Catherine St-Laurent on Going From Behind the Scenes to Center Stage

After working for Melinda Gates and Meghan Markle, Catherine St-Laurent is building her own social impact firm.

catherine st laurent
(Image credit: Courtesy)

Catherine St-Laurent is the woman behind the curtain. And "curtain," in this case, means some of the most powerful women in the world. Formerly Melinda Gates’s right-hand woman, St-Laurent most recently held the coveted title(s) of Meghan Markle’s chief of staff and executive director of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s impact-driven non-profit, Archewell.

In March, St-Laurent transitioned into an advisory role at Archewell because she had a mission of her own in mind: She wanted to use her breadth of experience in the philanthropy and social impact spaces to build a venture that "unlocks and unleash[es] more women in philanthropy." So, along with business partner and former Time's Up CEO Rebecca Goldman, St-Laurent launched Acora Partners, a social impact venture. Though the firm is still in its earliest stages, the goal is well-established: The duo want want to bring more women—no matter their financial status—into the fold of philanthropy. In addition to her new venture, St-Laurent is also an advisor at the Helm, a firm investing in female-founded startups.

Despite working for the namiest of names, St-Laurent has no ego. Her goal, no matter the job, is unwavering: create true change. Ahead, St-Laurent shares how her past experiences have readied her to build something of her own.

Marie Claire: You were the senior communications officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and later joined Pivotal Ventures, Melinda's investment and incubation firm. What initially attracted you to the role?

Catherine St-Laurent: The foundation historically had led through its partners and through the organizations that they had been funding. There was, relatively speaking, little work done to position the Gates Foundation itself. This was an opportunity to build a more defined profile for the organization, to really cement the mission, values, and goals of the organization to create a more distinct presence.

About six months in, I was offered the opportunity to lead Melinda's profile in communications, specifically. Melinda at the time had not had a [large] profile, but had been very much behind the scenes. She had focused a lot on her family and on the work the foundation was doing at a strategic level, but had not been very public facing. [My hiring was part of] a lead up to what was effectively her big moment, when she launched publicly her work and her commitment to family planning and access to contraceptives for women around the world, which she did in the spring of 2012. She had been hard at work for many years, but this was her taking a more public posture and being a much more public advocate.

MC: What does it take to build trust with a person at that level?

CSL: It's a good question and it's something that is critical to any principal-facing job. That's where the difference in the kind of work you can do is really meaningful. I think it's earned. I think you have to be mindful of what they're comfortable with, [what they are not], and accept that there's going to be a journey. You have to be a bit of a situational reader in that sense. You have to come in open minded, meet them where they are, and provide what's necessary for each step of that journey.

MC: You ultimately left Pivotal Ventures to become executive director at the Archewell Foundation. What did that transition look like for you?

CSL: It sure looked different. The week between my resignation and the world coming to a screeching halt [at the start of the pandemic] was definitely different. I made the leap because it was a fantastic opportunity to build. One of the things that really became clear to me when we created Pivotal was that I like to build from the ground up. I'm comfortable with the early ambiguity of that; things that feel a little bit messy at the beginning. It was also an incredible opportunity to put acquired knowledge to work and to see how that could contribute to accelerating the impact of these two leaders, [the Duke and Duchess of Sussex].

MC: What's the most challenging thing about helping an organization grow during its earliest launch stages, especially an organization at the level of Archewell?

CSL: There were so many other things in play that it's hard for me to disentangle that experience from the backdrop [of the pandemic] that it was happening against. There were hard things, and everything was different, because life was suddenly, unexpectedly, completely different. There were so many competing priorities; there were so many important things happening in the world. I think what we wanted to do was to get clear on our purpose and our mission for the organization.

MC: Outside of pandemic-related challenges, Archewell is uniquely positioned because it is helmed by two of the most famous people in the world, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Can you speak to those specific challenges?

CSL: I wouldn't describe that as a challenge. We tried to take that and think about how that is an opportunity. How does that become a unique lever for us for change? How do we take that and use that to mobilize people? How do we use that to do really powerful storytelling? How do we use it to shine a light on others and on organizations? So, we used it to our advantage for impact. We took it and we redirected it, which I think was the best thing we could do from an organizational perspective. We knew it was there, but we chose to use it to shine a light on other people, on leaders that we thought were doing extraordinary things, on organizations that we really admire that we want to partner with. In some ways, the premise of the question is, what do you do when all that noise is happening? I think that we chose to take it and use it for good.

