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March 26, 2014

When the Boss is FLOTUS

The newest member of Michelle Obama's inner circle is 39-year-old communications director Maria Cristina "MC" Gonzalez Noguera. Here, she reveals her unlikely path to the White House.


Photo Credit: Meredith Jenks

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MARIE CLAIREYou were born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. What was your childhood like?

MC GONZÁLEZ: I come from a big, extended Latin family. My parents are divorced, and my father remarried. We're very much a modern family—everyone gets along and makes it work. When I was 5, my mother got a job in Connecticut, so we moved. I didn't speak a word of English. I remember getting to school and the teacher talking to me, and it was like, "Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah." I can't tell you how it happened, but all of a sudden I understood English. I'm sure it was a combination of a great teacher, playing outside with kids, and television.

MCAfter graduating from Tufts University, you worked at a D.C.-based strategic communications firm for five years. What kind of work did you do?

MCG: I started out as an assistant, which I really enjoyed. As an assistant you get to understand the enterprise from top to bottom. I invited myself to every meeting my boss, a partner, was invited to because I wanted to understand the client work. Over time, other assistants started to do the same thing.

MCAfter that, you joined Estée Lauder Companies as director of corporate communications. That's an unusual leap.

MCG: I had finance experience, issues-management experience, crisis-management experience, international experience, but I didn't have beauty experience. Estée Lauder took a risk in hiring me, and I will forever be grateful for that, but I think that's what makes good companies: different points of view at the table.

MCHave you had mentors?

MCG: I have had several in my career. The important thing about mentorship is that people are candid, right? It's not just about "You can do it!" One of these mentors knew of an opening in the White House and suggested that they reach out to me. This is why I believe in mentorship—it opens doors.

MCWere you surprised when you got the call?

MCG: I think anyone who isn't surprised by getting a phone call from the White House is BS-ing.

MCDid the first lady interview you?

MCG: Yes. We talked about everything from my career path to how I thought the media landscape was changing. It never felt like an interview, more like an engaging conversation. I thought I completely screwed it up, that perhaps I was too candid, that I shared too much, the usual interview jitters. But I left thinking, "At least I'll be able to tell my grandkids that I met the first lady of the United States, but I just don't think I'm going to get the job."

MCWhat is your schedule like?

MCG: I usually wake up around quarter to 6 and check e-mail and the news. I'm out the door by 8. I like breakfast meetings—people are alert, and you can still start your day on time—so I try to do those two or three times a week. There are a lot of "alignment" meetings: coordinating with other groups in the White House. The cool thing about working here is that you also get to meet with fascinating, creative people who come to you because they believe their ideas or vision are going to improve people's lives—and who wouldn't want to sit through those meetings? I usually head home between 7 and 8. I'll check my BlackBerry right as I walk in the door so I don't have it in front of me with my son, who's 2.

MC: Did you ever worry that the hours would be too demanding, especially at this level?

MCG: It's not easy. One of the reasons I'm able to do it is because my mother moved to D.C. with us. So, very similar to Mrs. Robinson [Michelle Obama's mother, who lives with the first family]. When this opportunity arose, I didn't want to force my mom into a decision, but I didn't take the job until she said, "Yes, absolutely, we'll all move to D.C." We live in the same building, on different floors. There are boundaries, but, quite frankly, we really rely on each other.

MC: What is the toughest part of your job?

MCG: She is so sought after. So many people want her time to do a keynote or an interview. But you can't accommodate everything and everyone. What you see with this first lady is really what you get.

MCDescribe meeting the president for the first time.

MCG: He was asking me, "Remind me where you came from? What were you doing before this?" He was warm, but he was definitely doing his own due diligence making sure that I was the right fit for his wife.

MC: You're a Hispanic woman. What do you think about the immigration debate?

MCG: I am incredibly proud that I work for a president who hasn't shied away from what is a very difficult issue. This is about being fair and making sure that families are able to stay together, that people who have come to this country and are working very hard for this country are embraced. I also think it's important that young women, and particularly Hispanic young women, understand that they can do anything they want, that if you come here at 5 years old, not speaking a word of English, you could end up working for the first lady of the United States.

On Gonzalez: CH Carolina Herrera Red and Black Short Sleeve Jacquard Dress, $615; 212-744-2076.

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