Born and raised in New Orleans, Desiree Rogers knows a thing or two about throwing a party. The high-powered Chicago woman and longtime friend of the Obamas was named this week as the first African-American White House social secretary. She formerly served as president of social networking for Allstate Financial, and as president of Peoples and North Shore Gas. She will be responsible for staging every event or ceremony that occurs at the White House. Rogers, 49, talked to ESSENCE.com about how the Obamas plan to make their mark on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
ESSENCE.COM: What’s the first event you will be responsible for?
DESIREE ROGERS: Some of the inaugural events. We’re just getting started working on them, so I can’t really discuss it, but that’s the first series of events I’ll be working on. The first event we will have in the White House is the governor’s ball in February.
ESSENCE.COM: How long have you known the Obamas?
ROGERS: Probably about 20 years-Michelle, I’ve known for about 20 years. I met her through her brother, Craig Robinson. My ex-husband played basketball with him in college.
ESSENCE.COM: As a longtime friend of the Obamas who knows their personal tastes, what kind of affairs do you think they’ll want to have at the White House?
ROGERS: I think it will be important in this economic climate to be responsible, so we will certainly be thinking about that in any events that we have. At the same time, we want to be celebratory. This is history in the making. Americans have come together, as in no other time that I can recall, so there’s something to celebrate. There’s some value in bringing people together, and forming relationships with people-as President-elect Barack Obama has said, we have more in common than not. We will be creating opportunities where people can come together and celebrate the arts, cultural events, intellectual events, everyday events, like picnics with children. Michelle wants to be very involved with the work and family balance, as well as celebrating our military families.
ESSENCE.COM: And what about you-how do you hope to put your mark on the White House? Do you have things that you’d like to do differently from past social secretaries?
ROGERS: Not yet. Those will be things that I’m thinking about prior to moving over in January. But I think we’re going to cast a wide net. We are certainly going to look at what has been done historically, and figure out what makes sense moving forward.
ESSENCE.COM: Since the announcement of your new job, have you been getting calls from people wanting to be put on guest lists?
ROGERS: (Laughs.) That would be an understatement. I’ve gotten hundreds of congratulatory notes. I can’t keep up with them. They’re not asking me to events yet, but maybe they’re just warming me up: “Let’s tell her how great it is; then later we’ll ask!”
ESSENCE.COM: As a successful businesswoman, how will your business acumen specifically come into play on the job?
ROGERS: This is a large operation to run. During the Clinton years, they did 400 events in one year, so it takes a lot of planning and processes to be put in place. I think a lot of people will be reaching out to us, sending in different recommendations they think will make sense, so you’ve got to manage that. At the same time, I think the work I’ve done in the marketing area will be beneficial to me as we think about, “What does the Obama presidency look like?” Now that the election is over, certainly there are lots of issues that have to be addressed and attacked, but what does the administration look like beyond that? How can we continue the excitement, inspiration and involvement, in addition to the good work being done on the policy side? How do you do that? Are there ways that the White House can play a part in that? So that’s where my strategy work comes in. The work I’ve done with all types of people from all backgrounds, I think, will serve me well.