectors I have now worked in, knowing what I bring, but also being open to learning more. There’s a certain humility in knowing I don’t always have the answers, but I try to ask good questions. I’ve had the benefit of working with incredibly talented and very smart people. I go into those interactions and experiences hoping to learn and come away smarter, better, and more rounded.
Working for strong women gives me a sense of purpose
My work has always been about helping the principals I work with have as much impact as possible. So, I stay focused on the work that I need to do to help them maximize whatever is in front of them in that moment. It’s not been a challenge for me to be distracted by outside noise. We focus on the goals we want to achieve, and on the values that are underpinning those goals. I’m lucky to have a sense of purpose and a mission in everything I do. I’m also lucky that I can leverage what I’ve learned from the world-class talent, advocates, and leaders I work with, and offer that as a body of experience, networks, and knowledge to others.
Why I invest in female-led start-ups
Women are building the companies of tomorrow, and organizations like The Helm make it more accessible for women of all walks of life to think about, be curious about, and test what it means to invest in them. Women actually control a lot of wealth, which is interesting because we tend to invest and give differently than men. It presents a unique opportunity to fuel more confidence and community for women as prospective investors. Right now I’m especially excited about a startup called Mahmee, which helps parents from very early stages of pregnancy onward to coordinate prenatal and postpartum healthcare.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.