MC: You were executive director at Archewell, but you were also Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's chief of staff. Chief of staff is one of those mysterious roles that means different things at different places. For you, what did that job look like?

CSL: It is admittedly not a well documented or understood role. I would say chief of staff typically means something different in every organization. For me, I think what makes the best version of it...is basically tak[ing] an approach that is, how do I help my principals?, because in this case, I was working with both [Harry and Meghan] in the capacity [of] how do I help you do your best work?

So for me, it was about helping to set priorities, building trust, keeping a bird's eye view, but also sweating the details. I think it's about acting as an advisor and a sounding board for ideas, but also providing feedback on work, and keeping certain bodies of work really focused.

MC: We asked as it relates to Melinda Gates, but in the context of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex: How do you build trust with the person that you're working with, especially when, in their case, trust is of paramount importance?

CSL: I think, again, the grounding principles are the same. I don't think it's necessary under these circumstances, frankly in either case, to go into the minute detail of exactly how that happens. You show up authentically. You meet them where they are—anybody—on a daily basis. Everybody's human. There's days when they're tired.

You have to be empathetic. This was true for Melinda. This is true for [The Duke and Duchess of Sussex]. I think it's true for anybody who's principal-facing that you want to embrace their multitudes, meet them where they are, be authentic, and create room for questions to be asked and for things to be improved. I also think that, broadly speaking, there are instances when you also make sure that you've got clear accountability. If things don't always go as planned, whether it's you directly or across the team, call it out. Make it better. Find a process that's going to improve things. I think it's a bit of a growth mindset. It's like, Look, in these relationships, because they are human, there's no play book. You have to come into it wanting to find the best way forward together.

MC: You left your official roles at Archewell—though you are staying on in an advisory position—to launch your own social impact firm. What sparked the decision for you to take the leap?

CSL: When I moved into this advisory role for Archewell, I considered what the next step could be. It was a natural evolution. [I had] helped to set up the basic, lower-case f foundation of work and the strategy. So, they had an opportunity to think through what the next chapter looked like.

I've always had a latent interest in creating something myself. Towards the end of last year, I reconnected with my now-co-founder, Rebecca Goldman. We were just sharing observations and thoughts about philanthropy today, and social change, and felt very aligned in terms of what the potential is in that space. We said, "With all these observations we have about the sector and what's possible, what if we took a pass at it? What if we partnered together?"

She and I both had worked with really extraordinary leaders in our careers. We think impact work doesn't need to only be in certain places, or in certain spheres, or because we've got a certain amount of wealth, or because you exist in a certain place. We really want to bring the experience that we have, and the skills we've acquired to a new cohort of philanthropists, to people who are just getting started out, or people who've been doing it for a while but want to hone their strategies, or organizations that are grappling with big questions about how to affect the change that they really want to have.

MC: How about your work with the Helm?

CSL: What keeps me up at night is closing the gender gap, and making sure that women are being empowered. That legitimately keeps me up at night. My [hope is that] we can look at some of the things like closing the pay gap, and more flexible work environments, better childcare subsidies, or making childcare more affordable generally.

This is where I think The Helm is interesting: I was not versed on what it means to be an investor, nor did I have necessarily a community at my disposal to ask obvious questions, or test certain things around. [The Helm] helps normalize and make that accessible. That's incredibly important because oftentimes that could be a barrier to being involved. The bottom line here is that not only are you encouraging women to be investors, but you're also in the same breath supporting women entrepreneurs. It's this opportunity that women have to differentiate themselves as leaders and to step into their power as wealth holders, and invest that money, and give that money.

MC: You have worked closely with two incredible female leaders, and you are one yourself. What traits do you think you, Melinda, and the Duchess of Sussex share that make you effective leaders?

CSL: What I can tell you is what I think are good traits of leadership: I don't know that they are Melinda's or [The Duchess of Sussex's]; I hope they're my own, but I'll speak for myself, because I've observed this also with other women in my own network.

Leading with empathy is really important. I think it's important to lead with humility and consider alternative point of views. You might have done it before. It doesn't mean that you have the right answer by default, and to be able to be open and humble in that. I also think it's important to lead with a collaborative mindset. Let's do it together. I think it's really important to lead in a way that really empowers others, and that shows appreciation for others and the contributions that they make.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.